How to Play the Banjo – The Complete Guide for Beginners

At a glance, banjos may seem just the same as a guitar, just a little twangier sounding. In reality, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

In fact, they’re a structurally diverse instrument and also a technically rewarding way of expressing your creative skills. But, with that in mind, it’s still important to get your technique right, in order to become the world’s next Bela Fleck or Tony Trischka.

In this post, we give you the crucial steps to getting started.

Decide the Type of Banjo

Before you go out and buy the first banjo you see, it’s important to consider which type you need. Banjos are quite diverse, coming with sets of either 4, 5 or 6 strings, all of which work best with folks of different experience levels and musical preferences.

4 String

4 string banjo

4-string ‘tenor’ banjos are usually the best choice for beginners, seeing as having fewer strings is easier to get your head around when it comes to theory and because the smaller fret spacing is less of a stretch on your fingers. Fewer strings also mean they’re a bit easier to tune (although there are a variety of ways to tune a tenor banjo).

In regards to style, these instruments are often sought after by Dixieland Jazz or Irish folk musicians, so would make an especially good choice for any novices interested in these genres. They are sometimes referred to as plectrum or tenor banjos, as you play them using a pick to strum chords and melody notes.

Standard models have 19 frets, whereas the Irish variety have 17.

5-String

5 string banjo

5-string models are the most traditional variety of banjo, with the extra 5th string adaptation being thought up by African predecessors.

You’ll most often hear these instruments being used by Bluegrass and folk artists, but just remember, the additional range of notes will require some time to master if you’re a beginner.

They are more complex than their 4-string brothers, due to them having the fifth string attached halfway up the instrument’s neck and an extra tuning peg on the fifth fret.

As well as this, these instruments are played using either a clawhammer technique in folk music or a thumb pick and two metal fingerpicks in Bluegrass, which will also take some time to master. So are best suited to players with some prior experience.

6-String

6 string banjo

6-string banjos have a regular banjo body and a guitar’s neck, so are sometimes known as ‘banjitars’ (yes, really!).

Because of the extra strings and extended fingerboard, they offer the largest range of notes that produce a classic twangy banjo tone. But, when it comes to chords and scales, these instruments are played more like a guitar than a 4 or 5 string banjo, and are tuned like one too, so are most suited to experienced guitarists.

With that in mind, if you’re hoping to learn traditional techniques such as clawhammer, this variety is probably not the best option for you.

Open-Back or Resonator

Banjos have two types of body, known as ‘open-backed’ or ‘resonators’.

Open-backed models are quieter, as the amplified sound projects outwards towards the musician rather than the audience. Traditionally, solo folk artists that use a clawhammer technique would opt for an open-backed banjo, for its softer tone and reduced volume.

Bluegrass players, on the other hand, often have to compete with other instruments so almost always go for a banjo with a resonator. This variety has an enclosed back and a wooden bowl, attached to the body’s inside chamber. This, in turn, amplifies the string’s vibration, so that the instrument produces a much louder, twangier sound with more sustain.

resonator vs open back

Just be aware that resonator banjos are often heavier and tend to be pricier than the open-backed variety (due to the use of extra material), so it may be worth opting for an open-backed model if you’re a novice shopping on a budget. However, if you’re experienced and have been saving up, then, by all means, go for a resonator.

Tuning

Different banjos require specific tunings, so it’s important to get this right before trying to learn a song or lick. Once you know what you’re doing, the process for tuning a banjo is easy – just remember to use an electric tuner to get the notes perfect.

5-string models are most commonly tuned in open G, in ascending order of GDGBD. This means you can strum all the strings simultaneously to play a G chord, without having to press any fingers down on the fretboard.

Similarly, you could also try out D tuning. This was made famous by the Bluegrass musician Earl Scruggs. The strings here should be tuned to F# – D – F# – A – D in ascending order so that you can strum the strings with no fingering and get a D chord.

tuning string pegs

 

If you’ve got a four-string and want to play Dixieland Jazz, then the standard choice is to tune is CGDA. This is the same tuning that mandola and viola musicians use, with intervals of fifths between each string.

Another option is to use Irish Tenor Tuning, which works well in folk music. The strings here will be set to GDAE in ascending order, an octave lower than the standard 4-string tuning.

If you’ve got a 6-string banjo, then you’ll need to tune EBGDAE, in descending order, just like a guitar.

Playing Position

Once you’re all tuned up and ready to go, you’ll need to place your body and hands in the right playing position.

