The banjo is an instrument used predominantly in bluegrass music. The most popular is the five-string banjo, although there are many variants of this instrument. Bluegrass banjo includes the essence of the banjo’s sounds and techniques.
You need some skill and patience to master the banjo. If you already play the guitar, then you will probably find it easier to learn the banjo, since the chords are similar. While playing the banjo can look very easy, you do need practice to get those fingers to go exactly where you want. So let us get on with learning all about the banjo.
The banjo’s music styles and usage
Today, the banjo is commonly associated with Dixieland, country, folk, irish traditional music and bluegrass music. Historically, however, the banjo occupied a central place in African American traditional music, as well as in the minstrel shows of the 19th century. In fact, African Americans exerted a strong, early influence on the development of both country and bluegrass through the introduction of the banjo, and as well through the innovation of musical techniques in the playing of both the banjo and fiddle. Recently, the banjo has enjoyed inclusion in a wide variety of musical genres, including pop crossover music, indie rock (see Modest Mouse and Sufjan Stevens), and Celtic punk.
Different banjo styles and techniques
There are many styles of banjo music as well as banjo playing techniques. Depending on the style of music you intend playing, choose the right banjo. As a beginner, it is a good idea to listen to different banjo music styles to help you decide.
Five string banjo for Bluegrass music
This is the most popular and involves a banjo with a resonator. The right hand follows a three finger style played with finger picks. The credit for this style goes to the legendary Earl Scruggs. You need a lot of practice to perfect this style so that you can maintain the tempo. You will have fun jamming with other banjo players with this style, especially when you attend a Bluegrass festival.
This one is an old style and popular with folk music lovers. You play this with an open back banjo that has no resonator, producing a mellow tone. The tuning is different to make it easy for easy finger work. No finger picks are used here. Your middle finger strikes the string with the back of your finger nail, then you do a thumb stroke of the fifth string. This is good fun when you sing along.
In the folk style, you mix Clawhammer or frailing with up picking. Pete Seeger was famous for this. Folk involves melody mixed with chords and like the Clawhammer, you don’t use finger picks. The banjo here is long necked and tuned lower to match vocal pitches. You can also use an open back or resonator banjo.
The classic style uses a five-string banjo without finger picks. This is a unique technique and you play classical music, for instance, Mozart, Beethoven, and so on.
The types of banjos
You will come across different types of banjos with four, five or six strings and several variants of the instrument.
The six-string banjo is more for the guitarist who wants the sound of a banjo but the ease of playing the guitar.
The four-string banjo is popular in Irish/Celtic music and Dixieland jazz/Ragtime music styles. You use a pick or a plectrum for both the four and six string banjos to pick out the tunes.
The five-string banjo is the most popular with Bluegrass and the old style banjo music, but this is also being used in jazz and rock. This involves finger-picking the strings rather than using a plectrum.
Whichever banjo you choose to learn to play, you can experiment with different music styles. After all, music is creative and you can certainly play rock with a 4-string banjo or Irish-style with a 5-string.
A British innovation was the 6-string banjo, developed by William Temlett, one of England`s earliest banjo makers, who opened his shop in London in 1846 and sold banjos with closed backs and up to 7 strings and marketed these as "zither" Banjos from his 1869 patent.
American Alfred Davis Cammeyer (1862–1949), a young violinist-turned banjo concert player, devised the 5/6-string Zither banjo around 1880, which had a wood resonator and metal "wire" strings (the 1st and 2nd melody strings and 5th "thumb" string; the 3rd melody string was gut and the 4th was silk covered) as well as frets and guitar-style tuning machines.
A Zither banjo usually has a closed back and sides with the drum body (usually metal) and skin tensioning system suspended inside the wooden rim/back, the neck and string tailpiece was mounted on the wooden outer rim, the short string usually led through a tube in the neck so that the tuning peg could be mounted on the peg head. They were often made by builders who used guitar tuners that came in banks of three and so if 5 stringed had a redundant tuner.
The banjos could also be somewhat easily converted over to a six string banjo. British opera diva Adelina Patti advised Cammeyer that the zither-banjo might be popular with English audiences (which was certainly true as it was invented there), and Cammeyer went to London in 1888.
Due to his virtuoso playing he helped show that banjos could be used for more sophisticated music than was normally played by blackface minstrels, he was soon performing for London society, where he met Sir Arthur Sullivan, who recommended that Cammeyer progress from writing banjo arrangements of music to composing his own music. (Interesting to note that, supposedly unbeknownst to Cammeyer, William Temlett had patented a 7-string closed back banjo in 1869, and was already marketing it as a "zither-banjo.")
