One of the most common things people ask me for advice is this: “How to play the Banjo”. Learning to play a musical instrument is nothing short of an adventure. The romance of discovering the quirks of the instrument, the way the melody rings in the air when you strum the strings, the way it feels when you hold it in your hands for the first time, each has a charm of its own.
The Banjo definitely produces one of the most melodious sounds and learning how to play it can be a lot of fun so we understand why people tend to want to know how to play banjo.
However, we all know how difficult learning a new instrument can be. The key, we believe, is to keep yourself motivated throughout the learning experience and not give up at the first few roadblocks or after fumbling to hit the first few chords right.
Finding an actual teacher might be the best way to master the banjo efficiently, but there are a lot of great online courses now and one can teach themselves as well. In this article, we outline five basic tricks everyone should follow if they are beginning to learn how to play the bluegrass banjo.
How to play the Banjo – 5 Tips for Beginners
Looking at something like learning to play banjo can be daunting, there are a TON of things to learn and improve before you can even come close to knowing how to play the instrument! These are the first five things I tell new students regardless of which type of banjo they are playing, and give you a very good starting point to learn from!
1. Start Simple
A very common mistake that beginners make is to start with complex solos. Mastering the chords while maintaining the rhythm patterns with the banjo can get extremely difficult for the uninitiated if one is starting with a difficult solo. It is very easy to get frustrated and quit if the notes sound halting even after weeks of practice.
The banjo is a great instrument to jam with. Thus, a fun and effective way to learn how to play the instrument is to start with the basic right-hand rhythm patterns that can be repeated progressively. You can then start jamming along with peers or even with a music CD.
This will give you a fair amount of practice, strengthen your rhythm patterns and even help you identify chord progressions. Hours of jam sessions will build your confidence and keep you motivated to learn more advanced techniques.
2. Master the postures of hands
While this might not seem important at first glance, it is pivotal that beginners learn the correct way to position their hands and wrists while playing the banjo. An ergonomically incorrect posture will create fatigue and also restrict freedom of movement of your hands. Thus, the first step towards learning the banjo is to learn how to position your wrist.
We recommend holding your wrist in a neutral position, i.e. a natural position where it is not bent either towards your thumb or pinkie finger at an awkward angle. This will not only ensure that you are not worn out after an hour of strumming but also allow your fingers enough freedom to create fluid movements on the chords. It is also important to correctly identify the angle of your palm.
While laying the palm straight on the surface will create extra tension on your fingers and restrict movement, arching the palm too much will extend the fingers too straight and potentially slow you down. The picking hand should be positioned as if you were holding an egg.
If you are a left-handed banjo player you’ll need to know that everything is backwards. Almost all the videos and instructional content is done for righties, so you’ll have to adjust!
3. Let it ring
The key to creating beautiful melodies with your banjo is to let the notes ring. A common mistake that beginners make is to let go of the fret too soon or not applying enough pressure on the strings. This leads to the banjo sounding muffled and stuffy, which is not something that you would like to hear.
A good technique to ensure that the notes are sustained is to press the frets with enough force. After the note is fretted, it is a good idea to keep the left-hand finger down on the fingerboard as long as possible until it is time to changeover to a new note.
4. Smooth Transitions
One of the trickiest parts to master is smoothly transitioning from one part of a song to another without sounding halting. Here are a few ways how you can start on your path to mastering the art of making smooth transitions.
Keys to Smooth Transitions
- Practice changing chords quickly
- Enough practice will ensure that you can change chords even without looking at your hands
- Listen to all the bluegrass CDs you can lay your hands on and identify the parts where transitions are being made
- Watch the finger movements of other players to help solidify fluid movements and how transitions are made
- Practice maintaining a steady rhythm pattern even while changing chords
5. Practice makes perfect
There is no substitute for painstaking practice. The longer you practice, the longer you tune your ears and the longer you spend playing your banjo, the better a player you shall be. It is a good idea to start practicing with basic solos. It might be tempting to start with something like “Cripple Creek” but as we stated in tip #1…. starting with something too difficult can often lead to failure.
A few good solos that beginners can start with are Shady Grove, Doug’s Tune, Bile Them Cabbage Down, Red River Valley and Worried Men Blues. They say that the more you enjoy your music, the better you shall play. Hence, practicing music you actually like will make the learning process even more fruitful.
Is it Hard to Learn To Play the Banjo?
All stringed instruments can be challenging to learn, but none of them are impossible! Many people think the banjo is easier to learn than the guitar because of the fewer strings. It also lighter gauge strings that are easier to fret.
Can You Teach Yourself To Play The Banjo
Absolutely! There are a ton of free lessons on YouTube and great content throughout the web to help you learn by yourself. We always recommend a teacher if you can get one, it will shorten the learning curve and make playing easier, but you can definitely teach yourself.
What is the best way to Learn Banjo?
Most people will tell you a local banjo instructor is the way to go. Having detailed instruction as you are playing can be very helpful. There are a lot of good online courses out though, which can also be a great resource to help you learn banjo.
The Final Note on How to Play The Banjo
The tips shared in this lesson are a great starting point for any beginning banjo player. If you want to take your learning to the next step, though, hire yourself a teacher from a local music shop. If that isn’t in the budget there are some really solid online teachers, like the ones found at BanjoCompass or BanjoBen. As always, StringVibe will continue to publish the best Banjo related content as well!
There might be a number of different reasons why you want to learn the banjo. Perhaps, you have always been a fan of bluegrass music or perhaps you want to just embark on a new adventure.
Whatever may your reason be, we hope that with these tips your journey will be a little more enjoyable. There are very few experiences which are as rewarding as learning to play the banjo! Happy learning!