Learn to Play the Banjo & Save Electricity!

By Wayne Erbsen

You’re determined to save electricity and I’ll bet many of you have always wanted to play the banjo. You can do both! All you have to do is turn off your TV and fire up your banjo. Despite what you may have heard, playing the banjo is easy, especially when you start out learning in the right way that I’m about to show you. This article was written for total beginners on the banjo.  It’ll show you, in the most simplified terms possible, how to make music (and friends) with that cantankerous banjo of yours. Trust me.

You don’t yet own a banjo? No problem. See if your local music store will rent you one. If you decide to buy it later, many stores will apply the rental price to the price of a new banjo.

OK. You live out in the boonies and there’s not a music store in the entire area. You can purchase banjos online from hundreds if not thousands of online web sites. Don’t know which banjo to choose? The simplest, most humble banjo will sound great. Just make sure it’s a 5-string banjo.

The main thing you’ll have to decide on is whether you want your new banjo to have a back, or resonator. The resonator is common for playing bluegrass music, but is unnecessary if you plan to play old-time music (see, Bluegrass Music & Old-Time Music: What’s The Difference?). Otherwise, the resonator will make your banjo heavier and louder, but that’s about it.


As you’ve probably found out by now, the banjo is a rather slippery instrument. If you don’t control it firmly, it tends to wiggle off your lap and fall onto the floor. Try this: Set the banjo edgewise on your lap, with the neck (the long “handle”) pointing slightly upward to the left. The round body should be nestled comfortably between your two legs, and your right forearm should be pushing down firmly on the banjo’s rim. (Some, but not all, models are equipped with an armrest at the point where your arm contacts the rim.) You should be able to make the banjo stay put, using only the pressure from your two legs and right arm. It’s important to avoid using your left hand to hold up the neck. That hand must be free to move up and down the neck without having to keep your banjo from crashing to the floor. Propping your left foot up on a small stack of books, or on your banjo case, might help you to hold the instrument steadier.

A strap can also be useful; you can buy one, or make one out of cloth, leather, or even an old necktie. Tie one end on one of the brackets just under the banjo’s neck, and the other to one of the brackets underneath the tailpiece (where the strings are secured). Your strap will make holding the banjo easier, especially when you’re standing up.


Most people assume they have a tin ear when it comes to tuning an instrument. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you’ll never play merely because you can’t seem to get your banjo in tune. Just as practice will help your playing, it will also help your tuning.

If you take a look at your banjo sitting there on your lap, you’ll probably notice that it’s equipped with five strings. If it has only four strings, either a string is missing or you are the proud owner of a tenor or plectrum banjo. If you do have a tenor or plectrum, you might want to trade it in on a five-stringer, which is the kind used to play bluegrass and old-time music.

For the sake of convenience, the five strings of the banjo are referred to by number, starting with the first string, which is the one closest to your knees. The fifth string is the short one, the one that looks like it was an afterthought . . . which it was. The banjo was originally an African four-stringed instrument, and the fifth string was added by American players sometime in the 1840s.

The banjo’s strings also have letter names, all of which correspond to the notes you’ll want to tune them to: first string, D . . . second string, B . . . third string, G . . . fourth string, D, and fifth string, G. (The first string’s D note and the fifth string’s G should be an octave higher than those of the fourth and third strings, respectively.) This gives you G tuning, the one most commonly used in bluegrass music.

There are six good ways to tune your instrument.

[1] Buy an electronic tuner. Before you purchase one, ask the sales person if  it can be used on a banjo. In fact, if possible, bring your banjo with you to the music store when you purchase the tuner. Get them to show you how to use the tuner on your banjo. Remember the 1st string is closest to the floor. 1st string=D, 2nd string = B, 3rd string = G, 4th string = D and 5th string = G.

[2] Tune to a pitch pipe. Many music stores sell banjo pitch pipes. Just make sure before you walk out of the store that the pipe has the notes you’ll need: G, B, and D.

[3] Tune to a piano. You can’t stick a piano in your pocket the way you can a pitch pipe, but if you have one around, it can be handy to tune to. Just ask the piano’s owner where the D’s, G’s, and B’s are, and make your banjo strings sound like the notes on the keyboard.

[4] Tune to a guitar. If you can find a tuned guitar, it’ll be a miracle; but if you do, you can tune your banjo to it. Just remember that the second, third, and fourth strings on the banjo should be tuned to sound exactly the same as the second, third, and fourth strings on the guitar. The fifth string of the banjo can be tuned to the first string of the guitar played at the third fret, and, finally, the banjo’s first string should sound like the guitar’s second string played at the third fret.

