8 Tips for Becoming a Great Banjo Player
If the banjo is the first stringed instrument you’ve ever attempted to play, it may seem as if you have a million things to remember at this first stage. Everything feels so new and unfamiliar.
Don’t get discouraged! Banjo players tend to be perfectionists, so be careful not to let your desire to play things correctly overwhelm your love for playing (and remember that everyone learns from his or her mistakes — even banjo players). Having fun with the banjo is more important than playing everything perfectly.
When you want to become more proficient on the banjo, you can’t find a substitute for time actually spent playing the banjo — the more you play, the faster you progress. Focus on one new skill at a time, and don’t spend too much time on the Internet finding out what everyone else thinks about this or that aspect of banjo playing.
Just play. After you’ve gained a few basic skills, find other musicians at your ability level to play with as soon as possible. Playing with others will significantly speed up your progress.
Here are just a few of the skills you should strive to master as a banjo player.
Make wise instrument purchase choices
These days, new players can find good starter banjos that are affordable and easy to play. The crucial first step in your purchase is finding an acoustic specialty store that really knows banjos and actually likes banjo players.
And as you shop, keep in mind that your choice of instrument should be based mostly upon the kind of music you want to play (and, of course, how much money you have to spend).
Tune and hold your banjo
Keeping your instrument in tune is something that you practice each time you play — and an absolutely essential skill when playing music with others. Tuning your banjo can be frustrating at first, but with careful listening to compare one pitch with another and some trial and error, you can have this skill mastered in no time.
After you’re in tune, you want to adopt a comfortable playing position for both sitting or standing. You have a lot of individual options in this regard. Just remember not to raise the neck too high and try using a strap. If you follow these two suggestions, you’ll be well on your way to finding your personal comfort zone.
Fret chords with the left hand
A chord is three or more notes sounded together. Chords support a melody and are the building blocks for accompanying other musicians. The best way to begin your playing adventures is to become familiar with well-used chords such as G, C, and D7.
A comfortable left-hand position makes forming these chords much more fun. Let your thumb touch the top of the back of the banjo neck, relax your shoulder and elbow into your body, and be sure you’re using the tips of your fingers to press the strings just behind the frets — now you’re in business.
Play authentic right- and left-hand patterns
Coordinating right-hand picking techniques with the left-hand work of making chords and creating new notes is a full-time job for banjo players! Mastering exercises that isolate what each hand does by itself lays the foundation for making great banjo music with both hands together.
Practice some real tunes on your banjo
The real fun begins when you utilize your technique to play melodies on the instrument in authentic banjo styles. Melody notes can usually be organized as a group of notes, called a scale. Finding melody notes in a song becomes easier after you’ve mastered a few scales on the banjo neck, so I recommend that you start with scales.
After you get the feel for the scales, you can use the right- and left-hand techniques you master to capture as many melody notes as you can and create arrangements that sound good on the instrument.
Jam with your banjo in good company
Banjo players love to make music with other musicians — guitarists, fiddlers, mandolin and dobro players, and bassists. When you’re playing your banjo with others, remember to play in a way that enhances the sound of the total group. Active listening and playing in good rhythm play a big role in your efforts to make other musicians sound their best.
Meet other banjo lovers
You may be amazed at how many opportunities you have to share your enthusiasm for the banjo with other like-minded players. From finding a teacher to attending a workshop, camp, or festival, you can have more fun with the instrument and become a better player faster by connecting with others who share your enthusiasm for the banjo.
As a new player, don’t wait until you’ve already acquired some playing skills before seeking help from others. You’ll become a better player much more quickly by seeking out help at the very beginning of your banjo adventure.
Camps and workshops are often designed for all levels of students. If you already play, you can recharge your banjo-picking batteries at a regional camp or workshop where you can hang out with the banjo stars, make many new friends, and come away with new playing ideas that will keep your hands busy for months to come.
Keep your banjo sounding great
Banjos are much more adjustable than other stringed instruments such as the guitar or bass. However, you don’t have to become an accomplished, all-knowing, instrument-repair person to keep your instrument in top shape.
Keeping fresh strings on your instrument is the most important thing you can do to keep your banjo running right. After a few weeks or months of playing, your strings will inevitably become harder to tune — or they may even break. Keep an extra set of strings handy in your case along with a small pair of wire cutters, and you’ll be ready for all contingencies!
You may also want to check out all the movable parts on your banjo every couple of months. For example, keeping the head tight keeps your banjo sounding bright and loud, and checking to see that the bridge is in just the right place on the banjo head keeps your fretted notes in tune.