The banjo has been around for more than 400 years, and it’s still loved by the masses. Not only is this little instrument incredibly fun to play, but it also produces some of the most energetic, upbeat sounds you could ever hope to hear.
However, if you’ve finally decided that you no longer wish to just listen to the banjo and now you want to play it, you’ve come to the right place. So, let’s get you on the right track of buying your first banjo and playing it, shall we?
How to Play Banjo for Beginners
Step 1: Pick the Type of Banjo
Banjos aren’t like guitars or violins; they come in different styles, each with its own playing method. So, before you start playing any songs, you first need to know what type of banjo you want to play.
The 4-String Banjo
The 4-string banjo, aka the tenor banjo, is one of the best options for beginners as you’ve only got four strings to work with, and it’s generally easy to tune. Music-wise, this baby is used in Irish music, Trad Jazz, and Dixieland Jazz, so if you’re fond of any of those styles, this is the instrument for you.
Now, the term tenor banjo is mostly used for models with short necks. However, if it’s got a long neck, you’ll occasionally hear the 4-string banjo being called a plectrum banjo.
The 5-String Banjo
While the 4-string banjo is the easiest one to learn, the 5-string banjo is the most popular one by far. It’s used in Bluegrass banjo songs as well as Appalachian and old-time American folk music.
Now, the thing to note with this banjo is that the fifth string makes it a bit more difficult to master, especially for beginners, as you’ll take some time to master all the notes.
Moreover, depending on the music genre, this banjo can be played with a clawhammer technique or with fingerpicks, both of which will take some getting used to.
As such, it’s usually not my first pick for a beginning banjo player. Still, don’t be scared of learning it. If you’re determined enough, you’ll get the hang of it in no time.
The 6-String Banjo
The 6-string banjo is basically a guitar in the body of a banjo, which is why it’s sometimes called banjitars.
It has six strings just like a guitar would, and it’s tuned and played in the same way. So, if you’ve got experience with a guitar, you’d be better off choosing this baby. However, if you’re looking to play clawhammer banjo songs, then you can skip the banjitar for now.
Step 2: Learn the Parts of a Banjo
Now that you’ve picked your banjo, you need to learn its anatomy and the use of each part.
First off, we’ve got the peghead or the headstock, which is the wide part at the end of the banjo neck. From its name, it holds the tuning pegs, which are used to tune your strings.
Next, you’ve got the fingerboard, aka the fretboard, which is the part covered with fret markers. When you press the fingerboard in specific places, you’ll be able to change the pitch of the strings.
Finally, we have the heel, which is the wide part that attaches the neck to the body, as well as the bridge, which conveys the vibration of the strings to the body/head.
Note: While most banjos are open-back/backless, some banjos can come with a resonator, which works to make the sound louder, twangier, and more sustained. While this is seen as an advantage for Bluegrass players, beginning banjo players will hardly benefit from this, and they’ll just have a pricier and heavier banjo to learn on.
Step 3: Tune the Banjo
Get out your electric tuner and let’s start tuning the strings.
5-String Banjo Tuning
Let’s start with the standard tuning of a 5-string banjo, which is an open G. This means that the first string is a low G, the second string is a low D, the third string is a G, the fourth is a B, and the fifth is a G. So when you strum all the strings together, you’ll have yourself a G chord.
Some types of Bluegrass music require a D tuning, which goes as F#-D-F#-A-D. However, most types will use the G tuning, so stick with that.
4- and 6-String Banjo Tunings
As for four-string banjos, you’ll use the same tuning of a violin which is C-G-D-A. Meanwhile, the 6-string banjo should be tuned to E-A-D-G-B-E, just as you would a guitar.
Pro Tip: If your banjo doesn’t sound good, then you should recheck your tuning until the open strings, and fretted notes sound right. If they don’t, then your banjo may require a visit to a repairman.
Step 4: Hold Your Instrument
Sitting with the wrong posture will only hinder your playing and tire put your hands and body. So, when you hold your instrument, you shouldn’t need to bend in an awkward position to reach the fretboard or see the strings.
So, rest the banjo on your lap or your right leg, and place your left hand on the fretboard and your right hand, which is the strumming hand, on the strings near the bridge.
Hold your right wrist in a neutral position, and don’t bend it excessively toward your thumb or little finger. Also, don’t arch or flatten your hand too much, as this will restrict your movements and slow down your playing. Think of holding an egg, and you’ll nail the posture.
As for the left hand, the thumb should rest on the center of the neck’s back, with the rest of your fingers positioned vertically on the frets at their middle.
Of course, if you’re left-handed, reverse everything I just said. Not just that, but make sure you get a left-handed banjo as you won’t be able to play with the standard banjo aimed for righties.
Step 5: Practice Right-Hand Movements
In case you didn’t know, you can make a sound on a banjo in three different ways; strumming, fingerpicking, and clawhammer.
Strumming is done by brushing the thumb or a pick on the strings, just as you would on similar stringed instruments.
Meanwhile, fingerpicking is done by sweeping three fingers on the strings, which are the thumb, index, and middle fingers. The ring finger and pinky rest on the head, and don’t pluck any notes.
The middle finger is usually only used for the first string, while the index finger covers the 2nd and 3rd, with the thumb taking over the 4th and 5th. Of course, the fingering may change slightly from player to player, but that’s generally the most widely used pattern.
Clawhammer, on the other hand, involves upstrokes and downstrokes to give the sound of old-time banjo music, though now only downstrokes are used.
You’re basically playing with your hand slightly closed as if you’re holding a broom, with the thumb simply resting on the body and another right-hand finger strumming the strings.
Whichever technique you go with, start with playing simple melodies until you get the basics down. Just make sure you use the correct fingers, as when you progress to banjo rolls and pinches, they’ll make a huge difference in your playing accuracy and speed.
Step 6: Practice Basic Left-Hand and Chord Positions
Find a good banjo chord chart and start memorizing as many chords as you can. Then, pick a two-chord song, master it, then progress to a three-chord song, and so on. Stay away from F chords in the beginning and play familiar, simple songs so that you can spot any mistake you make.
Some beginner-appropriate basic solos and songs you can start with include Doug’s Tune, Red River Valley, Little Birdies, and Shady Grove. Keep Cripple Creek and similar pieces to when you’ve become more skilled.
Step 7: Keep on Practicing
As with any musical instrument, practice makes perfect. So, practice different rolls, make your chord transitions smoother, experiment with rhythms, and don’t be embarrassed about needing to slow down or using a rhythm track. You’re still learning, and the skill will come with time.
Of course, getting proper banjo lessons from a banjo teacher is another great idea. Their detailed instruction on the different playing styles and techniques will drastically improve your learning experience and save you lots of tears and frustration.
And, don’t forget that you can also have some free lessons by watching experienced players live or online.
Learning banjo isn’t so difficult as long as you get the basics down.
Once you can play an entire song with all its melody notes properly, you should start playing new songs with basic rolls, then get more complex songs, and so forth. Following this method, you’ll be able to participate in a jam session with other advanced players in no time.
So, keep practicing and happy playing.