Learning the 5-string banjo pt 2: Choosing what to learn

Starting to learn the banjo

Starting to learn the banjo

You can have a lot of fun researching, choosing and then buying your banjo. I certainly did. I also enjoyed joining the banjo fraternity/sorority at Banjo Hangout and I even joined the Banjo Player’s Union. I too have my 2011 special edition t-shirt and stickers, which I love. But none of the cosiness of the Hangout, with its super jukebox and friendly members is going to make you play the camel of the fretted instrument world.*

Choosing what style to learn

The first thing I needed to decide was which manner of playing the 5-string banjo I should try first: picking (Scruggs or Bluegrass style) or frailing (now more commonly known as clawhammer and the oldest style of playing). When I first got my banjo out I found these YouTube videos for both styles and tried to work with them, just to get a feel for the instrument and the range of sounds it could make:

Frailing or clawhammer

David Holt Beginning Clawhammer Banjo Lesson Tom Dooley

I found David Holt (who also provides a range of DVD tutorials which I would be tempted to get when I move onto learn clawhammer properly) explains things clearly and simply and by the end of event this short video I did feel I accomplished the very basic frailing action. The split screen showing what both hands are doing really make a difference and I found these the most useful video tutorials.

Picking Scruggs or Bluegrass

Banjo Lesson Beginning Bluegrass Banjo – Cripple Creek

This video dives you right into Scruggs style picking as it talks about licks, slides, hammer-ons, pull-offs and push-offs. Using Cripple Creek, a tune that you will hear about repeatedly in beginner’s circles (it is what many beginners aspire towards as a milestone of achievement), this Musician’s Workshop video guides you through some basics of creating that unique banjo sound by sounding notes with your left hand, i.e. the slides, hammer-ons, etc. This is only an excerpt from a longer video that has already demonstrated how to do ‘rolls’ with your right hand.

I had heard a lot of the technical terminology on other videos and on the forums and I found this video the most useful in understanding what they all meant. I even tried out some slides and hammer-ons as demonstrated. However I had no real idea bout picking patterns with the right hand, otherwise known as roll patterns or rolls.

Basic banjo chords

Easy Banjo Chords

One of the freebies from www.freebanjovideos.com is a superb introduction to banjo chords. Any tutorial will introduce you to chords almost straight away. The 5-string banjo’s normal tuning is to ‘G’ and this video invites you to learn chords by plain strumming and concentrates on the finger patterns of your left hand. You then progress to D7 and C and E minor. Any new student of the banjo will curse the C chord (I did) when they first try it. But repetition is the only way and this video really helped drill it. Another split-screen video is extremely helpful to absorb what the right and left hand are doing. And it really is easy to strum along to ‘Tom Dooley’ when you’re done.

Choosing a beginner’s banjo ‘teach yourself’ course

So those are three of my favourite videos. I watched them several times, as well as others. My Deering Goodtime Crow came with two finger picks and a thumb pick used in Scruggs style Bluegrass music. Picks are also used for other melodic styles of music that can be adapted to the banjo. I have always enjoyed arpeggiated melodies (notes of a chord played in succession ascending or descending) and so I decided I wanted to learn picking first. Having learned a musical instrument before, I knew that a method and routine with milestones which YouTube videos were not going to provide. So I posted to the Banjo Hangout beginner’s forum for advice. I received many suggestions, including Janet Davis’s You Can Teach Yourself the Banjo, a book which comes with a DVD. I looked up a couple of reviews and placed an order on Amazon straight away for a bargain price.

Not much more than 24 hours later it arrived and I began by reading through the first few pages. What I love about Janet Davis’s method is that you don’t have to be a musician to understand it, nor is much knowledge of the banjo assumed. She points out really important stuff that many of the video tutorials on their own do not, such as how to hold the banjo, sitting or stranding straight, how to wear the finger picks, tuning the banjo, how to read tab or tablature (very easy indeed) and so on. The stuff you really need to get sorted out before you start. I then watched a bit of the DVD and like the video tutorials I have discussed above, it too uses the split screen method to help you understand what both hands should be doing. By this stage I really felt I could go far with just me and my banjo in my living room.

In my next post I will talk about the first few lessons I have followed and my experience so far.

*I read somewhere that a camel is a horse created by committee, much like a banjo resembles a guitar created by committee, with its metal rings, drum head, cut-out finger board.

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One Response to Learning the 5-string banjo pt 2: Choosing what to learn

  1. Butch Black June 20, 2011 at 8:22 am #

    Thanks for all this Tehmina. Very helpful :)

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