Chicago tuning

Chicago tuning DEFAULT

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RJFreeman - Posted - 04/12/ 

For you plectrum players, I am a five string player who recently became interested in plectrum playing. What are the advantages and disadvantages of DGBE vs. CGBD?

JohnTheWhite - Posted - 04/12/ 

DGBD vs CGBD -> The low C is a nice-sounding low note; that's about it. Only useful for C scale, which means a different fret board up the neck. The DGBD gives a barre G-form instead of having to hit +2 with the pinkie. The F-form is played with the index on the 2nd string instead of the 4th. This allows an immediate 1st/2nd string interval to grabbed as well as the G-form half diminished. The pinkie is free to grab a 7th on the 1st string.
DGBD vs DGBE -> The E messes up the barre. Might be easier for a guitar player for the 1st week.

This is bluegrass type advice; you can do what you want to with it.
The advice is, "Don''t let your deal go down."

Bill Rogers - Posted - 04/12/ 

If you're not a guitar player, it's probably best to use the standard tuning--there's a reason plectrum players do.


rudykizuty - Posted - 04/13/ 

As a teen, I was originally taught with guitar tuning on a tenor banjo. But I soon switched over to plectrum tuning on my own after acquiring my first plectrum banjo.

Not to say there is anything wrong with guitar tuning, but to my ears, plectrum tuning just seemed to be the more natural sound that was intended for the instrument (especially if being played on a plectrum neck).

The nice thing is you can do what I did. Try both and go with the one that best suits your taste ;-)

Anthony Herner

Edited by - rudykizuty on 04/13/

NYCJazz - Posted - 04/13/ 

I went from tenor (CGDA) to standard plectrum, so I had to learn all new chord forms. It was a lot tougher than I thought would be. My advice is stick with what is most familiar. Playing plectrum will get you way into all keys and a lot of chords you don't usually use in 5-string, and I can pretty much guarantee that it will take your BG playing to another level. Especially if you use gCGBD tuning.

Plectrum is kinda unique in that the melody is almost always on the outside string, and almost always played with the pinky. The tenor (as well as guitar) rely on lots of inside string work.

Improvisation is the ability to talk to oneself.
~ Cecil Taylor

1fiddle2play - Posted - 04/13/ 

I think it most concerns what type of music you are going to playDixie, Jazz, stuff such as that I would say go with the standard CGDA but if ur a bluegrass 5 string player wanting to branch out on a four string and continue to play bluegrass I would advise DGBD tuning. YOu can play ur same tunes and keep the plectrum or tenor sound still. But this is my opinion and you know what everyone has to say abt opinions. Go with what you like most and have fun

matrixbanjo - Posted - 04/14/ 

I've been using chicago tuning for years on plectrum. I also play guitar. You can use guitar chord charts witth chigago tuning. You can play chord medly , you just have to remember to keep the melody on the top treble strings. There is a pro player from Germany(Peter Meyer) that uses a Tenor with Chicago tuning.

crewchief - Posted - 04/15/ 

What abuot using Tenor C G D A tuning on a plectrum ?

Klondike Waldo - Posted - 04/15/ 

Originally posted by crewchief

What abuot using Tenor C G D A tuning on a plectrum ?

B string up to D( major 3rd) +D string up to A( perfect 5th)= lots of broken strings, I'd expect.

I''ll never play like Earl Scruggs or sing like Luciano Pavarotti, but I''ll pick better than Luciano and sing tenor better than Earl
deligo ergo renideo,
Bob Cameron

NYCJazz - Posted - 04/16/ 

Plectrum tuned CGDA? Never seen it. I've seen plenty tenors tuned CGBD. Cynthia Sayer plays a tenor Vega archtop guitar tuned that way.

Improvisation is the ability to talk to oneself.
~ Cecil Taylor

KI4PRK - Posted - 04/17/ 

I like Chicago tuning because a)I play guitar too, and b)because it makes the 6th very easy (barre), and I use the 6th a lot more than a major chord. DGBD is also nice because it transfers directly from all the chords I know on the 5-string in open G. I don't like CGBD because you really have to play with the chord forms, but I expect there's a reason most plectrum players use it; I just don't know what that reason is.

