Or is it a specialised enough instrument that you only usually hear people who are really good at playing it?
Every time I hear banjo music it’s usually finger-pluckingly fast enough to rival any flamenco guitarist. On the occasions that a banjo and a guitar are played together (like in dueling banjos) the impression is usually given that the banjo player is doing at least two notes for every one the guitar player plays.
What’s the truth? There’s not a lot of banjo players in Australia to ask!
I think as far as learning the basics goes, learning to strum a guitar is much easier than even the simplest bluegrass-style (or old-timey style) banjo picking. I think you’re mostly right that you don’t often see banjo players who haven’t mastered at least the basics of this technique (which does sound impressive), whereas you see awful guitar players all over the place. (I do, anyway.) I go to bluegrass jams several times a month, and banjo players who are just starting out tend to hang at the back and play very quietly. I would say the same goes for fiddle players – maybe because the mistakes are so loud and obvious, people learning the banjo or fiddle sem to keep a lower profile until they’re better players. Possibly they’re just more ambitious musicians to begin with.
But I think if you have a guitarist (one who can flatpick/fingerpick) and banjoist of more or less equal talent, the banjo player is going to produce more notes just by virtue of the way the instrument is played (that is, three picks flailing away instead of one), not because the banjo player is better or working harder. A piano player isn’t necessarily a “better” musician than a banjoist because he/she can play a bass line and a melody line simultaneously; it just what the instrument allows you to do.
I will say for the guitarist that it’s more likely that he or she will be in tune, though. If Austrialia needs banjo players, we’d be glad to send you a few.
I’m not sure if this answers the question, but here’s my experience. I’ve been playing guitar for 40 years. I played rock full-time in my early twenties, played acoustic and sang in bars through my thirties, played in a wedding reception band for about fifteen years in my thirties and forties. I’m a pretty good rock player and I can finger pick reasonably well. Three years ago my wife bought me a banjo. I figured it would be easy to learn. It hasn’t been. The left hand is easy, much easier than stuff I can do without thinking on guitar. The right hand, the finger picking part, is just foreign to me. Part of the problem is that I don’t have the time to practice like I did when I was learning guitar, and I’m still in a band, so some of my music time is still devoted to learning songs on guitar. But banjo seems much harder to me than guitar. When I was fifteen, I could wow my friends at parties playing tunes from the Who or Zeppelin. I really can’t do anything on the banjo yet that I’d consider presentable.
Make sure you’re comparing apples and apples: yes, strumming chords on a guitar is easier than three-finger picking or frailing a banjo. But you can also play a banjo by simply strumming chords (lots of dixieland jazz features this), which is about the same level of difficulty as doing it on a guitar.
Now, learning to play Scruggs-style bluegrass banjo proficiently is much harder. Probably on a par with becoming equally accomplished at fingerstyle guitar like Blind Blake, Leo Kottke, etc. The banjo player may be doing more notes and faster runs, but the guitarist will probably have more complex counterpoint and polyphony, playing bass and melody simultaneously.
All instruments are hard to master. (I don’t know much about classical or flamenco styles, so I will defer to others).
FWIW, they make six-string banjos (which are tuned and fingered just like a guitar) for guitarists who simply want the sound of a banjo without having to learn the tuning.
Indeed they do make what some refer to as a “Banjitar” which has six strings all tuned the same as a standard guitar, allowing a guitar player to get a banjo sound without having to really learn a new instrument.
I have a friend who taught himself to play the banjo, and it took about three years before he got the hang of it (he’s a virtuoso now), at the same time, I had someone show me a few chords on the guitar, and within 6 months I could figure out plenty of difficult stuff on my own. I’d say that the banjo is a little harder, if just that there isn’t as many players out there to show you some basics.
Oh, and if you’re looking for ease of play, I’d check out either the bouzouki or a strumstick. Bouzoukis can be tuned like a guitar, and is popular in traditional Greek and Irish music, and a strumstick is perhaps the easiest stringed instrument to play of all time. Those are a lot of fun.
I played fingerstyle guitar for a number of years before playing banjo. Banjo is not as harmonically complex as guitar since it has fewer strings, and Bluegrass and Folk music in general isn’t very complicated, harmonically. The Scruggs-style picking, as previously stated, is the hard part - playing with fingerpicks, picking patterns, and speed.
