10 Tips to Help You Learn to Play Banjo

I’ve played the banjo for years and initially transitioned from playing the guitar. Since then the banjo has become a big part of my songwriting and recording. Even though I had musical experience when I first started playing the 5 string banjo, I still had to run through all the rigors of learning a new instrument.

This time around, however, I was more prepared with a strategy and routine to help me jump start my playing. To help share some of the strategies I used, I created these ten tips to help you learn to play the banjo. Let’s dive in!

Tip 1: Choose the Right Banjo

The first step to learning to play banjo is choosing a banjo for your preferences, budget, and desired music style. I personally started with a Deering 5 string Banjo, and for beginners, I recommend a 5 string banjo, as it’s the most popular choice. This makes a difference as the 5 string is used in various genres, including bluegrass, country, and folk music so you will have a plethora of songs to work with when learning to play the banjo.

10 tips for learning to play banjo infographic
10 Tips for Learning to Play Banjo Infographic

Consider Banjo Types

Within the 5 string banjos there are open back and resonator variations.

Open-back banjos have a mellower sound and are often lighter, making them suitable for clawhammer or old-time playing styles. Resonator banjos have a metal plate at the back, producing a brighter and louder sound, ideal for bluegrass and ensemble playing.

Other types of banjos you can try include the 4 string banjo (tenor and plectrum), the 6 string banjo, and other variations.

My personal choice was a 5 string resonator banjo, as it has the more typical banjo tone I was searching for when I first started.

For a full understanding of banjo types check out this article.

Cost of Banjo

As I mentioned, I went with a Deering banjo for my first, but other brands that are available include Gold Tone, Epiphone, and Recording King. Entry-level models like the Deering Goodtime, Gold Tone AC-1, and Epiphone MB-100 are some of the best to start with.

Speaking of affordability, banjos can range anywhere between $200 to over $3000 dollars. Of course, the quality of the instrument, playability, and tone will all improve the higher the price point. Good news is that there is a banjo for pretty much any budget.

Here is a rundown of the banjos I mentioned above:

  1. Deering Goodtime: The Deering Goodtime banjo is about $579, a good price in my opinion.
  2. Gold Tone AC-1: The Gold Tone AC-1 banjo is generally priced between $200 and $300, making it an affordable option for beginners.
  3. Epiphone MB-100: The Epiphone MB-100 banjo usually costs around $250 to $350, a more common instrument.

I personally recommend sticking to banjo manufacturers to buy a banjo. Even though they may be harder to find and try out, stick to brands like Deering and Gold Tone, since they specialize in making this unique instrument.

Set Up and Banjo Case

When you buy a new banjo it should come fully set up, hopefully with a case or gig bag and a nice fresh set of strings.

I personally recommend opting for the hardshell banjo case rather than a gig bag. With a hardshell case your banjo will be safer from dings, weather damage, or any other issues. It’s just the better option to go with for your new instrument.

Learn the Basics of the Banjo

Tip 2: Learn the Basics of the Banjo

Before you begin playing, it’s essential to understand the banjo’s anatomy and how to handle it properly. This will provide a solid foundation as you learn to play the banjo. Consider the following aspects.

Learn Banjo Parts

Familiarize yourself with the various components of the banjo, such as the head, neck, frets, strings, bridge, tailpiece, and tuning pegs. Understanding the function and relationship between these parts will help you maintain your instrument and troubleshoot any issues that may arise.

Check out the figure below to get a good idea of the parts on a typical 5 string banjo.

figure showing basic parts of a banjo

Learn How to Hold a Banjo

Learn how to hold a banjo correctly to prevent strain or injury. If you play guitar or other instruments, this may take some adjusting. Sit with your back straight, feet flat on the floor, and the banjo resting on your lap.

Support the banjo’s neck with your left hand (for right-handed players), and keep your right arm resting comfortably on the instrument’s body.

proper-way-to-hold-banjo-sitting-illustration

Maintaining proper posture and positioning will ensure your playing is relaxed and efficient. Its very similar to how you hold a guitar or bass, but different due to the pot shape of the banjo. Use the figure above to help you visualize good form.

