Mastering the Neck of the 5-String Banjo

Understanding Closed Chords

As I promised in my Banjo Basics Lesson, I will now give you the closed major chord positions that will allow you to play comfortably up and down the neck. When you master these, you will free yourself from being tied to the low-neck, open chord positions introduced in the prior lessons.

When I refer to “closed chords,” what I mean is that no “open” or unfretted strings are used. This is powerful, because as you will see, closed chord shapes can be moved up and down the neck freely to create different chords without changing the basic shape your fretting hand makes. When you master this concept, you will be able to play just as easily way up the neck (above the 12th fret) as you can down in the low positions below the 5th fret. Maybe easier, since the frets get closer together further up the neck and your fingers don’t have to stretch as far. You will also be able to play in any key just as easily as G or C. Now that’s what I call powerful!

It is not my intent to provide full-blown lessons in chord theory – there are plenty of resources that do that. For our purposes, it is only necessary to understand that a Major chord consists of the first, third, and fifth notes of a Major scale, and that the first note of the scale (known as the root) names the scale and the chord. So, for example, a G Major scale consists of the notes G, A, B, C, D, E and F# (F sharp). Therefore, a G Major chord consists of the notes G, B and D, which are the first, third, and fifth notes of the G Major scale. When referring to Major chords, the term “Major” is often dropped for simplicity. So when someone refers to a G chord, they are implying G Major, OK?

Interestingly, if you look at the most common tuning of the 5-string banjo (at least as played in the bluegrass style), you’ll notice that the strings are all tuned to notes in the G Major chord: gDGBd. That’s why this tuning is called G tuning (or Open G tuning). That’s also why you can strum or pick the open strings together and get a nice harmonious sound. Amazing, huh?

The Barre Chord Shape

Now, lay the index finger of your fretting hand across the first four strings at the second fret, forming a “barre” across the neck. This forms an A Major chord, and this makes sense if you know that an A note is two half-steps (frets) higher than a G note. What do you do about the funny short 5th string, you ask? Well, for the time being, we are going to focus all of our attention on the first four strings and essentially ignore the existence of the 5th string. Further down the road we will deal with some of the special problems and opportunities presented by the 5th string.

Strum slowly across the first four strings and make sure you can hear each string clearly. If one or more of the notes is muted or dead, you may be holding your barre finger on top of the fret, or too far away from the fret. The barre should be held just behind the desired fret. You may also want to try extending your finger a little further across the neck, or less far, until you find a position that creates a clean sound on all four strings. You can also put your middle finger on top of your index to help push down on the fretboard. The pad of your thumb should be directly behind the neck, opposite your barre, providing the leverage to squeeze the neck and fret all four stings firmly.

Slide the barre up two more frets to the 4th fret. What chord does this form? If you answered B Major, you get a gold star. In fact, if you know the repeating twelve-tone Chromatic Scale, you can now play every Major chord on the banjo neck – with one finger!

For those of you who have not yet seen or understood the Chromatic scale, take a look at this:

Chromatic scale

If you’re not already aware, the note between G and A can be referred to either as G# (G sharp) or Ab (A flat). It may help in learning the chromatic scale to note that there is no note between B and C and no note between E and F.

This shows you the sequence of half-step intervals of the Chromatic Scale, starting at the arbitrary but banjo-centric starting point of the G note. It will serve you well if you will take the time and effort to memorize it.

Think of that piece of plastic, bone or ivory (the nut) that holds the strings in position near the peghead of your banjo as fret number zero. Now think of the chord the nut forms as a barre at the 0th fret. That’s a G barre chord, got it? Slide the barre up to fret 1 and you have a G# barre chord, fret 2 gives you an A, and so on, all the way up to fret 12 where you get to G again. From there, the chords repeat in the same pattern. Theoretically this could go on orever, but the frets would get awfully close together and your fat fingers wouldn’t fit anyway, so the clever designers of the banjo decided enough was enough and ended the neck at around fret number 22 (some banjos have a few more or a few less than 22 frets).

