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Tuesday, 29. September 2009

So you want to learn the banjo? Here's my first advice to someone who's looking to scratch their "banjo itch"...


I recently met someone who reported having a banjo "itch." That is, he wanted to learn to play the banjo. Upon closer questioning, I discovered he didn't know anything about it. It was simply a vague notion or ambition to play it, but without any particular familiarity. It reminded me of how I got into banjo playing in 2000 and inspired me to write him the following thoughts as an e-mail and then edit and publish those thoughts here.

I ended up playing bluegrass banjo by pure chance - I went in for a banjo lesson right after I got my first banjo and the guy happened to teach bluegrass. By pure chance I had also ordered a bluegrass book. That is the most popular form, so it wasn't all that unlikely. Over the past two to four years, however, I have explored more and more "clawhammer" banjo - and that is the form I would recommend to people like I was nine years ago when I finally scratched my banjo "itch."

Banjo can be learned as an adult. I did so without any experience on any stringed instrument. I did have experience with music - sax and clarinet as a child and singing more recently. You do not need to be able to read music to play banjo, however. All the books now are in "tab," a notation system that is simpler and is thoroughly explained in any beginner book you buy.

What follows is only about the five-string banjo. If you are interested in ragtime, dixieland, tenor banjo, Irish tenor, plectrum banjo, etc. and other variants played with four strings, I know almost nothing about them. Those are, in effect, different instruments. You can make beautiful music with them, but I can't really help you. Both of the techniques I talk about below with the five-string banjo can get a nice, "banjo" sound that is recognizably, unmistakenly "banjo." Both are good for playing melody or accompaniment. Do not be intimidated by the examples of the styles posted below. Those are all very good players, almost all professionals.

Both styles have a substantial "infrastructure" behind them. That means: lots of banjos on the market, lots of players to meet, lots of books and videos of music and for instruction available. Which style you choose is up to you, of course. Consider which sound you like best, the information I provide below, and what you hear from other people you talk to.

BLUEGRASS:

Bluegrass banjo is also called "three-finger" style. More precisely, bluegrass is a style of music and "three-finger" or "Scruggs" is the technique usually used on a banjo to play that kind of music. There are subtle variations which you might hear about with different names, but for the beginner (and indeed, for me still) it is one general technique. It involves wearing picks on the thumb and first two fingers, resting the pinky and ring finger on the banjo "head" (the white circle front) and picking the strings in an almost constant "barrage" of eighth notes.
Examples:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cHRbD7K6KAs
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pWnZFrdQFE
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PDuoKmRoR6s

Advantages:
  • It is the most popular form and that which most people think of when they think "banjo." The "Duelling Banjos" song from the movie "Deliverance" is in bluegrass style (although it doesn't look that way - the actor is playing clawhammer, but the sound is bluegrass). The most well-known banjo player Earl Scruggs ("Beverly Hillbillies" and "Foggy Mountain Breakdown") played (indeed practically invented) bluegrass banjo.
  • It is great for playing in small groups.
  • Being popular, it is probably easier to finding others who play this way for getting help and playing together.
Disadvantages:
  • The learning curve is a harder climb early on. It is a generally, although not only, fast. I once met a guy leafing through the banjo books in a shop and got to talking. He told me, "I used to play bluegrass, but quit. It is too hectic for me."
  • The banjos are generally a bit more expensive.
  • It is less appropriate for playing alone. I like to play to myself singing - and for that, bluegrass is doable, but isn't as good as clawhammer. I know only two performers who really pull off playing three-finger style totally alone, Bela Fleck and John Hartford (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dCVQ3w3sKxA or http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dkVAK60lqzQ). The Dave Hum link above also shows that the banjo can sound okay alone played this way. But it is generally for group playing.
Book recommendation:
I would recommend Jack Hatfield's beginner books. That is what I learned from. They are very gradual, making the climb as easy as possible. Go here: http://www.hatfieldmusic.com/page3.html and scroll down to "Bluegrass Banjo Method." Many people start with the Scruggs book. I found it frustrating - not gradual at all - but there is a new edition out that has been substantially revised, so perhaps that is good too. There are lots of other options. There are also many videos on YouTube to help you learn by watching and listening.

CLAWHAMMER:

Clawhammer is also called "frailing" or "old time" playing. There are differences between various styles and different views about which techniques these terms designate, but they needn't worry you. Almost all the starter books and videos go to the same places first. Worry about the rest, if ever, later. It is the older form of playing banjo, dating back to the 19th century (unlike bluegraass, which dates back to the 1930s and 1940s). This is similar to what was played by the men of both armies in the Civil War. This has an older, "plunkier" sound. It involves hitting down on the strings with one finger nail and the thumb.
Examples:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q2qkc_-MlwY
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l31MSpojWTA
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DcAlYES2HC4 (Then click through the other videos by Cox - she's amazing.)

Advantages:
  • It is easier to play, at least at first. As with all music, reaching expertise takes work. But you'll get a sound you like with clawhammer earlier than you will with bluegrass.
  • The banjos are a bit less expensive generally.
  • It is generally better for singing to when playing alone. If you see yourself as a singer-songwriter, a "bard" alone on the stage, either form can work, but this is probably better for you.
Disadvantages:
  • People will ask you to "play Foggy Mountain Breakdown" or "play the song from Deliverance" and you won't be able to. In clawhammer, you can't. Well, you can play the songs - you can play any song with just about any banjo technique - but it won't sound the way people expect or want. The sound is definitely banjo. But the famous banjo tunes are in a different style and in such a way that will probably be recognized.
  • It is harder to get heard in a group, like when you are sitting there with two or three guitar players. Especially if the guitar isn't playing old-time, but is strumming to beat the band, the way most people learn to play guitar, you will get drowned out - at least that has been my experience.
Book recommendation:

I would recommend Ken Perlman's book. That is what I learned from. (http://www.kenperlman.com/). There are other books out there, like by Wayne Erbson and Dan Levinson. I have no reason to think they are any better or worse. They are probably just as good. There are also many videos on YouTube to help you learn by watching and listening.

