Banjo For Beginners

The ultimate guide to banjo for beginners.

Bluegrass Banjo

History of Banjo

The history of the banjo is complicated and in depth. If you would like to read about the history of the instrument, read this page. Its a research paper I wrote on the origin and development of the instrument. The resources I found there (and in text citations) are what I will be using for sources.

Bluegrass’s roots were planted during the Great Migration, which was around 1910-1930. (Wikipedia). Basically African Americans migrating in large numbers to northern cities. On the way to these northern cities, many African American’s passed through Appalachia. While passing through, they introduced Appalachians to the banjo, an instrument that quickly became popular because of its new sound and relative easiness to make. Unlike the fiddle (which was also popular) almost anyone could make a banjo. Many Appalachians grew up with the instrument, including Earl Scruggs, Don Reno and Ralph Stanley. Bill Monroe is often considered the father of bluegrass. His band, “The Bluegrass Boys”, is where the genre bluegrass gets its name. Earl Scruggs played banjo for a time in the Bluegrass Boys and helped solidify the fast banjo playing that epitomizes Bluegrass. Most traditional bluegrass bands have a similar lineup to the Bluegrass boys (later I will go over the different instruments and their roles).

These traditional bluegrass bands include Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, Trampled by Turtles and The .357 String band (some lyrics of the .357 String Band are explicit). Other bands have ventured out into different territory. I clump these bands under Newgrass, but the lines are kinda fuzzy. These bands include Belá Fleck and the Flecktones, Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet and Mumford and Sons (some lyrics of Mumford and Sons are explicit).

In traditional bluegrass, there are usually a mix of the following instruments:

-The banjo is the heart of a bluegrass band. It keeps time for everyone and generally takes breaks (solos).

Fiddle (Violin)
-The fiddle is the Hutch to the banjos’ Starsky. Pepper to salt. Sarkozy to Merkel. While the banjo spews lots of notes, the fiddle hits a beautiful melody that compliments the banjos brashness. Its hard to explain. Listen to this song to better understand the harmony between the fiddle and banjo. The fiddle often also takes breaks.

-The bass adds depth to the band that normally isn’t there. It, with the banjo, keeps time. The bass is most commonly overlooked, but really helps the overall sound.

-The guitar is sort of a catch all instrument. It has the ability to keep rhythm like the banjo, pluck melodies like the fiddle, hit low notes like the bass, and strum like the mandolin. On top of this, it is fairly easy to find a guitar player since it is such a popular instrument. It is up to the individual guitar player to find their own niché. Marcus Mumford of Mumford and Sons often strums and keeps rhythm. Lester Flatt of the Foggy Mountain Boys frequently plays the bass strings and provides
backing more like a mandolin. Each guitarist should develop their own style.

-The mandolin is also percussive in a way. It is generally strummed unless taking break, during which it plays a melody line very rapidly. The mandolin is often overlooked because of its lack of volume, but skilled mandolin players can add a lot to a bluegrass band.

When playing bluegrass on banjo, I would recommend using Scruggs style. There are some people who would disagree with me, but Scruggs style is much more popular and for a couple of reasons. It is generally faster than clawhammer. Also, Scruggs style allows cleaner notes, since Scruggs style uses picks instead of bare fingers. Don’t get me wrong, I think clawhammer is great sounding (the link I have above in fiddle features Abigail Washburn, a clawhammer player) but doesn’t really fit with the clean and quick style that is bluegrass.

I would say the number one rule for playing bluegrass on a banjo is don’t strum.

There are many instruments that strum, and if you are playing in a band (which I will get to) then you sort of take away something unique about the different instruments. The banjo’s major role is to keep time, and it is easier to pick out a roll pattern than a strum
pattern. A close second is practicing solos/breaks. There are lots of these tutorials on youtube. Breaks are one of the most fun parts of playing banjo, especially when playing in a bonified band.

What about singing? The high lonesome sound of bluegrass is one of its signature aspects. If you ignore singing, then you really miss out on a very significant part of bluegrass and playing banjo in general. The first part is knowing your own voice. I’m a tenor, but I used to sing bass (badly). I always thought liked it better when I sang lower, but honestly it didn’t sound very good. That’s because I was fighting my natural position of a tenor.

Try singing one of your favorite songs and see where you scale up (hahaha). Once you know you’re position, just listen to what the others you are singing with are singing. Is there another person who is in your position? Maybe try singing a harmony line. Or do it in unison. Two basses in unison can be muddy unless they are both very clear. Too many harmonies can get confusing, especially if the lead singer isn’t very familiar with the song. Listen and think with your ears. If that isn’t working, try recording yourself and playing if back. Its painful I know, but can be very helpful. And as always, just try to be in key as much as possible. Happy Picking!

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