Can I learn to play the banjo before I actually buy one?
March 26, 2010 3:11 PM   Subscribe

Can I learn how to play the banjo via the guitar? How?

Asking this because I want to begin playing an instrument again as a hobby through my pregnancy
and to raise a child with an instrument-playing parent (my sister and I loved it when my mom
playing the guitar and sang with us).

But I need a goal to pursue. I can play the guitar, but only in the lamest campfire half-proficient way.
I think building up to getting a banjo might be a great goal.

If it's not really possible to learn the play the banjo on the guitar, what are some other fun guitar goals I could set for myself to help me get back on the learning track? I prefer folk-type music, if that helps.
posted by kitcat to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (21 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Goal # 1: Learn to play fingerstyle guitar in DADGAD tuning.

Goal # 2: Get a banjo and it translates straight across.

It's that easy.
posted by The World Famous at 3:21 PM on March 26, 2010

Is there any reason why you want to "build up" to a banjo rather than just getting a banjo right away?

I played guitar off and on for years and started banjo about a year ago. The tuning is usually different, first of all, so all the fingerings change. And then it depends entirely on what style of banjo playing you'd want to start with. I've been learning clawhammer, which is a much different left-hand pattern than anything I was used to from guitar. If you want to do finger-picking on the banjo, you could probably build up dexterity with guitar finger-picking. But the other issue is that on a 5-string banjo there's one drone string, really high-pitched, which you play with your thumb, so that changes a lot of patterns.

It seems possible to build a banjo out of ordinary household objects, btw.
posted by creasy boy at 3:28 PM on March 26, 2010

The thing about the five-stting banjo is that fifth drone string, and learning how to use that without actually having one would be difficult, I think. That said, general chord-making/fretting skills will be transferable (especially if you tune the guitar to DADBGD or something).

If you want to play around with an instrument that's like a guitar but different, has re-entrant tuning (kind of like a banjo), but is cheaper than a banjo, have you considered a ukulele?

As for fun guitar goals, the best way to get on track is to take lessons. Boring, but true...
posted by No-sword at 3:28 PM on March 26, 2010

They make six-stringed banjos now, the idea being that you tune it just like a guitar, but that might be missing the point.
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:48 PM on March 26, 2010

I like this: Goal # 1: Learn to play fingerstyle guitar in DADGAD tuning.

But where do I find music written for fingerstyle *whatever* in DADGAD? Do I just go get some bango sheet music and play away?

the best way to get on track is to take lessons

What should I ask the teacher to teach me? I can play most chords and do limited finger picking.
posted by kitcat at 3:57 PM on March 26, 2010

Oh, and why no banjo now? Limited funds. Not sure I should purchase something I may not end up playing more than a few times.
posted by kitcat at 3:59 PM on March 26, 2010

But where do I find music written for fingerstyle *whatever* in DADGAD? Do I just go get some bango sheet music and play away?

There are banjo tabs online. What you'd want are tabs for tenor banjo, or a four string banjo, because your standard 5-string banjo has the high drone string that you wouldn't be able to replicate on the guitar. 4-string banjos don't have that drone string.
posted by wondermouse at 4:05 PM on March 26, 2010

Think, a minute, of your child, and of how instruments might first sound to young and tender ears. The modern resonator banjo is an interesting instrument to adult ears, because it is part string sound, part percussive sound from the resonator, unless you have, or make, the older open back banjo style. But a resonator style banjo, played clawhammer style, gets part of its ear interest from dis-harmonic interferences, between rapidly played notes that jar the ear against harmonics still being produced in the resonator.

Speaking as a parent of 2 boys, who are now men, with kids of their own, a nylon stringed guitar, and repertoire of lullabyes, will get you more sleep in the first year of your child's life, than any school of banjo music ever will. And, if it sets up your child's ear for intervals, and harmony, and dissonance, you'll be getting the child ready for banjo, as you learn it.
posted by paulsc at 4:11 PM on March 26, 2010

There's a ton of folk music for guitar in DADGAD. And you can start with a flatpick and then move to fingerstyle, if that suits you better. DADGAD is a super fun and easy tuning that's just fun to play around in.

If you like Zeppelin, there are a bunch of DADGAD Zeppelin tunes (including Kashmir). Also, check out Pierre Bensusan, who plays brilliantly in DADGAD.

Here's a place to start.

