If you’re like me, the first time you heard someone play the banjo was also the first time you watched the Muppets. And if you were like me, you probably wanted to know what the thing even was—and why something with so much twang sounded so cool.

In the time since you first heard the banjo, I’m willing to bet that you’re looking to learn how to play it. And believe it or not, learning how to play banjo can be surprisingly easy. And like the guitar, you can actually teach yourself many of the basics of playing the banjo.

Ready to dive in? Let’s get started.

How to Play the Banjo

Before we talk about the fundamentals of how to play the banjo, let’s chat about what you should look for in your instrument:

  1. A banjo that’s comfortable to play. Take note of how the instrument feels in your hands. If it feels uncomfortable while you’re just holding it, you’ll likely have a difficult time playing it.
  2. A warranty. Ensuring that you have some sort of insurance on your instrument will make it easier to stick with it as you learn how to play banjo.

Once you’ve found the banjo that works for you, feel free to dive into the following six steps of how to play a banjo.

Step 1: Tune Your Instrument

This is a really basic aspect of playing the banjo. But it’s also really important—if your instrument is out of tune, nothing will sound the way you’d like.

There are many alternate tunings for banjos, but the most common banjo tuning is a 5-string setup. The notes from the 5th string to the 1st are G, D, G, B, D.

Pick up a clip-on tuner, which makes it really easy to see how close you are to your desired pitch. Bonus: They can be really cheap.

Step 2: Adjust Your Body

While you could technically hold the banjo however you’d like, there is a proper way to hold it. Here are a few things that the folks at McNeela Instruments suggest to help you get comfortable holding your banjo:

  1. Sit the banjo on your lap while seated. Tuck the tailpiece end into your right hip. Create a 30-40 degree angle between your left hip and the butt of the banjo neck.
  2. If you’ve tucked the banjo into your lap properly, it shouldn’t need too much additional support from your left or right hand.
  3. Keep the neck of the banjo at an angle of approximately 45-65° to your body.

Step 3: Put Your Hands in Position

Strumming a banjo is quite different than strumming a guitar. The good news? Proper right-hand technique on the banjo isn’t difficult to learn.

Skillshare instructor Chuck M. demonstrates proper right hand technique on the banjo.

Most experts agree that it’s critical to keep your wrist in a “neutral” position. If you bend your wrist sharply in either direction, you’ll find it difficult to get a good tone from the instrument, especially when you’re learning how to play banjo chords. Additionally, the folks at Deering Banjos suggest posturing your picking hand like it’s holding an egg, which enables you to play faster without additional tension on your wrist.

Step 4: Get Comfortable Playing a Banjo With a Pick

Here’s another example where the guitar and the banjo couldn’t be more different. While you can play a guitar with just one pick, many banjo players use several.

banjo pick
Source: Wikimedia
Famous banjo player Don Wayne Remo illustrates how to play the banjo with finger picks.

Banjo players wear picks on their thumb, pointer, and middle fingers. David Bandrowski at Deering Banjos says that new players tend to wear picks as if their thumbnails, which he says is incorrect. “If you put the pick on like this you will hook the strings every time you try to play, as opposed to glancing off of the strings,” Bandrowski adds. “You want to put the pick on to cover the flesh part of your finger and it will curve up towards your nails.”

Step 5: Learn Basic Rolls on the Banjo

The term “banjo roll” is used to describe a pattern played by the banjo that uses a repeating eighth-note arpeggio that by subdividing the beat “keeps time.” Reading about banjo rolls is probably not as productive to learning how to play banjo chords as hearing them. 

To help you get started, here are a few banjo courses for beginners that you can dive into on Skillshare:

Easy Songs to Learn on the Banjo

We’ve discussed a lot of the basics of how to play a banjo. But the basics aren’t always the most fun, even when you’re just getting started. To change things up a bit, here are a few easy banjo songs that beginner-level players can teach themselves:

There are dozens of songs that even beginners can play on the banjo after they’ve learned some of the basics. And even if it takes you a little time to work up to playing these songs, be patient with yourself and remember to have fun.

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Written by:

Richard Moy