Any Tips on Learning to Play the Banjo?

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anotherbob

Lifer
Mar 30, 2019
16,051
30,115
46
In the semi-rural NorthEastern USA
ALL string instruments are stupid easy to play, with the banjo being the easiest.

Don't belive me?

The guys in this video recorded it at 2:00 in the afternoon... and not one of them had ever touched a musical instrument of any kind before noon that same day.

The stuff was just piled on a table, they walked into the room, messed with it for a couple hours, and flipped the record switch.


Bela Fleck is awesome by the way.
 
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bullet08

Lifer
Nov 26, 2018
9,172
38,511
RTP, NC. USA
Jay, dude, chum, mate... (sorry, had few drams of whiskey). Some are born to play string instruments, some are not. I'm not. My 7th grade teacher, a very accomplished musician, tried to teach me guitar. I failed. I tried to teach myself ukulele, I failed. But, when I pick up a wind instruments, they come naturally. Recorder, penny whistle, bagpipes , flute, harmonica.. Maybe you are on a wrong base?
 

obc83

Starting to Get Obsessed
Sep 4, 2023
244
1,144
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.
Get out your salt pinching fingers because I basically just dabble, but I would not start on a four string. I'm not entirely sure but I think those all tend to be Tenor banjos and it's basically a different instrument, played with a pick and used in a lot of gypsy jazz and big band type stuff. The 5 string is the thing you want. The drum, or drone string at the top plays a huge role is learning all the common songs you're probably hearing in your genetic memory. You might should look into the different finger styles and figure out which one chimes with you the most at first. Do you do find plucking and finger picks in the bluegrass style more natural, or clawhammer which predates bluegrass and you'll find more often in old folk tunes. Sort of. That's about all I can remember right now.

Oh, and I would definitely definitely look at buying an "open back" one without a resonator or otherwise remove it. Look for a Bean Blossom Hobo or an Epiphone. Cheaper and you, your neighbors and the creator will most likely enjoy the quieter, subdued tones while you learn. You can even stuff a rag between the tension rod and the skin when your practicing. It really is much nicer. It's basically only bluegrass on stage that absolutely requires the resonator and that's to be heard over the dreadnaught guitars, which I believe were originally developed by Mr. Martin himself to be louder than the banjos in a world before pickups.

One more thing; don't buy some no name amazon model. Much like a walmart skateboard, you'll most likely be disappointed and very much limited the whole way to the trash can.

And you'll need to learn to holler.
 
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Sam Gamgee

Part of the Furniture Now
Sep 24, 2022
648
1,685
49
DFW, Texas
I wish you well and hope this turns out to be a good purchase, and that you get lucky and end up with a playable instrument. Many of these sold-in-a-box deals on instruments don't end well.

I play acoustic guitar mainly, but I also own an electric and a mandolin. In all honesty, I know I'm a pretty good acoustic guitar player, but the mandolin conquered me. I tried hard for about ten years on it and didn't get very far, and I'll always sound like one of those guitar plays who bought a mandolin.

But having said all, and even if this Amazon-purchased instrument doesn't work out for you (I hope it does), do get something you can play and enjoy. Life really is better when we can make our own music at the end of the day.
 
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Back in college, I had just bought an acoustic and was struggling to learn to play it. I was hanging out in another friend’s dorm room where he had a few mountain instruments his dad had made. One was a dulcimer. Another friend walks in and picks it up, plucks it a few times and starts making this thing hum with some beautiful music. Then, he starts playing some popular song of the day on it. The friend who owned the dulcimer was wow’d, and asked the other guy how long he had been playing the dulcimer. The guy who walked in said, “dulcimer, is that what this is called?” His first time picking one up, and he played like a pro. This guy went on to become one of our area’s premiere musicians, playing everywhere here, plus recording with many other bands as a studio regular.

Some people just have an ear for these things, my wife being one. Some people, like me, have to really work at it. It just depends on how much joy it brings you as to whether you stick with it.

If you have fun, then keep with it. I’m not the best, not even close, but I enjoy jumping in and playing with people who are really good. And, I’m grateful that I am at least “good enough” that they don’t make fun of me, ha ha.
 
