Musicians are said to be able to think “outside the box.” However, many musicians hit periods of dullness. After playing the same things, on the same instrument, over and over, it’s easy to get bored. If you feel this way, maybe it’s time to re-energize your playing. Learning a new instrument can reinvigorate musical creativity. And possibly, this time, you’ll consider something way out of the box—the five-string banjo.
If you already play guitar, picking up the six-string banjo offers little challenge, as it uses the same skills needed for guitar. However, the five-string banjo has a different sound and energy with its mysterious, short fifth string. This fifth string ends at the fifth fret and is connected to a special tuning peg mounted on the side of the neck.
Through banjo, players of guitar and other string instruments may discover a whole new world of melody that easily translates back to their primary instrument. The banjo can also help you develop skills to play faster; the fifth string makes speedy licks easier to grasp.
But what if you’re not a fan of bluegrass music? Fortunately, there is plenty of banjo repertoire—finger style, rock, alternative, jazz, Latin, classical—and the instrument lends itself well to all these genres. As with most instruments, the banjo is only limited by the creativeness of the player.
The banjo is easy to learn, especially for a guitar player, as the tuning is very similar—the top four strings of the guitar are DGBE and the four main strings on the banjo are DGBD. The fifth string of the banjo lends a high-pitched droning sound and is rarely fretted. You already have left hand technique from guitar, so a little mechanical right hand work and you’ve got it!
The Right Banjo Model
If you are ready to start, there are a wide variety of choices and a wide range of prices available. You should choose an instrument based on your budget, your personal preference in terms of sound, and what music you hope to play. Open-back models are often more cost-effective, weigh less, and have a softer range. Closed back (resonator) banjos are louder and more common in bluegrass settings. Many budget-priced banjos have guitar-style tuners, but planetary tuners give a banjo a traditional look and feel and make tuning easier.
In terms of tone, mahogany banjos usually sound warmer and have a versatile tonal range. Maple gives a sharp, clear tone, more common in bluegrass music. Walnut is often a good compromise of the two. Tone-rings allow bluegrass banjos to be heard above the other instruments by focusing tone and increasing projection, but they aren’t essential. Tone-rings can be made of wood, bronze, and other materials, but solid brass is top-of-the-line.