The Basics

You should purchase the book Earl Scruggs and the 5 String Banjo. Click the link and get it at Earl's website. You can also get it at most music stores that carry banjos. This is the book I use for exercises for my private students. It was updated in May of 2005 and you can get a CD to come along with it that plays most of the exersises. Actually, if you can find, on ebay, the original book you will be better off. Although the new book looks nicer and cleaner, the new song tab they chose is very intimidating. It's hard for me to describe to a beginner but the "busy"ness of the new tab makes a difficult task appear even more difficult. For my private students, I usually end up making a facsimile from the original book to supplement the tab in the new book.

Also, you need to find the CD Foggy Mountain Banjo by Flatt and Scruggs. It's getting harder and harder to find the CD. Try ebay. Clicking the CD cover will take you there. All the songs on this CD are found in the book and so it works out very well to own both. Lately the price of the CD is rather prohibitive—around $60 —$70. Buy the old record and have someone convert it to a CD for you. I think that you could do that for a lot less that $70.

scruggs new bookoriginalbookCD

Your Banjo

The banjo you start on doesn’t need be of the highest quality. As long as you can keep the strings in tune, you can start to learn to pick. A good quality inexpensive banjo I’ve tried is the Deering “Good Time”. It may not look fancy, but it plays very well. Fender, Johnson and many other companies make inexpensive models. You might find that the banjo isn’t really for you, so don’t commit too much money towards the instrument initially.

Picks

You will need two finger picks and a thumb pick. Most music stores have these and you can buy all three for around a dollar. Dunlop and National are two popular brands. The thumb pick is plastic, but you need to use metal finger picks. Plastic finger picks won't work out. And yes, you really need to use picks to play bluegrass banjo—playing with bare fingers is actually harder than playing with picks. If you want to play without picks try clawhammer—you use your index fingernail to play that style. Once you have your picks and banjo you can then start on the patterns of picking and begin your practicing.

Tablature

You will need to learn how to read banjo tablature.
It is written on the music staff and looks like this:

Tablature

Some tab is written using the lines rather that the spaces. You can adapt to either style. Each space or line represents a string. The “O” in the staff space stands for an open string, and the “T”, “M”, and “I” represent your thumb, middle, and index fingers. The numbers represent what frett you place your finger at with the left hand.

Click on the heads Your Banjo, Picks, and Tablature for further instruction. You can then start on the patterns of picking and begin your practicing.

The Patterns page

The Patterns page is made up for you to learn a basic roll of the banjo and the song Cripple Creek. Pattern I is a roll I started with as a beginner and the roll I start every beginner with. It took me about 2 weeks to even start to get comfortable with this roll. Just practice it and practice it—till you don't have to look at your picks plucking the strings. Play it over and over, hundreds and hundreds of times. Set a slow metronome beat at first and pick along steadily with the beat. As the days go by set the metronome at faster and faster speeds and keep track of your progress. Write down the number of beats you started at each day and watch your progress. You'll slowly be building up the muscles it takes to play the banjo.

Pattern IV has three "Slides" notated as 2-3. Pluck the note on the second fret and then slide your finger to the third fret. Pattern V has one "Hammer on" notated as 0-2. Pluck the open string and then put your finger at the second fret. You'll get a note without plucking the string again. Pattern VI has a "Pull off" notated as 2-0. Pluck the string at the second fret and let go. You'll get a second note, again without plucking the string again.

Let me just day a few words about practicing. Every instrument is accomplished by practicing. A good practice routine would start off with some repetitous roll pattern picking. Work with a metronome and try to better yourself (speed and cleanliness) everyday. This is muscle work that really pays off. Piano players work with scales and Czerny exercises to build up muscle strength. Then work on a song or two. Break the song into parts and work the individual parts over and over. You might drive some people in your house crazy—but you can bribe them off I'm sure. The more consistently you practice the faster you'll be playing the banjo.

I found out last summer from my daughter's piano camp professor that the hour after the first hour of practice doesn't double the results, but increases them by ten fold! So, working long and hard is worth the effort!