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Play an MP3 clip of 'If the Creek Don't Rise' as arranged for banjo.

Click to go to home page.

How to Play the Banjo Wrong

Written by Paul Race for Creek Don't RiseTM
and School Of The RockTM

Like the electric guitar, the banjo is a uniquely American instrument. Apparently brought in its infancy with trafficked people from Africa, it evolved into something like its present form throughout the cotton plantations, minstrel shows, Mardi Gras parades, early Jazz bands, and Appalachian hoe-downs of the South. Then it emerged as a prominent national voice for unionization, civil rights, and peace in the 1930s-1960s.

On its journey, the banjo has both gained and lost strings, changed tunings, and acquired about fifty different ways to play, including

  • Classical-guitar style picking (like the "zither banjo" players of Europe, and like Pete Seeger when he would play "Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring").
  • Flatpicking individual bass notes to add a bass line to early Jazz recordings (like Johnny St. Cyr).
  • Back-of-the-fingernail only strumming patterns like many minstrel show players.
  • Back-of-the-fingernail picking and strumming, sometimes called "clawhammer."
  • A combination of thumb-picking and fingernail strumming, used in "minstrel shows" and Appalachian barn dances.
  • All-strumming patterns that used a flatpick and played the melody on the highest string, favored by Dixieland players.
  • A combination of up-picking, thumb-picking, and back-of-the-fingernail strumming sometimes called "frailing"
  • A pattern that uses only the thumb and the first two fingers of the right hand, often called "three-finger," "Bluegrass," or "Scruggs-style" picking
  • Flatpicking the melody only, common in 20th century Irish bands.

And those are only the ones I've personally observed or know about through historical records. Yes, some of those styles, like "three-finger picking," are unique to certain kinds of banjos, but most of them have been played convincingly - even professionally - on 4-, 5-, and even 6- string banjo of various tuning and configurations. At any given time in the banjo's history between, say, 1835 and 1975, it was being played dozens of different ways. And within each basic style, there were almost as many variations as there were pickers - each picker felt free to add whatever techniques he or she wanted.

And nobody ever had the nerve to tell the banjo players they were doing it wrong.

In my own experience, as late as 1965, playing the banjo was about entertaining people and getting your message across in a way that people would listen to, accept, and remember. But eventually, as Scruggs' "three-finger-picking" patterns began to dominate, there were a number of folks who started telling me that I was playing the banjo "wrong" if I didn't sound exactly like Earl.

A couple decades ago there was a resurgence of interest in other playing styles, such as frailing and what they're now calling clawhammer. Foolish me, I thought that maybe people would be more open to more styles. Instead I keep stumbling over folks who tell me I'm not "authentic" because I don't play banjo exactly the way they do.

Now, many of them do play much better than I, especially when they stick with the one style that they think is the only "valid" or "authentic" way to play. That's not the point. The point is, how did they get from "I like this style of playing that was only 'universal' between 1928 and 1935 in six counties in West Virginia" to "Everybody else is wrong"?

So I decided to write an article listing all the ways I could think of to play the banjo wrong.

How to Play the Banjo Wrong

Here is the list I've come up with so far:

  • Try to pick it with an axe or chainsaw.
  • Use it as a canoe paddle.
  • Blow in one end like a woodwind.

I'm sure the list will get longer as I get reader responses. On the other hand, if you're getting a pleasant, musical sound out of your banjo, you're playing it "right." Could you be "better"? Couldn't we all. Better at difficult chord changes, better at picking complex melodies, better at playing in groups, better at reaching your audience, better at writing songs or making other folks' songs "your own." Yes. We could all be better. But having room to grow is not the same as deserving public censure.


Play these songs until you can play them in your sleep or hold up your end of an intelligent conversation, without skipping a beat. Practice singing them, too, while you're at it.

There are about a million songs you can sing with just these three chords and the rolls shown on this page. Here are a few. You're on your own, figuring out which chords go where.

Some of these songs will sound funny on a banjo at first. Play them until they sound like they were written for banjo. Sing the ones that are in your range until they sound like they were written for you. :-)

  • Bad Moon Rising (Creedence)
  • You Are my Sunshine
  • Love is a Rose (Written by Neil Young, popularized by Linda Ronstadt)
  • I'll Fly Away (Albert E. Brumley)
  • Rock Island Line (Hudy "Leadbelly" Ledbetter, many others)
  • Thank God I'm a Country Boy (John Denver)
  • Ring of Fire (June Carter Cash)
  • Margaritaville (Jimmy Buffett)
  • Bye Bye Love (Everly Brothers)
  • Blowin' in the wind.
  • Down on the Corner (Creedence)
  • Folsome Prison Blues (Johnny Cash)
  • The Gambler (Kenny Rogers)
  • He's Got the Whole World In His Hands

All material, illustrations, and content of this web site is copyrighted 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006,
2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 by Paul D. Race. All rights reserved.
Creek Dont' Rise(tm) is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising
program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to

For questions, comments, suggestions, trouble reports, etc. about this play or about this web page, please contact us.

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