Why won’t my banjo stay in tune?


Are you spending more time TUNING the banjo than you are PLAYING it? 

Today I’m going to help you out with some tips I’ve learned from playing the banjo in all sorts of places and environments over the years.  In addition these are things I learned directly from others- how they fought an out of tune banjo and lived to tell about it..

Why won’t your banjo stay in tune?

Let’s go ahead and get this out of the way- It’s a banjo!  A banjo won’t stay in tune for long!

(Sorry, I know that’s not the answer you want to hear, especially since you are here to get help.)

You bought a banjo and as the old saying goes,

“You’ll spend half your life tuning it and half your life playing it.” 

As the Bruce Hornsby song goes-“That’s just the way it is.”

Why does this keep happening?

First and foremost, the banjo is full of moveable parts.  The main culprit is the banjo head, which moves around depending on the temperature or humidity.

On the other hand, there are some things you can do to prevent it from going out of tune so much.  There are some banjo setup tricks that will increase your chances of being in tune 10 minutes after you begin your practice session.

Here are some things that may cause you to go out of tune

  • The Tuning pegs are slipping
  • The banjo head is too loose
  • Old & Rusty strings
  • Poorly attached banjo neck
  • Bridge in the wrong spot
  • Tailpiece doesn’t have enough pressure
  • You’re playing too hard
  • Incorrect placement of a banjo capo

The tuning pegs are slipping

Tuning pegs can come loose or slip over time.  Check the screw in the back of the banjo tuner and see if it appears loose.  Also, when you tune, watch the tuner to make sure it’s not turning on its own.  Solution-tighten up the screw in  the back of the tuning peg

My old RB-250 has serious problems with the tuning pegs after I owned it for 4-5 years.  It got so bad, I finally broke down and bought new tuners for it.  Nowadays, I occasionally see the 5th string screw come loose on one of my other banjos.  All I do is tighten’er up and good as new.

Your banjo head is too loose

The banjo bridge sits on top of the head.  The looser the head is, the more the banjo bridge can move up and down.  As the bridge moves, this causes the banjo to go out of tune.

Solution-tighten the head.  If you can push down on the head and you easily hear a warble when hitting the strings open.  It might be time to tighten the head.  Be careful not to overtighten it; a banjo head can break.  At the same time, it’s tough to break one, you REALLY have to crank down on it.

By the way, a banjo head doesn’t have to be tightened much.  I tighten mine about once or twice a year at most.

Your strings are old and rusty

If your strings are old, blackened, and filled with grim, your banjo probably isn’t going to stay in tune much.  Old strings can lead to intonation issues up and down the banjo neck, especially as you move up higher.  Some refer to this as DISCHORDING.  Any time my banjo starts having tuning issues, the first thing I check are the strings.

Solution-Buy strings every 3-5 months if you are playing a good bit.  Consider these banjo strings:

Your banjo neck might be loose or not attached perfectly

Use caution with this one.  Play some open strings and slightly (I said slightly) pull on the neck.  Does the sound waver a lot? If you see movement then something is definitely amiss.  Take it to your local luthier for repair.  If you don’t have lots of experience working on instruments, don’t try this at home.

The bridge is in the wrong spot

Incorrect bridge placement causes a banjo to fret out wrong up the neck.  It might sound okay open or in the lower frets, but the higher up  you go, the more out of tune it sounds.  Check the open string against the 12 fret of that same string.  They should be the same note an octave apart.  Use a tuner if your ear isn’t good enough.  If the fretted note is sharp, you need to pull the bridge back further towards the tailpiece.

The tailpiece doesn’t have enough pressure

It’s rare that this is a problem; most banjo players I’ve seen have too much pressure on the tailpiece.  However, you might want to double check that your bridge isn’t slipping around while playing.  This can be caused by a tailpiece that doesn’t have enough pressure on it.  People that play super hard tend to have this issue more than those playing at normal levels.

You are playing too hard

This is mostly a left-hand problem.  Just because a banjo has frets doesn’t mean you push the string in and it’s automatically in tune.  Nope.  If you have a lot of strength in your hands, you might overdo it and squeeze the strings right out of tune.  That’s right, you may not know your own strength Hercules.  Watch the strings when you play, are they bending slightly?  I see this a lot.

Incorrect placement of the capo

If you use a capo, make sure you have it in the right spot.  The banjo capo should sit next to the fret without being right on top of it.  Make sure the capo is STRAIGHT across.  If it is at some crazy angle, then that’s not helping your tuning.  Lastly, make sure you only tighten the capo as much as needed to get a clear sound.  Over tightening a capo can pull the strings out of tune.  This is why I recommend only capos whose pressure is adjustable.

More Banjo setup Tips

  1. When you change strings, put some graphite in the nut slots.  I’ll sometimes take an old lead pencil and run it through the grooves of the nut.  This can help a banjo stay in tune better
  2. Stretch or bend the strings BEFORE playing.  I’ve found this helps a lot.  Grab the strings and bend them up and down before playing.  They will go out of tune.  Repeat until they start staying in tune better.
  3. Buy a clip-on tuner.  Now, I know what you’re thinking-how does that help me.  Well, you’re going to go out of tune a lot, so might as well get ready.  Have your tuner close by.
  4. Don’t play in direct sunlight or hot conditions if possible-Banjos hate this kind of weather.  I’ve found my banjo consistently sounds worse in really hot environments.  The more controlled the temperatures are, the more you’ll stay in tune.

Final Words about keeping a banjo in tune

When it is all said and done, there’s not much you can do to prevent a banjo from going out of tune entirely.  However, there are precautions you can take to prevent it from happening so much.  If after all your efforts of trying to keep that darn banjo in tune, and it still doesn’t work, I recommend a keyboard……..

Check out my favorite banjo tuning app




Jody Written by:

Professional Musician of 27 years. I've performed on the stages of Carnegie Hall, The Grand Ole Opry, and The Ryman Auditorium. I've also played in 6 different countries. All things Banjo and Acoustic Guitar.