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mawnansmiff

Lifer
Oct 14, 2015
7,531
7,719
Sunny Cornwall, UK.
The 5 string is the thing you want.
I did ponder going the 5 string route but thought I'd be less confused if I only had 4 strings to contend with.

Many of these sold-in-a-box deals on instruments don't end well.
Which is pretty much why I bought from Amazon. As I initially stated, I have no pretensions to virtuosity, I'll be happy enough just to strum along and play something that is recognisable. If I ever get that far I'll make a short recording and post it on the Forum :).

If I find that I take to the instrument, then I can set my sights on better gear with maybe a 5th string, but for now it will be baby steps with 4 strings.

I've watched a couple of Y/T clips of Kmise instruments and though admittedly low end, these guys (and ladies) do make good sounds from them which inspired confidence in the brand.

BTW last night I cancelled my order then reordered the same instrument only with a white head as opposed to a black one.

banjo.jpg

Regards,

Jay.
 

Sam Gamgee

Part of the Furniture Now
Sep 24, 2022
648
1,685
49
DFW, Texas
I did ponder going the 5 string route but thought I'd be less confused if I only had 4 strings to contend with.


Which is pretty much why I bought from Amazon. As I initially stated, I have no pretensions to virtuosity, I'll be happy enough just to strum along and play something that is recognisable. If I ever get that far I'll make a short recording and post it on the Forum :).

If I find that I take to the instrument, then I can set my sights on better gear, but for now it will be baby steps.

I've watched a couple of Y/T clips of Kmise instruments and though admittedly low end, these guys (and ladies) do make good sounds from them which inspired confidence in the brand.

BTW last night I cancelled my order then reordered the same instrument only with a white head as opposed to a black one.

View attachment 248499

Regards,

Jay.
I think the white looks a lot better. Tone, etc, is subjective, but the most important thing in any instrument is that it is easy enough to play (i.e., won't hurt your fingers) and will hold tune. If it meets those two criteria, it's a good instrument in my book. Play it in good health!
 
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Sam Gamgee

Part of the Furniture Now
Sep 24, 2022
648
1,685
49
DFW, Texas
My father was like that with the piano, accordion and mouth organ, he'd hear something then miraculously play it himself. Mother, who was classically trained couldn't do that, she only played whatever score was on the piano rest.

Regards,

Jay.
My grandmother was a classically-trained pianist and I play by ear and don't read music. I'd play something for her on guitar and she would be completely baffled as to how anyone can just play, much less make stuff up and write their own tunes out of thin air. I was equally amazed that anyone could make music by looking at shapes on a page.
 

obc83

Starting to Get Obsessed
Sep 4, 2023
244
1,144
I did ponder going the 5 string route but thought I'd be less confused if I only had 4 strings to contend with.


Which is pretty much why I bought from Amazon. As I initially stated, I have no pretensions to virtuosity, I'll be happy enough just to strum along and play something that is recognisable. If I ever get that far I'll make a short recording and post it on the Forum :).

If I find that I take to the instrument, then I can set my sights on better gear with maybe a 5th string, but for now it will be baby steps with 4 strings.

I've watched a couple of Y/T clips of Kmise instruments and though admittedly low end, these guys (and ladies) do make good sounds from them which inspired confidence in the brand.

BTW last night I cancelled my order then reordered the same instrument only with a white head as opposed to a black one.

View attachment 248499

Regards,

Jay.
Right on, obviously feel free to ignore me, but for the sake of clarity, I'll repeat the 4 vs 5 string thing; they are different instruments with different roles. I'm pretty sure you're looking at a rhythm versus lead situation. The 4 string, or tenor is most often strummed and the 5 is plucked or picked(often, traditionally). Both may be part of a whole song, but they play different roles. Like bass vs guitar. Sort of. Obviously it's much like pipes, if you're enjoying it, you're doing it right. But if you're picturing yourself playing Shady Grove or Deliverance, you're probably playing a 5 string.
 
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A banjolele is not going to have a big sound like a big banjo, but in a small room, it will be enough to keep you interested. Having a friend help you set it up will be the key to playability.
Guitars are very different. Most cheap guitars are merely GSO’s (guitar shaped objects). It’s worth it to go to a shop to buy a guitar, but things from the ukulele family are more forgiving. Even a child’s toy ukulele can be made to play decently. Not recording worthy, but if you just want to have some fun, they do it.

