July 2011
Featured Articles

Banjo Banter


John Howle playing a five string banjo with the Earl Scruggs three-finger method.

Turn a Frown Upside Down

“The banjo is such a happy instrument. You can’t play a sad song on the banjo. It always comes out so cheerful.” Steve Martin

Whether you are watching an episode of Andy Griffith where the Darlins are picking bluegrass or listening to a group of pickers around the barbershop, it’s hard to stay in a bad mood long once you start hearing the sounds of the banjo. I started playing a banjo when I was in the fifth grade, and I continue to incorporate the instrument into song sets today.

There was an old gentleman I knew at our local feed and seed store who picked the two-finger “claw hammer” style. This is also known as “frailing.” The method I learned was known as the Earl Scruggs three-finger style. I can still remember going to the mill and some of the old timers wearing overalls saying, “Pick us a tune on that banjer, son.”
Banjo History
The technical name for the instrument is “banjo.” When the banjo came to America with slaves, it was referred to as a banjar, banza or banshaw. The banjo was often made from a gourd with strings stretched across a sound hole.

In minstrel shows, the banjo became the instrument of choice and, once gold was discovered out West and cities in California needed entertainment, manufacturing of the banjo became a popular business. At this time, a long, wooden neck was attached to a drum, much like a modern snare drum, and strings were attached. This served as a model for today’s banjo style.

Banjo Basics
The type of banjo played in most bluegrass settings today is the five-string. The small, fifth string is located on top of the neck and is picked open. The banjo looks like a complicated piece of machinery to master when you are watching someone play it fast. However, the basics of the banjo are relatively simple.


Typically, you use a thumb, index and middle finger picks.

Modern bluegrass playing on the five-string banjo involves picking through the strings in a consistent pattern known as a roll. If you are right handed, the picking is done with your right hand. You will typically use the thumb to pick the fifth, fourth and third strings. The index is used for the second string, and the middle finger is used for the first string, which is the bottom string when holding the banjo in your lap. A banjo player will place picks on the thumb, forefinger and middle finger of the picking hand.

The most common picking roll is known as the combination roll. This is where you use the picking hand to pluck this progression of strings: 3, 2, 5, 1, then, 4, 2, 5, 1 in a quick progression.

Three Simple Chords
When the banjo is strummed open without pressing any strings for chords, this is known as the “G” chord. Many traditional bluegrass tunes can be played with no more than three chords: G, C and D. If you are right-handed, you will be holding the chords with your left hand.

Since the “G” chord is played open, this is a great way to learn the rolls with your picking hand because you don’t have to concentrate on the chording of the other hand.

The “D” chord is held by holding down the second string within the first fret and the third string within the second fret. The frets are the spaces on the neck between the narrow, metal bars.

The third chord, “C,” is held by pressing the first string on the second fret, the second string on the first fret, and pressing the fourth string on the second fret. Once you have mastered the rolls, you can then change chords as you play, and with a little natural rhythm, you can follow along with other bluegrass pickers.
How ‘Bout a Song
Once you learn the “C” and “D” chords, you already know the “G” chord because it is played open. Next, you can play a simple song. One of the most common first songs is “Boil Them Cabbage Down.” It is played with the G, C, and D chord progression.

Above, this photo shows what a “C” chord should look like; below, what a “D” chord should look like.


This is an easy song to start with because the rhythm matches the chords and words well. The chorus and chords go like this:

G,  G,  G,  G,  C, C
Bile them cabbage down
G,  G,  G,  G, D, D
Turn them hoecakes round
G, G, G, G,C, C
The only song that I can sing
G, G, D, D, G
Is bile them cabbage down.

When to Start
The best time to begin learning to play the banjo is when you first get one. Whether you are 8 or 80, I know for a fact new songs can be learned. I’ve taught guitar and banjo for years, and my youngest student was 7 and the oldest I’ve ever taught was a sweet lady of 82 years.

I was performing in a restaurant, and an elderly woman approached me and asked if I made house calls on banjo lessons. Every week for six months, we would gather in her parlor and learn new banjo tunes. She’s close to 90 now and continues to pick her little rosewood banjo as arthritis allows.

This July, give the banjo a try or encourage youngsters you know to develop a skill in some of the traditional music. Try it and see if the banjo doesn’t turn a frown upside down. Clip this article out for your scrapbook, and you will have about three standard banjo lessons on hand.

John Howle is a freelance writer from Heflin.