BANJO - getting started

Please note that this page is available at the bottom of the page as a PDF  file that will provide a better and more economical printout than will this webpage. 

This is a guide for playing the tenor banjo as used in Irish and Scottish music (oh, and English, and Welsh music too!).  This is not the same as the tenor banjo as played in early 20th century swing bands and definitely not like the banjo used in American Bluegrass and country music.  The banjo we are learning here is tuned like a fiddly or a mandolin and is used mainly for play jigs and reels (oh, and marches, strathspeys and loads of other types of tunes).

 

We are going to look at how to get going on the tenor banjo, but before we start playing anything we need to get some basics right.  If you start off with bad habits it will only make developing your playing more difficult in the future.

 

During your lessons with me I will demonstrate these points for you.  You should use these pages a checklist to remind yourself every now and again of what you should be doing.



 

Sitting Position and Holding the Banjo

It is very important that you are comfortable with holding your instrument and as you play more you will develop a way position that you like best.  However, a couple of basics are necessary. 

·       Have the banjo body resting between your legs

·       Sit up fairly straight if possible

·       Have the body of the banjo rest against your waist

·       Angle the banjo upwards at such an angle that your left (right if right handed) hand doesn’t have to hold the instrument up.  (this is really important)

 



Holding the Plectrum

·       Get a plectrum with a textured surface as it doesn’t slip out of your fingers so easily (I recommend Dunlop picks, but you should make your own choice).

·       Try not to grip the plectrum too hard – just as hard as is necessary.  Beginners tend to hold on too tight.

·       I will demonstrate the best way to hold the pick, but the important thing is that you are comfortable with your own style.

 

 



Position of the Right Hand

It is useful to follow a few things here that will help keep your playing accurate:

·       Rest the heel of the hand lightly against the strings behind the bridge, bot as if it is glued there.  The hand should still remain ‘mobile’.

·       It is a good idea to rest the tip of the little finger against the skin of the banjo drum as this allows for some stability.  Again, this should rest lightly on the banjo skin and should remain mobile.

·       An important principle to remember when playing with the plectrum is that the rhythm radiates right up the whole arm to the shoulder.  It is not confined just to the wrist.

 



Position of the Left Hand

Getting into the habit of holding a good left-hand position will make for much better playing and progress:

·       It is not necessary to keep the thumb right in the middle of the back of the neck.  But it is important not to let it drift round to the side (nearest your head)

·       Try to keep the hand and fingers at a right angle to the fretboard.  Just make this an ambition, not an absolute rule. 

·       The fingers should come straight down on the fretboard (perpendicular to it maybe?).  Again, not a rule but an ambition.

·       THE BIG RULE: don’t use the space between your thumb and forefinger to support the banjo!  Remember the ‘sitting position’ advice.  The banjo should be able to sit nearly without any support.

 



Tuning the Banjo

 The tenor banjo we are learning is tuned like a violin, fiddle or mandolin.

 

G (lowest string)

D

A

E

 

This is a guide for playing the tenor banjo as used in Irish and Scottish music (oh, and English, and Welsh music too!).  This is not the same as the tenor banjo as played in early 20th century swing bands and definitely not like the banjo used in American Bluegrass and country music.  The banjo we are learning here is tuned like a fiddly or a mandolin and is used mainly for play jigs and reels (oh, and marches, strathspeys and loads of other types of tunes).

 

We are going to look at how to get going on the tenor banjo, but before we start playing anything we need to get some basics right.  If you start off with bad habits it will only make developing your playing more difficult in the future.

 

During your lessons with me I will demonstrate these points for you.  You should use these pages a checklist to remind yourself every now and again of what you should be doing.

 



Sitting Position and Holding the Banjo

It is very important that you are comfortable with holding your instrument and as you play more you will develop a way position that you like best.  However, a couple of basics are necessary. 

·       Have the banjo body resting between your legs

·       Sit up fairly straight if possible

·       Have the body of the banjo rest against your waist

·       Angle the banjo upwards at such an angle that your left (right if right handed) hand doesn’t have to hold the instrument up.  (this is really important)

 



Holding the Plectrum

·       Get a plectrum with a textured surface as it doesn’t slip out of your fingers so easily (I recommend Dunlop picks, but you should make your own choice).

·       Try not to grip the plectrum too hard – just as hard as is necessary.  Beginners tend to hold on too tight.

·       I will demonstrate the best way to hold the pick, but the important thing is that you are comfortable with your own style.

 



Position of the Right Hand

It is useful to follow a few things here that will help keep your playing accurate:

·       Rest the heel of the hand lightly against the strings behind the bridge, bot as if it is glued there.  The hand should still remain ‘mobile’.

·       It is a good idea to rest the tip of the little finger against the skin of the banjo drum as this allows for some stability.  Again, this should rest lightly on the banjo skin and should remain mobile.

·       An important principle to remember when playing with the plectrum is that the rhythm radiates right up the whole arm to the shoulder.  It is not confined just to the wrist.

 



Position of the Left Hand

Getting into the habit of holding a good left-hand position will make for much better playing and progress:

·       It is not necessary to keep the thumb right in the middle of the back of the neck.  But it is important not to let it drift round to the side (nearest your head)

·       Try to keep the hand and fingers at a right angle to the fretboard.  Just make this an ambition, not an absolute rule. 

·       The fingers should come straight down on the fretboard (perpendicular to it maybe?).  Again, not a rule but an ambition.

·       THE BIG RULE: don’t use the space between your thumb and forefinger to support the banjo!  Remember the ‘sitting position’ advice.  The banjo should be able to sit nearly without any support.




Tuning the Banjo

The tenor banjo we are learning is tuned like a violin, fiddle or mandolin.

 

G (lowest string)

D

A

E

 

You should practise tuning your instrument.  There are many resources available on the internet that you can use, but if you have a digital tuner that will be very reliable.  You should practise tuning your instrument.  There are many resources available on the internet that you can use, but if you have a digital tuner that will be very reliable.  I will demonstrate how to manually tuine your instrument.  It is also worth learning to tune your by ear.




Ċ
john cradden,
10 Feb 2013, 09:28
Comments