Finding a beginners banjo is very hard to do if you don’t know what to look for. This is true of many things; here’s a real life story that illustrates my point. I remember getting my sons some sleeping bags when they were in the Boy Scouts. I actually bought 8 sleeping bags over time for them. Why? Because I didn’t know a thing about a good sleeping bag and the poor things froze to death. Finally my husband intervened and bought them 2 mummy bags. Voila! No more useless purchases! So to prevent you from buying a banjo that will not support your heart’s desire to make music, let’s see if I can give you just a few pointers to make it easier so you can begin to play the banjo today.
With a few chords under their belt, and perhaps a plectrum to hand, almost anyone can have fun strumming away on the banjo. In fact, as newcomers to the instrument that's where most of us tend to start out. If you wish to unlock the instrument's unique sound, however, you will have to learn one of the unique styles used to play it.
In the case of 3-finger style, that means mastering the art of the roll pattern.
A roll pattern is a series of eight notes picked repeatedly with the thumb, index, and middle fingers on the right hand (if right handed, opposite if left handed). By playing patterns over different chord shapes you create a stream of arpeggios or ‘broken chords'. This means picking each note of the chord one after another as opposed to strumming them together, and is what gives 3-finger style such a distinctive sound.
In bluegrass and 3-finger banjo the vast majority of tunes are made up of these different roll patterns. The patterns may be chopped and changed to suit each song but can always ultimately be traced back to a few core ideas.
As a beginner, learning all the variations on 5-string banjo rolls is neither necessary nor desirable. All you need to kickstart your playing are these four essential rolls: forward, backward, forward-backward, and mixed.
When I get questions from players who are having a hard time progressing with their playing, the challenge is almost always something that could have been prevented when they were just starting out. It’s always more fun to imagine being an amazing banjo player, playing fancy things really fast, than it is to struggle through things like fingerings, timing, and soloing.