An Introduction to the Banjo

by Bill Monroe, Music & Arts Banjo Lesson Instructor

Tools for Success

Music Stand Shop Now >

A stand helps you maintain proper posture and to easily see your lesson book or worksheets. A simple folding music stand can last for years.

Tuner Shop Now >

Tuning is an essential part of daily practice and a tuner makes it quick and easy. Keep it in your case so it’s always handy.

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Strings need to be changed often, especially in humid conditions, so keep a pack or two in your case at all times. Also, if a string ever breaks, having spares handy gets you back to playing quickly and saves a lot of aggravation.

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Unless you’re certain you only want to play clawhammer style, you’ll need thumb and finger picks. A thumb pick should feel snug and stable. If it’s too tight, it’ll be uncomfortable and will probably break after a while. I keep a couple of spares on my brackets and more in my case.

Fingerpicks usually need a little adjustment to fit your fingertips well. Once you’ve made them comfortable, keep them safely in your case so they don’t get bent out of shape. Since they’re metal, they tend to corrode and make your pick attack sound raspy. To restore their gloss and smooth sound, simply put them on and rub them on clean cloth. Again, keep plenty of spares handy.

Soft cloth and guitar polish Shop Now >

Wipe the strings and fingerboard down with a clean cotton cloth after playing. Removing sweat and moisture will help the strings last longer and to reduce sticky corrosion on your frets. Keep the whole instrument clean and dry. A little guitar polish can help you clean your neck and resonator. A small bottle will last a long time.

Banjo Strap Shop Now >

Most players stand up when they perform, so you’ll need a trustworthy strap. Even when you’re sitting, a strap helps hold the neck up so that your fingerboard hand is free to play. Strap-ends attach to hooks on the rim or to the tension adjusting brackets. I only do that on lightweight student model banjos. For heavier banjos, the best option is a cradle strap which wraps all the way around the rim.

Case Shop Now >

A case is essential for safely carrying your banjo and accessories to a lesson or performance. A hard shell case offers the most protection, but careful use of a gig bag is better than nothing.

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Leaning your banjo against a chair or the wall is risky and unadvised. Your peg head and tuning pegs are easy to break and expensive to fix. If it’s inconvenient to put your banjo in the case every time, an inexpensive guitar stand will be a safe and handy place to stow it.

Basic Banjo Maintenance


Storage To keep your banjo clean, dry, and safe, the best place for it is in the case. After putting your banjo away, close the latches so it won’t accidentally fall out if you grab your case in a hurry. Open the case on the floor, not up on your lap. If you try to lift a banjo out of an elevated case, the lid can slam shut on your banjo and hands.


Because a banjo is made of wood, it is affected by temperature and humidity. Keep it where you are comfortable. Don’t expose it to extreme temperature changes, rain, or snow. Don’t leave it in the car, or the hot sun. Don’t store it in a musty basement or a hot attic.

Cleaning the Banjo

Your instrument will maintain its beauty longer if it is regularly wiped with a clean cotton cloth. If there are a lot of fingerprints, try using a little guitar polish. Don’t use abrasive cleaners or solvents. In the summer, I occasionally clean just the strings and fingerboard with a spot of 99% alcohol on a cloth.


Wipe down the strings every time after playing. This will remove some of the acids and oils your hand leaves behind and will help the strings to last longer.


Changing Strings

Change your strings fairly regularly. If you’re practicing every day, it’s a good idea to change them at least once a month. But if the strings sound flat or dead or if tuning seems difficult, change them sooner. Adding fresh lubricant to your nut slots will improve tuning.


In much of the U.S.A, spring and summer humidity adds moisture to the fingerboard, which bends the neck backwards. Loosening the truss rod a 1/8 to 1/4 turn (counter-clockwise) is usually enough to straighten it. Fall and winter dryness requires a similar amount of tightening the rod. If you’re not comfortable making this seasonal adjustment yourself, call a professional luthier.


Some maintenance is better handled by a professional. A new banjo usually needs a set up. Your bridge, nut, truss rod, and neck angle may need to be adjusted to improve the action (distance between strings and fretboard). Higher action makes it harder to press down on the strings. Lower action creates buzz as the strings vibrate against upper frets. Neck pitch may be increased with shims. Don’t try to fix it yourself by cranking hard on your tension rods! Damaged frets can be leveled, crowned, and polished, or replaced. Breaks or cracks in the neck or resonator should be repaired by a pro. Same for replacing the head or tuners.

