As Linus once told Charlie Brown, every baby should get a banjo! Here at JamAlong Music we believe this to be true, if for the only reason that it is impossible to play banjo and be in a bad mood! (disclaimer: your roommates and loved ones may very likely end up in a bad mood shortly, but the actual operator of the banjo remains in good spirits).
This blog is intended for those of you lucky enough to have just acquired a banjo, and to you we say: congratulations and welcome! Now, before you go running off and buying instruction books, or worse, YouTubing “how to play banjo” and end up trying to learn Possum On A Gum Stump by the guy wearing suspenders and nothing else…hold on! There are some basic survival skills you need to have.
First off, when you first pick up that thing it may very well be way out-of-wack. That is bluegrass-bonics for “needing some adjustment”, and with banjos the most common issue is usually bridge placement. That little wooden thing with legs that sits on the drum head and holds the strings in place? That’s called the “bridge”, and unfortunately it is very easy to get bumped and shifted into the wrong spot. Especially with new banjos or ones that came from grandpa’s attic!
So, there are a number of ways to make sure your bridge is in the right place, ranging from using harmonics to burning sage and chanting to the ancestors (in California). But the way we’re going to show ya is only going to require you have a measuring stick! yep. All you need to do is make sure that your bridge is the same distance from the 12th fret (usually the fret with two dots next to it) as the 12th fret is from the nut!
Now before you go panicking, remember, you can always shirk all personal responsibility and just book a Skype appointment with us and we’ll walk you through everything step by step (email us HERE to do that). Or, you may get lucky and your bridge is already in the sweet spot. But if you notice that, no matter how much you tune the d*** thing it still sounds like a stepped on sitar, than the odds are pretty good the bridge needs to be adjusted.
Speaking of tuning, that is the next thing we must discuss! Here again we make you the offer to avoid any real learning and just have us do it for you over Skype (you like this approach don’t you), but if you want to develop some independence here’s the deal: there are basically three ways to tune yer banjo…
1) Relative Tuning
2) Using a Tuner
3) Tuning by Ear
Let’s go over these…First Relative Tuning. This is where you hand your banjo to a relative and say “here, tune this!” Sorry, kidding. Relative Tuning refers to tuning your banjo “relative to itself”, and so the drawback is that although you will be able to play and sound good, you may not necessarily be in tune with other instruments (like at the Sunday evening jam). But, here is how you do this: Press the 2nd string at the 3rd fret, and tune it so it matches the first string. Then, press the third string at the 4th fret, and match it to the 2nd string. Now press the 4th string at the 5th fret and match it to the 3rd string. Still with us? Good. Now press the 1st string at the 5th fret and tune that little 5th string peg to match. if you’ve matched all of your strings in this fashion, you should be pretty durn near to being in tune.
However, it’s a good idea to learn how to tune “for reals”, and so we must now refer you to using an “electronic tuner”. Don’t let the scary terminology scare you away, all this means is that you’re going to let a machine do it for you. You’ve used a microwave, right? Well this is easier. You’re just going to pluck a string, and if it’s too low, the tuner needle will blink to the left, and if it’s too high the tuner will blink to the right. And you’ll just twist the knob until it blinks in the middle! That’s really all there is to it. It is a real smart move to get yourself a tuner like right now, because they clip onto your banjo and you’ll always have it nearby when you need to tune (and banjo players generally spend half of their life tuning, and the other half playing out of tune!)
So, head on over to our online store and pick one up (yes, we sell the super cool one pictured).
Lastly, you can learn to tune “by ear”. This is admittedly the hardest way to get started with, but once you get it, you’ll be able to tune up to anyone else at the jam! And as you can imagine this would be extremely handy. Just don’t tune to the accordion player 🙂
So how do we tune by ear? Well, the answer is brutally simple: you listen to a note, and try to twist your tuning peg till your string sounds like that note. It’s really not any more glamorous than that. And to be frank, it is just a process of trial and error, doing it over and over until you get it. We have some super handy tuning videos HERE (or click the little tuning-fork icon on the top right of the website). Just try to match what you hear, and eventually you’ll get it…
However, it would be folly to get your banjo in perfect tune, and then just have it knocked back out again! This happens a lot, and in fact leaning your banjo against the wall or even taking it in and out of the case will eventually bump your tuning pegs. This is why we are such big fans of the wall hanger! Think of it this way: the more you see your banjo, the more you’re likely to play it. It’s science. And the sad fact is when you store your banjo in it’s case, it’s just one more barrier between you and having it in your lap. So, use your case for getting to and from jam sessions, but when you’re not strumming your banjo it should be hanging on the wall. Trust us. Instrument stands are OK too, but not if kids of puppies are romping around, banjos in stands fall over easy. In any case (ha) we have both stands and wall hangers in our store as well.
