To play the 5-string banjo, you need to learn how to hold it, adjust the tuning, pick a playing style, and practice regularly.
In this step-by-step guide, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know about playing the 5-string banjo with your fingers or fingerpicks.
1. Holding a 5 String Banjo
If this is your first time playing the banjo with five strings, nailing your posture can be a bit tricky, but it’s more important than you think. It’s all about being comfortable while holding. If you’re straining any part of your body, you won’t probably produce a nice sound with this musical instrument, and you’ll end up hurting your joints and muscles.
When you hold your banjo, keep moving it in your lap and move your elbows a bit until you figure out which position is the most comfortable. Keep your shoulders raised and relax your body. Avoid leaning forward or bending.
There are two ways to rest your banjo: on your lap or on your right leg. Try both of these positions and choose the one that feels more relaxing.
For right-handed players, you pick or strum the strings with your right hand and press the strings against the frets on the fretboard with your left hand. You also need to put your ring finger on the banjo head’s surface while the left hand holds the neck.
For left-handed players, it’s the opposite, but you must buy a special left-handed banjo.
2. Tuning Your Banjo
Before attempting to play the banjo, you must tune it properly. Turning the tuning knob will change the length/tension of the string, which will change its tone. A relaxed string will make the pitch lower, and the opposite is true. An electronic tuner or chromatic tuner designed specifically for banjos will help you create a new tuning for your banjo faster and more accurately. You can find it in any local music store or online store.
The standard banjo tuning for a 5-string banjo is Open G tuning (g, D, G, B, D). It’s a good idea to experiment with an online banjo tuner to learn what each tuning setup will sound like, especially if you want to adjust the c chord or the g chord. You can also use the piano to tune it if you prefer to tune it differently from the standard tuning.
3. Playing Your First Note
There are 3 ways to play the banjo notes: strumming, fingerpicking, and frailing. Let’s explore them one by one:
Strumming is a technique that can be done regardless if you use fingerpicks or not. It’s an essential skill that you must learn if you want to master the banjo.
To strum the strings of a banjo, use your right hand’s thumb if you’re right-handed.
Even if you don’t prefer strumming, it can be quite handy when you want to test whether the banjo is in tune or not. You can tell whether the banjo is in tune by simply brushing your thumb across the strings and starting with the fifth string. The thumb is used for all the strings, including the first string and the second string. As for the index finger, it’s used for the second and third strings, but it’s sometimes used for other strings.
Strumming is also great when you want to play a few tunes in an open position.
Every five-string banjo player, at some point, will brush across the strings gently with the thumb. Most banjo players that use strumming also use fingerpicking or frailing along with it.
The classic fingerpicking is still going strong with the banjo as a bluegrass picking style for blues music. Fingerpicking enables you to play simple patterns that can definitely compliment the performances of the rest of the band when playing as a backing player. Use your middle finger over the fourth string the third string.
The beauty of plucking is that every bluegrass banjo player has their own style.
You’ll most commonly find musicians who prefer fingerpicking are also bluegrass players. Banjo players that play folk music also love this method in all chord forms, just like bluegrass-style players.
Frailing is a method unique to the old-time banjo. It’s characterized by upstrokes and downstrokes, as well as a combination of the two. But the most popular method nowadays is down stroking as it produces a soulful feel.
The clawhammer banjo is a total beginner-friendly, so if you want to get a solid rhythm, you should definitely give it a shot.
4. Learn More Advanced Banjo Music
Once you’ve become comfortable with a few basic rolls and can read sheet music, you can start learning some advanced tunes to play well-known songs. Again, you can tell if you’re ready or not by checking if you’re able to nail the timing and rhythm most of the time.
Then, you can scout the web for some high-level banjo tunes. You might also consider purchasing a book to help you in your banjo journey.
5. Practice Everyday
Finally, it’s important that you practice daily if you want to master the banjo. As a general rule of thumb, practice for 30-45 minutes daily as a minimum. If you have a tight schedule, you can make your practicing sessions a bit longer and spread them over 3-4 days. Of course, you can also sign up for a class with one of the popular banjo teachers.
That’s pretty much it; you should now have a solid plan on how to play the banjo.
The process is pretty straightforward since the banjo is one of the easiest stringed instruments to learn for beginners, even easier than the guitar. This is because five-string banjo chords are easy to learn, so people prefer to start playing music with it.
Take it slow, relax your posture, and practice regularly. Following this technique will help you master the five-string banjo in no time. Enjoy playing!