It's OK to Strum the 5-String Banjo

by Carolina Bridges

It's OK to Strum the 5-String Banjo It's OK to Strum the 5-String Banjo

It is ok to strum the banjo. I know this statement seems like a “given” but I have spoken with many folks who feel they have to apologize because they “only” strum their 5-string banjo. My favorite way to play the banjo is to strum it! It’s relaxing, it’s easy, and it’s fun.


There are many wonderful advantages to strumming a banjo:

  1. For those who have hand issues, the strumming movement is easier to accomplish than either the 3-finger picking patterns or the clawhammer/old time method of playing the banjo.
  2. When you become successful with music through strumming, and given that you have no hand issues, it does encourage you to try to expand your playing style to possibly include the bluegrass finger picking or clawhammer/old time style. The “desire” sort of “sneaks” up on you; you begin to yearn for “more” from your playing. There is nothing like a little success to spur you on.
  3. It is a great way to practice your chords!  Because banjo is traditionally tuned to an open G chord, you already have your first chord without any effort.  By adding D7 and C, you open a huge world of songs for practice.

Some examples:

If you use a simple bar chord method for C (at the fifth fret) and D (at the 7th fret), you have an easier time making your chords. For a great illustration of this, please look at our Two-finger Method DVD. With this method, you learn 3 songs; This Land is Your Land,Tom Dooley, You are My Sunshine. Barry Hunn, whose articles on musical inspiration you have read, offered this further insight to the advantages on strumming the banjo.

Many, many folk, popular and bluegrass songs have three chords that make up the song.  All chords have a certain “character” in the way they relate to each other.  In the famous Scruggs masterpiece, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” the magic of starting with a G chord and then going to the E-minor chord has unique “sound” or a unique “relationship".  Playing a G chord and then changing to a C chord, has a unique “sound” or character in how the two chords relate.  The more we strum chords and sing songs, the clearer these “relationships” become. Guitar players, who play chords a lot, have an advantage in that they learn to hear the chord relationships, because they are playing the chords all the time.  Sometimes banjo pickers who play notes and mostly leads, don’t have the opportunity to “get a feel” for the chords and how they relate to each other.  Strumming chords on your banjo will train your ears and your “musical sense” about how a G chord relates to a C chord and how G chord relates to an F chord.  You might not be able to verbally describe this relationship, but you hear it and it helps you learn new songs because you recognize the common chord changes that are the same in many songs.

Whether it’s “Cripple Creek”, “Oh Susanna”, or “Happy Birthday”, the chords and their relationship to each other will become clear after strumming your banjo.  This is priceless training in addition to being just plain fun.

In short, STRUM THE BANJO! Not only is it ok, it’s a great way to expand your song repertoire and have fun with folks.


Kristin Scott Benson chooses the Deering Golden Series banjos
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