Learn Banjo Tunings

Accurate tuning is crucial for productive and enjoyable practice sessions. Learn to tune your instrument using a chromatic tuner, tuning app, or by ear. I recommend learning to tune by ear and checking yourself with a digital tuner, when you have the time. This will help develop your ear over time.

Standard Tuning for Banjo

Standard 5 string banjo tuning is gDGBD, with the 5th drone string typically tuned to a high G. You can also use some alternate tunings like Double C Banjo Tuning (gCGCD) and Sawmill Tuning (gDGCD).

open g standard tuning for 5 string banjo diagram

For more information on tuning your banjo, check out the links below for in depth articles on banjo tuning.

These articles will provide you everything you need to tune any type of banjo!

Tip 3: Start With Simple Chords and Picking Patterns

Overall, learning to play the banjo is not that hard. The best start is building a strong foundation in basic chords and picking patterns. Your first songs will most likely utilize both chords and some picking; choose songs you like listening to so its easier to start.

Let’s look at the fundamentals.

Learn Basic Banjo Chords

Start with a few basic chords, such as G, C, and D7, which are commonly used in banjo music. Practice forming these chords accurately, ensuring that your fingers are pressing the strings firmly against the fretboard without muting adjacent strings.

Spend time transitioning smoothly between chords to build your muscle memory and increase your speed. Practice strumming chords to develop your rhythm and timing. Start with simple downstrokes and progress to more complex strumming patterns as you gain confidence and control.

Master Picking Patterns

Begin practicing foundational picking patterns like forward rolls (thumb, index, middle) and backward rolls (middle, index, thumb) on the banjo. These patterns will help you develop finger dexterity, strength, and coordination, which are essential for more advanced techniques.

When you look at either the typical bluegrass playing or clawhammer picking, you can hear the differences in these picking patterns. Knowing what sound you want to pursue is very important in achieving your musical goals.

Focus on Technique

Achieving a clean, crisp sound on the banjo requires proper finger placement and fretting technique. Ensure that your fingers are curved, with the fingertips pressing down on the strings close to the frets.

Avoid pressing too hard or too lightly, as this can cause buzzing or muted sounds.Work on your right-hand technique by practicing different picking patterns with a consistent, relaxed motion. Use a combination of your thumb, index, and middle fingers to pluck the strings, maintaining a consistent hand position and avoiding unnecessary tension.

Most importantly, listen to your playing. You are your own audience when you practice and its imperative to find mistakes and correct them as you go.

Learn to Read Tablature to help you learn faster

Tip 4: Learn How to Read Banjo Tabs

Banjo tablature, or “tab” for short, is a form of musical notation specifically designed for fretted string instruments like the banjo. It shows finger placement and picking patterns on the instrument, making it an essential tool as you learn to play the banjo.

You can’t get far without learning to read tabs. Over the years, I’ve become a proficient tab sight reader (yes its possible); it comes easier with practice. Here are some things to consider.

How to Read Banjo Tabs for 5 String Banjo

Tablature uses a series of horizontal lines to represent the strings on the banjo, with the top line representing the first (highest-pitched) string and the bottom line representing the fifth (lowest-pitched) string.

Numbers written on these lines indicate which fret should be pressed down to play a specific note. In addition to fret numbers, tablature may include various symbols to indicate techniques such as slides, hammer-ons, pull-offs, and bends.

Check the diagram to help understand better. Familiarize yourself with these symbols and their meanings to interpret the tablature correctly.

how to read banjo tabs diagram

It’s important to understand right hand notation on tabs. Above, you can see how the thumb is labeled as T (the thumb is also labeled as P), the index finger as I, the middle finger as M, and the ring finger as A.

Learning Songs and Sight Reading Tabs

Regularly practice sight-reading new tabs to improve your ability to quickly and accurately interpret the notation, you will get better over time. As you become more comfortable reading tablature, challenge yourself with progressively more complex songs and techniques.

As I mentioned, I’ve am a proficient tab sight reader, and can play classical guitar music from tabs on my first run (if the piece is not too difficult).

