Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. That means that if you click on a link and purchase an item, we may receive an affiliate commission at no additional cost to you. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
The banjo is one of the most unique and interesting modern instruments around. It’s also pretty polarizing. While many people love the sound of the banjo, others can’t stand it at all.
There’s no doubt, however, that the banjo has had a big impact on modern music throughout the decades. Even now, it continues to make its way into some of the best bluegrass, folk, and country music while also making its way into the rock, pop, and jazz genres as well.
If you’re interested in learning a new instrument, the banjo can be a great choice. While similar to the guitar, it’s played a lot differently. In many ways, it has a more interesting sound as well.
Whether you want to start playing the banjo yourself or you’re just curious about the instrument, read on. In this complete beginner’s banjo guide, we’ll tell you everything that you should know about the banjo.
What Is a Banjo?
The banjo is a musical instrument that has a round body and a long neck.
The round body of the instrument features a thin sheet of parchment stretched over a metal hoop. The banjo body is similar to a drum or a tambourine while the instrument itself is similar to a guitar or another stringed instrument.
The banjo has a unique sound due to the vibrating membrane which contributes to its “popping” twangy sound. It sounds much different than a guitar and has a sound that makes it completely unique and distinctive.
The banjo is used in a lot of modern music today. However, it’s mostly utilized in bluegrass and in other folk and country genres.
Are There Different Types of Banjos?
When reading this banjo guide, you may be surprised to learn that there are several different types of banjos available today. Here are the main types of banjo instruments that you should know about.
The 5-string banjo is the most popular and well-known type of banjo today. Its primary playing style was popularized by Earl Scruggs. The 3-finger picking style is also known as Scruggs-style banjo.
Keep reading this banjo guide below to learn more about Earl Scruggs.
Another popular type of banjo is the 4-string banjo.
The 4-string banjo, also known as the tenor banjo or plectrum banjo, was actually around before the 5-string banjo was but isn’t as popular today as it once was. This instrument was a common sight in early jazz music and is also sometimes used in Irish music as well.
The 6-string banjo, also known as a banjitar, is another type of banjo that exists today. However, it’s a bit less popular than the other types.
6-string banjos can be played just like a guitar and can be tuned the same as well. Many people play the banjitar just like a guitar and use a flatpack to pick the strings.
The banjolele is also well worth mentioning. The banjo ukulele is one of the most popular “hybrid banjo instruments” out there.
The banjolele is played exactly like a ukulele and is similar in size. However, it has a round body that features a thin sheet of parchment just like a banjo. The result is an instrument that is played like a ukulele but sounds a lot like a banjo.
Other Banjo Types
The 6-string banjitar and the banjolele are two of the most popular musical instruments that take elements of the banjo and combine them with the playability of other instruments. However, there are many other hybrid banjo instruments as well.
Mandolin-banjos, the bass banjo, and many others are all available and can be a lot of fun to play.
What Genres Can You Play on the Banjo?
The 5-string banjo is most well-known as one of the core instruments of bluegrass music and old-time music. However, there are other genres that it plays a major role in as well.
Country music is another obvious genre that features the banjo regularly, although with a bit less prominence than in bluegrass music. Many other folk genres and Americana styles often make use of the banjo as well. Indie folk and rock music sometimes feature the sounds of the banjo as does Irish folk music.
The banjo also has a deep history in jazz music as well. It was often used in Dixieland Jazz in the early 1900s. The 4-string banjo, in particular, was most commonly used for jazz music in those days.
In the modern era, banjo players such as Bela Fleck, continue to expand on the instrument’s capabilities and use it to play progressive jazz, classical music, and other genres.
The truth is that the banjo can fit into just about any genre. However, these days it seems to be most at home in bluegrass, old-time, country, and folk music. If you have a bit of determination and are able to think outside of the box a little bit, however, you can play the banjo in just about any genre you wish to play in.
What Are the Different Banjo Playing Styles?
Just like there are many types of banjos, there are also many banjo playing styles as well. Here are the primary playing styles that you should know about for the most common type of banjo, the 5-string banjo.
Scruggs Style Banjo
Scruggs style banjo is perhaps the most popular banjo playing style today and was popularized by legendary banjo player, Earl Scruggs.
