Use What Works - Learning the Banjo

by Carolina Bridges

Ever notice how many “experts” there are on “learning to play banjo”, or anything, for that matter? While I urge all of us to explore their recommendations (and certainly I have shared some with all of you), it is the idea of “this is the best/only” way to learn that concerns me most. Since folks are like “snowflakes”…no one is alike (even twins; I know, I am the mother of identical twins), then how can there be only “one” best way to learn? Today, let’s explore the concept of “use what works for you.” It is this freedom of choice that makes learning banjo, or anything, a joy!

Where To Begin:

The hardest part is figuring out where/how to begin. Just feeling comfortable holding the banjo can be an issue.

  1. I have had more fun in our showroom “identifying” guitar players who come to try out the banjo. They are confident in picking up the banjo and immediately set the pot/banjo head area on their hip. Because, that’s how you hold a guitar. It works for them.  So guitar players often tend to ‘learn over” the banjo and hold the neck out at a more level angle. Again, it works for them.

  2. If you visited me in the showroom, and were not used to guitar playing, I would ask that you put the pot assembly (the area with the banjo head) in the middle of your lap. And I would ask that you hold the banjo neck at a 45 degree angle, up and relative to your body. This really makes it easier for you to reach the fingerboard to fret properly and not over-reach with your arm. In general, this is what I would recommend for all players regardless of what they are used to but, as I said before, “use what works” for you!

  3. I would recommend a strap on your banjo. It saves your hand from doing “double-duty”; holding up the neck and trying to fret at the same time. But, if you are more comfortable without one, well, then “use what works” for you.

  4. Picks or without picks: The banjo really does sound “brighter” when you have picks on. It’s the two hard surfaces against one another; metal picks to metal strings, which makes the strings ring brighter and louder. But, clawhammer/frailing players want a warmer tone so they don’t usually play with picks. Some frailers will use artificial nails (like porcelain) to get more sound without the “metallic” overtones.

If you start with picks, it is easier to get used to them. If you start without them and change over, it takes more time to adjust. And if you just don’t like using picks, then “use what works” for you. Playing without picks is better than not playing at all!

How Do I "Pick" It?

Again, there are multiple ways to play a banjo. You can 3-finger pick it (called bluegrass/ Scruggs), you can “frail/clawhammer” play it as in the old mountain Appalachian style, you can strum it like a guitar, or you can pick out single note melodies. Remember, use what works for you! And then expand on it as you get more proficient.

  1. Strum it: I have mentioned this one repeatedly. Please visit our website and this link: Here you will see our sales manager, Barry Hunn, explain how  easy it is to strum the banjo and use simple Barre chords to play songs you already know and can sing along with.

  2.  I found an easy single note version of “The Star Spangled Banner” on the internet recently;  This is a great way to begin exploring single note melodies. If you are American, it is a song familiar to you. Have fun with this…and it’s a timely moment to learn it.

  3. 3-finger Bluegrass style - there are any number of books, DVDs, and YouTube videos out there that will teach you the basics of 3-finger picking. A couple of these are:
    First Lessons Banjo by Jack Hatfield
    Get Rollin by Peter Wernick 
    Banjo Method for Beginners by banjo virtuoso Jens Kruger

  4. Clawhammer/Frailing style - again there are plenty of methods to learn this wonderful, rhythmic style of playing banjo.
    David Holt’s "Getting Started on the 5-string Banjo”
    “First Lessons Clawhammer Banjo” by Dan Levenson

  5. Like playing tenor banjo? Look at :
    “First Lessons Tenor Banjo by Joe Carr
    “Fun with the Tenor Banjo” by Mel Bay
    “Tenor Banjo Christmas Songbook” by Drew Andrews
    …never too soon to get started learning songs to share with the family during the holiday season.

  6. Some folks like to learn by “ear.” There are any number of materials you can find online to help you “learn by listening” to the banjo instead of reading a book. Most of them require you watch a DVD and you can check out YouTube videos for this as well.

Use What Works:

These are just a few little tips to get you started on exploring the wonders of playing banjo.  Freedom of choice is the key and using what works is a way to make it more fun. But, getting started is the only way you will find out “what works” for you!


Kristin Scott Benson chooses the Deering Golden Series banjos
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