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Is Banjo Hard to Learn? Learn These Banjo Basics To Start Playing Today

Upon first hearing, many people wonder, is banjo hard to learn? In practical and operational fact, it's easier than the guitar for several reasons. However, many unique factors make the banjo a different musical instrument and guitar. For example, picking technique and chord structure are two basics that differ widely between the two.

Although guitarists have an advantage when picking up a banjo for the first time, it still has several challenges.

Still, learning banjo has a lot of benefits. Any hard work you put into this glorious instrument will pay you back in the long run.

Banjo Basics

There are plenty of discussions online about a 4 string vs 5 string banjo and a 5 string vs 6 string banjo throughout forum discussions and online communities alike. In this article, though, we will restrict ourselves to the 5 string banjo.

The certified standard banjo for any serious folk musician (and the kind we most highly recommend for new players to start on) is the five-string banjo. This instrument has gained immense popularity throughout the American folk world for its distinctive sound and the abilities of some of its most virtuosic proponents. 

By the way, did you know that the 5 string banjo is the instrument Steve Martin plays? Watch him play the banjo with his jamming bluegrass band.

Parts Of A Banjo

A banjo is a fascinating instrument: part guitar, part snare drum. It has roots in Africa, first debuting amongst African American and rural white cultures in the 1800s before its debut as a more mainstream instrument in the minstrel shows of the late-19th century. 

The very first banjos were a three-string or even a two-string. These early stringed instruments allowed players to keep simple time on the snare while playing a basic melody. The five-string banjo we have today is much more sophisticated, allowing for more intricate modes of expression than its predecessors.

The 5 string banjo headstock has on it just four tuning pegs, each of which controls the four long strings of the banjo. About a third of the way down the neck of the banjo, a fifth tuning peg controls the drone string (more on that later). The long line of the banjo culminates in the head. The head is a snare drum that, along with the steel strings, gives the instrument its distinctive sound. 

The Banjo Strings

How many strings are on a banjo? In this article, we’ll be discussing how to start playing a 5-string banjo, but even a 5-string banjo feels like a four-stringed instrument. This is because of the special short string, the drone string, that adds a distinctive taste and a neat high pitch when you play the banjo but which is less commonly fretted than the banjo's other four strings.

The banjo tuning is open, which means that any beginner who picks up a banjo and gives it a strum can “make it sing.” The open tuning distinguishes the banjo from the guitar, in that the guitar typically has a closed tuning: it doesn't sound nice to strum an unfretted guitar.

When discussing the banjo strings, we can number them in the following way: with a banjo sitting on your lap, the furthest string from you we call 1, the next-closest string we name 2, and so on. The petite drone string closest to your nose is, then, number 5. 

Standard banjo tuning consists of the following:

  • First string: D
  • Second string: B
  • Third string: G
  • Fourth string: D
  • Fifth (drone) string: G

As you can see, D and G are repeated, played at two different octaves when you strum the banjo once. The key you play when you strum a banjo open is the key of G major.

Most banjo players tune their piece to the open key of G major. In a sense, the banjo is built for the world of playing bluegrass music and folk music, as this chord shape is extremely common and useful in folk music.

Is Banjo Similar To Guitar?

As we mentioned above, there are significant differences between banjo and guitar. These include the materials of construction, the number of strings, and the standard tuning.

At the same time, banjo and guitar come from the same family of instruments and as such have a core of similarity that means someone who plays one will be able to pick up the other with relative ease. The similarity of guitar and banjo also means many of the practice principles of the guitar will be the same for banjo.

Indeed, in banjo the concept of the instrument is the same: a fretted neck with strings stretched out along a resonant body allows one player to play many notes of a wide range of frequencies simultaneously.

Because banjo has at least one fewer string than guitar, banjo chords are generally easier to play.

How To Read Banjo Tabs?

Anyone familiar with guitar tabs will easily pick up banjo tabs. Most banjo teachers in the banjo community begin the learning process with tabs, so tabs are a phenomenal place for us to start for beginner banjo. 

Banjo tabs show five lines. Each of these lines is related to one of the five strings. The top line is the first string (the string furthest from you), while the bottom line is the fifth string (the drone string, closest to your face when playing the instrument). 

In a banjo tab, you do not play any strings unless a number appears on the line corresponding to that string. The number indicates that you must play the string while indicating which fret you should fret when you play it. A 0 indicates that you must play the string but that you should not fret it.

An open strum for banjo in tablature would read like this:

 

–0—-

–0—-

–0—-

–0—-

–0—-

 

The above is a G major chord. 

We can depict more complicated maneuvers via banjo tablature as well. A hammer-on, for example, consists of the player strumming a string and then “hammering on” their finger to the fret indicated, a move that changes the tone of the note without requiring the player to re-strum the string. The hammer-on represents a staple of bluegrass music. Below is how we write the hammer-on.

