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How easy is it to learn the banjo?
August 1, 2006 2:48 PM   Subscribe

How easy is it to learn to pay the banjo?

I have always desired to play an instrument - gave up piano lessons as a child and regret it. Someone told me the banjo is a good instrument to learn and easier than the guitar. True? Are banjos expensive? Would I need lessons?
posted by A189Nut to Education (26 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
My son is taking guitar lessons and his guitar teacher is also showing him how to play the banjo since we have an old banjo as well. From a absolute beginner's perspective, I'd say it's about the same as a guitar.
posted by GuyZero at 2:54 PM on August 1, 2006


No, it's easier, since a banjo only has four or five strings, in comparison to the guitar's six. Course, it depends on the type of playing -- there's the bluegrass finger-picking style, which uses the thumb and first two fingers of the right hand, typically played on five-string; and then there's simple chords, easily picked up from a book.
posted by Rash at 2:59 PM on August 1, 2006


In his entire first book of guitar exercises, my son has only used 3 guitar strings. So when I say it's about the same, this is from absolute zero. You don't start off using all the strings.
posted by GuyZero at 3:03 PM on August 1, 2006


I also say it's about the same. If you have an instrument already, there are many free online mini lessons, tutorials and chord charts.

Here is something I posted yesterday that was pretty much made possible by using chord charts and an AskMe thread about banjo styles (clawhammer etc.) Yea, I already play guitar, but I'm not very disciplined, I'm sure you'll kick butt!
posted by snsranch at 3:23 PM on August 1, 2006


GuyZero, I remember I used all 6 strings immediately when I began learning guitar from my teacher. Different teachers use different techniques.

That said, I would recommend learning guitar. It gives you a wider range of possible styles to play. 6 strings make for more interesting possibilities. But banjos are cool - they're just not what I wanted when I began learning.

Either way, if you pick banjo or guitar, I would recommend lessons after you mess around on your own. You'll learn faster, and have better habits, as well as a better sense of music and the instrument.

Starting off, do exercises moving between all of the strings. That builds coordination and speed and strength, as well as finger placement on the frets. Then move on to scales. Do everything at different distances on the neck. Then I would move on to reading music if that's what you want.

Personally, I don't like reading music on guitar, and if that's the case for you, don't make that the first thing you learn.
posted by Camel of Space at 3:29 PM on August 1, 2006


With the guitar it depends if you start off playing chords (that is, I feel, learning how to play songs people can recognize from day one) or whether you start off playing just notes and scales (that is, the technical way). I'm sure the same choice comes down to the banjo.
posted by wackybrit at 3:45 PM on August 1, 2006


Personally, I don't think Rash's answer about less strings is all that relevant. The only thing I could say would be easier about a banjo having less strings is that the neck is smaller for smaller (younger) hands. That would make it somewhat easier to hold chords.

Now, back to the question. I would say that guitar is easier to learn just from the sake that you don't need to pick to play well. If your are learning picking tecnique than it doesn't matter much if it is on a banjo or a guitar. But you pretty much need to master picking to master the banjo and picking is where I find most new players get caught up.

I know some pretty good guitarist (self-taught) who can't pick to save their life. But they strum and play a tune like butter.

So, my vote, guitar. Plus it gets more girls in college.
posted by qwip at 3:47 PM on August 1, 2006


Slightly off topic but here's a neat short film on the history of banjo music (via google video).
posted by dog food sugar at 3:52 PM on August 1, 2006


The five-string banjo is usually tuned to open G, so all you have to do to make convincing noise is to put one finger across all the strings. Making a whole lot of noise quickly is pretty easy playing the five-string using Scruggs-style finger-picking. As such the initial sense of "hey, I can make music" comes pretty easy. Actually being good at it takes a while. Plectum banjos (4 strngs) are a different kettle of fish and have a learnning curve more like a guitar - they are usually picked and strummed. Clawhammer or frailing, as you hear in old-time music, is generally considered to be pretty freakin' difficult.

