Beginning Bluegrass Banjo

So you want to play bluegrass banjo, but are a rank beginner on the instrument? Here's help.

| November/December 1984

  • Beginning Bluegrass Banjo - Wayne Erbsen
    Wayne Erbsen is far beyond a beginning bluegrass banjo player.
    Photo by MOTHER EARTH NEWS Staff
  • Beginning Bluegrass Banjo - simple banjo roll
    Strike the second string with a downstroke of your thumb, then pluck up on the first string with your middle finger. Repeat three more times. Congratulations! You've just played your first roll. Now use the third string as your melody string. Hit the third string with your thumb, and then immediately pluck the first string with your middle finger. Now play the fourth string as a melody string, once again followed by the first string. Practice moving your thumb from the second, third, and fourth strings, then quickly play the first string with your middle finger.
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS Staff
  • Beginning Bluegrass Banjo - shortnin' bread tablature
    The tablature for "Shortenin' Bread."
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS Staff
  • Beginning Bluegrass Banjo - fretboard fingering illustration
    The D7 chord is produced by leaving your index finger where it was for the C chord: on the second string at the first fret. Now lift up your other finger or fingers, and push your middle finger down on the third string at the second fret.
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS Staff
  • Beginning Bluegrass Banjo - banjo illustration
    The instrument you'll be learning.
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS Staff
  • Beginning Bluegrass Banjo - fretboard illustration
    The C chord is played by fretting the second string at the first fret with your left index finger and the first string at the second fret with your ring finger.
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS Staff
  • Beginning Bluegrass Banjo - fretboard fingering illustration
    Here's another roll: Play the second string with your thumb, the first string with your middle finger, the fifth string with your thumb, and, finally, the first string with your middle finger.
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS Staff
  • Beginning Bluegrass Banjo - 3-1-5-1 and 4-1-5-1 tablature
    A third-string melody would be 3, 1, 5, 1, and a fourth-string melody would be 4, 1, 5, 1.
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS Staff
  • 090-057-01a
    For D7 to G chord change, alternate between the third and second strings.
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS Staff
  • Beginning Bluegrass Banjo - fretboard fingering illustration
    Play the roll over and over: 2, 1, 5, 1. The first of these four notes is your melody note; the other three are all fill-ins. Think of a clock ticking. Your four notes would sound like "tick-a, tock-a."
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS Staff
  • Beginning Bluegrass Banjo - chord changes
    While playing a C chord, alternate your thumb between the second and third strings.
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS Staff
  • Beginning Bluegrass Banjo - lyrics and chords
    Partial lyrics and chords for "Will the Circle be Unbroken."
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS Staff

  • Beginning Bluegrass Banjo - Wayne Erbsen
  • Beginning Bluegrass Banjo - simple banjo roll
  • Beginning Bluegrass Banjo - shortnin' bread tablature
  • Beginning Bluegrass Banjo - fretboard fingering illustration
  • Beginning Bluegrass Banjo - banjo illustration
  • Beginning Bluegrass Banjo - fretboard illustration
  • Beginning Bluegrass Banjo - fretboard fingering illustration
  • Beginning Bluegrass Banjo - 3-1-5-1 and 4-1-5-1 tablature
  • 090-057-01a
  • Beginning Bluegrass Banjo - fretboard fingering illustration
  • Beginning Bluegrass Banjo - chord changes
  • Beginning Bluegrass Banjo - lyrics and chords

So you always wanted to play bluegrass banjo, eh? You picked up a nice one at a yard sale or got one for Christmas, and now you're wondering what to do with the darn thing. All the banjo books you've seen make you feel like an idiot, and you're about ready to trade your instrument for a garden tiller or maybe a food processor. But wait! This article was written just for you. It'll show you, in the most simplified terms possible, how to make music (and friends) with that cantankerous banjo of yours. Trust me.

Holding the Dang Thing

As you've probably found out by now, the banjo is a rather slippery instrument. If you don't control it firmly, it tends to wiggle off your lap and fall onto the floor. Well, try this: Set the banjo edgewise on your lap, with the neck (the long "handle") pointing slightly upward to the left. The round body should be nestled comfortably between your two legs, and your right forearm should be pushing down firmly on the banjo's rim. (Some, but not all, models are equipped with an armrest at the point where your arm contacts the rim.) You should be able to make the banjo stay put, using only the pressure from your two legs and right arm. It's important to avoid using your left hand to hold up the neck. That hand must be free to move up and down the neck without having to keep your banjo from crashing to the floor. Propping your left foot up on a small stack of books, or on your banjo case, might help you to hold the instrument steadier.

A strap can also be useful; you can buy one, or make one out of cloth, leather, or even an old necktie. Tie one end on one of the brackets just under the banjo's neck, and the other to one of the brackets underneath the tailpiece (where the strings are secured). Fine! Your strap will make holding the banjo easier, especially when you're standing up.

Banjo Tuning

Most people assume they have a tin ear when it comes to tuning an instrument. Don't fall into the trap of thinking you'll never play merely because you can't seem to get your banjo in tune. Just as practice will help your playing, it will also help your tuning.



If you take a look at your banjo sitting there on your lap, you'll probably notice that it's equipped with five strings. If it has only four strings, either a string is missing or you are the proud owner of a tenor or plectrum banjo. If you do have a tenor or plectrum, you might want to trade it in on a five-stringer, which is the kind used to play bluegrass and old-time country music.

For the sake of convenience, the five strings of the banjo are referred to by number, starting with the first string, which is the one closest to your knees. The fifth string is the short one, the one that looks like it was an afterthought — which it was. The banjo was originally an African four-stringed instrument, and the fifth string was added by American players sometime in the 1840's.






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