So you've decided to play banjo? You are about to start an exciting and challenging instrument! You probably have lots of questions, and this website is here to help answer those questions. The Beginning Bluegrass Banjo CD is designed to go along with this website, and contains all of the other information you need to learn to play. But regardless of whether you purchase the CD, we hope that this site will provide you with some good information to help you get started and answer your questions. If you don't see the answer to your question, please feel free to contact us and we'll make every effort to reply quickly.
HOLDING THE BANJO
If you don't have one already, you should purchase a strap to help hold your banjo. It is a good idea to buy a strap that does not have metal on it, as the metal on the strap may scratch your banjo. As far as knowing how loose or tight the strap should be, here is a good rule of thumb. Sit down with the banjo in the position that you will be playing. (For most people, this is with the round part of the banjo positioned equally on both legs.) Then tighten or loosen the strap to match your seated position. You will appreciate this adjustment later, because when you start to stand and play, your banjo will be at the same height it was when you were sitting.
When learning bluegrass style banjo, you will tune your banjo to an open "G" chord. Purchasing a tuner will help
greatly in this process, but it's even more helpful if someone else will help you get it close before you use your tuner.
Once in tune, the banjo shouldn't change much, so then you will probably not need any assistance other than your tuner.
Listed below is how the banjo strings should be tuned:
5th string - G (the short one at the top)
4th string - D
3rd string - G
2nd string - B
1st string - D
Another helpful hint when tuning is that the 2nd, 3rd and 4th strings of the banjo will sound exactly like the 2nd, 3rd and 4th strings of a guitar.
WHAT ABOUT PICKS?
You will need to have two metal fingerpicks and one thumbpick. Depending upon the brand of pick, there may be several different weights or thicknesses in addition to sizes. I happen to like the Showcase 41 fingerpicks and the Golden Gate thumbpicks. Both of these are good quality, heavy picks. However, this is my personal preference and there are many good banjo players out there that use all different brands and gauges.
The round part of the fingerpicks (not the bands) should be placed on the round part of your fingertip. The bands should then be tightened around the finger so that they hold the pick in place firmly. You may need to remove the pick when you get close to the right fit to tighten the bands a little more. Though optional, you may also want to shape the round part of the fingerpick to fit closely to your fingertip. This will make the pick more like a part of your finger rather than an extension of your finger. Because I use heavy fingerpicks, I use needlenose pliers to bend the bands and the round part of the fingerpick. Otherwise, the picks have a tendency to bend sharply at the holes.
Thumbpicks come in several different sizes, and different brands will fit differently. If you are purchasing your picks from a music store, you will be able to try on several different thumbpicks and decide which one fits best. If you are ordering your thumbpicks through the mail, you may want to order several different sizes or even brands. I actually keep several extra thumbpicks on hand because sometimes they break, and sometimes my thumb swells and contracts based on the temperature of where I'm playing. One other trick to fitting a thumbpick is to put it in boiling water, then immediately reshape it to the desired size. (I use two pairs of needlenose pliers for this.)
RIGHT HAND POSITION
The best way to position the right hand is to put on your picks, then place your thumb on the 5th string, your index finger on the 2nd string, and the middle finger on the 1st string. Pretend like you are holding the strings. (Thumb presses down, fingers pull up.) Your hand should look rather compact with good knuckle bends. Then place your pinky and ring fingers on the head of the banjo right in front of the bridge. NOTE: It is important to keep at least one finger (if not both) anchored on the head of the banjo at all times. This provides a "home" position so that your brain can learn where all the strings are without you looking, and it also allows you to play with drive (oompf). When picking, your fingers will pick upwards and your thumb will pick downwards. Practice looking at your left hand and not your right hand. This will allow you to play quicker and more accurately in the long run.
Depending upon where you position your right hand, you will notice a distinct difference in the sound of your banjo. If you are too close to the bridge, the sound will be very sharp. If you are too far away from the bridge (up towards the neck of the banjo), the sound will be more mellow. You can experiment with several positions and see which one sounds best. In general, you will want to be close to the bridge without touching it when picking lead breaks, and closer to the neck of the banjo when playing backup.
Rolls are the foundation of 3-finger style picking. You can compare them to practicing scales on other instruments. Take your time to learn these properly and play them smoothly. Rolls are a set pattern that your right hand fingers play. They are not necessarily the actual strings you play, although specific strings are assigned to rolls so that you have something that you can practice on. In other words, a forward roll is when you play index finger, middle finger, thumb, index finger, middle finger, thumb, etc. To practice the forward roll, you can play the strings in this order: 2, 1, 5, 2, 1, 5 ... However, you could also play 3, 1, 5, 3, 1, 5 ... or even 2, 1, 3, 2, 1, 3 ... It's okay if you start the roll with your thumb, as long as you continue the pattern: thumb, index, middle, thumb, index, middle, etc. (3, 2, 1, 3, 2, 1 ...) The most important thing is that you continue to play the pattern. For a .pdf file of rolls, click here.
If you'd like to see and hear the rolls, click here for a Windows Media file. Please note, this file is about 2 MB in size, so if you don't have a high speed internet connection, you'll be waiting for a while...
LEFT HAND POSITION
Position your thumb on the back of the neck of the banjo. This will put your wrist in a slight upwards position. The best finger position will be one in which the knuckles are bent. This allows you to fret a string without touching another string, so that all your notes will be clear. Even with correct left hand and finger positioning, you will find that some positions will require more practice than others to sound clear.
When fretting a string, you will want to position your finger as close to the fret as possible without touching it. This makes it easier to press the string down fully and to produce a clear sound. If you are working on a chord in which only some of the notes are clear, you may want to work on adding one finger at a time to chord. After adding each finger to the chord, check all the notes again to make sure that they are all still clear.
HOW TO CHOOSE A GOOD BEGINNING BANJO
If you have not yet purchased a banjo, you probably have a lot of questions. We have added helpful information to this website that will hopefully answer your questions and equip you with all the knowledge you need to make an informed purchase! Click here for information on choosing and purchasing a banjo.
Copyright 2003-2015 by Chris Talley Armstrong
Last updated: October 6, 2015
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