Will you need lessons? That depends on what you want to do in the long run. I've been noodling around on my 5-string for about a decade without taking any lessons, purely for my own enoyment. If you want to be able to hold your own in a band you're going to want to get some lessons.

As for expense, a decent-quality learner's 5-string will run about $350. If you go any lower than that you'll have an instrument that is thoroughly unpleasnt to play, but you should be able to find something pretty good used.

As to who gets the most chicks in college, well qwip has it pretty much right, but there there are dozens of guitarist per banjo player so you'll stick out as "A189Nut, yeah, he plays banjo." Plus, you'll get all the arty chicks.
posted by lekvar at 4:17 PM on August 1, 2006


My friend is just learning the banjo. After a couple of intense days in the beginning, she's just practiced about an hour, maybe two hours a day (she sits in front of TV shows on her computer and fiddles around with it) she's getting quite good. But she has some background musical experience and she's pretty much a genius, so your mileage may vary.
posted by schroedinger at 5:00 PM on August 1, 2006


In his entire first book of guitar exercises, my son has only used 3 guitar strings. So when I say it's about the same, this is from absolute zero. You don't start off using all the strings.
posted by GuyZero at 5:03 PM


It's already been said, but different teachers teach differently. Though it makes most sense to learn open chords first, involving all strings. Yours doesn't seem to be a teacher I'd use.
posted by justgary at 5:03 PM on August 1, 2006


The five-string banjo is usually tuned to open G, so all you have to do to make convincing noise is to put one finger across all the strings.

Fair point, but you could also just use open tunings on guitar.
posted by chrissyboy at 5:30 PM on August 1, 2006


Here is a banjo AskMe thread full of awesome answers and links to examples.

Reading the comments and listening to some of the examples might help you with your choice. Guitar and banjo are both incredibly versatile and are capable of producing many voices.

Like I said, maybe listening to some things might help you.

In any case, with stringed instruments your chording/noting hand will become familiar with strings-period. After some practice with any instrument it doesn't take long to move along and pick up others. So have fun and stick with it!
posted by snsranch at 5:34 PM on August 1, 2006


I think the answer also depends on what kind of music you like--you're going to want to be able to play your favorite songs. There's plenty of sheet music and tablature out there for either instrument, but there aren't nearly as many banjo arrangements of guitar songs, or vice versa. So if you get the "wrong" instrument, you'll end up having to figure out your own arrangements all the time. (This isn't very hard if you have a good ear, but it's something to consider.)

I would say that the banjo's probably slightly harder to learn, due to the increased importance of picking.

Though it makes most sense to learn open chords first, involving all strings.

Matter of taste, I guess, but I think it makes most sense to learn barre chords first.
posted by equalpants at 5:35 PM on August 1, 2006


Fair point, but you could also just use open tunings on guitar.

You could, yes, but most guitrists use and learn e-a-d-g-b-e before ever branching out into alternate tunings. With the 5-string you start with open G and branch out from there.
posted by lekvar at 5:38 PM on August 1, 2006


As someone who plays the guitar, at least enough to entertain at a campfire; and who owns a banjo, which he has never really learned to play beyond "Streets of Laredo," I can report that the guitar is easier for the casual learner.

The way a banjo is strung is somewhat counterintuitive -- so much so that even a little musical background, ie piano, won't offer much in the way of instinct. A guitar, however, is simpler, and you can pretty much start entertaining yourself playing G,C,D rock songs after only a few hours of learning.

I can't imagine strumming out "The Times, They Are A Changin'" on a banjo would be nearly as fun...

Entry-level guitars are also cheaper - you can get set up for less than $100. Banjos, however, aren't nearly as mass-produced, and a decent one will set you back at least 3 times as much. My Deering Goodtimes banjo is about as cheap as you can get, $300, before you cross over into toy territory.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 6:15 PM on August 1, 2006


Disclaimer: Never tried playing the banjo.

