Good, it is a great instrument. This page is
dedicated to helping people who want to learn to play the 5 string banjo in what
is called Clawhammer, Frailing, or Old Time style. This consists of links I have
built up over the years, book recommendations, and other general tips. More advanced
players will probably know all of this stuff and may just want to skim (check
out the chords).
Feedback, corrections, links, book recommendation, and tips are always welcome. Please email me at
firstname.lastname@example.org. My guestbook was disabled due to spam. But please email me. I love hearing from people.
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Buying a Banjo
Learning Your First Licks
Albums and People
kind of banjo playing you are mostly looking for a 5 string open back model.
If you have one great, start playing it. If you have
a closed back one, that should work fine to start,
plus you can always take the back off anyway. If you need to
buy one there are three routes you can go:
Buy the cheapest banjo that isn’t a toy to see if you like it and can play it
This is the route I went.
Personally I would recommend buying a pretty good banjo instead.
Honestly anyone can play the 5 string banjo, and play it well.
I swear you can do it. There is really no reason to
doubt. You will outgrow this banjo quickly and wish you
didn’t buy it. But, if you must, get a NEW Rover RB-20 5
string open back banjo plus soft shell case from
As of writing this $110 plus shipping is all you should probably pay.
Be very careful about used banjos from ebay!
The cheap ones are mostly not playable regardless of what they say.
If you are a beginner and want to go cheap, buy a new one, trust me.
Read the next section even if you think this is the route you want to go.
Buy a pretty good banjo as a starter but not for a lot of money
This is my personal recommendation.
Someday you will want two banjos, and this one can last you as your “second”
banjo for a long time. The main new options are a
The Gold Tone Cripple Creek
CC-100 Open Back and a slightly more expensive American made
Goodtime I Banjo. It is a personal choose and it is up
to you. I picked the Gold Tone myself.
These are the main two “entry” level open back banjos out there today.
However, there is a third option I wish I knew about before.
Check out bernunzio.com, they have a
inventory. Most of the banjos
between $300-$600 would make a fine first banjo and will last you a lot
longer and make you happier than the Gold Tone or Goodtime.
All of these banjos are played by man who runs the site and he comments on
them all. Look for the words “good player.”
That is key since you don’t want something
hard to play. Also email him and ask for his advice.
If I had to do it all again, that is how I would have started.
Buy the one and only banjo you will ever need right off the bat
For you hard core people out there, this is the way to go. Why waist money on a temp banjo? Life is too short to play a low quality instrument, etc, etc. As I said above check out bernunzio.com, they have a good banjo inventory. For this category any banjo that is a “good player” over $950 will probably do. I personally lucked out and got myself a used Bart Reiter Special. I love that banjo, and would recommend it to anyone. If you want even nicer banjos or a wider selection of newer ones look around. The Turtle Hill Banjo Company has some nice ones. Bart Reiter and Mike Ramsey make very nice banjos, and so do Crafters of Tennessee and others. It is a matter of taste and budget.
You probably want a around an 11 inch rim and a 26 to 27 inch scale. Way different that those two is probably not good for your first banjo. Although a nice 12 inch rim can sound sweet and plunky which can be very nice. Going smaller than 11 inch isn’t probably a good idea unless you know what you are doing and are looking for a specific sound.
Do yourself a favor and make sure ALL of the tuning pegs are geared even the 5th string one (assuming you can afford it, the Rover doesn’t have a geared 5th string tuning peg). It saves a lot of time and hassle when you are first learning to tune your banjo.
Real skin heads might be a bit more work than you need when first learning to play. Keep that in mind.
Never buy a cheap used banjo off of ebay. They are never as good as they say they are. If they are good it will be way over priced, used bernunzio.com instead.
Ebay auctions suck due to snipers and often they run higher than the banjo is worth. The ones that are simple “buy now” are normally a better bet.
Unless you really know what you are doing, get the new
banjo setup by a professional. It is cheap and will make a
world of difference. To find one call a local guitar shop
which does setups and ask if they have people who work on banjos.
If they don’t ask if they know a place that does.
few calls later you should find your man. Also banjo
teachers should know who can set it up for you. Also they
should be able to tell if it needs one. My guy was at
Guitar Works in
If there isn’t anyone around you that knows how to setup a banjo buy the Complete Banjo Repair book by Larry Sandberg and learn to do it yourself.
Have your setup guy put a rail spike in the 7th fret for the 5th string and buy a capo. Don’t put it in yourself. It is too cheap to risk it. You don’t have to do this right away, but you will need to if you want to play with a mandolin or fiddle player.