DADGAD is a really beautiful tuning, and is definitely something that all guitarists should at least explore. My kids (who are very young) love it when I play songs for them in DADGAD.
posted by The World Famous at 4:13 PM on March 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

Actually, DADGAD is a pretty common guitar tuning, particularly for finger-style players. There's lots of material on it.
posted by timeistight at 4:13 PM on March 26, 2010

I did just that. I was a lame strum-chords guitar player, and I picked up a banjo (Deering Goodtime, pretty inexpensive as far as banjos go at ~$400) last October. [this is me playing it. I'm still not very good, but I'm better at banjo then I am at guitar already]

It's way more fun than I had ever imagined it would be, and it isn't that hard to learn to play a real song. I prefer clawhammer style to three-finger Scruggs style; maybe clawhammer is easier.

I didn't find that I needed any guitar experience at all. The tuning is different, so the chords aren't the same anyway, and the right hand technique is totally different. So, I would say that you can't really "build up" to a banjo from a guitar - I think banjo is easier than guitar to sound competent, so if anything it would be the other way around.

What you could do now is get a bluegrass flat-picking book (I have this one, which is pretty good.) It makes guitar playing a bit more fun and sound a bit more like you know what you're doing. Also, you'll learn some songs that you'd eventually learn to play on the banjo. Like I said, it's not the same, so you'll still have to learn it on banjo, but it helps to at least know how the song goes.
posted by ctmf at 4:21 PM on March 26, 2010

Standard five string banjo tuning is GDGBD, by the way. In other words, drop the high "E" of a guitar one whole tone and play only the top four strings and you've got "banjo".

You can rent a student model instrument at many/most music stores. The rental fee is applied to your purchase, if you make one.

Guitar is no substitute for banjo.
posted by lothar at 5:30 PM on March 26, 2010

> Goal # 1: Learn to play fingerstyle guitar in DADGAD tuning.
Don't you mean Open G: DGDGBD? Standard banjo G tuning is gDGBD. gDGAD isn't unknown, but quite rare.
posted by scruss at 5:45 PM on March 26, 2010

Hmmmm. Could anyone please clarify the differences between and uses of DADGAD and GDGBD?
posted by kitcat at 6:43 PM on March 26, 2010

Despite what paulsc says, I think playing the banjo with your kids is a great idea. My dad played the banjo (and guitar and mandolin and harmonica) when I was growing up, and I always loved it. I've played the banjo myself since 10th grade, and playing music with my dad is one of my favorite things to do when I'm at home for school breaks.

Hmmmm. Could anyone please clarify the differences between and uses of DADGAD and GDGBD?

gDGBD is the most common banjo tuning, and is the standard way to tune a bluegrass banjo. (The lower case letter is the drone string -- the string which is pegged at the 5th fret). In more old-timey styles, there are a very large number of different tunings, with the other two most common ones being aDADE and aEADE. You can't really retune a guitar to behave like a banjo since the banjo is constructed very differently; the drone string is the highest pitched string, but is located just above the lowest pitched string. This makes the mechanics of playing the banjo substantially different from playing the guitar. This is not to say that experience with the guitar can't help with learning the banjo, since it most certainly can, but they are very different instruments. Ultimately, if you want to be able to play the banjo, you're going to have to get a banjo from someplace.

If you really are interested in learning the banjo and can get your hands on one, I highly recommend Mike Seeger's instructional DVDs. For books, I recommend both "Clawhammer Banjo for the Complete Ignoramus" by Wayne Erbsen and "Clawhammer Banjo" by Miles Krassen. The "Ignoramus" will get you off the ground much sooner, but Krassen's tablatures are more nuanced and the book is more complete in general.

Good luck! The banjo and guitar are both great instruments, and playing music with your kids is one of the most awesome things you can do with them, no matter what instrument it is.
posted by Commander Rachek at 7:11 PM on March 26, 2010

Mr. TrarNoir, a banjo player, tells me that playing guitar in a banjo-esque tuning will help you with left-hand chords and patterns, but not right-hand technique, and the right hand is the hard one to get a hang of. You can start learning banjo on guitar, but not really learn it.

For the second part of your question about goals for the guitar, I would suggest getting a book like Rise Up Singing. It has fairly easy chord patterns and lyrics for thousands of songs, many of which you'll recognize. You'll find loads in there to learn to play and sing and that your baby will enjoy. If you do go with banjo, we know at least one baby who likes it.
posted by TrarNoir at 7:15 PM on March 26, 2010

Thanks, Commander Racheck.

