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Banjos are a staple instrument in the American bluegrass music scene. Similar to a guitar but a smaller frame and more open design, they can be an appealing instrument to beginner musicians. You shouldn’t be deceived by their simple, unrefined sound and design, though; the banjo, like any other instrument, takes dedication, practice, and plenty of time to master.
According to many experts, a baseline amount of time to learn to play the banjo with relative ease and competence could take up to 2000 hours or more. However, you may be able to learn the basics within six months depending on your practice dedication and learning ability.
How you spend those 2000 hours and how long it takes any individual to hit their preferred level of banjo mastery depends on your familiarity with the instrument, the kind of instruction you receive, and what specific skills you are trying to master. In reality, one never becomes completely competent with the banjo and the learning process continues for a lifetime.
Becoming Familiar with the Banjo
As mentioned above, a banjo is similar to other stringed instruments and falls into the family of guitars, mandolins, and ukuleles. It’s an instrument that relies on the reverberation of strings through a central body to make sound, held in place by pegs, and pulled tight over a long, thin neck. Therefore, it’ll be easier to pick up skills on the banjo if you are already familiar with any of those instruments.
The same basic concepts of fretting, strumming, and chord work apply to banjos and can transfer over from other instruments. The main adjustment would then be the size and construction of the instrument itself, including the number of strings there are.
Basic Anatomy of a Banjo
Banjos are made of two sections comprised of smaller parts within them, called the neck and the pot.
The neck of the banjo consists of the peghead, neck with frets, and heel. The peghead, or headstock, is where the tuners are housed. It connects to the neck, which is the part you play your chords on, consisting of the frets, strings, and fingerboard. The neck connects to the heel, which holds it to the pot.
The pot is made of many smaller parts but is basically the resonant chamber of the banjo. The banjo rim surrounds the pot and is held in place by coordinator rods. Inside of this is the tone ring, which functions as the name implies and improves the tone of the banjo as well as giving it extra volume.
The thin layer of material that stretches across the rim is the banjo head, which is typically made of mylar and gives the strings something to resonate against. The tension hoop and flange secure it. On the head is the bridge, which secures the strings in place and matches the height of the heel.
There are also optional parts such as an armrest to make the banjo more comfortable to play or a resonator back to make your banjo louder.
Best Kinds of Banjos for Beginners
There are a variety of different kinds of banjos, which can be a bit overwhelming for someone learning the instrument for the first time. To decide which kind of instrument you should begin learning on, you’ll have to consider a few different things.
Choosing the Number of Strings to Play
It’s recommended that beginners learn to play on a five-string banjo. This is because it’s the most classic and popular construction which offers the most versatility. A six-string banjo might be a good choice if you’re swapping over from playing guitar as it’ll be a familiar setup, but the sound will, of course, have the banjo’s signature twang. There are also four-string banjos, which lend themselves wonderfully to jazz players, although they’re a slightly more complicated category to play.
Choosing Between Open Back Versus Resonator
There are two types of modern banjos that you can choose from.
- Open-backed banjos are the original style, dating back to the 1800s. These banjos will have a lighter, more mellow sound, good for traditional music. Unfortunately, because they lack the enclosed space for sound to bounce around in, they will naturally tend to be quieter.
- Closed-backed banjos have a more modern, “clean” sound. Because they do have that enclosed space, they are much louder and have a bolder tonality. At the moment, the closed-backed resonator banjo is the more popular instrument of choice with folk and bluegrass musicians.
What Qualities to Look for in a Beginner Banjo
A banjo for a beginner should have geared tuning (meaning tuning pegs similar to those you’d see on a guitar, with geared grooves to adjust string tension) to keep the banjo in tune longer and make it easier to re-tune. It should also have an easily-adjustable coordinator rod that can compensate for changes in heat and humidity. In fact, there should be many easily-adjustable features on your banjo to ensure you get a customized sound to your preferences.
A wooden banjo is recommended, as it’ll produce a richer sound and is clearer than other materials.
Make sure you do your research into your options for your instrument, looking at reviews and recommendations from other players for both the individual instruments themselves and the companies that make them. This ensures you’ll get a solid idea of what you want before you have a chance to be swayed by sales tactics.
Buying Your First Banjo
While some brands famous for their other string instruments, like Fender and Jameson, make solid, top-quality banjos, some brands specialize in them, too. Deering is the most recognizable one of these brands, with their Goodtime 2 Five-String being one of the most popular models around. They have a range of instruments for all skill levels, which makes it easier to upgrade later on or start with an instrument that can grow with you.
When choosing which brand to select for your starting banjo, you should consider their price range relative to their quality. While a cheaper banjo might be more accessible and good for a beginner’s limited budget, you’ll want to make sure it does not come at the cost of the sound your instrument produces, or in the longevity of the instrument itself. The cost of repairs over time might not be worth the low starting price tag.
If you do purchase a cheap banjo, there may be a few things you can do to make it sound better. Read this article to learn how to improve the sound of your cheap banjo.
The best way to find a good fit for a starting instrument is to go to your local music store and try them out. If they offer a wide enough range, you’ll be able to compare and contrast them in real-time, as well as getting much-needed advice on how to care for and maintain your instrument. You can also buy your banjo online, and while this might be more convenient initially, it means that if there are any issues, your progress will be delayed while you find a replacement instrument.
Choosing Between Traditional Instruction and Self-Teaching
As with any other instrument, a huge factor in the length of time it takes to learn to play is how you are taught.
