Playing the Five String Banjo

Before we dive into the core techniques of old time banjo I think we should take a moment to talk about three very important issues that are front and center with new players.


The mistake people make when it comes to practice is that they either make it too much of an issue or treat it as work. When we sit down to practice and tell ourselves, “I must attain this” or, “I am doing something important” our heads get so full of judgments and opinions that there isn’t any room for anything else. The will to achieve or prove something winds up working against us.

When you sit down to practice don’t worry about playing this tune or that melody perfectly. As you will see later on in this book the melody of a song is actually the easiest and most flexible part of the equation. Once you “get” old time banjo the odds are pretty good that you will never play a song exactly the same way twice.

Instead, focus your attention on fundamentals such as the frailing strum, chord changes and other basic techniques. Work on these faithfully for a short period of time every day. Then stop worrying about practicing or gaining anything. Just play your banjo and sing some songs.

Don’t treat this like work. Take joy in it.


I run into people all the time who make the mistake of deciding that they will never reach a certain level of skill before they ever strike a note. I don’t think I have to explain how detrimental this kind of attitude can be to someone’s progress.

The thing we sometimes forget is that the notion of success and failure really depends on your perspective. What might seem like a minimal achievement to one person could be a great success in the eyes of someone else.

Judging yourself against other people is always going to leave you feeling inadequate in some way or another. I’m a good banjo player and I love what I do, but if I compared my achievements and training to that of a concert violinist I could start to feel inadequate. What we forget is that the violinist in question may also be comparing himself or herself to somebody else. Don’t be distracted from your own personal journey by falling into this trap. Allow the learning process to work.

It’s the same kind of thing when a beginner compares himself or herself to an experienced banjo player. Seeing someone perform with what appears to be effortless skill when you are struggling with the basics can leave you feeling like you will never be able to get that far.

What we forget in that situation is that even the greatest banjo player in the world was at one time a beginner. What you are seeing is the end result of a lifetime spent making music. If you really think about it the only thing a hot picker really has on you is time.

Be yourself. You are not lacking in anything. You may at times feel that you are not measuring up to someone else but when that happens all you have to do is change your perspective. Look at your progress from a rational point of view. Ask yourself if you really know the whole story or if you are just making excuses.

Trust me, if all you can ever do is sing and play two or three songs people are going to watch you and say, “I’d give anything to be able to play like that!”


The problem with speed is that banjo students tend to make the mistake of thinking that playing fast is somehow different than playing slowly.

If you watch a truly accomplished player in action you will notice that whatever the tempo of the song is he works with the same easy pace. Whatever the speed of the song he or she never really appears to be playing fast.

To quote Mitamoto Musashi, ” Really skillful people never get out of time, are always deliberate, and never appear busy.

In other words, once you have developed your skills playing fast isn’t really any different than playing slow. The note values stay the same, the rhythmic structure doesn’t change and your technique doesn’t change. The only thing that changes is the tempo.

Practice deliberately. Don’t be in a rush to show off or get the song over with. My general rule of thumb is to never play a song any faster than I can sing it.

Build up your skills and after a while you’ll be able to play fast and even ridiculously fast songs or breaks with just as much grace and ease as slow tunes.

Good first. Fast second.