The strings will be more forgiving. They will be nylon. Stick with nylon strings for ukes. If you try to use banjo strings, you will snap the neck. DONT! They require more torque and this instrument is not designed for that.

The banjo strings will be easy on your fingers as well. You’ll still callous over and toughen your pads, so that later you’ll be able to switch to a full banjo with nickel strings later.

I might suggest ordering some new uke strings right away (2 packs). The cheaper ukes will have stretchy strings which don’t stay in tune well, and you’re likely to break one anyways as you’re learning to tune and play. Having two packs gives you a spare set just in case. I always keep an extra set on hand, so I don’t have to wait if I do break one.

Also, don’t use finger picks as you are starting. I never use them. But on this one, the steel picks will eat them up. You don’t need them anyways unless you are trying to push out the sound on stage. Some use them as a crutch IMO.

Anyways, have fun! That’s the key to sticking with it. Music is not serious, its a natural thing. If you get too serious you’ll just beat yourself up and probably won’t stick with it. My wife’s family is fun spirited and we will all sometimes just break into laughing and rolling in the floor. Sometimes when you get roll going and the spirit hits you, you just have to let out a “YEHAW!!” At that point, your grass turns true blue.
puffy

 

obc83

Starting to Get Obsessed
Sep 4, 2023
244
1,144
A banjolele is not going to have a big sound like a big banjo
Is there a difference between a banjolele and a tenor banjo? The strings maybe? Wondering if my entire premise is bunk. I have played in a couple bands where both banjos were present so that's where I'm getting my opinions/info. Not that that has any bearing on reality, just a point of reference.

"... just have to let out a “YEHAW!!” At that point, your grass turns true blue. "

Hear, Hear.

Also, how. do people reply with multiple quotes? Instead of my copy and paste mess. here.
 
The 4 string, or tenor is most often strummed and the 5 is plucked or picked
Maybe at a professional level, but just for picking and grinning, not exactly the case. I think of the five string as one better for when you are the only string player in the group, and four strings as being a better accompaniment for guitars and other banjos. The drone is better when you are the only one keeping melody and rhythm going. There are many other reasons and variations on what one will/can do over the other. I’m not a professional, so I won’t argue it.

But, really… I think Jay is just wanting to have some fun, maybe woo some sweety he has in mind. I think four strings will get him going.
 
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Is there a difference between a banjolele and a tenor banjo? The strings maybe?

"... just have to let out a “YEHAW!!” At that point, your grass turns true blue. "

Hear, Hear!
The banjolele and resonator banjo were vaudeville instruments that just added a variety of sounds for the ukulele. The smaller body just can’t push out the sound like the classical banjo can. They are quaint, but endearing, meant to accompany a song, usually a funny song. They aren’t meant to be played with a band or for serious recording or performing. Sure sure, there are the Jake Shimabukuros and Jack Johnsons of the world. But, they lend themself better for just having fun. iMO
 
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mawnansmiff

Lifer
Oct 14, 2015
7,531
7,719
Sunny Cornwall, UK.
I might suggest ordering some new uke strings right away
That is precisely what I'll be doing later once I've determined which brand will be best. I have a few clips/reviews lined up to watch.

It does come with a full set of spares but like the instrument itself, they will likely be of low quality.

As you say, I just want to have a bit of fun with it and hopefully progress to a full size 5 stringer but I'll be in no rush.

BTW thanks for all the tips fellas, i's much appreciated.

Regards,

Jay.
 
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sardonicus87

Lifer
Jun 28, 2022
1,172
12,328
37
Lower Alabama
I don't know banjo is necessarily easier to fret than guitar if you have arthritis bad enough to keep you from playing guitar. But I only ever fingered a banjo once, I know next to nothing about them.

You can always get lighter gauge strings and honestly, you don't have to press that hard to fret the strings properly on any fretted string instrument.

Look into electric guitar, you can get away with even lighter strings on an electric than you can acoustic.

 
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Jul 17, 2017
1,723
6,375
NV
pencilandpipe.home.blog
3 finger Scruggs style and clawhammer are both acceptable. You want to learn to play Banjer, not banjo. Strumming a tenor banjo is anathema. Banjers have 5 strings. You could check out Banjo Ben Clark's website. He has amazing lessons from beginner all the way to advanced.
 
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