Beginner Tutorial for Banjos | How to Play

07/02/2020
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Few, if no instruments are as typical as the banjo.

In fact, you could probably call it the one, single most American instrument existing.

And the time where its sound was associated with hillbillies playing on their porch is long past.

From classic bluegrass music to mainstream pop, the banjo is today more popular than it ever was…

Nowadays, you can even find a type of banjo for just about any style of music out there…

Whether you want to strum it, play it in a more traditional and technical way, or even both.

So whether you’re a guitar player eager to learn more about this fascinating instrument, or just a curious newbie attracted to its unique sound…

I have in today’s post everything you need to know to get started with the banjo.

Ready? Then let’s start.

 

 

First up…

Types of Banjos

There are 2 types of banjos:

  • Resonator banjos
  • Open-back banjos

And as you can see in the picture…

Resonator banjos have an enclosed sound box, while open back banjos do not.

And the first banjos were all open-back.

In terms of sound, this type of banjo has a softermellower tone, with a greater portion of its sound projecting from the rear of the instrument.

In comparison, resonator banjos have both a louder AND fuller sound…but not necessarily better.

Indeed, open-back banjos remain popular til this day because their sound is so strongly tied to the “old-time” genres of music…

While resonator banjos on the other hand, are typically associated with more modern styles.

4 or 5 strings?

After their body type, the second biggest difference banjos present is their amount of strings: 4 or 5.

The main difference between these two types are:

  • The tuning
  • The playing technique
  • The music genres they’re used in

But let’s dig this up a little bit, shall we?

So first up…

5 String Banjos

When you think about the banjo, there is somehow always one music genre that comes to mind…

And that is bluegrass music.

So if you’re looking to play bluegrass or American Old Time Folk music and their likes, go for the original, open-back 5 strings banjo.

As you’ll notice on the image on the right, 5 strings banjos have one string that starts on the fifth fret, called drone-string

And it’s called so because it plays the same note all along — a G.

The most common tuning, especially in bluegrass, is the Open-G tuning which, starting from the fifth “drone” string goes: G4 D3 G3 B3 D4. Open G tuning means that if you strum your banjo open, you’ll be playing a G chord.

So if this is the type of banjo you’re after, check out my recommendations:

UNDER $400

ABOVE $400

4 String Banjos

4 string banjos were invented in the late 19th Century with the emergence of jazz, when players realized that by strumming the banjo…

They were able to cut through loud trumpets, saxophones and drums, at a time where amplification didn’t exist yet.

Using this playing style, banjo players also found that the fifth string was only getting in their way and decided to remove it.

Manufacturers followed and started making four strings banjos.

There are 2 types of 4 string banjos :

  • Plectrum banjos – which have a longer neck
  • Irish Tenor banjos – which have a shorter neck

So let’s now learn a little bit more about each one of these, starting with…

Plectrum Banjos

Plectrum banjos are the earliest version of 4 string banjos and they are basically a regular 5 strings banjos, without the drone string.

This banjo was invented with one main purpose: to be strummed with a pick (formerly called plectrum).

This is the typical “dixieland jazz” banjo, music genre in which it serves as rhythmic foundation.

So if this is the sound you’re after, check out the plectrum banjos I recommend:

  • Rover (open back) – (Amazon
  • Gold Tone Criple Creek (resonator) – (Amazon
  • Gold Tone Special (resonator) – (Amazon)

Irish Tenor banjo

The tenor banjo was named after the tenor mandola, because it shared the same tuning: CGDA…

Though as we’ll see further down, other tunings are nowadays just as common.

Despite its name, it is an American instrument which however gained popularity in Ireland…

Where it was used in bands along with the fiddle, the accordion and other instruments used in traditional Irish music.

It exists in two versions:

  • 17 frets – which has the same fingering as mandolin and violin, thus making it easier for these musician to play it, and…
  • 19 frets – which allows for greater string tension and lighter gauge, which some musicians prefer.

The three most popular tunings are:

  • C, G, D, A – this is the standard tenor tuning, it uses intervals of fifths and is the same tuning as of the viola.
  • G, D, A, E – refered to as “Irish Tenor Tuning”, it is lower pitched than the previous tuning and is the same as of the violin, making it the most popularone in traditional Irish music.
  • D, G, B, E – probably the easiest tuning for guitar players, the “Chicago tuning” is the same as the top four strings of the guitar.

Here are the tenor banjos I recommend:

Under $500:

Above $500:

Heads

Just like drums, Banjos have heads…

But unlike drumheads — and strings — which are directly played/hit, banjo heads almost don’t wear out…

And even when they do, many players choose not to replace them because they like the sound they produce.