UPDATE:
See this video for a comparison of the two basic styles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bHCQHlZJom0


BUYING A BANJO:

Generally: You can play either bluegrass or clawhammer on any five-string banjo. But bluegrass is usually played on a resonator banjo. Clawhammer is generally played with an open-back instrument (which is why they are less expensive). But there is no religious truth to this dichotomy. Indeed, the front cover of a famous book on clawhammer banjo shows an old man with a resonator banjo. Don't let the model of five-string banjo you have stop you from trying either form. For clawhammer, it can be nice to have a banjo with what is called a "frailing scoop" (giving the hand more room), but most banjos don't have them and I've seen very good banjos played by very good players that do not have them.

If you go onto any banjo discussion forum or talk to any banjo players, the standard advice on buying is:

1) spend as much money as you can, each dollar does buy more quality (up to about $1500 or $2000 - after that, I have the impression it's mostly bells and whistles) and less frustration with learning and sound and
2) if you have no clue what you are doing, some people say to buy by weight. The heavier the banjo, the better (because there is a big difference between an aluminum or other light tone ring and a brass tone ring, with gradiation in between). This is not a very good single criterion to go by. I have heard numerous people more experienced than I say that buying by weight doesn't work. I'll stick my neck out and say that it is a good clue that you are getting a better tone ring and for a bluegrass banjo I'd not want a light or cheap tonering. But that isn't everything. Indeed, I've heard great sounding open-back banjos with just wood inside them that aren't very heavy at all.

Something I have noticed among cheap banjos hanging in guitar shops is that they sometimes have very poor tuners - they grind when you turn them or don't hold their position. Going by weight won't tell you how good the tuners are.

There are also Asian import instruments with various brand names (although they all come from one or two factories in Korea). I would be careful there. I have found them in shops for far more money than they are worth, with very low quality tuners and poor sound. The upper end imports can be very good - the lower end is very hit and miss. I have heard a Washburn that sounded great.

It can be hard to find a banjo you will want to keep long term for under $500, but that is generally the price range people look at when they start out, not wanting to invest before they know they will stick with it. If you don't want to spend more than a few hundred dollars, I would recommend one of the following options:

- the Deering "Goodtime II" (the one with the resonator) for bluegrass or the "Goodtime I" (without the resonator) for clawhammer (for example, here: http://www.janetdavismusic.com/goodtime.html). These often hang in guitar shops. How well it sounds will depend on how much the shop there cares about banjos and keeps it tuned and with good strings on it.

- You might also find a Gold Tone instrument in that price range, but probably only in a shop that carries banjos and has someone who knows about them - which is not a bad thing. If I recall, their "Cripple Creek" model is about the same price as the Goodtime and probably a good buy, available both with and without a resonator. I've heard it recommended by people whose judgement I trust. The Goodtime might be a bit better overall, I don't know. But the Cripple Creek generally "looks" better, more like a traditional banjo - and I'll have to admit that that is important to me.

- Generally, I would recommend as a start getting a used banjo that is of a higher quality than getting a new one. Hunt around on banjo shops like Janet Davis, Elderly Instruments, Jack Hatfield, Turtle Hill, Banjo.com etc. until you have an idea about which brand names are serious, good banjos. Then either plunge in and get one or look for a used version from one of those brands on ebay, the classifieds at banjohangout.org, banjovault.com or one of the shops mentioned above.

You can go to banjohangout.org and find people in your area. They will be able to recommend a shop. They might also be willing to meet you and talk about banjos.

One idea would be to watch e-bay and then ask me or someone else you know for advice on any instrument you consider buying there. I got my first instrument on e-bay without any advice. I got a playable Asian import for $250, but later realized I shouldn't have paid more than about $150 for it, perhaps less. The string action and the cheap tuners became frustrating after a time, so when I realized I was in this hobby for good, I spent a month's pay on a professional quality banjo. I did construction experiments with the first banjo and ruined it. I sold the remains at a flea market a few years ago.


=======================================================================================
This was originally written in September of 2009. I have updated it as of 2014, however.
Here's a short article at the Deering homepage that covers some of these issues as well: http://blog.deeringbanjos.com/is-one-banjo-style-more-difficult-than-another/
Dylan Macnab (guest) - 2010.04.23, 00:13

Banjo!

Hey, I really enjoyed your differentiation of the two banjo styles. Many people often don't realize there is anything but bluegrass or 3 finger style banjo. When I first started I tried teaching myself 3 finger but it was too difficult and I eventually gave up. After a couple years passed, I found some really helpful youtube videos of clawhammer banjo. I played with those for a while, but I really had an "itch" for that bluegrass sound! Over the last year or so I've relearned 3 finger and still somtimes play clawhammer. Its really great to have both. Keeps things fresh, you know?

Anyway, I enjoyed the read. You might like my blog if you take a look. Lots of free folk music and artist reviews.

Check out: thepursuitoffolk.blogspot.com

thanks for looking and keep on pickin!

mhatlie - 2010.05.03, 00:54

Thanks...

Thanks for your comments. I'll check out your blog!
Mike (guest) - 2013.07.22, 20:24

Old time banjos

here are some beautiful old time banjos with a number of innovations-like a cool frailing platform. true works of art:
http://www.docsbanjos.com/
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