Lay your banjo wisdom on me please...

August 12, 2012 5:59 PM

It was my birthday yesterday, so I took it as an excuse to finally snag the banjo I've had my eye on in the local music store. Now I just have to figure out how to play the damn thing -- and that's where you come in.

So I can sort of fake my way through it with a combination of mutant travis picking and some basic rolls. I have some decent metal fingerpicks that I'm getting used to. I figured out the chords in a couple of minutes and I have a bunch of lessons and PDFs and stuff but I'm looking for more general advice, really.

I love the sound of the thing but I'm not sure I have any real desire to be a hotshot bluegrass picker or Tony Trischka, although I do want to be on top of the rolls.

I kind of like the way my mutant picking sounds... it's four fingers not three and has a bit more of a ragtime feel. I also quite like the way it sounds played fingerstyle without picks, although that wouldn't work live at all. I'm also a bit wary of sounding like a guitarist who's picked up a banjo and probably need to be booted out of my comfort zone.

I'm trying to figure out what to do about capo-ing - I have a dinky little capo but I'm currently just tuning up the G string.

Anyway, what's your experience with the banjo, and what haven't I thought of that might be cool? Also, how do you amplify it live?
posted by unSane (8 comments total)

I'm a pretty good mandolin and guitar player who's fiddled with a banjo a bit, but I wouldn't say I'm highly proficient. I've also worked on many banjos. A few thoughts:

Put the finger picks and thumb pick on. Don't ever take them off. Just as comfortable with them--more so--than you are with your bare fingers. Unless, of course, you wanna play it clawhammer style.

As far as a pickup goes, bridge-style pickups work pretty well. You could also go this route, which I've heard is great live.

The thing that blew my mind at first and I think still keeps me from being comfortable on banjo like I am on other string instruments is the fifth string being "out of order", for lack of a better term--I'd expect a lower note there, not a high note. I think that's where learning the rolls comes in handy. Just google or youtube some basic banjo roll patterns and practice them. Then start building your riffs off those. Learning the rolls first will help you get comfortable with the strings being, uhm, out of order.

If you're looking for some inspiration, everybody will be quick to refer you to Bela Fleck, (who is incredible, yes) but you might also enjoy Noam Pikelny who's outstanding. He's also the banjo player in Punch Brothers, who play with bluegrass instrumentation, but aren't all bluegrass by a long shot. Here's a pretty awesome cover they did of Heart in a Cage (The Strokes), to which his banjo part is nifty.
posted by mikeo2 at 7:29 PM on August 12, 2012

Oh, and to address capo-ing, there are specific fifth string capos that work great, as well as specific widths designed for banjo necks.
posted by mikeo2 at 7:33 PM on August 12, 2012

I think the high 5th string is the key thing I like about it actually - you suddenly get all these filigree little riffs from stuff that used to be thump thump bass.

Because I'm used to Travis picking I find myself doing a lot of pinches which I think sound really nice but don't necessarily play well with the standard rolls.

I hadn't realized what a math game it was to figure out which roll would hit which melody note in the right place. That's a lot of fun for a nerd like me.
posted by unSane at 8:03 PM on August 12, 2012

I was thinking of using those little model railway spikes for the capo on the G-string.
posted by unSane at 8:17 PM on August 12, 2012

It was my birthday yesterday, so I took it as an excuse to finally snag the banjo I've had my eye on in the local music store

Heh. It's my b-day tomorrow and I've also been wondering about spending my birthday cash on a banjo or banjitar; I've wanted one for the past few years.
I haven't loved the ones I've played in stores; it seems like the $400 range doesn't get you much.
Your picture won't load for me, by the way.
posted by chococat at 8:25 PM on August 19, 2012

Oh, and belated Happy Birthday!
posted by chococat at 8:36 PM on August 19, 2012

Thanks, Choco - I thought about a banjitar but in the end the banjo won out. The 4-string chords are basically the same as those on a guitar except you play the top G two frets higher, so a C-shape x32010 becomes 02012 and so on - the first 0 being the drone on the high G.

I fixed that link - you should see it now.

This is the one I got -- I can't find much wrong with it at all. I think they're $300 at L&M.
posted by unSane at 3:39 AM on August 20, 2012

I've never really gotten the bluegrass roll thing to work for my fingers—I'm just not that clean of a fingerpicker in general—so I've tended to move more toward a more laid back, expressive approach the the banjo on the stuff I've been happiest with. It's lack of sustain compared to guitar is a pretty weird thing at first (and is I think part of why the tight roll approach is so popular and distinctive, as a kind of trem-picking analogue) but the thing that eventually clicked for me is that that gives slow-picked melodic stuff a really great sense of space if you go for it. For all of Bela's ability to pick like a motherfucker, it's really when he's easing off and doing something super spare and pretty that I tend to really feel like, yeah man, that's it.

So, play around with that a bit among everything else is my recommendation.

For a pickup I can't recall the specific brand I own but it's very similar in style to this thing, with a couple of sensors on the inside of the drum at about bridge level out to a 1/4" jack. I found it worked well enough for playing out shows with a band through a guitar amp so long as I put an fx chain between the banjo and the pickup to cut the gain a bit at specific resonant frequencies. Was a bit of a feedback nightmare otherwise if playing loud.
posted by cortex at 10:45 PM on October 2, 2012

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