How to Play the Five String Banjo

By Warren Yates 

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The Warren Yates Method of Playing Bluegrass Banjo for Beginners

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Bass Guitar / bass fiddle

 

 

A few thoughts about learning the banjo.  Playing the banjo is one of the easiest musical instruments to learn although it appears to be the most difficult.  No one can learn it overnight even if the person has a background in music.  Learning any instrument is a joy as long as practice is fun.  No one should ever be made to learn.  People get good at things that they like doing.  I play many musical instruments and enjoy them all, but I generally don't play them all during the same time frame.  I hit plateaus where I can't seem to learn new things and/or the excitement is just not there with a particular instrument.  That's is ok for me.  I have taken a five year break from an instrument before.  During that time I  learn to improve my skills on other instruments.  That's just the way I am.  Most people pick up one instrument and stay with it. They manage to learn more and more until they get really good.  What kind of musician will you be?  Hopefully one that has fun, no matter what.   Also, see my section on finger picking the guitar.  Much of the same ideas apply to this section

What kind of music is best to listen to in order to learn?  Bluegrass, in all cases.  Bluegrass without the five string is like jumping rope with one arm.  It can be done, but you will know that something is certainly missing.  Bluegrass banjo has all of the moves, sounds and techniques that make the banjo possible to play.  From there you can apply them to any other kind of music that you would like.                                                                                        

Finger picks.  The banjo is played with finger picks for volume and clarity.  At first don't worry about using picks.  It is easier to feel the string with your fingertips.  When you are ready for them you will need to use a plastic thumb pick and two metal finger picks for your pointer and middle finger.  You will have to experiment with different types and see what you like.  Once you have a set of picks that work, don't loan them out.  Banjo pickers never share their picks.  If you do, someone will bend them out of shape and then they will not fit you.      

How will I ever learn to pick so fast with one hand?  The right hand does seem to be busy, doesn't it?  Well there is good news.  People that play like that are not just stabbing at strings in the dark.  There are patterns that are followed.  It just sounds real good when they are in order and in time.  

Can I teach you to play just in this article?  I can give you the tools and basic understanding to play, but you will have to teach yourself.  Remember, you are not in this to be discovered next week.  It is supposed to be fun and if you do anything with it, then that is extra.  If it's your life dream, then I hope that I was able to inspire you.  I wish you the best.  

Time to start picking.  It's about time isn't it?  The banjo is tuned in an open "G".  For example; "G" on the guitar requires fingers on frets to make the chord.  "G" on the banjo is no left hand on the strings.  This makes it easy to get the extra stuff in.  The way I approach tuning is to tune the four long strings like a guitar except lower the first (bottom) string down until the four strings make a good plane chord.  The fifth (top) string is tuned to match the first string when it is fretted on the same fret.  The five strings are now tuned in a open "G".  You might get a little help with this from someone that plays the guitar.  Musicians seem to find each other.   Click here to tune with me.

Right hand rolls.  Some of the patterns that I was referring to earlier are "rolls".  Example; The thumb will pick the top three strings while the pointer picks the second and the middle finger picks the bottom.   Now, pick the strings in  order with the right fingers on the correct strings.  Remember 3251.  This means third string with the thumb, second string with the pointer, fifth string with the thumb and the first string with the middle.  Now do it again and again and again.  It will look like this 3251     3251    3251    3251.  After a while it will start blending together and the starts and stops will run together and you will not be able to distinguish between the beginning and ending.  It will be one continuous roll like this; 3251325132513251.  This is referred to as the Scruggs roll. Once that you have gotten a little practice with it and your brain is not fried, you will be able to do this without so much thought.  Now get the roll going slowly and start alternating your thump on  the third and fifth with all other strings in order.  In other words, every time that you hit the third string you will hit the fourth string ever other time.  Like this 3251425132514251.  It will be easier than you think.  Give it a week and see what happens.  By doing this exercise you will be able to hold a continuous roll while picking out notes to a song.  When you have done this you will have learned about 25% of what it takes to play a banjo.  You'll start to hear it and understand it.  Give it time.

T = Thumb

P = Pointer Finger

M = Middle Finger

3 124 = Picking Order

3251 = The Strings

 Click here to hear an example.

 

 

Other rolls.  The forward roll is 215    215   215.      The backward roll is sometimes used 125  125   125.   Remember to use the appropriate fingers!  At times you will not be able to get everything in using the Earl Scruggs roll.  That is when you might want to use the 215 roll.  Playing the banjo is a process of using these rolls as you need them and then grab for the next one and back and forth.  Yes!  It is a bunch of starting and stopping.  Just do it all in a line and you are picking.  Of course we have left out a few things like chords.  That is at the other end of the neck.  Let's go there. 

We talked about the forward and reverse rolls.  Now lets talk about the forward-reverse roll.  It is simply a place in a song that you use the forward roll and the reverse roll back and forth to make the forward roll sound not so plane.  It is not a roll that you must practice in repetition but one that you can change as you go.  I used it for years before I knew it existed.  That is how easy the banjo can be.  Things start to fall together and you don't even know what you are doing until you try to explain it and you find out that you don't know except that you are doing it.  Click here for an example.

Now for another good roll.   It is a forward roll with the pointer finger alternating between the second and third strings. Check it out!

Chords!  This is the hard part.  Some times you will have to use as many as two or three fingers.  Remember you are playing in the key of "G" which is open and now you need two more chords to help "G".  That will be "C" and "D"  both of which use two fingers.  I guess that was not hard after all.

There are more to these banjo chords but these are the most used

There are more ways to hold a "C" and a "D" but this is the most common.  Remember that if you don't hold anything you have a "G".

Another good roll

This chord has no name. 

 It is just an arrangement

Bluegrass style banjo picking

Try this chord with this roll.

This is not a repeating roll.  It is used only once.

 

There is more to this banjo roll as you will here in he example below and if you listen carfully, you can pick it out

Click here to hear this arrangement and more.

Other chords.  So far we have only talked about the chords G, C and D at the end of the neck.  If you will go down about five or six frets there is another set of the same chords but held in different positions.  Go down further and you will find more until you run out of frets.  Find them and get use to them.  Click here to see them.  The idea is that if you are using a "G" down the neck then use a "C" and "D" in the same location as well.

Playing one string and using the forward roll.  First lets try fretting the second string all up and down the neck while using the forward roll.  See if some of this sounds familiar.  Listen to the example.   Now lets do the same on the fourth string and see what you hear.  Listen to the example.

Capo    A capo is a device used to clamp onto the strings to shorten the neck.  It mounts behind the fret and holds the stings down in a straight line.  What this does is changes the key being played in while you are using the same chord positions.  Example: If you place the capo on the second fret and play in "G" you are really playing in "A".  Third fret "B flat", forth fret "B", fifth fret "C" and so on.  However bluegrass is usually played between "G" and "C" so you really only have to learn to play in "G".  I told you it was easy!  If you don't have a capo use a short pencil and hold it down with a rubber band.  Now for the fifth string.  The same capo does not work here.  For this one you will have to install a fifth string capo.  There are two different kinds.  One mounts onto the side with two screws and uses a slide.  The other are little hooks that are nailed into the fingerboard that the string clips under.  Then the string is tuned up a note if needed.

Tablature is a form of sheet music that can be read without knowing how to read music.  It simply shows the string and fret with the order played.  The internet is full of it.

 Warren Yates                          

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How to play "Man of Constant Sorrow" on the guitar,

from the movie "O Brother Where Art Thou".

(c) Copyright 2007