I have another favorite name for the chord shape I’ve been calling the Barre. I call it the “root 3″ shape because the root note of the chord, for which the chord is named, is the third string note. Consider the open G chord at “fret 0.” The third string is a G note, right? So the root 3 shape at the 0 fret is a G Major chord. The root 3 shape at the 7th fret is a D Major chord. And so on. Make sense? Take another hard look at the Chromatic Scale above if you’re not sure.

This would be a good point to take a break and grab a cold one, before we dive into the next topic.

The “F” Chord Shape

You have to admit, the barre shape is pretty simple to master – too simple, in fact. If playing the banjo was really that simple, all of us world-famous banjo teachers wouldn’t be as fabulously wealthy as we are. So now I want to make life much more difficult for you (Just kidding!).

Take a look at this chord diagram:

F Major

i = index finger
m = middle finger
r = ring finger
l = little finger (pinkie)

This particular chord shape, when played at the first, second and third frets as indicated, creates an F Major chord. Therefore, it is commonly referred to as the “F Shape.” You may find it difficult to get your fretting hand to cleanly fret all four of these notes, but it will get easier with time and practice. Trust me. (Where have I heard those words before???)

A couple of pointers, to help you get clean sounds and prevent the development of bad habits:

  • The palm of your fretting hand should generally be held almost parallel to the side of the neck, with the base of the index finger only a little closer to the side of the neck than the base of the little finger.
  • The pad of your thumb should be near the back (rounded) part of the neck or slightly up the side of the neck nearest your face, but it should not stick up above the fretboard. Think of squeezing the neck between your fingertips and your thumb.
  • The fretting fingers should generally be pressing straight down on the strings with the tips of the fingers, unless a finger is fretting more than one string as with the barre shape.

This combination of details will help you avoid touching more than one string with each finger and allow for each string to sound cleanly. It should be noted that these are general guidelines only and many techniques will require modifications to your hand position. But it is best to start with these ideas in mind and develop good habits as the basis of your overall technique.

Here’s a picture of my left hand in proper position making the F chord:

Left Hand position

Again, strum the first four strings slowly and make sure each note is clean and clear. Repeat this over and over, SLOWLY. Relax your fretting hand between strums, so that your hand does not get tired and cramp up. Don’t lift your fingers from the strings, just let them relax briefly, and then “squeeze” the chord again just before beginning the next strum. This squeeze-relax-squeeze-relax rhythm will become the basis for some good back-up techniques a little later.

I sometimes call the F Shape the “root 1-4 shape.” Any guesses why? You got it. Because the root note of the chord is the note found on the 1st and 4th strings. At the position we’ve been discussing, the 1st string 3rd fret is – guess what – an F note. The same is true for the 4th string 3rd fret, since they are both tuned to the same note an octave apart.

Slide the shape up a fret, and it becomes an F# (F Sharp Major). Slide it up another fret and it becomes a G Major. It is worth focusing on this shape at this position because you will be using it a lot. Here’s a chord diagram for this important G Major position:

G major

Memorize this “F shape” G chord as applied at the 3rd fret position, and think about how it is related to the F chord at the first fret position. Slide it up two more frets (to the 5th fret position) to make an A chord. Move it along two more (7th position) to make a B chord. And one more fret (8th position) to make a C chord. In this manner, you will be able to transpose to different keys and play in different voicings up and down the neck.

Got the F shape down pat? Grab another cold one, and when you’re ready let’s tackle one more shape.

The D Chord Shape

Now consider this chord diagram:

D major

This chord shape, when played at the 2nd fret position as indicated, creates a D Major chord. Review the fretting hand techniques I outlined above, and strum the first 4 strings, checking for clean, clear tones. Repeat over and over, using the squeeze-relax-squeeze-relax technique, and get used to the “feel” of this chord shape.

