While we may refer you to our recent post in terms of finding the best banjo on the market, you may be somewhat earlier in the process and still trying to decide whether this is the right instrument for you. If this is the case and you’re looking for someone that can be of help, we have just the thing that’ll save the day.
To start off with some good news, we want to dispel a certain myth from the get-go. One of the biggest misconceptions about this instrument is that it is hard to play and you need days and days of painstaking exercise just to be able to get a few ear-pleasant sounds out of it. Now, while this may be true if you want to start your own band, playing the banjo is not that hard.
The myth. The legend
Modern banjos are believed to derive from instruments that are speculated to have been used in the Caribbean since the 17th century by the enslaved people that were taken from the western part of Africa. Also, 18th century written references about the banjo have been found in various locations and then the instrument became more and more available commercially somewhere in the 1850s.
Due to this, banjo history is actually a very important part of early American culture so this is why it’s worth knowing about it. While it’s not a Southern instrument as most people seem to think, it was popularized throughout the country by performers who embedded their regional playing styles into more traditional methods.
From the world-famous New Orleans jazz to the fingerpicking sound that took root in the shadow of the Appalachian mountains, this is an instrument and a sound that we owe to the presence of people who were first brought here against their will and then blended with everyone else and emerged as the American people.
The modern version of the instrument will be found in a variety of forms including four-and five-string versions. Nowadays, there’s even a six-string version that’s in fact tuned and played similarly to a guitar due to its dimensions and it is rapidly gaining popularity around the world.
Furthermore, the head of the banjo was traditionally made from animal skin but for various reasons which we’re sure you can understand, most of the ones today are made of various synthetic materials. Also, older banjos do not come with the tone ring that modern versions come with, and that serves to clarify and project the sound even further.
While the following information will apply to all types of banjos on the market, we are going to focus on the 5-string one since it is by far the most popular one out there. Why do people think playing the banjo is hard? When generations of fast performers and experienced movie actors go running their fingers all over it, of course this is what everyone will start to believe.
The truth, like pretty much all the time, is somewhere in the middle. While you won’t be ready to reach Scruggs-like ability from the beginning (That’s the Jimi Hendrix of banjos), you should be able to do fairly better as a banjo beginner than with most other instruments, even though all of them have a learning curve that you will have to be aware of.
In this regard, banjos are exactly the same but the one true difference between them and a guitar is that they will be easier to play since they use lighter gauge strings than their more romantic cousin so this makes the performer have an easier time when pushing the strings down on the fingerboard in desperate need of the next good tone.
As we said, the 5-string banjo is the most popular type on the market and is also routinely considered the easier stringed instrument to get started playing even if you haven’t touched a musical instrument in your life. With a good teacher, you should be able to emit some decent sounds in half an hour at most, even though you may want to withhold going for a solo yet.
Why is the banjo easy to play?
As we said, the banjo is in fact very easy to play and this is mostly due to the fact that its standard tuning is an open G tuning. For the non-musical people out there, what this means is that when you simply strum the strings down without actually pushing with your left hand to create a chord sound, you will still play a G chord.
A guitar, on the other hand, requires that you fret the strings with a firm hand and a complex fingering pattern in order to play a G chord or any other chord. If you just strum on a guitar, you’ll get a sound that will make you wonder why you picked up the instrument in the first place and perhaps even start questioning music as a whole.
How do I get started?
Since we’re here, we thought it’d be best if we also get you through a little bit of a tutorial, just to let you experience how easy it actually is. Remember when we said that if you just touch the strings in a downward fashion, you’ll get a G? Take your left hand if you are right-handed or your right hand if you are left-handed and place it firmly on the left-side frets.
The frets are those square-like spaces that are easily-distinguishable by the vertical lines that separate them. Now, take your index or middle finger and make a bar by simply pushing down on all the strings on fret number five. That’s your C chord.
Next, keep your hand in the same position and simply slide it two more frets to the right and reach the seventh in order to make a D chord. While you won’t be improving any time soon, the G, C, and D chords are all that you need to play thousands and thousands of tunes? Really gets you thinking about the creativity of the music industry, are we right?
Branching out on your own
If you’ve come this far, one of the choices you have is simply stopping here and just strumming and stringing your heart away on the banjo. However, we have not yet fully proven to you how easy it is to play the banjo so we feel that you can also try some fingerpicking styles just to get into the goodies for a little bit.
Again, this is not absurdly hard as there are two main styles that you have to master: the 3-finger style and the clawhammer. Once you’ve got these down, you’ll be able to fill out a song more than just mere chords and begin to play more harmonious music.
By default, the 3-finger style should be a little easier for beginners if you just want to get students to quickly play something. However, this style has a steeper skill curve and you’ll have to work more if you want to get to the next level. The clawhammer, on the other hand, is harder to pick up but easier to master down the line.
Also, if you’d like to get all historical, you should know that the West African slaves we mentioned earlier were pretty much all in for the clawhammer style so if you want to play banjo the vintage way, this is how you do it.
As a result, it all comes down to what you feel like doing. As in life, it’s all about learning curves and improving more and more. Is it hard to learn to play the banjo? It depends on how much effort you’re willing to put into the process and how talented you are. The breakthrough moments and the long plateaus will always come at different times for each of us.
However, the 5-string banjo has one big breakthrough elevation point right at the beginning which seems to happen for pretty much everyone so this is what makes it one of the easier instruments to pick up and actually manage to get a decent sound out of it.