Banjo Basics for Guitarists: Five Tips for Five String Success

Growing up in the Empire State, there weren’t many opportunities to hear banjo music, and before the internet, learning about the banjo was nearly impossible. Usually there’d be one out-of-tune banjo at a Guitar Center you’d pull down off the rack only come to the stark realization that it wasn't a guitar.

So I left the banjo to the banjo players. That is until I played in the pit for the musical Mame, and noticed “5-String Banjo” written in the corner of some of the charts. And with that, I was thrust head first into the world of confusing drone strings and uncomfortable finger picks. But getting started on the banjo doesn’t need to be hard work. Here are some tips to getting your banjo playing off to a great start.

Demystify the Strings

The biggest hurdle with doubling on other fretted instruments is that the strings are tuned differently. Also five strings? What's that little top string doing there and why does it stop halfway down? I spent my first minutes with the banjo debating whether or not I was going to tune it like a guitar. That’s our usual go to trick as guitarists: just change the tuning. It sort of works too. You can get through any tune on the banjo, if you pretend the banjo is a guitar. Problem is, you find out very quickly that this only helps you have a guitar that sounds like a banjo. So go ahead and load up your Banjo Tuning video and get tuned up the right way.

While there are a million little things that make the instrument different from a guitar, you should start by looking at what's similar. The second, third and fourth strings are tuned identically to that of a guitar. Ignoring that tiny string (aka Drone String), that means we have only one string different from the guitar: the first string. Interestingly enough, that note is a D not an E. Therefore, your open four strings are a G chord. Congrats! Now you can play a chord on the banjo. When you bar the fifth fret (of the bottom four strings) it’s a C chord, and slide it up to the seventh fret makes it a D chord. Now you’ve got a major bar chord that’s even easier than the guitar equivalent. You can now comp chords for a Blues in G. And if you change one note in that chord, and you’ve got a moveable minor chord.

Learn the Quirks

Just learning new chord shapes is the easy part. What's more difficult for most guitarists is transitioning to plucking with finger picks. To this day, finger picks frustrate me. Typically, I would always rather use my fingers and nails, but to nail the classic sound of a bluegrass banjo, there's really no substitute. The best way to get used to finger picks is try them out everyday on your banjo, then use them on your guitar, and then back to your banjo. Or do what I did and just live with non-stop with your finger picks on. I actually spent two full days wearing finger picks just to get used to them. Of course, I was teaching music in an elementary school at the time so it only made me look a little crazier than usual. I got away with it riding the G train too, since you can get away with anything in Brooklyn.

Get Some Tunes

If you’re excited about the prospect of playing the banjo, you probably know what you’re signing up for. While not all banjo players are straight ahead bluegrass pickers, every banjo player can start with some great bluegrass tunes. Start simple and start classic. I tried to jump right into playing pieces from that musical, which was a mistake. The feel was off, my hands felt funny and it was just hard to make it sound right. Then I started practicing by playing “Wagon Wheel” a million times on rotation. It was unadulterated, non-stop banjo playing on the same song. While it sounds terribly torturous for anyone who is not me (this is my public apology to my wife and the dog that lives beneath us), it was the best practice on earth. I played along with Old Crow Medicine Show until my NY accent disappeared for the night. Don’t be ashamed by extended play-alongs. They're fun and repetition builds skill. Here’s a great list of bluegrass tunes you can start with.

Find a Support Group (a Band)

If you play with a group already, go ahead and tell them you’ve got your banjo game up and running. No one expects you to tear up the banjo on your first gig, but you can focus on making your parts simple and distinctive. Even a simple strum on a banjo can give a tune a new timbre. But if you really want to get serious about improving on the banjo, get together some players who double on other instruments too. Keep the repertoire simple. Slow, simple bluegrass tunes are your bread and butter. Take solos, and whiff on them non-stop. If you think about your guitar soloing, you’re not really thinking of what note comes next, you’re using your ears to find it. If you really want to progress on the banjo, let go of trying to play the right notes, and just see what comes out of your hands. Every solo you take that misses the mark will bring you closer to what you want next time.

Soak in as Much Banjo Music as You Can

If you want to know everything about an instrument, you have to listen. For years when I heard a banjo in a piece, I never truly heard it. I was aware it was playing, but the timbre was all I focused on. When you jump into playing the banjo, you’ll start to hear the common chords and licks that you’re already learning and playing.

Doubling on a new instrument is challenging. You’ll always want to be as good on your banjo as you are on your guitar. But remember, this can only come with time. Think of yourself when you first picked up the guitar and the countless hours spent learning licks and making them a part of your musical language. Every minute of time you spend working at your new skill brings results. If you find yourself getting frustrated on the banjo, you can always return to your six string homeland as a reminder of where your hard work will take you.

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