[5] Tune the banjo to itself. This is the most common method, because it doesn’t require electronic tuners, pitch pipes, guitars or cumbersome pianos. Each string is simply tuned relative to all the others. Begin by turning the first (D) string so that it’s moderately tight (but not too tight, or you’ll be off to the store for a new string). Now tune the second (B) string to the first string. This is accomplished by fretting the second string at the third fret (push your finger down just behind, rather than on, the metal strip itself, so that the string is pressed against the third space on the neck). Push down hard to get a good, clear note when you pluck the string with your right hand. Now tighten or loosen the second string until it produces the same pitch at the third fret as the first string does when played open (or unfretted).

To tune the third string to the second string, fret the third string at the fourth fret, and make it sound like the second string played open. Next, fret the fourth string at the fifth fret, and tune it to the third string played open. Finally, adjust the fifth string until it matches the first string fretted at the fifth fret. Whew! You’ve done it! (Well, almost, anyway . . . after you’ve gone through this process once, you’ll probably have to go back and fine-tune a few strings here and there to make them all sound just right.)

[6] Get help. The banjo can be persnickety and seems to need more careful tuning than many other stringed instruments. It should be no blow to your banjo ego to seek expert help. Simply tote the rascal into your neighborhood music store and ask for assistance (if you have to do this repeatedly, you might want to spread your visits among several places, just to avoid wearing out your welcome at any one store). Or ask any musician who plays a stringed instrument to help you get in tune.

Tuning tips. Here are some well-guarded secrets for tuning your banjo: [1] If you’re having trouble figuring out whether a string is higher or lower in pitch than other strings, try singing or humming the notes. If you can find the notes with your voice, you’ll be better able to hear the different pitches. [2] When you’re tuning a string, make sure to pluck the wire while you’re turning the peg. That way, you’ll hear how much the string is changing. [3] Old strings are sometimes hard to tune. Treat your banjo to a new set if the ones you have now are old or rusty.


A roll in banjo lingo is the basic unit of bluegrass banjo playing. It consists of a pattern of notes that are used to play the melody or harmony and rhythm of a song. Rolls are like bricks: You more or less lay them end to end to construct a break, or solo. But, unlike bricks, rolls come in various shapes and sizes. In that respect they’re more like the pieces in a mosaic or jigsaw puzzle: You’re always looking for one that fits what you’re trying to create. You’ll see what I’m talking about soon enough.

Bluegrass banjo is often called Scruggs style, after Earl Scruggs, who helped develop this kind of playing. Scruggs style is also called three finger pickin’. The thumb normally plays the second, third, fourth, or fifth strings; the index finger plays the second, third, or fourth strings; and the middle finger plays only the first string. The general rule is to alternate the fingers; bluegrass pickers seldom use the same finger twice in a row. While one finger works, the others rest.

Your first roll is called “The Pinch.” Play the 2nd string with your thumb. Then quickly play the 5th string with your thumb and the 1st string with your middle finger AT THE SAME TIME. It should sound like One-Two, One-Two. Play it over and over. Congratulations! You’ve just played your first roll.

Now you’ll play the pinch starting on the 3rd string. Play the 3rd string with your right thumb quickly followed by the 5th string and 1strd string pinch. When you get it down pat, combine it with the 2nd string pinch by playing “2 pinch” then 3 pinch. Alternate your thumb between the 2nd and 3rd string. Following each note will be the pinch or 5th and 1st string played together at the same time. string played at the same time. Again, it should sound like One-Two, One-Two.

You can also play 4 pinch. Play the 4th string with your thumb followed by the pinch (5th string and 1st string played together at the same time). Alternate between the 2nd, 3rd and 4th string pinch. Keep it going without stopping when you change strings. It should sound like One-Two, One-Two or Tick-Tock, Tick Tock.


Once you can keep a steady beat while playing the 2nd, 3rd or 4th strings with your thumb, you’re ready to play your first song. When you start playing songs, your thumb will start off playing the melody. The melody note will determine whether you play the 2nd string, 3rdth string. or the 4 string.

Banjo pickers use tablature instead of standard musical notation to communicate songs among themselves. The system’s really easy to read, once you get used to it.

Take a look at the illustration below: The five lines of the staff represent the strings of your banjo, with the first string at the top of the page and the fifth string at the bottom. The circles represent open, or unfretted, strings. The numbers on the strings are the fret you play on that string. For example the “2s” would be the space between the 1st metal fret and the 2nd metal fret. Always play between the frets, NOT on the metal fret itself.


All right, it’s time to play your first song—”Bile ‘Em Cabbage Down.”  (“Bile” is southern slang for “boil.”)  The melody is played on the second and third strings only. Remember: After each melody note (which is played with the thumb), you’ll play the pinch (1st and 5thst fret and your middle finger on the second fret. As you play through the song, try to keep a steady beat going. Hey! It’s starting to sound pretty good!


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 more than 30 songbooks and instructions books for banjo, fiddle, guitar and mandolin.