Advice for Beginning Banjo Players

by Pete Wernick

Hi from the UK, Pete. I’m hoping you can give me a few pointers. I’ve just purchased my first musical instrument, that being a 5-string banjo no less!! I’ve no musical experience whatsoever. I can’t read sheet music though I’m starting to get my head around Earl Scruggs tablature. Do you do a course for guys such as me?
-Kind regards, Dave (aged 56)

Yes, I do have a course for guys such as you, and it’s the same as I recommend for everyone, ages 8 to 88.

I’m glad you’ve gotten started. 56 is by no means too late. I just had a 61-year old guy at a camp, one of the better pickers there. He started at 56 with a good head of steam and he’s doing quite well now.

Please go to the page on my website that’s especially for banjo beginners. That will get you started. Read the article that says, “Read this first,” as it explains the whole sequence that I recommend. It’s called Best Ways to Start Learning Bluegrass Banjo. The video for which there’s a preview clip on the page (Get Rolling) is what I recommend first (it’s mostly playing along with simple chord changes and then adding rolls) and the other video you can see clips of, Beginning Bluegrass Banjo, is a more complete course that will keep you busy for quite a while.

I do not recommend Scruggs tabs for you yet as he is an advanced professional player and it’s too ambitious at this stage for you to try to duplicate all the moves he makes. Save that for later. In general, be aware that learning to play banjo is not just a matter of learning to play from tablature, but more like learning a language: You start with easy words to make short sentences and work your way up to paragraphs. You don’t just learn to memorize what other people say, but learn to manipulate what you know, in different ways, and learn to interact with others.

Remember, music came before written music, just as language came before written language. Learn music as sound first, matching your playing with sounds and rhythms you hear, and in time learn how it can be represented by written music.

You now have your instrument and my best advice. Best of luck! —Pete

Hi Pete. Thanks for your reply. I knew my wife was right about the Scruggs book, but I’m a bit ignorant as to what’s out there for the complete beginner. I will follow your advice. I am very inspired by watching you make it look so easy, which I know it ain’t!!

My sons know I have bought the banjo, and they want me to be able to play “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” by September.

Tell them you want them to be millionaires by August and buy you a big house.

What are my chances of not disappointing them both?

Same as the chances of their not disappointing you. They have set the bar too high.

If you think that’s a bit of a long shot then I’m open to your advice.

At the beginning, your sights should not be set on “learning pieces,” especially difficult ones by pro players. It should be to make enjoyable music on the banjo, accompanying singing, and learning to play rolls while changing chords. That will keep you busy for a while.

Your first complete pieces can probably be learned in the first few months, depending on how much you practice, and how easily trainable your fingers are. If you use my “Beginning Bluegrass Banjo” video, you might have the best luck with “Worried Man Blues”, which is not too hard to play, and is a nice song besides, that’s easy to sing. I’d say that’s a goal worth setting, and depending on the factors I mentioned, you should be able to get it done well within the September deadline.

Now get busy! And have fun of course. — Pete

This article was originally published in the Banjo Newsletter. Pete Wernick, aka "Dr. Banjo" is renowned worldwide for his accomplishments and contributions to bluegrass music: the hot-picking force in several trend-setting bands including Hot Rize, innovative teacher and author, songwriter, and long-term President of the International Bluegrass Music Association. Pete is a pioneer in bluegrass music instruction, and since 1980 his banjo camps, bluegrass jam camps, instruction books, videos and his DrBanjo,com website have inspired players nationwide and overseas. In 2010, he launched the Wernick Method of teaching bluegrass jamming which as of 2016 has certified teachers offering classes in 40 states and 11 countries. 

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