73, Brennen

strings - Posted - 04/17/ 

Other than making the plectrum easier to learn for those with a guitar background, I've never heard of a good reason for using Chicago tuning on a plectrum. I originally learned the 5string using standard C tuning, as that's what Pete's book seemed to emphasize back then. The switch to plectrum was easy for me as I was already familiar with CGBD. I think barring chords up the neck is easier with CGBD than DGBD, and I've never seen plectrum arrangements in anything but CGBD.


Halifax NS

edit: Oops!I'm in Halifax on my friend "string's" laptopI didn't realize he was signed inmainejohn

Edited by - strings on 04/17/

scotty22 - Posted - 04/17/ 

Like Brennen, I use my plectrum in guitar tuning--only because I'm a guitaristand also play tenor/mandola, fiddle/mandolin, bass, and several tuning variations on five-string banjo. So, while I would like to play proper plectrum, I'm simply trying to avoid having to become familiar with yet another tuning system. I have trouple enough just switching back and forth from tenor to mandolin trying to remember which is which!

"fat-arsed, beer-gutted, grey-beared, balding Morris dancers with the little bent pipes clamped in their teeth and scraggly ponytails (and the men, too.)"

spoonido - Posted - 04/19/ 

Hooray!! I am about to buy my first tenor banjo! Now for strings, I intend to use "Chicago" style tuning. Should I just buy ball end nickle guitar strings, or are there sets of loop end banjo strings for Chicago tuning available? Seems a shame to throw out 2 perfectly good strings.

rudykizuty - Posted - 04/19/ 

Chicago tuning doesn't require use of guitar strings, but I guess you could use them if you really wanted to. I always used tenor banjo strings even when I was playing with guitar tuning.

PS does anyone know how the term "Chicago tuning" came about? Just curious.

Anthony Herner

spoonido - Posted - 04/19/ 

Oh, really? So the extra tension is no issue for the lower strings? I could like that! Any other views on this?

Klondike Waldo - Posted - 04/20/ 

Originally posted by rudykizuty

Chicago tuning doesn't require use of guitar strings, but I guess you could use them if you really wanted to. I always used tenor banjo strings even when I was playing with guitar tuning.

PS does anyone know how the term "Chicago tuning" came about? Just curious.

Anthony Herner

Some of the early jazz players in Chicago, including, I believe Johnny St Cyr, tuned their banjos that way because they were guitar players.

I''ll never play like Earl Scruggs or sing like Luciano Pavarotti, but I''ll pick better than Luciano and sing tenor better than Earl
deligo ergo renideo,
Bob Cameron

Klondike Waldo - Posted - 04/20/ 

Originally posted by spoonido

Oh, really? So the extra tension is no issue for the lower strings? I could like that! Any other views on this?

lower sting tension? t If you're tuning a Plectrum to Chicago tuning the fourth string is only up one whole step, from C to D. Third string stays at G. Second string stays at B, first string goes up only one whole step to E.

Now if you're talking tenor, Fourth string up one whole step to D, third stays the same (G), second goes down one and a half steps from D to B and First goes down a fourth from A to E. If anything, your first and second strings might feel a bit flubby.

I''ll never play like Earl Scruggs or sing like Luciano Pavarotti, but I''ll pick better than Luciano and sing tenor better than Earl
deligo ergo renideo,
Bob Cameron

spoonido - Posted - 04/20/ 

Thanks, Klondike. You've got the info I can use. A longtime guitar and uke player, I'd like to go further back in my jazz leanings to those early times, and the tenor banjo seems like the way to go. I'll be picking it up this weekend.

neplusultra - Posted - 04/20/ 

As for advantages/disadvantagesI find the layout a little easier on a standard plectrumsomething about having to reach back with my first finger on a 2nd inversion major chord that also has the fifth on the E string. I guess I've just gotten used to chord melody on the plectrum and being able to use my fourth finger as a kind of rover on the D string to hit passing and melody notes.

As for the other question that was brought up about string gauge (a secondary question that came up in the threadbut probably deserves its own thread)I suggest you go buy a bunch of loop end strings and start playing around to see what you likeThe shorter scale on a tenor will make standard guitar strings a bit loose, so you'll need to go up a gauge or two to get the same tension.