In the late 1890s Banjo maker F.C Wilkes developed a 6-string version of the banjo with the 6th string "tunnelled" through the neck. It is arguable that Arthur O. Windsor had much influence in creating and perfecting the Zither banjo and creating the open-back banjo along with other modifications to the banjo type instruments, such as the non-solid attached resonator that banjos` today have (Gibson lays claim to this modification on the American Continent).
Windsor claims to be the first in creating the hollow neck banjo with a truss rod, and he buried the 5th string in the neck after the 5th fret so to put the tuning peg on the peg-head rather than in the neck. Gibson lays claim to perfecting the banjo with the tone rings.
The first 5-string electric solid-body banjo was developed by Charles (Buck) Wilburn Trent, Harold "Shot" Jackson, and David Jackson in 1960.
The six-string or guitar-banjo was the instrument of the early jazz great Johnny St. Cyr, as well as of jazzmen Django Reinhardt, Danny Barker, Papa Charlie Jackson and Clancy Hayes, as well as the blues and gospel singer The Reverend Gary Davis. Nowadays, it sometimes appears under such names as guitanjo, guitjo, ganjo, banjitar, or bantar.
A number of hybrid instruments exist, crossing the banjo with other stringed instruments. Most of these use the body of a banjo, often with a resonator, and the neck of the other instrument. Examples include the banjo mandolin, the Banjolin, and the banjo ukulele or banjolele, most famously played by the English comedian George Formby. These were especially popular in the early decades of the twentieth century, and were probably a result of a desire either to allow players of other instruments to jump on the banjo bandwagon at the height of its popularity, or to get the natural amplification benefits of the banjo resonator in an age before electric amplification.
Instruments using the five-string banjo neck on a wooden body (for example, that of a bouzouki or resonator guitar) have also been made, such as the banjola. A 20th-Century Turkish instrument very similar to the banjo is called cümbüs.
Rhythm guitarist Dave Day of 1960`s proto-punks The Monks replaced his guitar with a six-string, gut-strung banjo on which he played guitar chords. This instrument sounds much more metallic, scratchy and wiry than a standard electric guitar, due to its amplification via a small microphone stuck inside the banjo`s body.
Getting started playing the banjo
Now that you have a pretty good idea about the types and styles of a banjo, let us look at how you can get started with this enjoyable musical hobby.
What will you need to get started?
Obviously, you will need a banjo. Choose one based on the style of music you intend to play – this could mean Dixieland, Clawhammer or Bluegrass.
Here are the types of banjos:
• Open back banjos have a muted sound and are great when you practice or play by yourself or in a small group.
• The resonator model projects the sounds and is ideal for a large audience. It has a clear sound and you get these banjos in many models where you can remove the resonator.
The sound clarity of your banjo will depend on the number of brackets you use. These brackets hold the head on the pot assembly.
How much will your banjo cost?
How much your banjo costs will depend on its weight. Banjos that are less than six pounds are cheaper and range from $50 to $200. The heavier ones are more expensive and of better quality and these are upwards of $200, sometimes running to thousands of dollars.
Don’t buy a banjo with a cast aluminum pot as they sound tinny. In fact, buy a banjo that feels good to your ears and fingers. Take someone who can play the banjo with you, so that you know what it sounds like.
Buy a good quality banjo and invest in one that will stay with you for years. A cheap one may not last long.
Accessories for your banjo
Apart from the banjo, you will need the following:
Picks, especially if you intend playing Bluegrass. Buy thumb picks made of plastic and a couple of metal fingerpicks. Metal picks come in different gauges. Lower gauges are lighter.
Straps, if you plan to play, standing up, to support your banjo, so that you can focus on playing. There is a variety of straps and you can choose the one you like. Remember to go for one that is wide, for better support. Get the right length as it can make all the difference to your playing.
Tuning pegs that will allow you to tune your strings fast. You get Keith tuners, designed by Earl Scruggs and Bill Keith, which are considered the best tuners.
You will need a good case for your banjo. Preferably go in for a hard case to protect your banjo. You will be happy you got it.
Some other accessories you will need are:
• An electronic tuner, pitch pipe or tuning fork (in G) so that when you tune your banjo you can refer to it. There are electronic tuners, but the tuning fork or pitch pipe, costs less. You choose what works for you.
• A stand to hold your music and tablature.
• A metronome to help you keep time.
• A banjo bridge mute which goes over your banjo’s bridge to mute the sound. Some tunes need it. Also, if you have neighbors that object to your practice, these are handy.
• Capos help to transpose keys, especially if you play with a group. Those who play the fiddle or mandolin play in A or B and you may need a capo for the bottom four strings of your banjo. You can take a Luthier’s help to put in the clips and spikes. You can also get a regular 5th string Capo that mounts on the side of the neck, letting you depress the fifth string with a sliding wire. It also helps you play in many other keys.