Here is my left hand playing the D chord:

Left Hand playing D

For whatever reason, many people find this to be the hardest of the three shapes we have covered. It is admittedly somewhat of an awkward shape to put your hand into, but again I ask you to trust me – it will become very easy after a few million iterations. ; ^ )

I call this shape the “root 2″ shape because the note on the 2nd string defines the chord. In this position, the 2nd string fretted on the 3rd fret is a D note, and therefore this is a D Major chord.

Slide the shape up a fret, and it becomes a D#. Slide it one more, and it is E. Are you getting the idea? This ability to slide the closed chord shapes up and down, using the Chromatic Scale as a reference, gives us the ability to create any Major chord we need using these same, soon-to-be-familiar shapes.

And the best news of all is. . . we’re done! There are only three Major chord shapes on the 5-string banjo neck, using open G tuning, and one is a simple barre. If you grok what has been presented here, and become comfortable with it, you have come a LONG way toward mastery of the neck. Of course applying this to make good music is an infinite pursuit, but you already have a powerful set of tools toward that end.

Pulling It All Together

If you have been able to work through the lesson successfully to this point, you can create each of the three Major chord shapes and get reasonably clean 4-string chord sounds with each. And if you understand how to apply the shapes to the Chromatic Scale, you can move the shapes up and down the neck to get any Major chord you might need, with each of the three shapes.

The next step is to develop proficiency in moving between the shapes smoothly. This can be quite a challenge, and will likely be frustrating at times. I will present some exercises to help you work on this important, essential skill.

Bump – Chick

The “bump – chick” is my name for a basic rhythm picking pattern that I find terrifically useful. In fact, it is the foundation for backup picking in most situations. I confess that I use this simple pattern almost all the time when I am singing, since I find it very difficult to pick anything at all intricate while singing.

Place your fretting hand in position to play the 3rd position G chord I described above. Let your fingers relax, just touching the strings but not squeezing the neck yet. Now, squeeze the chord momentarily and pick the 4th string with the thumb of your picking hand, and as soon as the note sounds, relax your fretting hand to dampen the sound quickly. Next, squeeze the chord again with your fretting hand and pick the third, second and first strings simultaneously with the thumb, index and middle fingers of your picking hand. Again, relax your fretting hand to dampen the sound once the notes are sounded. Repeat this pattern over and over, alternating between the single note on the 4th string (“bump”) and the three-note chord on the 3rd, 2nd and 1st strings (“chick”). Go slowly, and make the interval of time between each bump and chick as perfectly equal as you can.

This sound complicated as I see it written out verbally, but it is actually quite easy to execute once you get the idea. Here is an MP3 clip that will help you get the idea:

And here it is written out in tablature:

Example 1

After you have practiced this simple picking pattern with the G chord, change to the C chord (barre at the 5th fret) and do the Bump-Chick with that for a while.

Example 2

Then do the same thing with the D chord in the 2nd position.

Example 3

If you have been following along successfully to this point, you are making GREAT progress! Here is another exercise to further solidify what you’ve learned so far.

Using the same three closed chord positions and Bump-Chick picking pattern, play two measures of G, then two measures of C, then 2 measures of D, then 2 measures of G, repeating the sequence over and over at a slow, smooth rhythm. If you’re quite comfortable, speed it up just a bit.

Here’s an MP3 demonstrating what this sounds like:

Now try a different, but very useful sequence. Play two measures of G, then two measures of C, then back to G for two measures, then two measures of D, and repeat this sequence.

Finally, do these same exercises but changing chords each measure.

Here is a final MP3 showing how this sounds, and then some “noodling around” with some variations to the picking pattern to give you a hint of what’s to come.

I hope you are getting as much out of reading and practicing these lessons as I am writing them. I apologize for the delay between lessons, but my real job and other activities limit how much time and energy I have been able to devote to this. Please feel free to write and give me your reactions, suggestions, etc.

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