In today’s Academic Minute, Professor Randy Zwally of Messiah College explains the invention of hardware that allows the banjo to be played in and out of tune.
Randy Zwally is Director of Guitar Studies and Senior Lecturer in Music at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. He holds Master's Degrees in Guitar Performance and Library Science, with an emphasis in music librarianship. He earned his Master's Degree in Guitar Performance at West Chester University and has completed post graduate music studies at Peabody Conservatory, Manhattan School of Music, Texas Christian University, and Ithaca College. He has performed numerous faculty recitals and directed regional guitar workshops at Messiah College.
Prof. Randy Zwally – Banjo D-Tuners
To many people, it’s a mystery how bluegrass banjoists are able to loosen the tension on their strings to ornament their playing and yet still keep their instruments in tune during a performance. The “secret” involves special devices on the banjo’s tuning machines known as “D-Tuners”. With these devices the player is able to set and lock the tuning machines so that they only turn a certain amount – raising the pitch just so far and then stopping – and the same with lowering the pitch.
It was Earl Scruggs, considered by many to be the “father of bluegrass banjo playing” who developed the first version of these tuners in the mid-twentieth century. And it was Scruggs’ manner of plucking the strings with two fingers and his thumb, as opposed to the old-time Appalachian “frailing” style, that really helped to give bluegrass music its distinct sound.
Scruggs eventually realized that if he put a locking mechanism on the tuning machines he could more easily use them to put ornaments into his playing and change quickly between two different common tunings for the banjo (from G Major to D Major). That’s why they are called “D-tuners”. Later in the 20th century, another banjo player by the name of Bill Keith, was able to improve the tuners’ design to combine a tuning machine and the locking mechanism all in one unit, now known as “Scruggs/Keith tuners”.
So now when you hear banjo players bending their pitches you’ll know how they are able to have such control of that ornamentation and still stay in tune.