When I google DADGAD and banjo, I get a page asserting that:

The drone of bagpipes. The claw hammer sound of a banjo. The stark and haunting sound of a country fiddle. All these effects are possible on the guitar using DADGAD tuning .

Sounds like both tunings (all tunings?) are totally worth knowing.
posted by kitcat at 7:36 PM on March 26, 2010

TrarNoir: I have a hard on for that song book. It looks like The. Best. Songbook. Ever. Thank you for sharing it.
posted by kitcat at 7:45 PM on March 26, 2010

Hmmmm. Could anyone please clarify the differences between and uses of DADGAD and GDGBD?

IANABP, and I I can't speak to the banjoist implications of those tunings, but GDGBD is an unadorned G major triad. The six-string version (DGDGBD) is sometimes called "Spanish" tuning.

DADGAD is a little more ambiguous because it contains neither a major nor minor third. That amibiguity is what people like about it. It can produce lots of different chord voicings fairly easily.
posted by timeistight at 7:19 AM on March 27, 2010

When I google DADGAD and banjo, I get a page asserting that:

The drone of bagpipes. The claw hammer sound of a banjo. The stark and haunting sound of a country fiddle. All these effects are possible on the guitar using DADGAD tuning.

Sounds like both tunings (all tunings?) are totally worth knowing.
Well... DADGAD tuning can sound banjo-y, yes. But it's not much like any tuning that's commonly used on a banjo. So it depends on what your goal is. If you just like the way oldtime banjo music sounds and feels, and you want to get a similar vibe out of your guitar, DADGAD will be a good place to start.

On the other hand, if you want to transition back and forth between guitar and banjo and have the fingerings you've learned be useful on both, you'll want one of the open guitar tunings like DGDGBD.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:11 AM on March 27, 2010

On the third hand, it may not be the end of the world if the fingerings don't transfer.

Look, there are three sets of skills you learn when you pick up an instrument:
  1. General musical skills: how to hold a steady rhythm, how to hear when you're in or out of tune, how to recognize melodies and harmonies, and so on. Maybe some music theory stuff too: scales and chords and reading sheet music. These will transfer from any instrument to any other instrument. You could start out on the bassoon if you wanted, and the improved sense of rhythm that you picked up would make you a better banjo player down the road.
  2. Motor skills. In your case, this will mean learning how to hold your instrument, how to press down strings on the fretboard with your left hand so that they don't buzz or sound choked, how to keep a complicated fingerpicking pattern going with your right hand. (Some of this boils down to strength. Most people who don't do manual labor need to develop a certain amount of grip strength before they can play a stringed instrument really well.) These are basically transferable between fingerstyle guitar and bluegrass-style banjo (i.e. "dueling banjos," the Car Talk theme song, etc). There are a few extra things you'll need to learn if you want to move from fingerstyle guitar to old-time banjo (a.k.a. "clawhammer," a.k.a. "frailing," the very old-fashioned "plink plink plink" style of playing that you hear some singers accompany themselves with) — basically, clawhammer players strike the strings with the backs of their right-hand fingers as well as using their fingertips, and fingerstyle guitar players don't do as much of this. But even still, the motor skills you pick up playing the guitar will be a step in the right direction.
  3. Specific chops. Where to put your left-hand fingers to play a G-major chord. Which fret to press, on which string, in order to play a B-flat. How to move your left-hand fingers when you're playing this scale, this lick, this tune. And so on, and so on, endlessly. These only transfer between instruments that are tuned in the same way. So if you learn DGDGBD guitar and pick up a banjo, they'll (mostly) transfer over. If you learn DADGAD or standard-tuning guitar and pick up a banjo, they won't.
If you've got stuff to work on that falls under #1 and #2, go ahead and work on that. Can't play a barre chord yet? Strengthen those fingers! Don't play many scales? Learn some! Just sit and strum all day? Figure out some fingerpicking patterns! Those will totally make the banjo easier when you get there.

The question is whether you want your #3 skills to transfer over from guitar to banjo as well. If you do, then yeah, you'll want an open tuning. If you don't care, then don't worry about it. Stick with the standard tuning you know, and learn banjo tuning when you get there. Plenty of multi-instrumentalists do this, and it does not seem to make their heads explode.

Last but not least, my banjo-playin' roommate points out that you can rent a banjo cheap from most folk-music-oriented instrument stores. He paid $25/mo for his before he bought it outright. If you just don't want to set down a stack of cash until you're sure you enjoy the banjo, this might be a better solution to your problem than monkeying around with odd guitar tunings.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:37 AM on March 27, 2010

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