How to Play Banjo

By Wayne Erbsen

So you want to play the banjo. That’s handy, because in one short lesson, I’m gonna teach you to play one.

Contrary to what you might think, it’s way easy.

The first thing is to tune your banjo. Check out my article “How to Tune a Banjo.”

I’m going to teach you to play banjo in what is called “Bluegrass Style.” The first song you’re gonna play is I’ll Fly Away. It’s easy. As you hold the banjo on your lap, the 1st string is the one closest to the floor, and the 5th string is closest to your chin.

I’ve written out I’ll Fly Away for you in tab. (See below). The horizontal lines represent your five strings. The numbers represent the fret you play on that string. An “O” means you play that string “open” or unfretted.

In measure one, you see two notes, both “open,” or unfretted. Play each of them with your thumb. The vertical line hanging down from each of these notes tells you each note gets one beat, or one “down-up” with your foot.

In measure three, there’s two pairs of notes, and each pair is connected with lines. On the first of each pair, your foot will go down, and on the second note of the pair, your foot will come up. So each pair of notes gets one beat, or one “down-up with your foot.”

To make things easier, notice that line one and line three are identical. For now, ignore the G, C and D7 above the lines.

Go through I’ll Fly Away, playing the melody. If you’re from the south, I’ll bet you dimes for donuts, you know this song like the back of your hand. If you’ve not heard it, go to Youtube, and you’ll find many versions, I’m sure.

Once you can play the melody of I’ll Fly Away, you’re ready to make it sound more like bluegrass. Bluegrass banjo normally surrounds a melody with a pattern of notes that are called “rolls.” The simplest roll is called a “Pinch.” To play the pinch, merely pluck the 1st and 5th string together at the same time. Use your thumb on the 5th string and your middle finger on the 1st string.

On the tab, whenever there is a single note with a vertical line protruding above or below it, play the pinch after that note. So you’ll be going “thumb pinch” two times in measure one. When the notes are linked together, like in measure three, there’s no pinch.

If you follow these simple instructions, you’ll be playing a simple but clear version of I’ll Fly Away that you can be proud of.


Wayne Erbsen has been teaching banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin since dinosaurs roamed the earth (really, about 50 years). Originally from California, he now makes his home in Asheville, North Carolina. He has written 30 songbooks and instruction books for banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin.

2 thoughts on “How to Play Banjo

  1. clawhammer version please!!

    1. Hi Ryan,
      I have written 3 books on clawhammer banjo, which you can purchase on this site or from many other retailers: Clawhammer Banjo for the Complete Ignoramus, Clawhammer Banjo~ Tunes, Tips & Jamming, and Southern Mountain Banjo. You can also find other articles and blog posts on this site focused on clawhammer banjo. I hope that helps!

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