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.


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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