There are a lot of different skills you can learn to help you play the banjo. There are technical skills like picking, strumming, frailing, fretting, hammering on, pulling off and slides. There are also practical skills like fitting new strings onto the instrument, adjusting the head tension and so on.
One of the most important skills to learn is called tuning. This means adjusting the tuning pegs to make the banjo sound nice, and it’s a very important skill. Nobody, not even the best player, can sound good on a banjo that is not in tune. If you are learning to play on your own and are finding it difficult, it’s possible you are playing perfectly well but your banjo is out of tune!
There are also musical skills to learn. These skills can be applied to any instrument, not just the banjo. For example playing in time with good rhythm is a great skill to learn, and also understanding about chord changes and knowing which notes are appropriate to play at any given time is a important skill set. If you learn these skills on the banjo you will be able to apply them to any other instrument you choose to learn.
How Much Skill Do I Need?
It is not necessary to master all of these skills in order to play well. Every good banjo player knows how to tune their own banjo, but many top players are only good at some of the skills. For example many players including Earl Scruggs prefer to fingerpick the banjo and do not do any strumming or frailing. On the other hand many great players such as Ken Perlman like to frail the banjo and do not do use the other techniques. The most popular pieces of banjo music generally feature the fingerpicking or ‘Bluegrass’ style, and a lot of beginners want to learn to play this way. However the claw hammer or frailing style is becoming much more popular these days since the Brother Where Art Thou film came out, and a lot of old Hollywood movies featured banjo that was played with a plectrum in a guitar style. So there are many ways to play the banjo!
The skills that are common to all styles of playing are – tuning – fretting – hammering on – pulling off – slides – rhythm + timing – chords – melody. The various styles of banjo playing mainly differ in the way the strings are sounded by the right hand (or left hand if you are a left handed player).