Earl Scruggs played a unique 3-finger banjo style that featured high-speed picking and patterns known as “banjo rolls”. The style typically doesn’t feature any strumming.
The banjo style of Earl Scruggs helped contribute to the development and sound of bluegrass music. Scruggs is known as one of the pioneers of both 5-string banjo playing and the bluegrass genre.
If you’re interested in learning to play bluegrass music, this is the style that you’ll want to be the most familiar with.
Clawhammer Style Banjo
While clawhammer banjo is often overshadowed by Scruggs style banjo these days, it remains a popular choice.
The clawhammer banjo style actually predates Scruggs style banjo and features a rhythmic strumming pattern. This style of banjo playing is most associated with old-time music and typically isn’t used in bluegrass.
Also clearly associated with old-time music, the 2-finger banjo style is another type of banjo style that is less common than those listed above.
This type of banjo playing is similar to the clawhammer banjo style and is used in some of the same playing situations. However, the 2-finger banjo style adds a bit more flexibility and allows the banjoist to either accompany singers or play lead melodies and instrumentals.
There are other styles that banjo players use as well.
Melodic style (Keith Style) is a banjo style that was made popular by Bill Keith and is considered a variation of Scruggs Style Banjo. Seeger-Style banjo, which was invented and taught by Pete Seeger, was a style of banjo playing that essentially combined a 2-finger banjo style and a clawhammer banjo playing style.
Who Are the Best Banjo Players?
This banjo guide wouldn’t be complete without an overview of some of the instrument’s best players. There have been many great banjo players throughout the years, so it’s hard to list them all out. However, there are a few players that are worth mentioning here.
The primary banjo player that you’ll want to be familiar with when learning the instrument is Earl Scruggs. Earl Scruggs was the first to popularize the 5-string banjo and its unique bluegrass style. The 3-finger banjo style he played became known as “Scruggs-Style Banjo”.
Due to Scruggs, the banjo became one of the most distinctive and prominent instruments in bluegrass music and remains so today.
While Earl Scruggs was an amazing banjo player and did a lot to make the instrument popular, there are many other great banjo players as well. Other popular banjo players include Tony Trischka, Bela Fleck, Bill Keith, and Noam Pikelny. Check out the banjo guide linked above if you want to learn more about these great players.
How to Choose a Good Banjo
So what factors should you consider when buying a banjo? Here are some of the main things that you should look for.
Decide Between Open or Closed Back
One of the most important things to consider when buying a banjo is whether you want to get an open-back banjo or a closed-back banjo. While both types of banjos will provide a lot of resonance, a closed-back banjo will be even louder because it will have a resonator on the back.
Keep in mind that the banjos are played the same, so you can play all styles with both types of banjos. Typically, however, players who are interested in playing the clawhammer banjo style will want to get an open-back banjo.
Players who are interested in playing 5-string Scruggs-style Banjo will probably want to buy a closed-back banjo instead. A closed-back banjo with a resonator will usually be the best choice for bluegrass or other modern musical styles and will help the instrument to be louder when played in a bluegrass jam.
Check the Materials
You should also consider what materials a banjo is made from. Especially important to pay attention to is the type of wood that the banjo neck features.
The most common types of wood for a banjo neck include maple, mahogany, and walnut. Each of these woods will vary in regard to density, hardness, resonance, and more.
There isn’t necessarily a wrong choice, but you’ll want to consider the various qualities that each wood will offer the sound of your banjo. While this banjo guide won’t go too deep into the details, here’s a quick overview of what you should know:
- Maple: Maple gives your instrument a bright and powerful tone and is especially favored by bluegrass players.
- Mahogany: Mahogany offers players a much warmer, sweeter, and richer tone than maple and the wood isn’t as dense.
- Walnut: Similarly to maple, walnut offers a lot of power and resonance. However, it lacks some of the brightness that maple has.
There are many other kinds of wood that you can find for banjo construction as well, but these are the most common ones that you should know about.
Remember that you’ll want to choose a banjo that doesn’t just look great but that’s also highly playable and easy to use. Look for a banjo with low action and ensure that you get great strings for it.
