How to Play the Banjo

how to play the banjo“Dueling Banjos” was an instrumental song that was written by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith in 1955. The song, as its name aptly alludes to, was written to be played by two banjos. The song plays out as a musical competition between two banjos. It starts quietly and slowly as each banjo lays down equally impressive riffs in a battle to one-up the other. The song builds up as the battle intensifies between the two banjos until both have meshed together to make a truly amazing sound. It’s a truly fun-sounding song and one that banjo players find to be a fun song to play. The banjo isn’t an instrument that many people pick up, but when you hear a banjo player play, it sounds very impressive. The actor Steve Martin is someone who has become an accomplished banjo player. Steve Martin has captured the opinion of many banjo players when he says, “The banjo is such a happy instrument–you can’t play a sad song on the banjo – it always comes out so cheerful.” While it’s not a popular instrument, the banjo is great if you’re into more bluegrass styles or the happy kinds of tunes that Steve Martin describes. Playing guitar is great, but there are certain types of music that the banjo is much better for. Below you’ll learn some tips on how to begin to play the banjo.

Basic Music Theory

The first step in learning any musical instrument is to get a grasp of basic music theory. You don’t have to know everything there is about music theory, but it’s helpful to have a foundational knowledge. In music, there are different pitches of sound, and these different pitches of sound are called notes. There are 7 natural notes in music. Natural means that they are the notes that don’t require a sharp (♯) or a flat (♭). They stand on their own, and the take the names of the first 7 letters of the alphabet. They are labeled like this:

 

1234567
ABCDEFG

 

These 7 natural notes are not all of the notes that you have available in music. There are actually 12 different notes in music, which means that the other five notes are found in between the 7 natural notes. To be more specific, there is a note found between the A and B notes, one between the C and D notes, one between the D and E notes, one between the F and G notes, and one between the G and A notes. There are no notes located between the B and C notes or the E and F notes. These additional five notes need names, but there aren’t any letters of the alphabet that come between the letter names of the natural notes. In music theory, there are two symbols that are used to alter the note names of the natural notes to account for the notes in between the natural notes. A ♯ symbol in music is called a sharp. A sharp is added to a note when that note is one half step above the natural note. For example, if a note was located one half-step up from the natural note F, you would have to add a sharp to the note name F. This would make the note’s name F♯. So in between F and G, you have the note F♯.  A ♭ symbol, which looks like a lower case b, is called a flat. A flat is added to a natural note name when the pitch of the note is one half step below the note name. For example, if a note was located one half step down from the natural note G, you would need to add a flat to the note name to show that it’s one step below G. The new note’s name would be G♭. Notice that in the examples for both the sharp and the flat that the note between F and G was described both times. Yet we used different letter names for the same note in between F and G. That’s because it is the same note, as in it’s the same musical pitch, but, depending on the musical key you’re in, the note might be called F♯ or G♭.

Here’s what the notes look like, first when sharps are used and then flats:

Sharps

123456789101112
AA#BCC#DD#EFF#GG#

 

Flats

123456789101112
ABbBCDbDEbEFGbGAb

 

Learning the Notes on the Banjo

There are actually a variety of ways that banjo players will tune their banjos, but given that you’re likely picking up the banjo for the first time, we’ll focus on the most common and standard tuning. Banjos come in 4-string, 5-string, and 6-string models, with the 5-string being the most common. A 5-string banjo is typically tuned to an open G major chord. This means that if you just strummed the open strings of the banjo, a G major chord would sound out. Here are the notes to tune each of your strings to. The 5th string is the thickest string and the 1st is the thinnest.

 

StringNote Name
5thG
4thD
3rdG
2ndB
1stD

 

If you’re a guitar player, you’ll notice that strings 2, 3, and 4 are the same on the guitar and on the banjo. You may also be familiar with playing guitar in an open G tuning.

Here is where our basic music theory comes into play. The banjo neck has several frets that run up the fretboard. Each fret raises the pitch by one half step. If you were playing an open 3rd string, which is G, then pressing down on the first fret of that string would raise your musical pitch up a half step to G♯. You can learn each of the notes up the fretboard by working them out with the music theory you’ve just learned.

Basic Banjo Chords

The next step is to learn some basic chords on the banjo and some common musical keys to play. Below are nine chords to learn on the banjo. Even though you may be playing a 5-string banjo, these chords shapes will only focus on the bottom 4 strings. The numbers within the parentheses represent the frets you’ll play on each of the bottom 4 strings. For example, the D chord requires you to push down on the 4th fret on the 4th string, the 2nd fret on the 3rd string, the 3rd fret on the 2nd string, and the 4th fret on the 1st or bottom string.

Learn each of these chord shapes, then spend quite a bit of time practicing switching between chords shapes. If you’ve ever heard a lot of banjo music, you’ll quickly notice that strumming is not the way banjo is typically played. Fingerpicking is the primary playing method. For now, in order to learn the chords and make sure each string is sounding out, practice just strumming the chords until you feel you’ve got them down.

G

(0-0-0-0)

D

(4-2-3-4)

Am

(2-2-1-2)

C

(2-0-1-2)

Em

(2-0-0-2)

F

(3-2-1-3)

A

(2-2-2-2)

E

(2-1-0-2)

F♯m

(4-2-2-4)

Common Chord Changes

All music is based on a specific harmonic structure. Banjo music tends to be very upbeat and happy, which depends largely upon major chords and major keys. Below you’ll find the most common chords in the keys of G, C, and A. You’ll notice that the most common chords for each key contain 3 major chords and 1 minor chord.

 

GDEmC
CGAmF
AEF♯mD

 

Pick a key and practice switching between the chords in the key, again strumming  the chords for now.

Basic Banjo Rolls

Now you’re ready to add some basic banjo rolls into your playing. Rolls are the most distinctive feature of banjo music. Some basic rolls are listed below. The numbers beneath each roll name are the strings you’ll play, and they’re laid out in the sequence that you’ll play. For example, with the Forward Roll, you’ll play this sequence: 2nd string, 1st string, 5th string, 2nd string, 1st string, 5th string.

Forward Roll

2 – 1 – 5  |  2 – 1 – 5

Backward Roll

1 – 2 – 5  |  1 – 2 – 5

Thumb In and Out Roll

3 – 2 – 5 – 1  |  4 – 2 – 5 – 1

Forward Backward Roll

3 – 2 – 1 – 5 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 1  |  4 – 2 – 1 – 5 – 1 – 2 – 4 – 1

Practice each of the rolls with just the open G chord until you’ve mastered them. Once you feel like you have the rolls themselves down, you can start to add different chords and practice switching between chords.

Work on Your Rhythm

Now that you have some basic banjo chords and rolls down, you’ll want to work on making your rhythm consistent. The best way to do that is to practice with a metronome. Set it for 60 beats per minute, and practice the rolls using one fingerpick per click of the metronome. That’s very slow at first, and you may be eager to move up to a higher speed. Fight the temptation, though. With any musical instrument, it is best to master a technique as a slow tempo and then gradually build up speed. If you try to play something fast first thing, it’s probably going to sound very sloppy, and if you consistently do that, you develop bad habits that are hard to break.

You can increase your speed by dividing the notes you play into to two notes for every click of the metronome. Make sure your notes are a consistent distance apart each time you play one.

Putting it all Together

By now, you should have a good foundation from which to move onto more advanced banjo playing techniques. Make sure to practice consistently and strategically if you hope to become a proficient player in the least amount of time. If you put in the work, you’ll be making some great music with the banjo in just a few practice sessions. Check out this course for more information on beginning to play the banjo.