What Kind of Guitar
Should I Start On?

What Kind of Banjo
Do I Want?

Evaluating and
Buying Used

Setting Up
Fretted Instruments

Whatever Happened
to the Banjo?

6-String Banjos
Banjo Pickups
Axes in my Life
What is a
Bluegrass Banjo?

Dean "Backwoods
Six" Shootout

Music Theory

to Scales

to Chords

Circle of Fifths

Other Articles
About Music

How to Give
Guitar Lessons

Musician or

Did God Really
Give Rock &
Roll to You?

Are You a
"Brand Bigot"?

Who Owns
Folk Songs?

Historical Links
About the
National Road

The Story Behind
the Story - Real
People, Places,
and Events

About the Play
Play Home
What's New
About the

About the

About the

About the

About the

About the

Contact Us

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 Rise™
and School Of The Rock™

Once the most popular fretted instrument in America, the banjo was brought in its infancy with trafficked people from Africa, but then it evolved into something like its present form throughout the cotton plantations, minstrel shows, Mardi Gras parades, early Jazz bands, dance halls, and hoe-downs of the South. By the 1880s, it had spread throughout the country. During the depression, it began to symbolize "grass-roots" America. Then, in the next four decades, it became a prominent national voice for human rights.

On its journey, the banjo has both gained and lost strings, acquired multiple tunings, and acquired about fifty different ways to play. All of the ones that have come down to us include fretting the strings with one hand (usually the left) like you do on guitar. And all of them involve setting the strings in motion with the other hand (usually the right). Ways to set the strings in motion include:

  • Picking the strings downward with the thumb. Some pickers use their thumb exclusively for the fifth, "drone" string; others move it between the fifth and other strings - a technique called "double-thumbing."
  • Picking individual strings upward with the first and second (and sometimes the third) finger. (used in many patterns including Bluegrass and "zither banjo").
  • Picking individual strings with a flatpick to play melody, and - less frequently - arpeggios (common in 20th-century Irish-style bands).
  • Flatpicking individual bass notes to add a bass line (like Johnny St. Cyr's playing in King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band).
  • Strumming multiple strings at a time with the back of the fingernail(s) (common in many plantation, minstrel, dance hall, and barn dance patterns, including what we now call frailing and clawhammer).
  • Picking individual strings downward with the back of the fingernail (common in clawhammer).
  • Using a flatpick to play complete chords with the melody on the first string (common in Dixieland).

In addition, several common banjo styles include ways to affect the strings' motion with the left hand, including "hammering on" (fretting a string that is already in motion) and "pulling off" ("unfretting" a string that is already in motion).

And if there weren't enough of these individual techniques to give you a wide range of choices, most traditional banjo players have used a combination of three or four of these techniques in every measure. Even if you ignore the flatpicking techniques (which are seldom used on 5-string banjos today), there are easily forty different ways you can put those building blocks together to create music on a banjo.

Sure, some combinations were more popular than others. But it is safe to say that at any given time between, say, 1865 and 1965, at least twenty different combinations were being used by banjo players in different regions or micro-genres. Beyond that, each picker felt free to add whatever techniques he or she thought added to the sound. And why not? The banjo was like the guitar, the saxophone, or any other instrument being used in popular music - any innovation that made the sound more appealing or accessible was welcomed, and usually imitated.

In my own experience, right up until changing popular tastes pushed the banjo off the radio by the mid-1970s, playing the banjo was all about entertaining people and getting your message across in a way that people would listen to, remember, and maybe even accept. To my mind, it still is.

Why did I mention the mid-1970s? By then, the rise of Rock and Roll and the banjo's apparent connection to "uncool" elements of society (such as the Beverly Hillbillies and Hee Haw) had taken the banjo out of the mainstream of popular "youth culture" for the next forty years (at least). (Our article "Whatever Happened to the Banjo" addresses that trend.) By the late 1970s, when I played my banjo "out," folks who didn't like Bluegrass didn't understand why a person who was not an inbred, ignorant, racist cave-dweller by birth would even own such a patently offensive device. And folks who liked Bluegrass didn't understand why I didn't make a bigger effort to sound just like "Earl."

The Rehabilitation of the Banjo(?)

A couple decades ago there was a resurgence of interest in other playing styles, such as frailing and what they're now calling clawhammer. And today's generation of "hipsters" aren't as offended by the sound of banjos on Mumford and Sons tunes as their parents would have been.