It’s a good idea to go to a music store to check out banjos in person before making a purchase. Spend a few minutes playing a more expensive professional banjo. Place your fingers on the frets and hold the instrument, then afterward, try playing a cheaper banjo.
Doing this can help you get your bearings and give you a good idea of what the differences are in playability. You can then determine your budget and find a great beginner banjo based on your budget.
How to Learn the Banjo
As with any musical instrument, there are many ways to learn the banjo. While this banjo guide will give you a basic understanding of the instrument, you’ll need to dig deeper if you want to play it yourself.
Here are some of the main methods you might want to rely on when learning this fun and unique instrument.
Taking private banjo lessons can be one of the most effective ways to learn the banjo. By doing so, you’ll get personalized attention and can be guided through each technique at your own pace.
On the other hand, private lessons can be costly. You’ll want to make sure that you have the budget for them.
Using online resources and websites that feature banjo lessons can be a great way to learn the instrument and will often be completely free.
Additionally, it can also be a good idea to join online banjo forums or banjo groups on sites such as Facebook. A website such as BanjoHangout.com, for example, serves as an active banjo community while also offering over 200 lessons.
There are many ways that you can access video lessons and using them can be almost as good as having a private tutor. Video lessons will allow you to see exactly what you’re supposed to do on the instrument visually when learning a song or technique and can be a great way to learn.
Consider looking for lessons on YouTube or paying to access a library of lessons on a site such as ArtistWorks. If you want to take a more old-school approach, you might even want to order a great banjo lesson DVD from Amazon.
While you’ll likely use a lesson book when taking private lessons from a banjo teacher, you can also use lesson books on your own as well.
Fortunately, there are some great instructional banjo books out there for any style you wish to play. While many books focus on teaching the 5-string banjo style, there are many clawhammer banjo books out there as well.
How About Accessories?
This banjo guide wouldn’t be complete without a quick overview of the accessories you’ll need for the instrument. Remember that to start learning the banjo, you’ll probably want to purchase some additional items beyond just the banjo itself.
Here are some of the essential accessories that you’ll probably want to get at the same time you buy a banjo or soon after.
When playing the 5-string banjo, you’ll typically want to use special picks which go on your fingers. These are known as fingerpicks.
Clawhammer players can choose to go without picks or use special clawhammer picks instead.
When playing a stringed instrument such as the banjo, it’s important to stay in tune in order to sound your best.
Buying a clip-on tuner or another type of tuner will be essential and will help you tune your banjo. You might also want to consider downloading an instrument tuning app on your smartphone.
If you plan to take your banjo outside of the home, then you’ll want to have either a hard case or gig bag for it.
Both of these accessories can make it easy to transport your instrument. However, keep in mind that a hard banjo case will offer better protection. A gig bag will offer little or no padding and only works well for transportation rather than for protecting your instrument.
A capo can add some additional flexibility to your playing. It will allow you to play in various keys more easily.
While not absolutely necessary in the beginning, consider buying one sooner or later.
Some players choose to play the banjo standing up, particularly when jamming with others or playing on stage. Getting a great banjo strap can help with this.
Make sure that you get a high-quality strap. A banjo strap can get uncomfortable if you play for an extended amount of time, so make sure that you keep the amount of padding the strap has in mind when making a purchase.
You’ll also want to get some great strings for your banjo as well.
Your choice of strings may vary depending on what genre you’re playing in and the style of banjo that you’ll play. If you’re playing clawhammer banjo, for example, your string choice may vary from the strings a 5-string banjo player will choose.
Ready to Start Playing the Banjo?
Hopefully, this banjo guide has taught you everything that you should know about learning to play the banjo.
While there’s a lot more to understand about the instrument, you’ll have to get your hands on one to do it. Be sure to consider the tips and advice above when buying an instrument and when learning how to play it.
We hope this banjo guide was helpful to you! Be sure to browse Music to My Wallet to find more helpful music guides, tips, and advice.
Hi, I’m Harrison! I created this website to help musicians navigate the ins and outs of their craft and to help them choose new instruments and gear to add to their collection. I have 15 years of experience as a guitarist and singer and have also played many other instruments throughout the years including the bass guitar, piano, banjo, mandolin, and harmonica.