Tuesday Jam: Using a Banjo Capo

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Here is one thing that I have learned in these jams:

Learning how to put on a banjo capo and re-tune quickly is important!

I was inspired to write this blog by watching Betty use her capo for the first time to play last night to play in the Key of C (capo five) and the Key of A (capo two). She played I Saw The Light in C and Cripple Creek in A. Watching her put the capo on and go through the tuning process--which she did with great poise and determination--made me realize how many little tips I was giving her as she did this. So I thought I'd share some of these with you.

I hadn't realized how much jam energy gets lost by banjo players putting on capos. If you go to the Key of C so the women can sing, as we always do, the mass capoing by the multitudes takes an inordinate amount of time! So, here are some...

Helpful Hints For Using A Banjo Capo

Any time you put on a banjo capo, you have to re-tune the banjo. Sometimes it's a lot, sometimes it's just a little bit. A capo makes all the notes on the banjo slightly sharp--that is, slightly higher in pitch. As a rule, better banjos (and better capos) have fewer tuning problems.

But, I hear you saying, what notes do I use to tune to? Good question. Since most people nowadays are using those tuners that clip on your headstock (my favorite is the Snark), after you get your capo on and start tuning, look at the letter that is coming up on the tuner. Whatever that letter is, the tuner will indicate (in its own way) if the pitch of that note is sharp (too high) or flat (too low). It will probably be too high (sharp) so you will need to tune that note down just a hair to the proper pitch. Do not tune the string WAY DOWN and then bring it back up to pitch. I don't know whose idea that was, but on the banjo, it sucks! Tuning a string way down throws the whole banjo further out of tune. Tune the string slightly down till the tuner shows you that the note is in tune. It does not matter what the actual note is--the tuner will indicate the correct note, all you have to do it get it in tune.

Start your tuning with the third string. When you are a beginner using a capo (and playing in G position), that third string will be the name of the key you are playing in. (Capo up five to C and the third string is a C note.) It's good to get the "Key" note tuned first. Then tune the fifth string, since it's the same note (an octave higher) as the third string. (Capoed five, the fifth string note is also C. DO NOT BE WRITING THIS STUFF DOWN!)

Then tune the fourth string, then the first string, which is the same pitch (same note) as fourth string, an octave higher.

Tune the second string LAST. It's the hardest to tune. It also needs to be tuned a little flat to the tuner. When you fret your second string at the third fret (or third fret from the capo) it should sound the same as the open first string ("open" meaning "not fretted other than with the capo.")

Now that you think you've got your banjo in tune, CHECK THE TUNING AGAIN with the tuner. It will almost certainly need to be tweaked a little. Changing the pitch of one string affects the other strings. Sometimes you might need to re-check the tuning three times. And you need to do all this as fast as possible, so the jam can get on with the next tune!

And here's a hard one: Once you have finished tuning, STOP PLAYING so everyone else who is still tuning can hear better! (I am lousy at this, as Casey will tell you!)

These are the basics of capoing. I'll tell you what I tell my students: DO TRY THIS AT HOME. Lots. Play all your tunes at various capoed spots. If nothing else, it helps with the tedium of playing everything in G. If you are bored, get out the capo and use it!

When I was learning banjo, I LOVED to capo. I thought it was way easier to play capoed than it was open. I didn't even like the sound of open G much.

Also, remember this: when you take the capo off, you have to go through the whole tuning process again. Only this time you will probably find the notes a little flat. Pull them up to pitch gently. And then check your tuning again. And again. And then, stop playing till everyone is in tune.

Now you can see why we like to stay in one key for a bunch of songs! All this retuning is a pain in the butt. But, it's a fact of banjo life. So you might as well learn to do it and do it as fast as possible. In this instance, speed is very important!

8 thoughts on “Tuesday Jam: Using a Banjo Capo

  1. Don Pettis

    Thats really good info Murphy especially the part about stop playing while everyone else is still tuning. I think you should also tell people to stop playing when you are talking at workshops so everyone else can hear what you are saying. Seems like common courtesy but it’s not all that common I guess. See ya in Portland.


  2. Tim LeBaron

    Is there a way to tune the 5th string for C? In otherwords I am a spike short of a load. Thanks! TL

  3. admin

    The fifth string can stand to be tuned up at least a couple of frets without danger of breaking, so if you’ve got a spike at the 9th fret, use that one and tune up one step to a C note.


  4. Betty Fisher

    Thanks for this Murphey. I tried it the next day and was OK with C but not A so this will really help. I copied it and saved it.

  5. Keith

    I had been meaning to ask about the order in which you tune the strings on your DVD lessons, and if there was a reason for it. On the DVDs that I have watched, you leave the 5th string as the next to last – so 3,4,1,5,2 instead of the 3,5,4,1,2 above. Does it make a difference? Just curious.

  6. admin

    This is Casey answering–I always go in the same order as the DVDs, because the 5th string is the shortest and thus the most affected by the tension that is on the other strings. But really, the difference that it makes is only slight. You’ll be fine with either order!

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