At some point I want to put a lot more instructional info
here, but for now I don’t have the time. But I can point you
in the right direction. First and foremost GET A TEACHER!
I can not stress this enough. The banjo has been taught
and “handed down” person to person since the beginning.
There is no substitute for a real live person to teach you.
If you know of any bands with banjo players ask them about it.
Or call guitar shops who give guitar lessons.
Ask if anyone there teaches the banjo and if they don’t ask if they could
recommend another place to call. Once you find a banjo
teacher make sure they teach clawhammer and not just
bluegrass. If they look down there nose
at clawhammer move on.
With that out of the way, first thing you need to get down
in the right hand technique (assuming you are right handed).
Luckily you can work on this all day in Open G and it will sound fine.
Get your banjo to Open G. If you don’t know how check
out the Tuning frame on
Uncle Bens Banjo
Homepage. Then check out the
frailing frame on
Uncle Bens Banjo
Homepage. Work on it. This is also
very well explained in the
The How and the Tao of Old Time Banjo book.
The companion DVD shows it and you can hear it. Work
on that for a while. Order the books while working from
Uncle Ben’s page, and find yourself a teacher. By the way I
use my middle finger, you can use either that or your index.
Opinions vary. Once you can do something with the right hand,
start mixing it up with chords on the left hand. Chords take
some time to get down, so relax. Another, easier, way to
learn the chords is to learn one song after another, each song introducing a new
chord; this is what a teacher is for. Below
are some chords for you to practice.
Practice switching between them. Start by doing the
basic right hand technique with different chords. Then play:
1 strum pluck, 5 strum pluck, for a measure of one chord, then switch to another
If you are thinking “Huh?” that makes more sense after you
look at the chord diagrams. If you are still lost the Tao book has
some great exercises for this and explains it in more detail.
And your teacher will explain what I mean if you ask.
The links below are the chord charts. The dots are where your fingers go. The numbers represent which finger it is. The numbers at the top show the fret, and the letters at the bottom the name of the chord. Red is the root or 1 note of the chord, blue is the 5 note of the chord. Closed chords (all 4 strings are fingered) are shown as movable and each fret shows what the chord is. Enjoy!Major Chords Open G Tuning
Major 7 Chords Open G Tuning
Minor Chords Open G Tuning
Major Chords Double C Tuning
Minor and Major 7 Chords Double C Tuning
Major Chords G Modal Tuning
Minor and Major 7 Chords G Modal Tuning
Major Chords Standard C Tuning
Albums and People
To get a good feel of this kind of music, you are going to have to start to listen to it. There is no way around it. While you are building a collection of albums and books, it is also a good idea to learn who some of the popular people are who play this kind of music.
Places to Buy:
Instruments has a good selection of clawhammer banjo CDs to choose from.
Countrysales.com has great CDs too.
Of course the trusty standbys have some too, a few of my favorite CDs came from Amazon. Also check out the MP3s on archive.org here. Some great old stuff for free!
CDs to Buy:
Clawhammer Banjo Volume 1, 2, 3 You almost have to get all three of these and listen to them, a lot.
Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley This is a great album, one of my favorite banjo players with my favorite singer (Doc can also play clawhammer banjo but doesn't very often unfortunately). People talk about songs on this one, so it is nice to have it for that reason alone.
Kentucky Old-Time Banjo Great collection of old time banjo tunes.
The North Carolina Banjo Collection Another great collection of old time banjo tunes.
High Atmosphere One of my favorite albums. Has a lot of good recordings of not only banjo, but some good singing and a few guitar tunes.
That list just scratches the surface of what I own, and my collection just scratches the surface of the good albums out there. That is why it is important to know who people are so you can pick albums to buy on your own. Here is a starter list of the who's who in this kind of music. By all means this isn't complete:
Uncle Dave Macon
Use those names to Goggle or help you pick out CDs that look good. Good luck building your music collection!
The 2005 Midwest Banjo Camp Group Picture is finally here. You can see my face sticking out on the right side of the picture over the left shoulder of a man in a green shirt. To my right there is a taller tanner man in a hat, that is Israel who was my roommate and a great guy. Just to my left is Wendy, also a Chicago native and was just getting started on the banjo but had a great voice and an incredible ear. Below me two people is a man from Canada who played Clawhammer style but didn’t know any old time tunes. Instead he carried around with him a Karaoke book with lyrics and chord progressions. He could play and sing every song in there, he did mostly rock and roll. He plays in a rock band and has a custom banjo case attached to his Harley which he rode to the camp. A unique person to say the least, and a great guy. The front row is mostly instructors, many are on my list of people to know. See if you can figure out who a few are.
