If you’ve been mulling over the idea of learning a new instrument, then the banjo is likely to have crossed your mind at least once–especially if you’re a bluegrass fan!
But if you’re new to stringed instruments or music in general, you may be wondering how difficult the banjo will be for you to pick up.
Let’s take a look at how the banjo compares to similar instruments in terms of difficulty and go over a few key areas of the learning process so that you can decide whether the banjo is right for you!
How hard is it to learn banjo? With time and dedication, learning the banjo can be made easier when spacing out consistent practice time allowing for muscle memory development and brain connections. Playing becomes second nature with lots of time spent on the banjo.
The short answer: It really isn’t as hard as it looks!
If you’ve ever watched Earl Scruggs or Pete Seeger appear to redefine music with their impressive strumming skills, it’s understandable if you feel a bit intimidated at first. However, the banjo is actually touted as one of the easiest instruments to pick up and start learning how to play!
So, what are some of the characteristics that make the banjo so beginner-friendly?
Well, for starters, the banjo is tuned to an open G by default.
That means that you can strum your first G chord without having to fret a single note!
Since many banjos have one less string than 6-string guitars do they’re generally smaller as well. The smaller neck makes the banjo easier to hold for most adults and requires less of a finger stretch in order to fret chords smoothly.
Also, while banjos tend to be heavier than guitars since the instrument’s structure generally includes more metal components, a banjo’s strings are often of a lighter gauge than guitar and ukulele strings are. This means that you’ll probably have to use less force to fret a note on a banjo than you would with most guitars and other stringed instruments.
If fretting demands less force and effort then you’ll likely find that you have more energy left for longer practice sessions. This combination of an inviting structure and standardized tuning that sets you up for success make the banjo an easy instrument to get a feel for!
Are some types of banjos easier to play than others?
As you might expect, the answer is yes. There are a couple of different factors to consider when looking for the banjo that will feel most natural for you to learn and practice with. For instance, while many banjos have five strings, others have four or six.
If you have a background in guitar, you might prefer the freedom and depth that six strings will provide. If you’re entirely new to stringed instruments, you might find that fewer strings are less complicated and easier for you to start with.
You’ll also want to take the width of the banjo’s neck and the size of your hands into consideration while shopping around. The number of strings on your banjo will often correlate with the width of the neck, so that more strings will go hand-in-hand with a wider neck. While most banjos tend to follow this pattern, there are plenty of exceptions so take the time to compare instruments and find your best fit. The absence of a need to reach or strain makes a huge difference for many beginners!
As mentioned earlier: Since banjo necks are usually narrow compared to guitar necks, more complex chords, especially barre chords, are generally easier to fret.
It is worth noting that many people base the above statement on the fact that the strings are closer together on a narrow neck and require less stretching to reach. However, this can be a bit of a double-edged sword depending on the size of your hands!
If you have slim, small hands then the narrower neck and closely spaced strings will make things easier for you. But if you have larger fingers and struggle to fret cleanly on a narrow neck, then a banjo with a wider neck and/or fewer strings may be a better fit for you. When it comes down to it, finding your banjo is a lot like looking for the right pair of shoes: Don’t be afraid to try several on for size and experiment a little to find the right fit.
Additionally, while the number and placement of the banjo strings are of pivotal importance for beginners, tuning keys are also very important. The quality of the tuning keys will affect how long the banjo stays in tune after it’s been tuned correctly. Most beginners don’t want to constantly worry about having to re-tune their banjo after every practice session, let alone multiple times a day. You want to be able to focus on improving your technique and putting in adequate practice time instead of dealing with the frustration of keys that allow the strings to slowly slip out of tune during the course of long practice sessions!
So, what should I focus on to make the learning process easier?
The most important factor in the learning progression of any musician, regardless of their instrument, is dedication and practice. This holds true for the banjo as well. Many skilled banjo players state that building muscle memory with your instrument is one of the greatest steps you’ll take towards success, and the best way to do that is simply by practicing.
At the same time, remember to take breaks when necessary! Get up, set your instrument down for a while, and walk around a bit. Stretch your fingers and arms to avoid cramping and fatigue. Learning anything new takes a lot of effort, so it’s important to pace yourself comfortably. Above all, the point of learning to play the banjo is to have fun! If you’re enjoying yourself, then the learning process will come much more easily to you than it would otherwise.
Another crucial factor in making the learning process easier on yourself is finding and settling into the learning style that best suits you. No two people learn music in quite the same way! Fortunately, there are tons of different resources available for eager beginners who want to learn the banjo. This leaves you the freedom to feel things out and pick the lesson plan that will help you get the most out of your music sessions!
No matter which learning approach you take, don’t hesitate to be critical in terms of assessing whether or not it’s a good match for you. If you opt for traditional lessons and meet with an instructor once a week, make sure you can form a good connection with them and successfully apply what they’re telling you. If you prefer to browse the internet for video tutorials, make sure you can find an independent course or series that’s complete enough to cover everything you want to learn. It cannot be said enough: Learning the banjo is fun, and your learning approach should empower and encourage you to make the most of it!
Now that I’ve found my ideal instrument and learning plan, which picking style should I try?
In the world of banjo playing, the two primary banjo styles you’ll hear about are Clawhammer and Bluegrass. Clawhammer is a method that involves rhythmic strumming, while Bluegrass or “Three-finger picking” involves picking individual strings instead.
In short: Clawhammer is often touted as the easier and less-complicated banjo playing style out of the two for beginners to learn. All the same, you should give both a try–everyone is different and your preferences might surprise you!
Clawhammer picking is named after the claw-like shape that your hand forms so that you can strum the strings with the backs of your index and middle fingers, alternating that movement with a hammering motion of your extended thumb. The result is the distinctive “back and forth” or “swinging” rhythm that so many banjo pieces are known for.
Bluegrass or Three-finger picking was popularized by Earl Scruggs and utilizes the thumb, index, and middle fingers to pick the banjo strings one by one. As you might expect, this method can be a bit more complex and requires a bit more dexterity than the Clawhammer method. So, while both styles have their merits, you might want to build up your beginner’s repertoire with songs that utilize the Clawhammer method for starters.
Have a look at the mastery of Earl Scruggs in this video:
Once you get the hang of the rhythmic Clawhammer movement, a whole world of musical possibilities will open up to you. You’ll likely be surprised by how many of your favorite banjo songs become far less daunting once you familiarize yourself with that single strumming movement that’s so core to their composition. As you continue to practice and the movement becomes second nature, you’ll find that plenty of classic tunes are easier than you once thought!
Keep in mind:
Dedication and hard work make up the foundation of any learning process, and musical pursuits are no different. However, when it comes down to which instrument you’ll dedicate yourself to practicing, the banjo is actually one of the most beginner-friendly options out there!
In order to minimize your early obstacles even further, ensure that you find a banjo with the right number of strings and the ideal neck width for you. You’ll want something that’s comfortable to hold and practical for you to fret cleanly once you practice a bit. Once you’ve picked your instrument, make sure you opt for a lesson style that complements the way you learn best. Schedule flexibility, accountability, and a connection with the materials you’re using are all important factors to consider.
Clawhammer is widely thought of as the easier banjo style for beginners, so you might want to try that out first. If you’re unsure of which banjo style you feel more at home with, then go ahead and try both Clawhammer and Bluegrass to see which feels better. Lastly, make sure you’re having fun. Pace yourself appropriately, make time to play freely, and enjoy your journey as you learn one of the most beginner-friendly instruments you can get your hands on!
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.