–0h1—-

The above indicates that the player plays the string in question open then uses their finger like a hammer on the first fret to increase the tone of the note played by half a step. 

A pull-off is the opposite of a hammer-on. The pull-off maneuver is, however, just as essential for bluegrass. In the pull-off, the player removes their finger quickly after strumming the string. This maneuver allows the string to vibrate at a lower frequency.

–1p0—-

How Much Does A Banjo Cost?

A fine banjo can cost as much as a new guitar, but an old 4 string banjo will of course be quite a bit cheaper.

If you’re new to banjo, it might be a good idea to search Craigslist or your local used music shop to see if any old banjos are laying around in there. Be careful because a very old banjo won’t hold its tune; however, beginners can get a perfectly usable banjo from between $150 and $300. 

Expert musicians looking for a vital piece of machinery that can last might pay upwards of $3000 for a banjo. Unless you're a consummate professional, though, a $3,000 banjo is probably overkilling.

A Tyler Mountain Banjo (sometimes erroneously written “Taylor Mountain Banjo” online) is a great starting instrument for new players. Though it’s a little pricier than some, the workmanship is excellent. If you like your new banjo, you will be able to keep it for a long time.

How To Wear Banjo Picks?

Another difference between banjo and guitar is the distinctive picks used in banjo music. Banjo players often use three picks; a thumb pick, an index fingerpick, and a middle fingerpick. 

Banjos are typically steel and are curved into a very loose C shape. The thumb pick is the fattest of the three picks. You should wear the thumb pick such that the pick is extending at a right angle downwards from the line of your thumb. 

The index finger and middle fingerpicks, meanwhile, should be worn such that the curve of the picks goes in the opposite direction of the palm of your hand. You’re picking the banjo, then, on the convex side of the pick, which allows your picks to trip along quickly on the strings. Quick playing is a necessary ability in the frenetic banjo music of bluegrass and folk.

Can You Play Banjo With A Guitar Pick?

It is certainly possible to play banjo with a guitar pick; however, we wouldn’t recommend it. Often guitar picks are made from dense materials. Despite the appearance of banjo strings, they can be somewhat delicate next to the constant strumming of a guitar pick. 

What’s more, most guitars that you pick on have built-in pickguards that protect the guitar wood from your pick. Banjos have no such guard, and a pick can seriously damage the banjo head if you regularly inadvertently hit it with a guitar pick.

How To Hold A Banjo?

To hold a banjo, sit straight up in a comfortable chair. Allow your feet to fall firmly on the ground and create a flat surface on your lap. 

Next, place the snare drum/head in between your legs with the strings facing away from you. Hold your banjo at about 60 degrees to upright, allowing the bottom to rest evenly between your legs on your lap. This is the way to hold a banjo. Getting a banjo strap will help you hold your banjo even better.

How To Restring A Banjo?

There are plenty of extremely helpful videos on YouTube that can help you restring your banjo, but here’s the basic rundown.

To restring your banjo, you’ll need some wire cutters, new banjo strings, and a tuner.

Unlike the guitar, the bridge on the banjo is mobile. If you disrupt your bridge, you'll have to reposition it. To avoid a hassle, many banjo instrumentalists suggest changing the strings one string at a time. 

To start, flip open the tailpiece. One at a time, remove the string by loosening it first from the tuning peg until you can pull the string off. Watch a video or ask a local music store expert with questions about how to restring the banjo, or with more sophisticated questions like how to tighten a banjo head.

Are Ukulele And Banjo Chords The Same?

Banjo and ukulele chords are not the same. Ukulele is not tuned open and is closer to the last four strings of a guitar. Banjo, meanwhile, is tuned open, and playing banjo requires memorizing a brand new set of chords. 

However, a 6-string banjo, or a banjo guitar, is a guitar that merely has a snare drum body, giving the instrument the sound of a banjo. Strictly speaking, however, a 6-string banjo is not a banjo; it is a guitar.

The principal difference between a 5 and 6-string banjo is that, in practical fact, a 6-string banjo is a guitar. A 5 string banjo, meanwhile, features a shorter drone string (the fifth) and is typically tuned to play an open G when strummed unfretted.

Banjo Lessons

Ready to get started in earnest? There’s no better place for banjo lessons near me in the Coachella area than at BassLine Music. Whether you’re brand new to the banjo or you’ve been playing for many years and just want a refresher, we’ll be happy to help you play the songs you love. 

Conclusion

Ready to get started a-rockin' and a-rollin' on your banjo? In this article, we’ve covered a lot. We hope the major takeaway is that the banjo is not very hard to learn, given a smattering of time and practice. 

In the Palm Springs area, be sure to contact BassLine Music for banjo lessons. If you are outside of the locale, stop by our website for great instrument tips and tricks, and be sure to visit us next time you’re in the Coachella valley!

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