Any Tips on Learning to Play the Banjo?

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mawnansmiff

Lifer
Oct 14, 2015
7,546
7,777
Sunny Cornwall, UK.
Some years ago I bought an acoustic guitar to teach myself to play but despite much effort, I struggled with getting my left hand to stretch and apply enough pressure on the fretboard as I suffer arthritis in my hands. It sat unused in a cupboard until I finally sold it some years later....at a considerable loss!

Well now I'm thinking learning to play banjo might be that much easier, fewer strings for a start (I believe most are 5 string but 4 string banjos exist) and importantly, not so far for my fingers to stretch.

I don't aspire to any level of virtuosity, I just would like to learn to strum out a recognisable tune or two. Would a four stringed banjo be a better bet than a five?

Any tips guys would be much appreciated.

Regards,

Jay.
 
Last edited by a moderator:
I was waiting for @ashdigger to make a smug remark involving corn cob pipes or kissing a sister. However, this works too.

Okay, @cosmicfolklore has the floor for the real answer.
Ok, you already know my stance on corncobs, so kissing your sister is easy, just… Ohhhhh… Banjo!!!

I don’t know the best way, but what I did is start with a soprano ukulele. It is the same GCEA set up, the strings are soft, and you can get your chord structures down faster.

Then, I just started practicing the claw hammer style on the uke.

Then, once I had the basics, I invested in a good Deering banjo. I suggest buying from a luthier, so that you don’t run into bridge problems. It sounds like your bridge was too high on that guitar. A good luth can adjust the instrument to you.

Have a go. It’s really fun to whip out a banjo with friends, and it always brightens the mood.

Edit: I suggest the Fluke brand ukulele. It is interesting looking and has an awesome big sound.
 

mawnansmiff

Lifer
Oct 14, 2015
7,546
7,777
Sunny Cornwall, UK.
First thing you need to do is figure out what style of Banjo you want to play. Claw hammer, Scruggs/bluegrass, Irish, or folk. Then you need to get an appropriate banjo. Four string, five string, resonator, open back, tenor, etc.
Which would be easiest to learn on? I could always upgrade to a different/better model once I've learned some basics. It's those basics I want to get to grips with initially.

Regards,

Jay.
 
Jun 9, 2015
3,970
24,763
42
Mission, Ks
Which would be easiest to learn on? I could always upgrade to a different/better model once I've learned some basics. It's those basics I want to get to grips with initially.

Regards,

Jay.
Neither is any different as far as learning curve. But different styles of banjo playing are. Claw hammer aka traditional is probably the easiest to learn. Bluegrass/Scruggs is probably the most difficult. Claw hammer can be played on a four string or five string. Bluegrass is typically only played on a five string. Claw hammer is the more traditional style played in folk, Irish, mountain, and Americana.

Scruggs style is typically only used for bluegrass. I would recommend listening to Flat and Scruggs, The Dell McCrory band, the Steel Drivers for examples of the Scruggs style.
 

El Capitán

Lifer
Jun 5, 2022
1,176
4,855
34
Newberry, Indiana
Neither is any different as far as learning curve. But different styles of banjo playing are. Claw hammer aka traditional is probably the easiest to learn. Bluegrass/Scruggs is probably the most difficult. Claw hammer can be played on a four string or five string. Bluegrass is typically only played on a five string. Claw hammer is the more traditional style played in folk, Irish, mountain, and Americana.

Scruggs style is typically only used for bluegrass. I would recommend listening to Flat and Scruggs, The Dell McCrory band, the Steel Drivers for examples of the Scruggs style.
Scruggs wasn't too bad when I started. Never learned claw hammer which is needed to play irish and folk.
 