Again, your banjo will react to the weather. It’s good practice to have it checked out once a year to make sure everything is still right.

How Much Should a Student Practice?

Practice at least 20 minutes per day. Regular practice is more important than the amount of time per session. Playing for 10 minutes several times every day is more effective than 10 hours on just one day. This is supposed to be fun, and marathon sessions can cause injuries like tendonitis or carpal tunnel syndrome. Instead of sitting still for long periods, focus on one goal for a few minutes, then take a break. Return to your banjo with a new goal. Repeat, repeat, repeat...

Forming Good Habits

Sitting Position

Sit on a chair with no arms and put your feet on the floor, keeping your back straight. Don’t hunch over and rest your left elbow on top of your left leg. If you’re right handed, the resonator should rest on your right leg, or between your legs, and the back of the banjo should be resting lightly against your stomach. The neck should be angled upward, with the peg head near eye level. Don’t use your left hand to support the neck. A well adjusted strap and the weight of your right forearm on the arm rest will help hold it up. Keep the neck a bit in front of you so you can see the top of the neck comfortably. Keep the banjo nearly vertical. Don’t tilt it so you can see the front better because tilting puts extra strain on your fretting hand.

Fretting Hand

Most of the time, your fretting hand thumb should rest low on the back of the neck of the banjo. Later on, you’ll use it to fret your 5th string. Gently bend all your knuckles so your fingers are curved so the tip of the fingers can gently press the strings. The back of your finger should not mute the adjacent string––short fingernails make this easier. Fingertips should touch the side of the frets without sliding on top. Place one finger per fret (index on fret 5, middle on 6, ring on 7, pinky on 8, etc.). The first couple weeks of playing may cause a little soreness, but calluses will soon begin to form, making fretting much easier.

Picking Hand

Rest your right forearm on the arm rest, reaching just below the strings. Rest your 3rd and 4th fingers gently on the head between the bridge and neck. This will help you arch your wrist enough to allow all the strings to ring.

Pick upwards with your fingers and down with your thumb. Your fingers usually play strings 1, 2, and 3. Your thumb usually plays strings 3, 4, and 5. Strike the strings from at least 1/8” away and follow through while avoiding resting your pick on any string. Move your fingers from the first knuckle (closest to your palm), and keep your thumb to the left so it doesn’t get caught behind your fingers. Your picks should barely break the plane of the strings––don’t drag your picks across the head. Notice how the tone changes when you move your picks from bridge to neck.

Finger Pain

In the beginning, fretting the strings can hurt. Make sure they’re not too high. Don’t press them too hard, but only with enough pressure to contact the frets. Pressing too hard also makes it harder to transition from chord to chord. Play every day, but take breaks. To build strength and toughen my fingertips, I gently press my fretting hand thumbnail into my fingertips hundreds of times a day. Leathery callouses build up, and it hurts less. Again, fingernails on the left hand should be kept short, allowing the tips of the fingers to easily connect with the strings.

Note Buzzing Or Muted Notes

To make clear tones, press the string gently right at the fret without crossing it or touching any other strings in the process. This can be awkward for beginners because sometimes the notes will sound muted. Playing too far from the fret causes buzzing, makes you press too hard and will make you sound out of tune. Make sure that fretting fingers are curved and that the tips of the fingers are used to touch the strings. Proper posture helps.

Banjo Size

Most banjo necks are longer than guitar necks, so the first four frets span four inches. Placing one finger per fret (index on fret 1, pinky on fret 4) may seem foreign and uncomfortable at first. It’s okay to start with your index finger on higher frets while you get used to the stretch. A good teacher will help you learn how.


It can take a while for students to be able to change from one chord to the next fluidly. This can be discouraging. Some chords require very little finger movement and are easier to move from one to the next. Choose songs with easy chords and then build up from there. It can take several weeks or months before you can play many chords fluently and this requires regular practice. It took me two years to memorize all 36 basic chords. Be patient; have fun!


Starting any new instrument is challenging. There are so many new motions to learn and details to memorize that it can seem overwhelming. An experienced teacher can answer your questions as they arise, help you choose fun songs and create practice routines that fit your needs and form good habits. Breaking bad habits alone is much more stressful and time-consuming. When my teacher tells me, “A, B, and C are better; focus on D this week.”, I can worry less and play more.

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