That said, if you can play guitar it’s not terribly difficult to learn banjo enough to have fun with it , it’s just terribly difficult to play very fast and like Crotalus said, to be “presentable”.
I’ve been playing banjo for about two years now…I know about ten songs off the top of my head, some of them kind of long, and I’d know a lot more than that if I practised more often. :rolleyes:
I think banjo is way easier to pick up than guitar. Most of what you’re hearing when you’re hearing banjo players play real fast like that, is because they’re picking with three fingers: the thumb, index and middle finger, in quick succession (or what we pickers call a “roll pattern”! ) I’m constantly amazed every time I break out my banjo at a social gathering, pick through something that took me, literally, an hour to learn, and everyone there is just speechless and tells me I’m the greatest musician they’ve ever heard. That’s the other added benefit of playing the banjo: when someone breaks out a guitar, everyone’s like “Oh great, another guitar player” (unless of course, they’re really good), but when you break out a banjo, everyone’s overjoyed!
Another added benefit is banjo tunes are really easy to learn, because they’re broken out into several parts. Like part A, B, and C. You learn each part separately, and then when you’re ready to play the song together you’ll do something like play part A twice, part B twice, C twice, and then back into A or whatever. It’s much easier than trying to learn a long song all the way through.
Anyway, that’s my 2 cents. And for the record, my next plan of action (after I practice my banjo more and get better) is to pick up the guitar. I’m nervous, as I think it will be much harder.
A lot of what you’re hearing here is also the left-handed techniques of banjo playing. For instance, there is a technique called the “hammer”, where you pluck a string while it is open, and then with your left hand you strike it, creating another note. This creates the impression of playing two notes very quickly. Alternately, you can also pluck a string while holding it down with your left hand, and then let go while sort of picking it, creating another note. So yeah, it’s real easy to give the impression that you’re playing a lot more notes, when your picking hand isn’t doing anything different.
“Cripple Creek” is one of my favourite songs to play, as it employs the pick, the hammer, and the slide left handed techniques. It’s quite dazzling.
Don’t have much to add, but as an avid amateur guitar player, I find the banjo an incredibly weird instrument. Putting that high-G string out of “proper” order as the fifth string still freaks my brain out pretty badly (let’s not even get into its shorter length), and the finger-picking techniques I’ve develped on the guitar sound ridiculous when adapted directly to banjo playing. Strumming the banjo I can handle. Picking? It’d probably take a year for me to learn how to even fake it.
I tried banjo, briefly many many years ago. Never got good at it.
Just 2 cents to throw in: there’s 5-string banjos, where the 5th string is shorter and (IIRC) never fingered with the left hand, so it provides a droning sound. You pluck these (usually wearing picks on 3 RH fingers). Used in bluegrass music.
Then there’s 4-string banjos. Usually strummed, not plucked. Used in dixeland jazz and minstrel shows.
I’ve got a banjo which I don’t know how to play well. I feel confortable with the concept of picking and rolls and such (maybe it’s years of playing Bach fugues on the piano…) but I have trouble with the left hand. I don’t know if it’s a technique problem or my hand is the wrong size, but I just can’t easily fret strings without touching adjacent ones and making very unpleasant sounds. Many of the chords put my fingers in weird contortions they just weren’t designed for.
The thing I have always heard from bluegrass guys and gals is that the fiddle and banjo are the most difficult bluegrass instruments to pick up in that order. But to really master an instrument is pretty much equally hard. But I have heard that the fiddle has to be started very young if you want to master it, but I haven’t heard the same of the banjo.
I assume I was playing in G on the few occasions I messed around with a banjo, and this just popped into my head…what if I want to play in, oh, D. I guess I could just tune the 5th string down half a step, but then the “drone” is a 3rd instead of the root, and that won’t sound quite right. Maybe I could tune it down to a D, but then it might get a little slack. It’s not like I can capo just one string. Now that I think of it, most bluegrass I’ve tried to play has been in G or C…maybe to have banjo accompaniment, you just stay away from certain tunings?
Huh? I was just pointing out that the hammer was a common technique for playing guitar. You offered it as a possible explantion for why banjo players sound so much faster than guitar players. I doubt that the hammer is the reason why, but I don’t play the banjo and don’t know the specific differences in technique between it and the guitar and therefore I’m not sure that you’re wrong (hence my use of the words “I’m not sure” in my previous post).