5-string bluegrass banjo players definitely prefer open G tuning to all other tunings. That said, there are a large number of possible tunings, each evoking a different mood in the listener; sometimes subtle or mysterious, other times harsh or exciting. D tuning, such as used by Earl Scruggs in Reuben, is probably the second most common tuning. Earl does a masterful job of laying down the most compelling bluesy licks based out of D tuning when he plays Reuben.
One thing that is easily overlooked when playing a lead to something like Reuben, is the use of chords to back up. One option I’ve heard is to muffle the banjo strings and just plunk out a rhythm. It sounds sort of like an old percolator-style coffee pot, and the chords aren’t relevant so it’s pretty simple.
The other day, some of us were going over John Hartford’s ‘Gentle on My Mind’, made famous by Glen Campbell back in the 70s. If I recall correctly, this was even his theme song for The Glen Campbell Show back then. This uses a banjo in D tuning for some very nice backup. By it’s very presence with some great chords, it’s almost as though the banjo is playing a lead break in this song, just a little quieter.
So this was a good time for me to work out some basic chords for the banjo in D tuning. I’ve not seen these elsewhere before, and I hope I got them without any errors. Anyway, here are some basic chords for the 5-string banjo in D tuning (aDF#AD). What each diagram shows in simply where to place each finger of the left hand, beginning with the 5th string.
0 0 0 0 0 (ie, open. Good ‘ol bar chords)
D (2nd inversion)
0 4 3 5 4
If you’re familiar with 7th chords in open G, then you’ll immediately recognize this hand position as being a 7th if you were in G tuning. Here, it is a D major.
0 0 0 3 0
This one is interesting – note how you can make 6ths and 7ths from this bar chord, just like in open G tuning – except it is done on string number 2, instead of string 1. To make a 6th, just move that 2nd string from the 3rd fret to the 2nd fret.
x 0 1 2 0
Almost a D7 if it were in G tuning, but not quite - don’t forget to flip those fingers,though!
G (2nd inversion)
x 5 5 5 5 (ie, a bar chord)
G (3rd inversion)
x 9 8 10 9
Just like the 2nd inversion of D above, but 5 frets up.
0 2 3 4 2
Now this hand position is certainly new! I like to do it as a bar chord with two extra fingers for strings 2 & 3. That might change as time goes on, though. This also does well as a partial, suitable for three finger rolls as:
0 2 3 4 x
A (2nd inversion)
0 7 7 7 7
Just moving up the neck…
0 2 3 3 2
A useful minor chord hand position. Again, I like to make this as a bar chord, plus two fingers for strings 2 & 3.
0 0 3 3 2
x 4 5 6 4
Movin’ on up…
x 4 5 5 4
Just two up from A minor. Now find C minor if you can.
You may have noticed three hand positions for the major chords here; yes, there is that pattern, just as in open G tuning. Fascinating!
I hope this gives you enough material to allow you to tackle some improvised breaks in some otherwise though keys, such as D, E and F. Combine this with some Scruggs tuners, and you’ll be capable of these keys easily; that’s a lot of bang for the buck!
Also check out Brians Huge Chordlist at http://chordlist.brian-amberg.de/en/five-stringed/d/ for lots more chords in different keys, for all kinds of instruments!