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Learning the Five String Banjo

David Raleigh Arnold

Before You Start

An automatic chromatic tuner is a great thing to have. Do not buy any other type. Whatever electronic tuner you have already or receive as a gift will do fine, and be glad you have it. ☸

When you have a moment, take the back (if there is one) of the banjo off and inspect the inside. The back is called the resonator, and it is considered an accessory rather than an essential part of the instrument. You may need to know how the neck is connected to the body at some time.

Camera straps are good, or banjo straps that are just like camera straps, which have clips at both ends. Avoid leather if you ever play where it is hot enough to cause it to get wet.

You are welcome to use finger picks if you like. I have no use for them myself. They help to get a thin uniform sound, but some techniques which I like to do are not possible with them. The left hand fingernails must be very short in all cases.

If you are left handed I recommend getting a left handed banjo. It is perfectly possible for you to play right handed, but you may not have as much potential ability if you play right handed. It depends on how left handed you are. That matter of degree explains some of the conflicting advice that you may get from left handed players, but a right handed person is very wrong in suggesting that it makes no difference. It is not an accident that all such instruments have always been played right handed by all right handed people in every culture for time out of mind.

Print This:

There are three pages of text files to get you started:

  1. page 1
  2. page 2
  3. page 3

Also print some selected pages from the “Ten Lessons for Guitar”. That document was originally intended for banjo, not guitar, especially the little exercise at the top of page 10. Future HTML versions will be far easier to maintain for both instruments. This material is mainly but not entirely to work on rudiments and musicianship.

  • pp. 2-7: You have different chords, but the notes on the strings are all the same.
  • p. 10: Not the chords, of course.
  • p. 13: No right hand patterns.
  • p. 14: Not notes on 1st string.
  • p. 15: Not 7.1.

Charted Notes with Tab on the Banjo


Banjo Solos with Tab

PDF format. They are PDF’s in letter size but the margins are wide enough to print satisfactorily on a4 paper:

Shortnin' Bread and Juba are both beginning pieces, but “Shortnin’ Bread” is easy and Juba is hard. Juba is terrific practice in finding the strings with the right hand. You will find the same right hand pattern in “Dueling”, for example.

Twinkle Star get you started with the “dropthumb” technique, which some bluegrass players frown on but can’t do without. This has the index on the beat.

Take Out the Washing is one of those Scottish tunes you’ve heard but didn’t know the name of. It is dropthumb also, with the thumb on the beat, guitar fashion. The right hand is the same as that for ‘Cripple Creek’, which you want to learn, of course.

Blackeyed Susie is among other things a study in bluegrass rhythm. As you play through it, there is more and more emphasis on the second beat, which gives it a hard driving bluegrass rhythm. All flavors of country music with four beats have a strong accent on the second.

Soldier’s Joy is a popular fiddle tune for dancing. All the slurs are hammer-ons. The right hand fingering in measure seven is essential. Whenever you have left hand problems, always get your right hand fingering set so that you can concentrate on the left.

Tom Dooley has practice on the very useful so-called “1, 4, 7” pattern.

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