For guitar tuning on a tenor I would suggest starting with a or on the E, a on the B, a or wound on the G and a for the D. Once you lock in your favorite gauges, you'll never go back to prepackages sets. I prefer GHS strings and if you find a good source, you should be able get them for about $4 or so a set.

stevengaub - Posted - 05/09/ 

I love my tenor and Chicago tuning. In the old time 4 string band that I play in there are several "Guitar tuned 4 string" players; though not a majority or most loved. The best technique book I have found is

Happy guitar tuned plectrum or tenor banjo playing.

the bass man to the 5 string m

RJFreeman - Posted - 05/15/ 

Thanks for all the replies. I have been spending the last couple of weeks playing with the different tunings, and I'm seeing why most plectrum players use CGBD, it is a very logical system for chord melody.


What Is Chicago Tuning on the Banjo?

Chicago tuning on a banjo is a tuning that is generally used on 4 string banjos and is the same four notes as the first four strings of a guitar or a baritone ukulele. This tuning is primarily used for plectrum banjos and has been for generations. Many tenor banjoists use this tuning as well, though it is better suited for the plectrum banjo due to the similar scale length a plectrum banjo and guitar have. In fact, I have seen five string banjo players use this tuning, though it is not as common.

The notes are (from fourth string to first string) D, G, B, E.  The E is the E note just above middle C; the B is the note just below middle C the G is the next note below the B and the D is next to the octave below middle C.

The plectrum banjo is traditionally tuned (4th to 1st string) C, G, B, D. By raising the fourth string from C to D and raising the first string from D to E, the banjo is tuned to Chicago tuning.

Advantages of the Chicago Tuning

The big advantage in using Chicago tuning is for the guitar player and the baritone ukulele player. By simply retuning your four string plectrum or tenor banjos, all of the first four string chords of the guitar and all of the chords of the baritone ukulele are immediately available to the musician.

The baritone ukulele player has a direct translation from baritone ukulele fingerboard to the four string banjo fingerboard. There is virtually no adaptation other than how the banjo feels different in the hands than a baritone ukulele.

Guitarists receive a huge benefit when they want to add a banjo to their musical palette without having to learn all new fingerings for the fretting hand that are involved with a different tuning.

This means that the new banjo player with guitar experience who tunes the banjo to Chicago tuning can use every baritone ukulele instruction book for chord and note references and every guitar instruction book by referencing just the first four strings of the guitar.

Now, here are diagrams for the same chords we saw from the baritone ukulele being used on the six string guitar. Notice that when you ignore the fifth and sixth string of the guitar the four string chords are exactly the same as the baritone uke. These will also be exactly the same on the four string Chicago tuned banjo:

am-chord-chicago-tuning-vs-guitarc-chord-chicago-tuning-vs-guitard-chord-chicago-tuning-vs-guitarem-chord-chicago-tuning-vs-guitarf-chord-chicago-tuning-vs-guitarG chord Chicago banjo tuningYou can see here that the first four strings are the exact same chords as the baritone uke. What this means, is that you can use guitar books that have chords and just use the first four strings of the guitar chord. This opens up a world of song availability given the huge volume of guitar books available today.

The tenor banjo was designed to be tuned like a viola. That is, the strings are tuned a fifth interval apart. Because of this, some of the fingerings can require long stretches of the fretting hand. Because Chicago tuning is tuned mostly in fourth and smaller intervals, the long stretches of playing in standard tenor tuning for the fretting hand are generally not required.

So, making some four string chords with the fretting hand keeps the fretting fingers closer together which tends to be more comfortable for most players. To tune a tenor banjo to Chicago tuning, you will have to change the strings on your banjo and experiment with string gauges that give you the correct string tension in order for your banjo to sound as good as it possibly can.

Five String Banjos in Chicago Tuning

Some young guitarists are picking up five string banjos and tuning the first four strings to the Chicago tuning. Some of them are playing their banjo with a flat pick and some are fingerpicking. It’s really fun to see a young player playing an intricate, fast sequence of notes, the way they might play electric guitar but hear it on a banjo!

The fifth string is sometimes ignored and not played but there are players who are fingerpicking and utilizing the fifth string in the same syncopated way that traditional five string players do. I suspect many players are buying five string banjos and tuning them to Chicago tuning because the five string is so much more popular than four string banjos and therefore more readily available.

