How to Hold a Banjo

Holding the banjo right is key to producing bright melodies. The wrong positioning of either one of your hands might entirely change the outcome of your playing and give you annoying sounds. Luckily, learning how to hold a banjo isn’t that challenging, and we’re here to help.

To know how to hold the African instrument, along with a few tips and tricks to improve your playing, keep on reading!

Short Answer

To hold a banjo correctly, you’ll need to sit properly and position your instrument. The next step depends on the playing style you choose. For instance, if you’re playing clawhammer style, you’ll need to hold your pick between your thumb and index finger. But if you prefer bluegrass style, you’ll need to wear picks on your thumb, middle, and index fingers.

How to Hold a Banjo: Clawhammer and Bluegrass

After practicing the following steps, you’ll be a step closer to becoming a professional banjo player. So grab your instrument, and jump in!

Sit Properly

The first step in learning how to hold a banjo is to sit in a proper position. You should plant your feet squarely on the floor and straighten your back. It’ll help if you support your back by placing a cushion or sitting on a comfortable chair. Then, put the banjo comfortably in your lap.

Before going on to the next step, you should ensure you’re comfortable enough to play for a while. So make sure your back isn’t too stiff, and your legs aren’t too tense.

Position Your Banjo

After sitting properly, you should position your banjo on your lap correctly. To do so, rest the banjo’s rounded body part against your right thigh so that only a small part of it rests against your left thigh. Then, lift the banjo neck up so that there’s a 45° angle between it and your left hip. Don’t go higher than this because it might affect the position of your left fingers.

It’s essential to ensure you aren’t completely supporting the banjo with your hands. Doing so might hinder your hands’ movements during playing, which will affect the melodies you produce.

You can use a banjo strap if you can’t support the banjo against your hips on the first try. It’ll keep the instrument in place during playing, and you won’t need to use your hands to hold it.

After this step, you have a fork in the road that you need to work out. Some banjo experts prefer playing clawhammer style, while some prefer bluegrass style. There are many differences between the two styles, like the hand position and how you use the pick.

We’ll give you an idea about both styles so you can reach a well-studied decision.

Clawhammer Banjo

Playing clawhammer style means that you’ll use only two fingers and will produce brighter melodies. It’s famously easier than bluegrass, and most beginners prefer it. Here’s how to hold a banjo clawhammer style.

Adjust Your Right Hand

Before we go into details, you should know that touching the bridge during playing will affect the tone, so you should completely avoid it. More so, your wrist should be relaxed while playing. Tensioning it will cause you pain after a while, and you won’t be able to play all chords correctly.

First, you should dangle your right hand in front of the banjo’s body so that your fingers can reach the strings comfortably. Then, ideally, your karate chop point should rest on the tailpiece of your banjo.

You can easily identify your karate chop point by putting the back of your right hand in front of you and drawing a horizontal line from the base of the thumb. The line should end under your little finger.

This is it for the hand. As for the right arm, you should keep it straight and opposite to the banjo neck without moving it. You can do so by moving the banjo neck up and down till you achieve the right position.

After achieving it, you should check that your right hand still reaches all strings. Ideally, your hand should hover over the bridge and cover the four banjo strings or five if you’re playing a five-string banjo.

Adjust Your Left Hand

While your right hand will strum the strings on the banjo head, your left hand will be responsible for the neck. To place your hand correctly, place the banjo neck between the thumb and index. That said, your palm shouldn’t be supporting the rest of the neck. Instead, it should be dangling away from it. Then, hover your fingers over the strings.

Now, your left hand should look like a claw. This way, you can move your fingers freely up and down the neck to reach all the strings.

Another tip you need to know is that your left arm shouldn’t be stiff while playing banjo, and your neck shouldn’t be dangling down uncomfortably. If you can’t keep it upright, use a strap.

Try pressing frets with your fingers and make sure they’re all reachable before moving on to the next step.

Hold the Pick

Most banjo players prefer playing with a pick because it lessens finger pain while playing. However, some people ditch it because it’s more challenging to control than fingers. Also, it might take you some time to get used to it. If you prefer playing without it, you can skip this step.

The best way to hold a pick is to put it between your right index and thumb. First, gently curl your index finger and place the pick on top of it. Then, press the flat area of your thumb lightly over the pick. Ideally, your thumb should stay straight, but it might take you some time to position it correctly.

Now, the pick should be supported in place by your thumb pad. But make sure not to squeeze it between the two fingers because you’ll need it to be loose during playing trebles or strumming quickly.

Some people hold the pick using their thumb, index, and middle fingers, like a pencil. However, we don’t recommend this playing position if you’re a beginner because it might cause tension.

Bluegrass Banjo

We have Earl Scruggs to thank for the bluegrass style, also known as the three-finger style. He was famously the first one to use it, and many people call it the Scruggs style. Here’s how to hold a banjo bluegrass style.

Wear the Picks

To play banjo bluegrass style, you should wear picks on your thumb, index finger, and middle finger. Make sure the picks fit your fingers properly so that they don’t slip or move during playing. Also, for better melodies, you should buy a plastic pick for your thumb and metal picks for the other two fingers.

Adjust Your Right Hand

To place your right hand correctly, position your picking fingers on the strings so that the bridge is right under your little finger, but without touching it. A simple hover will be enough here. Next, rest your little finger and ring finger on the banjo head next to the first string. This way, they won’t move while strumming and hinder the movements of your other fingers.

Your three playing fingers should look like a claw hovering over the strings. Beware that the positions of your fingers will make all the difference here. So practice till you get them right. Also, make sure your hand is comfortable playing banjo rolls without tension.

Adjust Your Left hand

Your left hand should be in the same position whether you’re playing clawhammer or bluegrass style. So rest the neck between your thumb and index, angle your palm away from it, and you’re good to go. And this is it!

You’re now ready to play the banjo and produce delightful melodies.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can Left-Handed People Play the Banjo?

Yes, they can. Left-handed people can play normal banjos and practice a lot to master the positioning of their hands. Alternatively, they can look for left-handed banjos. Many brands make two versions of each banjo model to satisfy right-handed and left-handed people.

Do I Have to Use Picks to Play the Banjo?

It depends on the style you choose. If you want to play clawhammer, you can ditch the picks and use your fingertips. However, you can’t play bluegrass banjo without picks.

What Is the Easiest Banjo to Learn?

The easiest banjo to play and learn is famously the five-string one. On the other hand, four-string and six-string banjos require more practice and will take you a long time to master. Not to mention, playing an entire song on the five-string banjo is much less complicated.

To Wrap Up

The way you hold the banjo can make all the difference when it comes to playing. Holding it wrong can affect the tone of your melodies or give you wrist cramps. With that being said, you can learn it in no time if you focus and practice!