Jim Bottorff's Banjo Page
TIPS ON LEARNING TO PLAY THE BANJO
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Following are some tips that might help getting started with the banjo:

For the purpose of this Website there are three types of banjos:
(Click on the images to enlarge)
 
5-String Banjo
 
The 5-String banjo has five strings and a neck with 22 frets.  The 5th string is a short string on the side of the neck.
Lots of styles of playing are used including finger picking and strumming both with and without finger picks.
Different tunings are used on the 5-string. The two most common are "G" (gDGBD) and "C" (gCGBD).
The many tunings allow more open string chords for easier finger picking.  Capos are used to change keys.
 
4-String Plectrum Banjo
 
The 4-String Plectrum banjo has four strings and a neck with 22 frets.  Same as a 5-String without the 5th string.
Standard tuning is "C" (CGBD).  Other popular tunings include "G" (gDGBD) and "Guitar" (DGBE).
The most common styles of playing include using a flat guitar pick to play single strings and chords.
Playing in different keys is accomplished by learning chords for that key.  Capos are seldom used.
 
4-String Tenor Banjo
 
The 4-String Tenor banjo has four strings and a short neck with 19 or 17 frets.
Standard tuning is "Tenor" (CGDA).  Others tunings include "Irish Tenor" (GDAE), "Plectrum" and "Guitar".
The most common styles of playing use a flat guitar pick to play single strings and chords.
Playing in different keys is accomplished by learning chords for that key.  Capos are seldom used.
 
(Click here for additional information on banjos)
 

Getting Started:
 
Go to a local music store and browse through the books on banjo playing, 5-String, Plectrum, and Tenor.  Select a book for your particular banjo interest that shows tuning methods, basics of music, chord exercises, and a few songs.  The Mel-Bay company has a large number of beginning and advanced publications.  Harry Reser and Roy Smeck are names to look for in the older books that can be found on Ebay and other internet sites. Although they were well known as tenor banjo players, they wrote books for all types of banjos. Instruction books with CD recordings are good but not necessary.
 
If you like folk and bluegrass music, Pete Seeger's "How to play the 5-string Banjo" book and recording have a lot of variety with examples of many styles of strumming and finger-picking.  Some banjo books focus on only one style of playing, such as frailing, 3-finger picking, single-string melody, or chord-melody.  These are good if you know what playing style you want to learn. If you are not sure what style you are interested in, stay with the books that show music basics and simple songs with chord diagrams.  Watch banjo instructors and performers on YouTube to get some knowledge of the different styles. The Seeger recording and some videos are available on YouTube. Earl Scruggs style of 3-finger picking is in abundance on YouTube.
 
A few 4-string plectrum and tenor lessons can be found on the internet and YouTube. Buddy Wachter, Steve Caddick, Don Van Palta, Dave Frey, and Don Stevinson are a few names to search for.  Click here for my Eddie Peabody Lessons Webpage.
 
Local city and county libraries sometimes have books and recordings that are no longer available in the music stores or the internet.  You can also access the Internet from most libraries for reviews of the books you find. Used book stores may have some banjo instruction books as well. Internet sources for books, records, videos, and CD's are "ebay.com" and "amazon.com".  Amazon has reviews of most of the products.
 
Learn to tune the banjo by various methods such as, electronic tuner, piano, pitch pipe, tuning fork, other instruments, and relative-tuning.  The relative-tuning is explained in most beginning books and this should be one of the first things you learn on the banjo.  Always check the tuning before playing or practicing.  Being able to stay in tune is very important. 
 
Learn the left hand chord positions for C, F, G7 and then G, C, D7, playing them in that order.  Use a flat guitar type pick, your fingers, or the back of your finger nails, to strum/pick the strings.  Don't be concerned with rhythm or anything else until you can make each chord sound clear and loud without buzzing or sounding muted.  Practice, practice, practice. As you hold the chord, strike each string separately to make sure you are getting clean, clear sounds.  Getting a clear sound from each string is very important. Press the strings down between the fret bars, not on top of the fret.

Once you have learned to tune the banjo easily and make clear sounding chords, then  it's time to continue on with your choice of right hand techniques, such as flat-picking, frailing, finger-picking, etc.  Rhythm, timing, and speed of changing chords will come with practice. "Skip To My Lou", "Down In The Valley", "Camptown Races", and "Buffalo Gals" are typical of the types of songs to practice. Play chord accompaniment and then progress to melody techniques.
 
Listen and watch as many banjo players as possible.  Choose a style(s) of playing you like.  Find a local banjo teacher that can teach you music basics, rhythm, timing, and some songs.

Have your banjo checked-out and adjusted by someone with banjo knowledge.  Watch while they do it and have them explain the function of the different parts.  Learn about string gauges and how to change strings.  Learn how to properly adjust the bridge and tighten the head of your banjo. Almost every part on the banjo has a relationship to the way it sounds. 
 
When you are ready to start playing along with some easy songs click here.

Practice every day, very important.
 
Happy Picking and Strumming,
Jim Bottorff

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