Still, it’s a great new sound and it’s really great to hear some of the beautiful classic rock licks played by an electric guitar artist on the Chicago tuned banjo.

User Friendly

Between the close tuning of the intervals of the Chicago tuning and the familiarity with the ever popular guitar tunings and growing popularity of baritone uke tunings, this tuning creates a user-friendly platform for musicians wanting to play the banjo without relearning all new fingerings.

There are those that claim that this style of tuning is not “banjo”. However, I’ve heard some spectacular four string banjo (and even five string banjo) music at places like Disneyland and in concerts where the artist was playing Chicago tuning.  I don’t think the audience cared what the tuning was!

If you are a guitar player or a baritone ukulele player, get yourself a Deering tenor or plectrum banjo (or even a five string) and tune it to the Chicago tuning. You will be amazed at how much music you can instantly play with comfort, expression, and virtually no adaptability required. It’s user friendly - but more important, it’s a blast!

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How To Tune A Tenor Banjo To Chicago Tuning

The tenor banjo is seeing a revival of sorts. Traditionally tuned in intervals of 5ths (C, G, D, A - standard tuning, G, D, A, E - Irish tenor tuning), many guitar players are taking up the tenor banjo today and are tuning their tenors to Chicago tuning. 

Chicago tuning is a type of tuning traditionally used for 4 string plectrum banjos that is tuned the same as the top 4 strings of a guitar (D, G, B, E). This allows guitarists to use the same fingerings as they do on guitar. This tuning is traditionally used on plectrum banjos because the scale of the neck of plectrum banjos is very close to that of guitars so standard plectrum banjo strings can be used. 

For sure, many guitarists are doing this with tenor banjos as well. There is an issue though if a standard set of tenor banjo strings is used (standard tuning or Irish tuning sets), specifically with the 1st string and 4th string. 

Changing the 1st string  from a high A string (standard tenor tuning set) to an E (Chicago tuning) is a pretty big change. You are going to need a heavier gauge string to make up for the lack of string tension. The same goes for the 4th string if you are using an Irish tuning set. The 4th string in Irish tuning is a G. In Chicago tuning it is a D. Again, that is too big of a change. This time the Irish set has too heavy of a string and you need a lighter gauge string. 

What I recommend is using half a standard tenor set for the 3rd and 4th strings, and the strings for the 1st and 2nd strings from an Irish tenor tuning set. This is because in standard tuning the 4th string is tuned to a C. In Chicago tuning it is a D. That is very close. In standard tuning the 3rd string is tuned to a G which is the same as Chicago tuning, so that string works.

Now we have to switch to the Irish set for the 2nd and 1st string because in Irish tuning the 2nd string is tuned to an A. In Chicago tuning it is tuned to a B - so that is close enough. Lastly the 1st string in Irish tuning is tuned to an E which is the same as Chicago tuning, so this string works.

Suggested gauges are as follows:
1st string: 12
2nd string: 18w
3rd string: 24w
4th string: 30w

So, if you are predominantly a guitar player and you are looking to get into banjo, the tenor is a great alternative to the popular 5 string instrument. 

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  1. Feb, am#1
    Registered User Hany Hayek's Avatar
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    Default Tenor Banjo Chicago tuning strings gauges

    I have a tenor banjo 58 cm scale (23") tuned Irish GDAE with strings gauges 34/25/16/
    Can I tune it using these same strings Chicago tuning DGBE without risking to put too much tension on the drum.
    It will mean going up 4 notes on the G, 3 notes on the D and one note on the A
    (I need to do that to allow guitar players who visit me without their instruments to use my banjo)
    “Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.”
    &#; Victor Hugo

  2. Feb, am#2
    Registered User Velorum's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tenor Banjo Chicago tuning strings gauges

    Sorry - cant help with the string gauge question - but thought I would add that when a couple of my guitar playing friends dropped by and tried my DGBE tenor which they struggled with a bit despite the similarity of chord shapes. They both say that it feels peculiar and befuddles them
    If everything is important, nothing is important

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  4. Feb, am#3

    Default Re: Tenor Banjo Chicago tuning strings gauges

    I'm using 32/24/16/12 for DGBE on my 23 inch scale tenor guitar. These string sizes give string tensions of ~24 lbs. for the 32 and 24 and ~18 lbs. for the 16 and I'm not sure what tension your banjo can accommodate.

