How To Play Bluegrass Banjo

It is impossible to teach you how to play bluegrass banjo in the space of one short article. We can show you what you'll need to get started on one of the most satisfyingly annoying instruments on the planet next to an accordion. For some reason, aspiring banjo players tend to be relegated to the porch or the backyard when learning to play. This could explain why outdoor bluegrass festivals are so popular. For most banjo players the great outdoors was their first practice studio.


Here is what you'll need:

  • Five-string bluegrass banjo (generally these come with a resonator back, but a lot of fine bluegrass banjo players use an open-back model)
  • Finger picks
  • Thumb pick
  • Banjo strap (banjos are very heavy instruments)
  • Banjo instruction book (get the one by Earl Scruggs if you can find it)
  1. Tune the banjo to an open G tuning. This is the simplest tuning to play because a G chord requires no fretting and you can play a lot of chords simply by laying a finger straight across all strings at a different fret to make a chord change. This is handy because learning the picking pattern is the hard part.
  2. Assume the position. Sit down to practice. You are going to be there a long time and the banjo, as we have mentioned, is heavy. Sit with the banjo resting in your lap with the fifth string on top of the neck and the headstock up around your left ear if you are right handed–otherwise the opposite and you'll need a left-handed banjo.
  3. Put on your finger picks. The three Scruggs bluegrass finger picking style uses a finger pick on the index and middle fingers and a thumb pick. The ring and pinky fingers rest on the head of the banjo below the strings just a little ahead of the bridge. This provides an anchor point for the hand while the fingers work the strings. The left hand grasps the neck with the thumb behind the neck and fingers curled up below the neck with the fingertips directly on top of the strings on the fretboard when fretting the chords.
  4. Learn a simple pattern to start with like the forward roll. The forward roll consists of picking the fifth string with the thumb, the second string with the index finger, and the third string with the middle finger. Do this over and over till your muscles learn the pattern and you can do it fast and without thinking. You can start adding chords and variations in the picking pattern. As you practice the roll pattern with the right hand, begin adding chords with the left hand. Start with G, C and D cords and you will be able to play a surprising array of songs.
  5. Learn the reverse roll once you've mastered the forward roll. The reverse roll starts with the thumb on the fifth string, the middle finger strikes the first string, and the index follows with the second string. Again, practice over and over again till the pattern becomes ingrained. 
  6. Learn the bumpy roll next. This pattern is a alternating thumb pattern starting with the thumb picking the fifth string, the index finger picking the second string, the thumb picking the fourth string, and the middle finger picking the first string. Once you've got this pattern grooved into your muscle memory, you can add fancy chord changes, hammer ons, pull offs, string slides and a host of left hand tricks that will give your playing depth. The most important thing is to learn the basic roll picking patterns. Once you have them, your playing will improve dramatically.

Tips:

  • On his banjo instruction tape Earl Scruggs warns that at first you may experience some cramping. He certainly has that right–also, some bleeding, thick calluses on your fingertips and aching muscles. Like any physical exercise, keep practicing and it will get better.