The banjo is a 4, 5 or 6 stringed instrument that is widely gaining momentum across many genres of music. If you are a beginner banjo player, there is a lot to learn before purchasing your first instrument. There is a popular misconception that the origin of the modern banjo is American. This instrument actually originates in Africa. If you are interested in finding more about this instrument’s origins, read this great blog called The History of the Banjo by The Bitter Southerner.
4, 5 and 6-Stringed Banjos
The Banjo comes in 4,5, and 6 string varieties. Deciding which beginner banjo to purchase can depend on what style of music you intend to play. Another consideration on how many strings to select is what instrument you may already have experience with.
A 6-stringed banjo can be a wonderful option for someone who already plays the guitar. This instrument can be tuned to the same pitches as the guitar, so it is perfect for a beginner banjo player that already knows the guitar. A person picking up a 5-string banjo will not need to learn new chord shapes, rather play the same hand shapes they know on the guitar. The 5-string banjo is typically the instrument you will hear American old-time music played on.
If you are a beginner banjo player and play the violin, viola, cello or mandolin, you may consider a 4-stringed instrument. A tenor banjo can be tuned to CGDA which is the standard tuning of the cello and viola. This instrument may also be tuned to GDAE which is the standard tuning of a violin and mandolin.
Open Back and Resonator Banjos
If you are a beginner banjo enthusiast, you will need to pick which style of body is right for you. There are two main styles of bodies on banjos. A resonator banjo is typical in bluegrass and country music. The resonator or bowl on the back of the instrument reflects the sound. Thus, the resonator style makes it a louder instrument than its counterpart. The bowl also gives the resonator banjo a more metallic sound.
An open back banjo is heard in old-time and folk styles of music. It features a more mellow sound. The types of playing styles often played on an open back banjo include fingerpicking, frailing, and clawhammer style.
Speaking of styles of playing the banjo, the famous musical duo Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn are doing an excellent job of educating the populous on the variety of styles available. This video showcases their different styles and how they can work together with Abigail’s clawhammer style using the backs of fingernails and Béla’s Scruggs-style using metal fingerpicks.
There are so many options to consider when choosing a banjo: the number of strings, body style, and the intended playing style. Your beginner banjo experience will be aided by choosing a great teacher, quality instrument, and committing to practice time. You will also need to have the right accessories, such as a banjo tuner, string winder, an extra set of strings, banjo strap, a capo and a great banjo method book.
Here are a few videos that to send you off on your beginner banjo journey:
Julie by Rhiannon Giddens
The Crow by Steve Martin and Steep Canyon Rangers
Dueling Banjos by Kermit the Frog and Steve Martin
Katie Senn is the Content and Community Engagement Manager for West Music. Her background is in music education, with an emphasis in orchestral directing and cello. She performs regularly around the midwest with her all-female folk band Awful Purdies. She serves her local community as a board member for the following organizations: Iowa City Music Auxilary, Kennedy Center’s Any Given Child, and her children’s before and afterschool program.