Finally, you’ll want to create an area where all your music needs are in one convenient spot. We call the your Jam Zone! You’ll want an armless chair, your computer (or tablet), your tuner, some headphones so as not to stress your already frayed relationships, and a nearby wall with your banjo elegantly displayed in its hanger.
(FYI more and more of our students are using their cell phones to access their JamAlong page, and it makes a lot of sense. That means with your phone and some ear-buds you can pretty much plop down and study anywhere! So be sure to bookmark JamAlong.org on your phone…)
Well now that your bridge is in the right spot, you are all tuned up and your banjo has a good home, it’s time to get to pickin! First things first, let’s talk about holding your banjo. Unlike a guitar, which is slung on one leg or the other, the banjo is best held directly between your thighs, with the neck at a 45 degree angle upward. Lean the back of the banjo (called the resonator) against your belly, and wiggle around until it feels snug and you’re not wrestling with it. Once you have it safely nestled in your lap, go ahead and strum, plunk and twang for a minute, and make sure everything feels comfy. The idea is you should be focusing on what your hands are doing, not on trying to keep it from hitting the floor! Now after you’ve had some bonding time making unfortunate noises, it’s time to move on to what many find the oddest attribute of the banjo: wearing picks!
Ah yes, the strange Southern custom of torturing ones fingertips with little metal clamps. Now to be honest, you could just ignore using picks entirely and defect over to the Old Timey camp of “frailing” the banjo. Yes, we know that is always an option, just like many temptations you will face as you go through this life. And all we can say to that is, we know you want to do the right thing, and we hope that you will. (e.g. playing three finger picking bluegrass banjo!)*
OK, here is the deal with picks: Although it will feel like wearing a raincoat in the shower at first, it really is best to just dive in and start using them from the get-go. We’ve had students who ignored this and then decided to start using picks later on after they went to some jams and realized they couldn’t be heard, and boy was that painful. It was like postponing learning to tie your shoes until you were thirty. So, pick some up (yes, you know what we’re going to say about where to buy them), put them on, and start using them today!
We have a super easy banjo lesson (read: FREE) on how to use picks called “Baby Steps to the Banjo”, so click HERE and go through the video. You’ll be glad you did. (But hurry up before we decide to start charging for it again)
Finally, remember, the whole point about the banjo is that it’s meant to be FUN! And, fun is always funner when shared with your friends, so get out there and start bringing it to potlucks, picnics and jam sessions! Don’t worry about “being good” or “bothering people”, the banjo is such a cool device that everyone will be happy just to see it. It’s like bringing a parrot or a monkey. You can’t go wrong.
And even though we’re all sick of Facebook by now, we have to say that it’s a great place to meet other beginner banjo players, so be sure to go spend some time hanging out on our JamAlong Facebook Page. Tell folks your a brand new JamAlonger and you want to talk banjo!
Lastly but not leastly, you’re always welcome to email, call, live-chat or text us here at JamAlong Music, because that’s what we do, help folks like you learn music! So if you haven’t already done so, go sign up for a (free) account and that way you’ll have your own member area where we can put videos, TAB and recording up for you! It’s like having your own online musical playpen :-). Just click on this link and do what ya gotta do: JamAlong sign-up page…
We’ll look forward to hearing how you’re doin with that twangy thang!
* Disclaimer: JamAlong Music and it’s affiliates make no claim that bluegrass banjo is in any way superior to clawhammer and frailing banjo, or that clawhammer and frailing banjo players are simply throwbacks from a bygone era who refuse to see the light and follow the righteous path that Earl Scruggs founded for us, and are instead choosing to capitalize on the current trendiness of Old Time music to avoid learning how to play banjo how God intended: wearing picks and playing rolls.