Now when I take my banjo "out," fewer people automatically assume that I'm a dolt who "doesn't know any better." (Or if they make that assumption, it's not specifically because of the banjo.) Many appreciate hearing something and somebody that doesn't sound just like everybody else. To them the sound of the much-maligned banjo is new and fresh. And that's a good thing.

What isn't so good is that some of the folks who taught themselves banjo during those "lean years" are quick to claim that folks who don't play their favorite styles exactly the way they do are playing the banjo "wrong." Technically, they accuse others of being "inauthentic," as though the important thing about banjo music is keeping it straitjacketed into one or two styles that were never close to universal.

In light of the banjo's history as "the people's instrument," and its three-century history of evolution and constant reinvention, such attacks on fellow pickers are inexcusable. Worse yet, they confuse and discourage would-be beginners. And that's a very bad thing.

To give the devil his due, two or three of the folks telling me that I play the banjo "wrong" do play better than I, especially when they play the one or two styles they're actually any good at. That's not the point. The point is, how did they get from "I like this one style of playing that was popular between 1923 and 1941 in sixteen counties in West Virginia, Eastern Kentucky, and Tennessee" 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. I apologize for my explanation for this list being so very much longer than the list itself.

How to Play the Banjo Wrong

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

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

I'm sure the list will get longer as I get reader responses.

How to Play the Banjo Right

Conversely, I suppose I should provide a list of how to play the banjo right. So here it is:

  • Make music that entertains people and reaches them with your message.
  • Use it to "comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable."
  • Use it to bring people together.
Everything else is personal preference. And anyone who tells you otherwise has no understanding of the banjo or its role in American history.

Click to download a full-page pdf.Conclusion

If you are new to the banjo, or even thinking about getting a banjo, let me welcome you to a long and continuing tradition that (with the exception of a few oddballs) has always been about fun, entertainment, communication, and coming together. Eventually we hope to publish "how-to" play articles from several different traditions, because we think you have the right to try different approaches and to focus on the techniques that get the results you want.

Our focus on keeping things positive even extends to our discussion forums - we kick haters off and don't let them back on. So we encourage you to think of as a "safe place" for trying new things, asking "dumb questions," and otherwise learning how to make music with the instrument of your choice.

So let us know if you have any questions or concerns, and carry on. :-)

All material, illustrations, and content of this web site are copyrighted © 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006,
2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 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 web page, please contact us.

Musician's Friend Stupid Deal of the Day

Visit related pages and affiliated sites:
- Music -
Heartland-inspired music, history, and acoustic instrument tips.
Best-loved railroad songs and the stories behind them.
Visit musings about music on our sister site, School of the Rock With a few tools and an hour or two of work, you can make your guitar, banjo, or mandolin much more responsive.  Instruments with movable bridges can have better-than-new intonation as well. New, used, or vintage - tips for whatever your needs and preferences. Check out our article on finding good used guitars.
Carols of many countries, including music, lyrics, and the story behind the songs. X and Y-generation Christians take Contemporary Christian music, including worship, for granted, but the first generation of Contemporary Christian musicians faced strong, and often bitter resistance. Wax recordings from the early 1900s, mostly collected by George Nelson.  Download them all for a 'period' album. Folks with Bb or Eb instruments can contribute to worship services, but the WAY they do depends on the way the worship leader approaches the music. Different kinds of music call for different kinds of banjos.  Just trying to steer you in the right direction. A page devoted to some of Paul's own music endeavors.
- Trains and Hobbies -
Free building projects for your vintage railroad or Christmas village.
Visit Lionel Trains. Click to see Thomas Kinkaded-inspired Holiday Trains and Villages. Big Christmas Train Primer: Choosing and using model trains with holiday themes Building temporary and permanent railroads with big model trains Click to see HO scale trains with your favorite team's colors.
- Christmas Memories and Collectibles -
Visit the FamilyChristmasOnline site. Visit Howard Lamey's glitterhouse gallery, with free project plans, graphics, and instructions. Click to return to the Old Christmas Tree Lights Table of Contents Page Click to sign up for Maria Cudequest's craft and collectibles blog.
Click to visit Fred's Noel-Kat store.
Visit Papa Ted Althof's extensive history and collection of putz houses, the largest and most complete such resource on the Internet..
- Family Activities and Crafts -
Click to see reviews of our favorite family-friendly Christmas movies. Free, Family-Friendly Christmas Stories Decorate your tree the old-fashioned way with these kid-friendly projects. Free plans and instructions for starting a hobby building vintage-style cardboard Christmas houses. Click to find free, family-friendly Christmas poems and - in some cases - their stories. Traditional Home-Made Ornaments