One of the biggest myths about the banjo is that it is hard to play. After generations of blisteringly fast bluegrass licks dominating the public's perception of the 5 string banjo, it might be easy to understand why this myth exists. But is the ability for a banjo newcomer reaching Scruggs-like ability any different from a guitarist wanting to play like Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton? The truth is every instrument has different learning curves, and the different types of banjos and styles of playing it are no different. Saying that, the all of the different types of banjos do have one unifying aspect to them, they are all easier to play than a guitar due to the fact that they use lighter gauge strings than a guitar. This makes it easier to push the strings down on the fingerboard of the banjo and get a good tone.
We are going to focus on the 5-string banjo, since it is by far the most popular type of banjo. The 5 string banjo is actually the easiest stringed instrument to get started playing. I routinely go to music festivals and am able to teach groups of people who have never played any musical instrument how to play the banjo in less than 5 minutes. Now we aren’t ready for the Grand Ole Opry after those 5 minutes, but we are playing and singing songs together. This is often more than enough inspiration for new players to realize that they can in fact play a musical instrument.
The reason the 5 string banjo is so easy to start playing is that its standard tuning is an open G tuning. This means that when you strum the strings without pushing anything down, you will play a G chord. On a guitar you must fret the strings with firm hand and fairly complex fingering to play a G chord. You then can make a bar with your index or middle finger and push down all of the strings at the 5th fret to make a C chord. Lastly, you can slide that C chord position up the neck 2 frets to the 7th fret to make a D chord. With these 3 chords, and your right hand (if you are right handed) just strumming the strings, you can start playing thousands and thousands of tunes.
You can stop right there and just strum and sing with the banjo, but you might also want to start branching out into some fingerpicking styles. The two main styles are the 3 finger style and clawhammer. With these styles of playing you can fill out a song more and begin to play more melodic music.
The 3 finger style is for most people easier to start playing right off the bat. You can learn a roll pattern, usually the alternating roll is the easiest for students to learn, and slowly play over some chord forms.
Comparing learning 3 finger style vs. clawhammer style I generally find 3 finger to be easier to get students quickly playing something, but is harder for them to move to the next step of playing. While clawhammer generally is harder for students to quickly get playing, but once they get a handle on playing a basic bump-ditty rhythm, they can move on faster to playing at faster tempos and a more diverse song selection.
It is all about learning curves. When you learn anything there will be breakthrough moments where you get better quickly, mixed in with long plateaus of feeling as though you'll never get better. These places of elevation vs plateaus come at different places for different instruments and playing styles. But the 5 string banjo has one of these big breakthrough elevation points right at the beginning stage of learning, making it one of the easiest instruments to quickly start playing.
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