    Regarding 6 string guitar players using Chicago tuning, most of the chords translate directly but some do not. Examples of chords not translating are the A7 and Gm chords. Only playing the top 4 strings of a 6 string chord for these chords do not produce the desired chord. For Chicago tuning, the chords are:



    It's a minor thing, and probably doesn't matter for jamming in the living room.
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  8. Feb, pm#6
    Registered User DavidKOS's Avatar
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    North CA

    Default Re: Tenor Banjo Chicago tuning strings gauges

    I would tune below pitch and use a capo, the low strings would be a bit tight otherwise.

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  10. Feb, am#7
    Registered User Hany Hayek's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tenor Banjo Chicago tuning strings gauges

    Thanks David, so I would tune it B E G# C# and place a capo on the 3rd fret.
    “Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.”
    &#; Victor Hugo

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Tuning chicago

4 String Banjo Chords and Keys, Chicago Tuning
Major, Minor and 7th Chords, Fingering Charts,

4 string banjo chords for Chicago Tuning, D, G, B, E

4 String Banjo Chord Chart, Chicago Tuning, D, G, B, E, includes the major, minor and seventh chord fingerings. Includes a banjo fret board with all of the notes marked. The Banjo is an essential instrument in everyones Bluegrass band and this chart will get you going.

The 4 String Banjo Chicago Tuning Chord chart is included in our book, Essential Chords for Guitar, Mandolin Ukulele and Banjo.



4 string banjo keys for Chicago Tuning, major, minor, 7th chord fingering charts

4 String Banjo Chord Key Chart for Chicago Tuning. Includes the 7 keys, A, B, C, D, E, F, G with their 1, 4, 5, and 7th chord fingerings in first position. This chart make a great reference for any beginning player. The 1, 4, 5 chord relationship is standard in western music for rock, folk, country, and blues.

The 1, 4, 5 refers to the chords that are played in a song and their relationship to each other. The key name will be the first chord, such as the key of A, the first chord is A, the next chord is 4 away or D and the final chord or the 5th chord is E. Often to give a song an edgy or blues sound you will play a seventh version of the chord, marked as E7. At a basic level for many songs that we know and love these are the chords that are played or the chords the song is based on.

There are a million ways to play songs and tons of variations of how the chords are put together but knowing this basic information will really help give you a foundation for learning music.

The 4 String Banjo Seven Keys Chord Fingering chart in Chicago Tuning is included in our book Essential Chords for Guitar, Mandolin, Ukulele and Banjo


Additional 4 String Banjo Chord and Key Charts in our Collection
Standard Tuning
Celtic / Irish Tuning









Tenor banjo: Chicago Tuning

Postby Tim »

It was time to change strings on my 'Irish' tuned tenor, so I thought I'd experiment with Chicago tuning, since I had a set of strings for my Bluegrass five-string banjo handy.

I've had the tenor in Irish tuning (GDAE, an octave below the mandolin) for the two years I've played it. While Irish tuning is great for melody playing in ITM, I use the banjo more for chording in Irish Folk Music where the banjo fills more of an accompaniment role, although the five-string is the more common instrument for that job. While Irish GDAE tuning is brilliant for melody work, the super low G string seems to be always at the very lowest tension that a banjo can manage. There's something consistently wonky about the tone when you chord in GDAE.

I had considered switching to standard tenor banjo tuning - CGDA - but that has a different feel for me as well. Since I play guitar and ukulele, Chicago tuning seemed like a good bet. You use all the ukulele chord forms, but with the guitar's chord names. So I threw the strings on and tuned them up DGBE, just like the top four strings of the guitar. I can now play chords with all the power of the Guitar or the ukulele (both serious chordal machines, as we know), yet have enough of the Irish flavour from the lower tuning. I got a powerfull chording machine, still had the facility for the simple, basic intro and turn lines that I use in songs, and lost all the wonkiness of the Irish low tuning.

If you're a tenor player with guitar or uke experience, and next time you're ready to re-string anyway, why not spend about $4 on this experiment for yourself? I'd like to hear others' experiences.

The crwth will set you free!

Tim Smith
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