Jim Bottorff's
4-String Strumming Techniques
 
 
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Following are some popular 4-String Banjo Strumming Techniques
which can be played on Plectrum, Tenor, 5-String and Guitar tuned Banjos:
(The sound clips are played on a plectrum banjo tuned CGBD)
(Printable music notation for the songs is at the bottom of this page)

 
1.  CHORD ACCOMPANIMENT – This is a basic strum across all the strings using a flat type pick in the right hand. The left hand holds the necessary chord finger formations. The strings are strummed in the "down" direction, starting on the 4th string and ending on the 1st string. Most beginner's start with this style of playing.
 
(Click here to listen to a basic 4-beat strum with C and G7 chords)
 
Variations can be achieved by playing a single string for the first beat and then strumming the chord. For example play the 4th string on the first beat and then 3 strums across all strings for the remaining beats.
 
(Click here to listen to a variation example)
 
Playing chords in time with a metronome or an electronic music program is highly recommended for practicing these strumming techniques. Chord Accompaniment is an essential part of any band or jam session.
 
(Click here to listen to "Skip To My Lou" with Chord Accompaniment)


2.  SINGLE STRING MELODY – This technique is used to play the song melody on a single string with or without the use of music notation. Lots of beginner's like the challenge of finding the melody notes on the banjo “by ear”, and look at the music notation later. Some like to use music notation at all times, while others like to improvise the melody with their own variations. Whatever your preference, playing Single String Melody can be fun and can lead to developing your own distinct playing style.
 
Variations can include:
(1) Keep the melody on one string as much as possible. (sound clip)
(2) Play the melody on the fourth string. (sound clip)
(3) Play single notes from any string while holding the correct chord finger positions. Some notes will be melody others will be harmony.
(4) Play the melody notes on any string as necessary to simplify the movement of the left hand up and down the banjo neck,
(5) Fill-in notes can be added as desired between the longer duration melody notes.


3.  SINGLE STRING MELODY TREMOLO – The tremolo is an enhancement to the Single String technique above, and involves moving the pick quickly back and forth over the string to sustain the sound. The tremolo can become a “wild card” to ones banjo playing. A tremolo can be used on any string, anytime, anywhere.  The speed back and forth, is determined by the banjo players desired effect and ability to control the pick.
 
(Click here to listen to "Skip To My Lou" played with a slow tremolo on the first string)
(Click here to listen to "Skip To My Lou" played with a faster tremolo on the 4th string)
 
A variation to the melody tremolo is to tremolo any string of the chord being held.  This variation is a good starting point for improvising.
 
For some tips on playing tremolo, refer to the “Tremolo Exercises” on this website.


4.  CHORD MELODY – When Chord Accompaniment and Single String Melody are combined and played simultaneously, they become what is known as Chord Melody style playing. This technique consists of playing chords that have the song melody note as the highest note.
 
(Click here to listen to "Skip To My Lou" with the melody played on the 1st and 2nd strings near the nut)
 
Beginner's can work toward chord melody style playing by practicing “inversions” of the common chords, such as C, F, G and others. Inversion are alternate locations for the same named chord.  Each inversion of the same chord will have different finger positions. Every chord has at least three, and sometimes more, inversions (locations) along the banjo neck.  Some of the inversion finger forms are often called "movable chords" because all the strings are held down as part of the chord.  Movable chords can easily be moved up and down the neck without having to change finger position. The chord name changes, but the fingering stays the same.  It's a simple concept and well worth the effort to learn. Check out the web and music books for the chord inversions and movable chords for your instrument.


5.  CHORD MELODY WITH TREMOLO – This technique is an enhancement of the Chord Melody technique. The tremolo can be performed on any string while holding a chord. A tremolo can go back and forth across one string, two strings, three strings, or all four strings, depending on the desired sound. One common method is to play the chord across all the strings, on the beat, while continuously tremoloing on the single string melody note. The melody note is usually located on the first string or second string.  Another method is to play chords for the melody and tremolo on the sustained notes.
 
(Click here to listen to "Skip To My Lou" played with a slow tremolo added to the chord melody near the nut)
(Click here to listen to "Skip To My Lou" played an octave higher using chord inversions)
 
When playing chord melody and tremolo near the nut and peghead, the chord is played to whatever string the melody occurs on. If the tremolo is on an inside string, then the higher strings are not played. Chord Melody with Tremolo style playing has many possibilities.  Using this technique, some banjo players can make the banjo sound like two or three banjos by playing rhythm, melody, and harmony, all at the same time.
 
 
6.  SOUND CLIP SAMPLES – The following sound clips contain examples of the above strumming techniques:
 
Skip To My Lou (sound clip)
Buffalo Gals (sound clip)
Darling Nellie Gray (sound clip)
Hey, Mr. Banjo (sound clip)
Our Boys Will Shine Tonight (sound clip)
On Top Of Old Smokey (sound clip)
There Is A Tavern In The Town (sound clip)
Billy Boy (sound clip)
Happy Birthday (sound clip)
 
Click hear for information on how to speed up and slow down the sound clips
 
 
7.  MUSIC NOTATION –  Click here for melody and chord music notation to the above songs (1.1 meg pdf file)
 
 
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