Being taught in-person by a professional has the benefits of direct and immediate correction. If you make a mistake, your teacher will be there to recognize it and give you direct advice on how to correct it and get a better sound. You also benefit from their experience, learning shortcuts, and techniques they had to learn by trial-and-error.
However, teaching yourself to play the banjo means having more control over your schedule and the content of your practice sessions. It might be better to teach yourself if you are focused on learning a particular song or a style that isn’t popular with teachers in your area.
How to Choose a Banjo Teacher
You can use sites like the appropriately named Banjo Teacher to find lists of instructors in your area that are willing to offer either online or in-person instruction. Another good place to start is to ask for advice and recommendations from music stores and community arts programs in your area. They are more likely to know the instructors personally and know how they operate, giving you more detailed advice. They might also offer lessons themselves.
Once you find an instructor, you should make sure to evaluate them based on credibility and effectiveness. Look up reviews of their lessons from former students, talk to them if you can, explore their website or social pages to see their credentials and experience, and see if they offer a complimentary introductory lesson to judge fit. It also might be a good idea to see a performance by either your potential instructor themselves or one of their former students, so that you can see proof of their results.
It’s important to find a good match between yourself and your instructor. They should have a teaching style that compliments how you learn and a personality that invites spending the necessary hours together to learn the instrument. Don’t be afraid to try multiple teachers before settling on the one you want to commit to lessons with.
How to Teach Yourself the Banjo
There are plenty of online courses for playing the banjo, some of which are offered completely free of charge. Sites like Bradley Laird’s include all the material you need to play, including video instruction and sheet music.
You can also learn to play from instructional books. Some, like the Banjo Primer for Beginners, offer a complete curriculum of basics and first songs, as well as accompanying DVDs with examples and demonstrations of their content to follow along to.
Whichever method you choose, you should dedicate a set amount of time per day to practice and stick to it. In the beginning, you should play in shorter sessions, between ten and twenty minutes each five or six days a week, to get your fingers and hands used to the instrument and develop the calluses needed to play comfortably. Once you are accustomed to it, you can start ramping up the time you’re playing and the number of days a week you’re playing until you can set aside at least an hour a day every day to keep yourself in practice and learning.
You can also split up your sessions instead of playing all in one sitting if your schedule doesn’t lend itself well to blocking out that much time at once. This means that students with classes to get to and people with jobs that leave them with little free time can still learn to play.
Good Songs to Learn as a Beginner Banjo Player
Once you’ve started instruction and dedicated time to play, you should have something to play! A good supplementary option is having a banjo songbook to work from. Books like The Ultimate Banjo Songbook have collections of popular songs you might want to learn, broken down into easy to follow sheet music with chords. They can be a good way to advance your skills once you’ve covered the basics of how to play.
There are quite a few songs that are excellent for a beginner, offering a way of practicing basic techniques beyond boring repetition.
One of the easiest songs to learn is You Are My Sunshine. This classic folk song has a simple three-chord structure that repeats with the same layout over the whole song. Very good for someone still getting the hang of the basic chords and strumming patterns. The following video provides instruction for this song.
Some other popular options are:
- Will the Circle Be Unbroken. A familiar song for anyone who’s ever seen a movie based in the backcountry of the United States, this one is another three-chord piece with a simple, repeating melody.
- Cripple Creek. Taught as a basic by almost all banjo teachers, this is a popular song riff that offers a bit more of a technical exercise and a faster playing speed to match.
- Ballad of Jed Clampett. Anyone who has seen an episode of the Beverly Hillbillies will recognize this jovial tune. It’s an easy-to-master classic that is considered a must-learn by many bluegrass players.
- Dueling Banjos. If there was ever a song that is universally recognized and loved, it’s this one. A more technically difficult and very fast piece, this song is good for beginners who want to move into intermediate territory. It also makes for a fun song to play at parties.
Common Misconceptions about Playing the Banjo
There are many little myths about playing the banjo that might make learning to play it harder or less fun unless they’re addressed.
There are also a few strange misconceptions about the actual instruments themselves. It’s common for people to think that the best banjos are vintage. While it’s true that some instruments were made before World War II, in a “golden age” of instrument making, there are plenty of modern banjos that sound just as good, if not better due to their higher-quality materials and more precise construction, unwarped by age and environmental conditions.
Some people also assume that a banjo needs to be heavy to be considered quality. This is a strange one because it doesn’t ring true for most, if any, banjos. These instruments are usually quite light because of their small frames and open designs, generally made of wood rather than metal. The main heft of a banjo comes from the flange that holds on the resonator rather than the actual instrument itself because it is usually made of a heavier metal to keep it structurally sound.
Possibly the most detrimental misconception is that the only banjo music out there is fast bluegrass and that that is all you can play on a banjo. If this is what you hear when you first set out to learn the instrument, it can make it feel extremely limited and possibly not worth your time. This is simply not true. As mentioned above, the banjo is popular in the indie and jazz music, which is often much slower in melody. There are also slow bluegrass songs you can play, which are just as good and just as classic as the fast-paced songs most people are familiar with.
Taking the Time to Play
Banjos play an important role in classic bluegrass music, as well as the folk and, more recently, indie music scenes. They’re versatile instruments that can range from simple and homemade to complex, electric, or even 12-string versions, and can vary in sound from loud and obviously over-the-top to a quiet, subtle melody. Though often joked about and made fun of as less than serious, banjos are culturally important to a lot of people and are a part of some of the most famous songs in their genres.
Learning to play the banjo can be a fun and rewarding experience, letting you develop a new skill and appreciate new kinds of music. All you need is a banjo, a drive to learn, and a little time on your hands.