What's Required to Learn the Banjo

I’ve had folks ask me before “Isn’t the banjo one of the hardest instruments to learn to play?” Others have expressed exactly the opposite viewpoint. I don’t think of the banjo in those terms. I think of it as equally difficult or easy as you would care to make any other instrument. True, it’s not as easy as our usual concept of, say, an ocarina. But you could take most any simple instrument and apply a most difficult regiment of techniques to it, thus turning it into a difficult-to-learn instrument.

So what we are really addressing when we ask “Is that a difficult instrument to learn?” is whether the customary style of playing is easily mastered or not. “Is that a difficult style?” is a more appropriate question.

You see, learning to play the banjo is just like anything else in life that is not dead easy. It takes first and foremost a desire to achieve the goal. Desire trumps just about any obstacle you can name. If you have it, you will succeed. If you don’t, then you will fail. Simple as that. (Yes, for the pessimist out there, I must admit there are cases where no amount of desire is going to change things, but they are by far the exception; don’t let them become the majority).

It also involves some common misconceptions about what else is required, what is optional and what is really detrimental.

What is Required

  • Desire. As I’ve mentioned above, the number one requirement in my book is desire.
  • Practice. This is also well-travelled ground when it comes to advise for anything. Perfect practice makes perfect.
  • Time. Isn’t this what practice is about? Yes, but here I mean it will be a long-term project, not something accomplished simply by a lot of practice, as essential as that is. You’ll need to be able to reflect on what is going on. To let you fingers assimilate all the licks you are learning so that they can do it as naturally as breathing. By the time you are an expert, you’ll literally be able to do an alternating roll while you think totally about something else. You can see that this will simply take some time.
  • Rhythm & Timing. But do we start out with this? Not necessarily. I believe most people have rhythm and timing, or else, with very few exceptions, we can cultivate it. I remember I started out not having very good timing when I was playing with others, and I didn’t even realize it. I figured it out and concluded that it was me, not everyone else, that was speeding up and slowing down. With a little effort and a metronome, I overcame it.

What is Optional

  • A quiet country place with a front porch. I’ll admit, that is where I did a lot of my learning. But I also did a lot of learning early on in a crowded dormitory at college. Sometimes I think it’s a wonder I didn’t get killed. Truth is, not only did I not get killed, many of us in the dorm had a great time practicing together!
  • Plenty of instructional materials. I have a lot of banjo tab books and such. As a teacher, I do get a lot of good ideas that are valuable, but as a learning student, you shouldn’t lean too heavily on tablature alone. Experimenting is of great benefit; it’s like actually sitting down and doing something, which is the best way of learning anything, as opposed to reading about it only. It also develops improvisational skills as you learn your way around the fretboard better by just trying new things.
  • A fancy banjo, sophisticated tuners, etc. Most folks learn on a beginners banjo. You can spot them a mile away; they all sounds the same and look just about the same. Same machined flange, same shape to the neck. The name on the peghead changes, but that’s about it. Don’t get me wrong – since these are what most folks learn on, there has to be some abiding virtue to them, and there is. They are playable and sound decent enough to get the job done.
  • A lot of talent. Talent certainly doesn’t hurt, in and of itself. Remember the old adage about wasted talent, though, because it’s true. Sometimes a lot of talent can go to a person’s head. At that point it isn’t helping you do anything in the grand scheme of things.

What is detrimental

  • A too-busy schedule. This means not enough time, which means not enough practice.
  • Distractions. This mean ineffective practice.
  • I want to learn it all – now”. This goes back to what is required – time. You can never learn it all, but what you can learn will take exactly the rest of you life. Enjoy it but especially, enjoy the journey!
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About Phill Gibson

I'm from Huntsville, Alabama where I work as a Systems Engineer and part-time banjo and mandolin instructor. I've been playing various instruments since my teen years. I started mandolin at about age 17 and banjo at 20. I love just about all kinds of music. In terms of banjo styles, I play Scruggs and melodic and am working on becoming more advanced with single string. I'm also working on 4-finger banjo, which is way off the beaten path. I would like to see more jazz techniques integrated into bluegrass situations; counterpoint, especially. So long-term, that's what I'm doing. I'm also very keen on astronomy, ATM (amateur telescope making), birding, christian homeschooling, martial arts, organic gardening and about 30 other distracting hobbies to a (mercifully) lesser extent.
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