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Jun 9, 2015
3,970
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42
Mission, Ks
And like @cosmicfolklore said the setup on any type of banjo is key. A poorly setup stringed instrument is the number 1 reason people give up. A poorly setup banjo can be very hard to play. Setting up a banjo can be very tricky if you don’t know how and don’t have the proper tools. Definitely invest in one that’s been properly setup by a qualified tech. Then learn how to maintain the setup yourself.
Scruggs wasn't too bad when I started. Never learned claw hammer which is needed to play irish and folk.
Scruggs can be easier for some people, especially people who already play finger style guitar. But by in large for a complete novice claw hammer is easier, but of course ymmv.
 
And like @cosmicfolklore said the setup on any type of banjo is key. A poorly setup stringed instrument is the number 1 reason people give up. A poorly setup banjo can be very hard to play. Setting up a banjo can be very tricky if you don’t know how and don’t have the proper tools. Definitely invest in one that’s been properly setup by a qualified tech. Then learn how to maintain the setup yourself.

Scruggs can be easier for some people, especially people who already play finger style guitar. But by in large for a complete novice claw hammer is easier, but of course ymmv.
Yeh, fingerstyle is my Achilles heal. But, I am always working on it.
 
Jun 9, 2015
3,970
24,763
42
Mission, Ks
Buying an entry level instrument is kind of like buying a pipe. If you buy a cheap pipe and it’s a hot wet smoker you’re less likely to ever learn how to smoke it and stick with it than you are if buy a moderately priced decent quality pipe. If you buy a cheap banjo that plays poorly you’re less likely to be able to play it well enough to actually learn and stick with it. But that’s just my two cents.

FWIW, even if you buy a cheap banjo, you’ll still have to take it to a luthier to be set up. New instruments are not ready to play out of the box. That goes for most all price ranges. Sometimes a cheap instrument can be made a little better by a proper set up but there are no guarantees. Where as a moderately priced instrument can almost always be made to be a perfectly good instrument with proper setup and if it can’t it’s because of some defect that needs to be fixed or replaced.

The Deering Goodtime tends to be the most recommended entry level banjo. I would avoid the Tenor banjo as there is less tutorial material out there for tenor as opposed to standard scale 4 & 5 string.
 

warren

Lifer
Sep 13, 2013
12,000
17,299
Foothills of the Chugach Range, AK
Go to a store which sells instruments and has a reasonably knowledgeable staff. Sit down and try the feel/fingering of them. The best advice is that the instrument be properly set up, string height above fret board is critical. to high? Hard on the finger tips. Two low? Buzz. Also, remember, you've got to struggle a bit with any fretted instrument until the calluses are formed. Especially true with steel stringed instruments.

The ukelele is not a toy and might be a reasonable instrument with which to start off on.
 

LeafErikson

Lifer
Dec 7, 2021
2,041
17,688
Oregon
Play every day for at least 10 minutes. Twice a day is better. Once in the morning and once in the evening. Learn songs you want to learn or you won’t practice.

In theory, banjo is much better for your arthritic hands because the tuning is open so you won’t have to fret notes as much as a guitar. Just make sure your action is low as banjos can have very high action, making fretting notes harder.
 

anotherbob

Lifer
Mar 30, 2019
16,142
30,281
46
In the semi-rural NorthEastern USA
Some years ago I bought an acoustic guitar to teach myself to play but despite much effort, I struggled with getting my left hand to stretch and apply enough pressure on the fretboard as I suffer arthritis in my hands. It sat unused in a cupboard until I finally sold it some years later....at a considerable loss!

Well now I'm thinking learning to play banjo might be that much easier, fewer strings for a start (I believe most are 5 string but 4 string banjos exist) and importantly, not so far for my fingers to stretch.

I don't aspire to any level of virtuosity, I just would like to learn to strum out a recognisable tune or two. Would a four stringed banjo be a better bet than a five?

Any tips guys would be much appreciated.

Regards,

Jay.
banjo might not be the one if your arthritis makes guitars hard. Also it's a tricky instrument to learn. But the best option is to buy a banjo and see and if it's not for you sell it.
 
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