Requested Article: What’s the difference between playing a banjo and playing a guitar?

Good morning! I see you survived Friday the 13th and have managed to visit the site again. Well, I assume you did – otherwise you’d not be reading this, I hope…

Today, I’m going to answer a reader’s question. Sort of…

A fella who goes by the name of @RepublicOfTX asked me to compare and contrast playing a guitar with playing a banjo. Which is a great question and a great idea for an article!

Except, I’m a guitarist and not a banjo player! I own a banjo, in fact I own two of them. I have taken zero formal banjo lessons, am not what I’d call a banjo player, and am absolutely not the best source for information about this subject.

Fortunately, the community of musicians is pretty small and is usually pretty helpful. Someone who wishes to remain anonymous was willing to write up some information for me and I’ll be turning that into my answer. For the sake of anonymity, we’re going to call our wonderful instructor by the name of @MysteriousMysteryMan!

So, I’m not the person answering. Instead, I’m the person relaying the information and turning it into this article.

Q: Compare and contrast playing a banjo and playing a guitar?

It didn’t take much scouring to find someone willing to answer this question. In fact, the very first person I asked was willing to give RepublicOfTX an answer.

@MysteriousMysteryMan writes:

A lot of people in the world wonder if banjo is just like guitar. I don’t blame them. It’s something that all humans should ponder at some point. The answer is yes and no.

Bluegrass music has influenced the standardization of the open G tuning, not to mention getting black-out drunk on moonshine while sitting on yer front porch picking, grinning and eating BBQ pork rinds.

The first thing many guitarists do is tune the banjo like a guitar. It works! Now you can barre chord and do a Hillbilly rendition of every rock song you know. You’re stylin’ and profilin’ because surely no one has ever tried this before, but you soon realize that it just isn’t the same as that sound in the song ‘Dueling Banjo’s’.

You dig deeper and search: Learn this one simple trick to playing banjo! Roll patterns.

This is when you are hit with new picking techniques and patterns called Rolls that will absolutely overwhelm you very quickly. Usually most guitar players walk away right then and there. Its sort of a test to thin out the herd.

The ones who pass the test will learn all about a whole new level of muscle memory. It’s like Flamenco playing that you’ve surely heard TheBuddha do, and if not then go to the guitar sub and listen. You aren’t going to be able to pull that shit off unless you live it, breath it, do it every day.

You put on the finger picks that you bought when you decided that you were going to be the Edward Van Halen of Banjo and start picking. Easy peesy, right? Oh hell no. WTF? Something’s not right here. This is not like finger picking at all! You give up and walk through the house with your finger picks on and try and scare the kids, moving your hand around like Freddy Krueger. Welcome to my nightmare!

Okay. Now that you got that out of the way, you sit back down and try and figure some of this stuff out. If you expect to get that classic tone then you know what you must do. You have to get used to these finger picks, as they feel very alien.

If you wish to unlock the instrument’s unique sound/tone then you should practice rolls at least an hour everyday until they become part of you, young grasshopper. A roll pattern is a series of eight notes picked repeatedly with the thumb, index, middle and sometimes ring finger on the right hand creating a stream of arpeggios or ‘broken chords’.

This is that sound you are chasing. There are many rolls you must learn. Some of them are the forward roll, the backward roll, the forward-backward roll because hell yeah by gawd, and the mixed roll. Earl Scruggs popularized the foggy mountain roll, the lick roll. You should go look at the tab for all of the classic rolls.

Learning these patterns and putting them all together is the secret to playing banjo. Moonshine not included.

And, there you have it! The writing assumes you know a bit about playing the guitar already, but it’s an insider’s look at the difference between playing a guitar and a banjo – and a well written treatise at that!

I mentioned it’s a small community and that it’s a helpful community. I wasn’t kidding. That’s one of the greatest benefits to being a musician. If you have any questions about the subject of musicianship, you need but ask and we (the community) will do most anything to get you the answer you need.

See, unlike many other professions, we want you to join us and to share the music with us. We want to teach you the tips, tricks, and art. We’re not worried about you competing with us, we just want someone to share the music with. Music is like a joke, it’s best when shared.

Don’t hesitate to ask questions, leave comments, or offer assistance. Your skill level isn’t nearly as important as your willingness to share in both learning and teaching. I’m mostly a guitar player, but I’ll try to get answers to most any musical question. I’ve got a whole community to ask for help, and that’s awesome. Until next time…

Shut up and play us a song!

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