A while back, I wrote a blog (Banjo Bias) outlining my arguments for being biased toward traditional banjo tuning—as opposed to being biased against guitar tuning. In a nutshell, I favor it because it is the “traditional” tuning (all of my historical heroes played it), and I can hear the difference by chord voicings; guitar tuning doesn’t sound quite right to my banjo-biased ear. I hope I was also thorough enough in my insistence that a good musician is a good musician regardless of tuning; some of my favorite players today use it quite well.
Yes, of course the “Chicago” tuning is historically legitimate, but I would venture to say that it got its historical start for the exact same reason that it’s still popular today; guitarists wanted a handier way to add the banjo to their instrument rack. Why put aside that extensive guitar knowledge—learned through a much larger network of guitarists and superior educational opportunities (and examples of what can be done on it)—to learn yet another tuning when the one they already know works just fine?
One of my former students asked a question that has revived this thought in my head. He asked if, since he already plays single-note jazz on the guitar, wouldn’t it make sense for him to tune his banjo D-G-B-E, and just transfer his guitar skills to it? My answer? Yes, that would make perfect sense (and I won’t disown you for it!); however (and please remember, this is just my opinion—actually, who am I to judge this? That’s all I am; a guy with opinions.). . .
In my opinion, this is part of the reason the banjo died (for all evolutionary intents and purposes) in the 1930s! Single-string jazz guitar technique was just beginning to bloom at that time, taking the guitar out of the rhythm section it shared with the banjo (an escape the banjo as a whole never made). Banjoists with the intent of staying employed left the banjo in droves and switched to guitar with guitar tuning (with a couple of notable exceptions of course).
My belief is that, if more banjoists had stayed the course and learned to play single-string jazz on banjo tuning (and insisted on taking a chair in the front row with it, like the guitarists did), we would have a very different reality today. The banjo’s evolutionary path would not have stalled, leaving us with not much more than today’s nostalgia and novelty.
How would they have done that? The same way the guitarists did; copying the horn players (“horn-style”)! I believe that the banjo’s demise was so sudden and complete, that nobody even tried it (look in any jazz history book and list the 4-string banjoists named). There can be no other reason for not trying it; the banjo has limitations for sure, but single-string jazz is well within its capabilities—just in a “different” way.
Again, this is not meant to take anything away from guitar-tuned banjoists as musicians! All I’m saying is that the banjo itself—as a unique and historically-important instrument with a tuning-based identity of its own—has been cheated out of its own evolutionary path, partly by being modified as just another guitar-tuned instrument.
As a historical imperative, I would ask that you try to learn to play jazz on banjo tuning, thereby giving the traditionally-tuned instrument a viable “new” direction and helping it to survive, and to help it take that evolutionary step it missed 80 years ago. There are a few current players out there who have proven that it can be used as a single-note jazz instrument in straight-ahead, “modern” jazz. I am not a savant like those other guys/gals, and am having to resort to good old-fashioned hard work and study. I’m trying my best to learn to do it, and I intend to share my adventure in a book. I’m just one player though; I would love some company on this mission.
Before that book comes out though, let me give you a starting point: Scales and arpeggios (which I have already covered well in my first book, Beyond Chord Melody, and in various lessons on this website)! They are not just the sadistic punishment tool of mean music teachers; they are the secret to developing the skills/knowledge required for modern, single-note jazz (or at least breaking out of the chord melody or chord strumming rut most of us are stuck in); just try to play jazz without them. Whether you learn them from a book or “come by them naturally,” they are there in abundance; otherwise the music wouldn’t exist.