That being said, one thing you need to pay attention to is to make sure your head is correctly tightened…

And to do so, the best way is to see if the bridge is sitting on a flat surface or in a “valley“.

If it’s in a valley it means your head is too loose and your instrument won’t produce the bright and crisp sound you’re expecting it to.

Some sources recommend you actually tune your head to a certain pitch, while other say you should just tune it until you like the sound…

So as you can see there is no set-in-stone rule here, so expect to find contradictory information on that topic.

And it is not uncommon to find banjos wearing the same head for more than 60 years and still being played…

And some players even put their old banjo head on a brand new banjo, because they like its sound so much.

But if for some reason you still feel like changing your banjo head, here are some things to consider:

How to choose the correct crown height

Heads come in various sizes, but it’s notthe diameter we’re talking about here.

It is the collar, also called crown height. The crown height is the distance between the top of the head’s mounting band to the top surface of the head.

There are 3 different crown heights:

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High

The crown height depends on the banjo’s tone ring, which can be one of these two types:

  • Flathead – which requires mediumor high crown head
  • Archtop – which requires a lowcrown head

Choosing the right crown height is crucial as it prevents the hoop from being too high, and potentially obstructing the strings.

With that in mind, here are the heads I recommend:

High Collar

  • Frosted Top (dry and crisp sound)
  • Clear Top (ideal for 4 srings)
  • Fiberskyn (rawhide look and warm sound)
    • Remo Fibers – (Amazon
    • Remo Fiberskyn III – (Amazon)
  • Calfskin
    • GoldenGate Flat – (Amazon

Medium Collar

Low Collar

Common Banjo Variations

When you think of a banjo, you kind of imagine an old school instrument with an old school sound, but the truth is…

Nowadays you can find a bunch of different variations, made by creative manufacturers. And these are the one I’ll be covering:

  • Acoustic-Electric banjos
  • Electric banjos
  • 6 strings banjos
  • Ukulele banjos

So if you’re looking for one of these, let’s start with…

Acoustic-Electric Banjos

With acoustic-electric banjos, you can play louder while maintaining the banjo’s original tone… just like with an acoustic-electric guitar.

Unlike on an acoustic electric guitar though, you won’t find any adjustable settings on the body.

So what they are is really nothing more than a regular banjo with a preinstalled pickup, but they will still save you a great deal of time when rigging up a gig.

Here are the models I recommend:

Electric banjos

The advantage of electric banjos is that…

Just like for guitars, you can set and adjust your own sound thanks to 4 knobs:

  • A three way selector knob – to switch between pickups
  • One volume knob for each pickup 
  • One master tone knob 

Now, these banjos CAN be played without amplification and users have been describing a really nice sound, so here’s another upside.

Here are the electric banjos I recommend:

6 strings banjos

Original 6 strings banjos are actually just as old as 5 strings ones.

At the time, they kept the drone string and added a bass string between it and the fourth string.

However…

We can safely declare that today almost no one plays this antique instrument, and unless you go look for it in flea markets or garage sales…

You probably won’t find it anywhere.

Nowadays, modern 6 strings banjos are referred to as “banjitar“, “ganjos” or “guitjos“, a banjo tuned like a guitar.

This crossover was meant as an easy way for guitar players to quickly start playing the banjo.

Now…

The banjo purists often disregard and even despise 6 strings banjos, which they consider not to be “real” banjos.

But the truth is, they’ve become increasingly popular over the past few years, being used in many different genres, including the most mainstream ones.

So if you always wanted to get that famous banjo sound but don’t know or want to learn how to play the banjo, definitely consider one of these models:

Ukulele Banjos

“Banjoleles” as they’re often called are a regular ukulele with the body and the sound of a banjo, meaning they are tuned like a ukulele and are the size of a concert ukulele.

If you dig this sound, check out my recommendations:

Banjo Strings

The signs for when it’s time to replace your strings are essentialy the same as the ones to look for on a guitar.

If your strings are gaining a blackish color, are falling out of tune more often or are feeling grainy, it might be time to replace them.

So when you decide to do so, here are a few string sets I recommend.

Note that the difference between Plectrum/Irish/Tenor sets is the gauges of the strings, Irish and Tenor banjos refering to the same instrument.

Some gauges are indeed more appropriate for the respective tunings of each of these versions of the instrument.

5 Strings sets

4 Strings sets

6 Strings sets

  • GHS Professional – (Amazon