  1. Firstly, find yourself a comfortable seat, preferably one with a back so that you sit up straight and make sure that both your feet sit flat on the floor comfortably. Using a strap can also help you to combat some of the instrument’s extra weight, especially if you’re using a resonator model.
  2. Once you’ve got this right, position the banjo in the middle of your lap at a 45-degree angle from your upper body and so that your left arm can easily move across the fretboard comfortably.
  3. Now you’re ready to place your left hand into position. To get started, the thumb needs to be pressing against the middle of the back of the instrument’s neck, so that it acts as a lever to angle your fingers over the front of the fretboard. Your fingers should then be able to align across each fret vertically so that the string presses down in the center of each and produces a clear note.

Remember to cut your fingernails on the left hand, as long nails can prevent your fingertips fully pressing the strings down.

Additionally, your wrist should fall in line with your hand to avoid injury. If you play with too much of an angle in your wrist, you run the risk of developing carpal tunnel syndrome.

Learn Finger Picking

Whilst it’s true that there are several different picking techniques, luckily, they’re all based around one fundamental idea – producing a melody and decoration.

Decorative sections are usually either drone notes or extra harmonies that beef up gaps in the song’s melody. There are actually more decorative notes in banjo music than the melody section, so they really matter. Each style, whether it be folk, Bluegrass or Dixieland Jazz incorporates different decorative notes to the melody section in order to portray a unique style.

In general, you’ll be using the thumb, index finger and middle finger for picking and will be sweeping your fingers downwards across the strings to pluck each one. At all times the ring and little finger should be resting on the banjo’s head.

Banjo Picking

So, taking these rules into consideration, if you were to play the 2 finger thumb lead style on a 5-string banjo the decorative notes are applied using the 1st string and 5th string. The thumb should control the melody notes and the 5th string drones, whilst the 1st string drones are played using the index finger.

If you want to play the old-time 3 fingerstyle, you need to add another finger into the playing style to create a “3 finger” arrangement. This means the player loses some of the 1st string drone notes but gains some decorative notes by using the other strings.

Overall, this switch which can either lead to the musician playing more of the harmony or doubling the melody notes.

Now let’s take a look at Scrugg’s 3-finger picking style. Interestingly, the differences between the 3-finger “Scruggs” style and the 3-finger “old-time” technique are rather small.

The main difference is that we add some additional syncopation. This means that some of the melody’s notes no longer follow the beat they normally would and instead follow the next eighth note. Scruggs also tended to incorporate extra licks into rest sections of songs, especially when the melody notes were played using open strings.

Learn Basic Rolls

In banjo talk, the term ‘roll’ stands for the basic picking pattern that follows an 8th note arpeggio. Rolls are played using the thumb, index finger and middle fingers so that you hear several different strings ringing out in a bar. Most rolls require the musician to play a repetitive picking pattern, like 5-3-1-5-3-1-5-3, which is known as a forwards roll.

Just remember, the numbers here are not related to the frets, instead they stand for the string number that should be plucked. Whilst playing a roll, each right-hand finger should be allocated to one string only, to help keep your picking organized.

Here are five basic rolls to get you started:

Experiment with Rhythms

Keeping the right rhythm going when you try out more complex rolls can be a challenge at first, so to get around this issue always practice with a metronome.

You’ll be able to find one in a shop or online to help you play along to a steady beat. Once you get more confident, you can try increasing the bpm, to play in a faster timing or you can try playing more complex patterns to enhance your technique.

Learn Some Songs

When you’re confident about playing a variety of banjo rolls at a good pace, you should try to learn an entire song of your choice. But be ready to have to practice difficult sections over again and to attempt certain difficult parts more slowly, to begin with. Some well-known, catchy songs to learn are:

  • You are my Sunshine
  • Cripple Creek
  • Dueling Banjos and Ground Speed if you’re feeling up for a challenge

Practice, Practice, Practice

The most important thing alongside applying good technique is to practice playing regularly. This not only helps your finger muscles and brain to memorize parts of scales, chords, and songs but also helps you to improve faster.

Of course, the frustration and callusing can be off-putting at first but persevere and you’ll undoubtedly love your instrument and could easily become the world’s best living players, Alan Munde.

In general, practicing for bursts of 10-20 minutes a couple of times every day is thought to be the best way to improve your skills. But saying that, advanced players often practice for an hour at a time.

Over to you, Alan:

Ged Richardson

Ged is Founder and Editor-in-chief at Zing Instruments. He's a guitarist for London based gypsy jazz band 'Django Mango' and a lover of all things music. When he's not ripping up and down the fretboard, he's tinkering with his '79 Campervan.