The banjo was a big adjustment for me, but overall, I was able to achieve a sight reading speed close to that I have for guitar tabs. Websites like BanjoHangout.org and BanjoTabs.org helped me a lot along the way to find the right songs and the correct tabs. I highly recommend using these resources.

Tip 5: Play Along with Recordings

Playing along with recordings of banjo music can significantly improve your timing, rhythm, and overall musicality. This practice technique also helps you become familiar with various playing styles and genres. Here are some tips for using play-along recordings effectively.

Backing Tracks and Songs

I recommend starting with simple backing tracks for your first banjo jams. YouTube is a great source of backing tracks that show you which chords are being played and the corresponding scales.

This provides a good starting point for a new banjo picker. As you progress you can increase the difficulty and advance to playing along to full songs that feature a banjo.

Pro Tip: I’ve personally used a tape recorder for years to record and replay my banjo practice sessions, this is an old skill I learned from my first guitar teacher that I still use to this day.

Building Confidence in Playing Banjo

As you play along with songs, listen closely to the original banjo player’s technique, phrasing, and dynamics. Try to emulate these aspects in your playing to gain a deeper understanding of the instrument and develop your musicality.

If you encounter a challenging passage in a recording, isolate that section and practice it repeatedly until you can play it accurately and confidently. As you become more comfortable playing along with recordings, challenge yourself with more complex songs, faster tempos, and different styles of banjo music.

Most importantly, don’t give up if you hit a bad day or week, or some roadblocks.

use instructional materials to help you learn banjo

Tip 6: Use Instructional Materials

Throughout my years of learning to play banjo I have used both YouTube and instructional books to help me move along in my practice. I have to be honest, more and more I use YouTube, since its a free resource.

Banjo learning apps are also a good way to add to your studies. Lets take a loot at each of these in more detail.

YouTube Banjo Lessons

Utilizing instructional materials tailored for beginners is a great way to learn the essential techniques and build your knowledge base. YouTube is a treasure trove of video lessons for banjo players, with channels like Happy Banjo Dude, Jody Hughes Music, and Banjo Lemonade, amongst many others, providing instructional content for beginners.

Video lessons offer the advantage of visual demonstrations, allowing you to see proper technique and finger placement in action. I’ve watched a lot of Banjo Dude’s videos to learn to play banjo much faster than I would have otherwise. I highly recommend these resources.

Books and Apps for Banjo

There are numerous books available that cater to beginners, such as “Banjo for Dummies” by Bill Evans, “The How and the Tao of Old-Time Banjo” by Patrick Costello, and “Bluegrass Banjo for the Complete Ignoramus” by Wayne Erbsen. These books often include step-by-step instructions, practice exercises, and song examples, making them valuable resources for learning the basics.

Smartphone and tablet apps like Banjo Tutor, Banjo Companion, and Banjo Rolls Trainer offer interactive lessons, practice tools, and tuners to help you improve your playing on the go. I would recommend using these in addition to YouTube to help your learning progress faster.

Check out the video below of the Happy Banjo Dude teaching the theme from Last of Us. One of my recent favorites to play.

Tip 7: Practice Consistently

Developing your banjo skills requires regular, focused practice. Consistency is key to building muscle memory, improving your technique, and gaining confidence in your playing. Just as with any musical instrument, a consistent routine will give you the biggest bang for your buck, when it comes to improved performance.

Lets look at some specific aspects of a good practice routine.

A Structured Practice for Banjo

Dedicate a specific time each day for practice, ideally when you can focus and minimize distractions. This will help make practice a habit, ensuring steady progress.

Divide your practice time into smaller segments, focusing on different aspects of your playing, such as technique, chords, picking patterns, or learning new songs. This will keep your practice sessions engaging and well-rounded.

Lastly, practice with a metronome to develop your sense of timing and rhythm. Start at a slow tempo and gradually increase the speed as you become more comfortable and accurate.

Find a teacher or join a group to help you learn to play banjo and have fun

Tip 8: Find a Teacher or Join a Group

Seeking personalized guidance, feedback, and support from experienced players can significantly enhance your learning experience. In a post COVID world we have converted to a lot of digital lessons, but I believe in-person training is invaluable when it comes to musical instruments.

