Hello, and welcome to the first-ever banjo feature on Guitar Noise. I am very happy to have been invited to write this introductory lesson by the esteemed David Hodge, who is familiar to most of you as the author of an incredible body of guitar instructional material available here.
Banjos, banjos, and banjos
There are several kinds of banjos, so we should begin by making sure we understand the specific instrument we are going to be discussing. Most banjos you are likely to see fall into one of two types: the 4-string, or tenor banjo, and the 5-string banjo. The tenor banjo typically has a 17 fret scale length and is usually played with a flatpick in primarily a strumming style. You might associate this type of banjo with Dixieland jazz bands – remember Eddie Peabody?
The 5-string banjo is an entirely different animal. It typically has a 22 fret scale length, give or take a couple of frets. The 5-string can be played in a wide variety of styles. A few of the more popular include classical (believe it or not), old-timey (also known as frailing, clawhammer, traditional, and other names), bluegrass (with variations referred to as Scruggs-style, melodic, chromatic, single-string and others) and jazz. I started out playing old-timey style but quickly fell in love with bluegrass. That’s the style I will be focusing on in this series of columns.
The banjo consists of a round body (often referred to as a pot or shell) typically around 11 to 12 inches in diameter, with the neck attached to the pot with lag bolts, truss rods or some other mounting hardware. Some banjos have an open back, while others have a resonator attached to the pot acting as a reflector to provide a louder and brighter sound. Old-timey players generally prefer open-back banjos, while bluegrass and jazz players usually use resonator-equipped banjos.
The 5-string is unique in that the first four strings run the entire length of the neck much like a guitar, but the 5th string is shorter, ending at the 5th fret, where a tuning peg is mounted on the side of the neck. The high-pitched, droning sound of the fifth string (it is rarely fretted) has much to do with the characteristic, recognizable sound of the 5-string.
Various tunings are utilized to create different voicings and harmonic possibilities, with open G being the most commonly used tuning. Let’s see how to get the banjo in tune.
From the 5th string to the first string, open G tuning is: g-D-G-B-d
Unless you are one of those rare individuals who have mastered perfect pitch, you’ll need a point of reference such as an electronic tuner or pitch pipe, or another in-tune instrument such as a piano or guitar. In fact, the 4th, 3rd and 2nd strings (D-G-B) of the banjo are tuned the same as the 4th, 3rd and 2nd strings of the guitar. (We can explore some interesting implications of this fact at a later time. You may already know more about playing the banjo than you realize!)
The 1st string (d) is tuned an octave higher than the open 4th string D. You may want to use the 12th-fret harmonic on the 4th string as a reference. Finally, the 5th string (g) is tuned an octave above the open 3rd string G. Again, the 12th fret harmonic on the 3rd string can serve as a reference for tuning the 5th string. You can use this fretboard diagram showing the relative tuning between the strings to check your tuning:
The 4th string fretted at the 5th fret should match the 3rd string open. The 3rd string 4th fret should match the 2nd string open. The 2nd string 3rd fret should match the 1st string open. And the 1st string 5th fret should match the 5th string open.
You should concentrate your early studies on mastering chord basics. This will pay off in a big way as your studies advance. To make it easy to learn the first few chords, we will not attempt to do anything fancy with the right hand. Just strum strings 4-3-2-1 downward with your thumb or the back of one of the fingers of your picking hand to sound the chords, so you can concentrate on forming the chords with your fretting hand. (Since our good friend David is a lefty, I’m avoiding referring to the right or left hand – we wouldn’t want to confuse him, would we?)
The tuning we are using is called open G for a good and obvious reason – you don’t need to do a thing to form a G major chord. Strum the first four strings open a few times, and assuming you were successful in getting your banjo in tune, you should hear a nice harmonious G major chord.
Since G tuning is so widely used, it isn’t surprising that a great many folk and bluegrass songs played on the banjo are played in the key of G. Therefore, the chords you should master first are the I – IV – V7 chords in the key of G: G Major, C Major and D Dominant Seventh (G – C – D7). Here are the chord diagrams for these 3 fundamental chords in the open position:
I strongly recommend that you spend plenty of time simply strumming in regular rhythm while bouncing back and forth between these three chords, in various sequence, until you can make the changes smoothly, effortlessly, and reasonably quickly. After you have the chord changes down reasonably well, continue the exercise but avoid watching your fretting hand – you will eventually need to be able to hit the chords without looking so you may as well get in the habit from the outset.
When you have accomplished the above, you will be in good position to tackle some real picking and some closed-position, movable chords. Next time, I’ll show you how to read banjo tablature and we’ll get your picking hand involved. I look forward to it!