Basic Learning Books:
The How and
the Tao of Old Time Banjo by Patrick Costello
Buy this book! What a great book. Unfortunately for me I didn’t find it early enough to get the full use out of it. It is a great book for learning the banjo. My only complaint is the binding doesn’t stay open, so if I want to play something in the book I normally have to use a stapler or something to keep it open while my hands are on the banjo. The DVD is worth it as well, especially if you can’t find a teacher.
Of Five Strings by Patrick Costello
Another great book! No reason not to buy both at the same time. If you have been playing for a while (over a year) you can just buy this one, there is a lot of overlap with the Tao book.
http://www.ezfolk.com/banjo/ has both books by Patrick Costello free to download. I recommend buying them, but this is useful.
The Natural Way
To Music by Jim D’Ville
and Bill Keith
Get this and start to train your ear and understand music. I found the companion CD to be of minimal value, but there is some banjo playing on it.
The Banjo Newsletter
Not really a book, but get it coming as soon as possible. I really wish I started way earlier. This is a must have. Any keep them! You will wish you had later if you don’t.
Great for learning how your banjo works, and setup, etc.
Banjo Player's Songbook by T. Jumper
Some of you will use tab, some of you will go more old school. That is up to you. If you learn by tab at all, this is THE BOOK! I haven’t seen anything else that is even close to this book. Not only is the song selection great, but the tab is very good. Not too simple, but not too hard. You are able to learn songs in here as a beginner, some of the fiddle songs are nice for intermediate players, and the layout is good enough for an advanced player to start adding there own flair. I have other sources of tab that I use often now (see the advanced section below) but this book is still handy to have and I still use it.
The Banjo Picker's Fakebook by David Brody
This will add songs that the songbook doesn’t have. You won’t need it for a while, but at some point it is nice to have. One note: For the songs in both of these books, I think the tab in the songbook sounds better, even if it is simpler. Update: I've had this book for a long while now and I've only used it for two songs. I'm starting to think it isn't worth it at all.
More Advanced Learning/Tab Books:
How to Play the 5-String Banjo by Pete Seeger
I am glad I got and read this book, but I am also glad I didn’t get it very early on. This book is very old and somewhat dated. Almost all of the tunes are in Standard C tuning, not Open G. Also, he focuses on several right hand techniques which are of minimal value today. Learn basic clawhammer first. Get this book later to learn about it, there is some great history in it. In other words, unless you are a huge Seeger fan and want to sound just like him, skip this one for a while but add it to your collection at some point.
Clawhammer Banjo by
This is a great book and a must have. It comes with a CD with a few tunes and the "Galax lick." I uploaded the CD info to the public CDDB database so you should be able to rip it with no problems. :-) It has many common old time tunes, all are worth learning. It includes information about how to play, but I included it in the advanced section for a reason. Unless you grew up listening to this kind of music, the arrangements in this book aren't going to be real easy for you. Technically many of the songs are easy to play, but unless you know how the song goes it will be hard to get it just right. This is where having a teacher and listening to a lot of this kind of music comes in. This could be a great book to start with if you already know most of the songs on another instrument or have a teacher who will put down the song as played on tape so you can get a feel for it.
Round Peak Style
Clawhammer Banjo by Brad Leftwitch
This is another great book and has a CD with every single song on it. Only the ituns CDDB had the CD when I tried to rip it though, and it was to many songs to upload it to a public one myself, sorry. This is an advanced book without a doubt. First, Brad tabbed out how some of the greatest banjo plays from the Round Peak area played the songs, so it isn't always simple. Second, he didn't mark in any of the Hammer-ons, Pull-offs, Drop-thumbs, etc in his tab. If you don't know how to read tab very well this isn't a good place to start. Whenever two notes are connected with a curved line over it that means a slide. Other than that you need to know when you should use a Hammer-on, Pull-off, or Drop-thumb. Brad considers the CD the primary learning tool. Listen to the song several times and getting it down and then use the tab to help you get it sounding right. With all the said, once you can figure it all out this has some great versions of popular songs. I love the Pretty Polly version in this book. Also he has great lyrics for the songs.
Some of these links fit is two or more categorize.
You will just have to deal with it. Also not every
link above is listed here so look at the rest of the page for more links.
For the record, these are in no order. If you know of
a cool link or two I’m missing, email them to me. I’m always
looking for new stuff.
Songs and Tab
Setup and Building
Buying Banjo’s and Parts
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