How Hard is it to Learn to Play the 5-String Banjo?

I get asked this question all the time, so I thought I might as well answer it. Learning the banjo can be as easy as falling off a log or as painful as a good ole root canal. It all depends on how it’s taught.

Bluegrass banjo as pioneered by Earl Scruggs sounds like it has a billion notes. It not only sounds complicated, it IS complicated. But friends, it doesn’t have to be that way. Unfortunately, most instruction books and banjo teachers completely miss the boat by starting the total beginner off with complicated rolls and then wonder why their students are so frustrated. The failure of these methods is that you cannot hear the melody.

After many years of teaching I have developed a different and much simpler approach that stresses the  melody instead of the rolls. I start beginners off by showing them easy melodies that they’re already familiar with, When the student can play just the basic tune of a few well-known songs, I then introduce a very simple roll that I call the “thumb-pinch.” All you do is play an open or unfretted string with your thumb followed by pinching or plucking the 1st and 5th strings together at the same time.

Here is an example of a thumb-pinch.

Note: the horizontal lines are the five strings of the banjo. The 1st string is at the top and the 5th string is on the bottom. A “O” means you play that string “open” (unfretted).

Now let’s play the same thing, but this time you’ll recognize the beginning notes of “I’ll Fly Away.”

Let me contrast my simple Melody Method with the “normal” way banjo is usually taught. Below you’ll see a rather complicated arrangement of “I’ll Fly Away.” It uses a slide (s) and what’s known as a reverse or a backwards roll. For the beginner, this is pretty hairy stuff. It would scare the pants off of me if I were to attempt to play it as a beginner.

The main problem with this complicated arrangement is that you can play it all day long and it’s still not going to sound like the tune of “I’ll Fly Away.” In contrast, my Melody Method is so simple and straightforward you can hear the melody almost immediately. It also lends itself to making the tunes your own by showing you how to plug in different easy rolls that substitute for the thumb-pinch.


If you like learning music in the most simple way, I invite you to try my book, Bluegrass Banjo for the Complete Ignoramus. This funny and friendly book has taught tens of thousands of beginners to play. It clearly lays out the simple bare bones melody of 22 popular bluegrass songs that you can play with a thumb-pinch. For each song, it  provides additional simple rolls you can go back and substitute for your thumb-pinch. This book makes it so easy, you’ll be kicking yourself for putting off learning to banjo for so long.

Bluegrass Banjo for the Complete Ignoramus comes complete with an audio CD so you can hear what each song sounds like. You can also download the audio for free on our website, and for those of you who like everything to be digital, you can purchase the book/MP3 set as a PDF or for Kindle. If you have any trouble learning what’s in the book, give us a call at (800)752-2656 and I’d be glad to help you out myself!





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