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Learning to play the banjo is more than just learning to pluck a few notes on the strings. You have to choose the right banjo for the kind of music you want to ultimately play. There are 4-string tenor banjos and 6-string banjitars as well as the common 5-string banjo. There are other considerations before you begin your banjo playing, too. We’ve helped cover all the steps you’ll need to take before you start learning the banjo.
Choosing the Right Banjo
The first choice you’ll have to make as a new banjo player is the type of banjo you want to play. This will be determined based on the style of music you want to play as well as how much experience you’ve had with stringed instruments.
For example, a guitar player might want to stay with the same tuning and string amounts that closely resemble a guitar. These are called banjitars or guitjo, which is a blending of the name banjo and guitar.
A 4-string banjo is one that’s associated with jazz, dixieland, or Irish music. There are tenor or plectrum banjos, and your choice will depend on the style that you’d like to play as you get learn and advance on the instrument.
The 5-string banjo is the most popular of all the string types. It’s used in bluegrass or folk music, and some of your favorite folk songs are created using a 5-string banjo.
Open Back or Resonator
The backing of the banjo will help to produce certain tones when playing the instrument. A resonator will project the sound forward towards the audience, and that gives it a punchier sound. A softer tone is created with an open-back banjo. Beginners might want to start with an open-back style because it’s lighter as well as being softer. When you’re not that good of a player yet, a loud banjo can be disturbing for everyone around you.
Action, Scale, and Tuning
The action is the distance of the strings in relation to the fingerboard of the instrument. The scale is the distance in length from the bridge to the nuts at the top of the banjo. Low action banjos make it easier for beginners since you don’t have to press down as hard on the strings. The scale of each banjo will differ from 23 inches to 32 inches. The average size is around 26 1/4” and that’s a good starter banjo for beginners.
Tuning is a vital part of banjo playing. You can use an electric tuner purchased at a music shop, use an app on your phone, or have a professional tune it for you. There are common tunings depending on the type of banjo.
Once you have your beginner banjo, you’ll need to learn to hold it properly. This involves having the right posture. If you don’t learn the proper pose from the beginning, you could end up with back, shoulder, or arm pain in the future.
Keep your shoulders back, sit up straight and hold the banjo at a 45 degree angle at the very least. Some players hold their banjo in certain positions based on how easy it is to hold. Be comfortable, but with good grip of the banjo without being too tight. A banjo strap can help relieve some of the weight on your hands while playing. Here’s an excellent video showing proper posture.
Learning to Pick
The style of music will dictate the kind of picking style you will learn. For a bluegrass style, you’ll sweep your fingers down the strings using your nail. For other sounds, you’ll pluck the strings. It’s helpful to use finger picks for this since it’ll create a better sound without hurting your fingers.
Basic Rolls to Start
After you have the position of the banjo, the finger picks, and the basic plucking motion in hand, it’s time to learn some basic rolls. This involves picking in a pattern that is repetitive.
One of the basic, common rolls is the forward roll. This is done on a five-string banjo. You’ll hit the notes in a certain order. The fifth string, third string, first string then back to fifth string. It creates a rhythm of 5, 3, 1, 5 and it continues until 8 notes have been played. 5, 3, 1, 5, 3, 1, 5, 3 without stopping.
The hardest part of learning to play any instrument is learning to keep the time. If a measure of music is 8 tones, you’ll need to keep time to ensure that each measure is in rhythm. A few rolls does not make you a master banjo player. It’s keeping time through an entire song that is the most difficult part to manage. A metronome can be helpful for staying consistent.
Practice to Improve
The only way to improve is to practice regularly. You can’t expect to master anything from instruments to singing without practice. It might get discouraging and frustrating, but you’ll break through with lots of practice.
Once you have the right banjo, your posture, picking motion, and a few rolls in place, it’ll be time to learn some songs. You can purchase banjo music books that will help you learn famous songs. When you learn famous, iconic tunes, you’re able to see where you might go wrong, and how you can improve. Don’t forget to practice regularly, too.