One of the best ways how to learn to play banjo is getting a private banjo teacher or joining an in-person or online banjo groups!

Working With a Banjo Teacher

A private banjo teacher can provide tailored instruction based on your skill level, goals, and learning style. They can help you identify areas for improvement, correct bad habits, and introduce you to new techniques or styles.

A teacher can prompt you if you are holding your banjo wrong, or if your fingering technique is not ideal. This sort of advice is not easy to come by outside of the academic setting, as most of your audience will not be as critical or musically trained.

Teachers also help you stay motivated as you learn by providing weekly or monthly check in’s to assess your playing progression.

Joining Banjo Groups

Banjo groups provide a few of the same benefits as a banjo teacher. On top of the training and critique of your playing, banjo groups provide social and networking opportunities. Joining a banjo group exposes you to other musicians who share your passion for the instrument.

This can lead to opportunities for collaboration, performance, and learning from a diverse range of perspectives. Besides that you can make like minded friends that may last you a lifetime. Playing or improving with others is an invaluable way of developing your skills as a player and should not be undermined.

Set Goals and Track Your Progress to help you learn to play banjo quickly

Tip 9: Set Goals and Track Your Progress

It is very important to set goals and track your progress as you learn to play banjo. If you are working with a teacher or a class, you will most likely be given goals that need to be achieved in your playing over time.

However, if you are using YouTube to learn and practicing by yourself at home, it will be up to you to guide your goals and do progress tracking.

Set Achievable Goals

Instead of setting a single, overwhelming goal, such as mastering the banjo, break it down into smaller, achievable objectives. For example, focus on learning a specific song, mastering a particular technique, or improving your speed and accuracy. Document your practice sessions in a journal, including the date, duration, and what you worked on.

This will help you track your progress over time, identify areas for improvement, and celebrate your achievements. When setting goals, establish realistic timelines for achieving them. Deadlines provide structure and urgency, but make sure they’re achievable to prevent frustration and burnout. Ultimately, don’t get too hung up on deadlines if you don’t meet them. Focus on your progress and the positives.

Assess Progress

Periodically review your goals and the progress you’ve made toward achieving them. Reflect on what’s working well, what isn’t, and adjust your practice routine as needed. Recognize your accomplishments and reward yourself when you reach a goal, whether it’s a small treat or a well-deserved break.

Celebrating your achievements can boost your motivation and keep you engaged in the learning process. Show off to family and friends if you have the time or opportunity, getting feedback from people could be invaluable to boosting your confidence.

Tip 10: Enjoy the Process

I believe that having fun is the single most important factor of playing or learning a musical instrument. It should be no different when you learn to play banjo. Embrace the challenges and celebrate your achievements along the way.

Remember that learning an instrument takes time, and progress may not always be linear. Be patient with yourself, and recognize that setbacks are a natural part of the learning process. Instead of dwelling on what you haven’t yet mastered, celebrate the skills you’ve acquired and the progress you’ve made.

Connect with friends, family, or fellow banjo enthusiasts to share your achievements and experiences. Sharing your journey can provide encouragement and support from others who share your passion for the banjo.

Don’t be afraid to try new techniques, styles, or genres. Experimenting with different aspects of banjo playing can help you discover your unique musical voice and keep your practice sessions fresh and engaging. Whenever you feel frustrated or discouraged, remind yourself of why you chose to learn the banjo in the first place.

Reconnecting with your initial passion and excitement can help reignite your motivation and keep you moving forward on your banjo journey.

Final Thoughts

That brings us to a close of the 10 tips to help you learn to play the banjo like a pro. I think the most important tip is the last one.

If you approach music from a negative standpoint or one or regime or rigidness, you will soon discover that it loses the charm. The best way to play any instrument is making it fun, social, and memorable.

However, setting a strong foundation of technical skills and knowledge is equally important in moving forward as a musician.

I hope you enjoyed this article and found my tips to enhance your learning helpful. Thank you for reading!

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