Learning to play
Armed with the right equipment and accessories, let us look at how you can learn to actually play. We can split the learning into three stages:
First, you need to get an understanding of the musical structure which includes the scales, chords, tonal connections and tablature. This is something common to all kinds of music, regardless of whether it is bluegrass, jazz, classical or rock. So you need to learn basic music theory.
Second, you need a ear for the music, so that you can grasp the theoretical concept. You need to perceive the pitch to practice. You can speed up this learning by singing your chords, scales and progressions. This will help build your skills.
Third, based on your learning, it is time to apply the theory in practicing the banjo. This is the stage where you learn the finger positions and picking patterns to practice the scales, chords, etc. in all the twelve keys. You will need a lot of practice to learn and perfect the sounds and reach a stage where you play as you hear the music.
How to learn to play?
Most beginners wonder whether they can manage to learn to play the banjo without a teacher. Today, this is possible as you can use a computer to learn to play. There are instructional DVDs, books and CDs. However, the pleasure of learning from a banjo teacher one on one, is something else. You might want to surf the internet or ask your friends if they know of a teacher who can tutor you.
Begin your banjo playing experience by learning how to sit in the most comfortable position and how to hold the banjo. If possible have someone who knows how to play the banjo with you to help you set it up. You will also initially need to learn to tune your banjo, how to add new strings when you need to, how to wear the finger picks, etc. There are good DVDs available that teach these.
Your posture is critical to good playing. Hold your back straight with the banjo’s neck out at forty five degrees, so that it is perpendicular to the floor, resting on your thigh. Then rest your little finger next to the head of the strings to pluck them for Bluegrass. The plectrum should be between your index finger and thumb for a good grip to help you pluck the strings.
There are banjo beginners’ videos available at music stores that help you learn the basics. After you learn the basics it is a matter of lots of practice and exploring the sounds. Play along with your favorite tunes to improve and impress your listeners.
Some valuable tips
As you become more proficient at playing the banjo, you will also need to learn to handle restringing your banjo, placing the bridge just right, checking the tension on the head, etc. Here are some tips to help you get better:
Restringing your banjo
First, you have to find the right strings for you. There are hundreds of manufacturers out there. Experience will help you choose the right ones. Strings come in different gauges like heavy, medium and light. The ones you will choose will depend on your banjo and also your playing style. Some people prefer to pick hard, while others go in for light strings.
When you change your banjo strings, ensure that you replace one at a time. This is important because the bridge on your banjo’s head floats. So if you remove all the banjo’s strings, the head will fall off. It has to be placed perfectly. It is a good idea to mark the place of your bridge on the banjo head so that it is easy to align it again once you are done restringing or replacing.
Also, when you restring one string at a time, you can maintain the tension on your banjo’s neck, saving on time spent retuning.
As you wind your strings around the pegs at the top, wrap them securely. When you tighten the pegs, the top two strings, the first string D and second string B must point towards the floor. The bottom two, third string G and fourth string D should point at the ceiling in the playing position. The short G-string or the fifth string must be well trimmed and point so that you do not hurt yourself on it when you move your hand up and down the banjo’s neck.
Maintaining your banjo strings
Always keep your banjo free of dust so that no oil, grease or dirt sticks to the strings. Dirty strings can affect the sound of your playing. Follow the manufacturers’ instructions about when to replace your strings. As you become an expert, you can decide how frequently you want to change the strings. Some players replace them every 20 playing hours while others replace them every two or three hours. Some people prefer to wait until the string breaks. Banjo strings are not expensive and range between $3.50 and $5.50 a set. You can make your strings last longer by wiping your banjo, and particularly the strings with a soft cloth each time you finish playing. This can get rid of any oil or dirt that might stick to it before it builds up. Also, ensure that you store your banjo in its case when you are not using it.
Placing your banjo bridge
Your bridge must be located exactly right to strike the right note. Make sure that the twelfth fret is exactly half way between the bridge at the top of the neck and the bridge on the head. Measure it with a ruler if you like. When you play a note, its pitch should be one octave higher at the twelfth fret. Bridges can wear out and you may need to replace them, which is why you should know how to place them.
Checking head tension
Occasionally, you will need to check the banjo’s head. Suppose the bridge sags, you would need to tighten it with the help of the tool that comes with it. What you do is remove the resonator, if your banjo has one so that it does not get scratched. Then, tighten the brackets uniformly and carefully. Take care not to over-tighten it or it will break. Do it in such a way that the bridge is taut enough.
Caring for your banjo wood
Wax your banjo’s wood regularly with quality furniture wax. This protects the wood.
The pleasure of learning to play a musical instrument is hard to equal. The banjo, in particular is fun for the lively music you can play with it. Also, it is considered easier to play than most other instruments. As with any music, you need to practice a lot before you can play by ear. The tips and information above should put you well on your way to enjoying the wonderful banjo! Keep pickin’ and a grinnin’!