That said, the fun part for me about learning guitar was playing along to popular songs as I slowly learned the notes and cords. That might be a factor to consider.
posted by starman at 6:37 PM on August 1, 2006


So, my vote, guitar. Plus it gets more girls in college.

From my own experience, that's not true. I went to more than a few parties where a guitar was being played, and girls were falling over the player.

And then I would go home, bring back the banjo, and they would all laugh like hyenas for a bit. And then come over to my couch.

Anyway, If you want to simply play around and pick on it - and learn a few good songs fairly quick - I would suggest picking up a few Murphy Method DVD's. I have taught a few folks how to read music - and gave them a copy of these dvd's at the same time. While they struggle to read the music and play at a fair speed, they would also be playing along 3 or 4 songs from the DVD in about 2 months. Give 'em a shot.

If you want to learn how to pick Scruggs style and read music, I would suggest The Janet Davis book for beginners. ( get the one with the CD)
posted by bradth27 at 7:27 PM on August 1, 2006


I play guitar and banjo (bluegrass style) professionally and I'd say guitar is the easier of the two, at least to become proficient. The precision in the picking of the right hand is what makes banjo a bit tougher.

Then again, it's said that kids pick things up quicker than adults. He might take to it quite naturally.

Here's the best banjo site on the web. It has excellent, wide-ranging forums on everything banjo-related.
posted by wsg at 11:48 PM on August 1, 2006


To echo what someone said above, learning either the banjo or the guitar will make it much easier to also learn the other instrument later on down the line, because the fretting action will be familiar. I've played fingerstyle guitar for a while, and recently started teaching myself clawhammer banjo, and the left-hand-bit is very intuitive - I think the scale length is very close to that of a guitar. I guess what I'm trying to say is that learning either instrument will give you skills that are applicable to both.
posted by primer_dimer at 1:49 AM on August 2, 2006


Tenor banjo player here. IMHO banjo is a lot like speaking French: it won't take much effort to do it badly, but it takes a huge amount of time to do it really well.
posted by methylsalicylate at 3:03 AM on August 2, 2006


Merci booko...
posted by A189Nut at 3:16 AM on August 2, 2006


The banjo player for Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver (specializing in gospel bluegrass) has only a thumb and one finger on his left hand. He plays a mean banjo.

Leads me to believe that the magic is in the right (picking) hand and says that it's simpler than guitar, at least the way I play it (without the crutch of open tuning).

My experiments with a banjo have been brief, but I did find it simple (as a guitarist) to make convincingly decent sounds. No matter what, though, it still sounds like a banjo.
posted by FauxScot at 5:09 AM on August 2, 2006


I picked up 5 string banjo for grins (it was in our house) when I was in high school. I already played trumpet for 4 or 5 years and piano for 2. It's a straight forward instrument. Like any instrument, it will take time to get what you need into muscle memory. That's what practicing (technique) does for you.

If you pick it up, do yourself a favor and buy a decent tuner. Tuning is a skill that is learned, but for a beginner you might as well use that crutch so you don't have the frustration of playing an out of tune instrument.
posted by plinth at 7:15 AM on August 2, 2006


For sheer 0-60 startup time, banjo beats guitar—you can learn two chord forms and be able to chord along to an awful lot of songs in G (and other keys, with capoing).

Beyond that, banjo and guitar both encompass a vast plane of styles and musical possibilities, and the two share a fair bit of crossover in fundamental skillsets.

A guitar is likely to annoy friends and family slightly less when you're learning, on account of not being so goddam loud and percussive.
posted by cortex at 7:47 AM on August 2, 2006


The banjo player for Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver (specializing in gospel bluegrass) has only a thumb and one finger on his left hand. He plays a mean banjo.

But then Django only had a thumb and two fingers to work with as a guitarist, and played like a demon. And the drummer from Def Leppard only has one arm.

I don't have any one-fingered trumpeter anecdotes handy, but they wouldn't surprise me either: talented, dedicated musicians can work around surprising difficulties, and that isn't much of an indication of how easy an instrument is to play.
posted by cortex at 7:50 AM on August 2, 2006


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