The banjo is a fun instrument with a bright, cheerful sound; although it can be very complex to play and the long neck can mean quite a stretch for your fingers at times, it shouldn’t be intimidating for a beginner. Here are some simple songs and chords to encourage you to have a go (these are based on common 'open G' tuning for a 5-string banjo).
My background is in guitar, and though I have picked up the banjo several times over the years I have never applied myself to learning the right-hand techniques or more advanced chords and notes, so I have no expertise to share in playing the banjo - just some fun, easy-to-play songs.
What I’m aiming for here is NOT a complete banjo course - you can find lots of good banjo instruction sites and videos on the Internet to help you learn picking patterns etc. I just wanted to convert some of my song sheets for banjo and to provide some simple chord formations so that you can strum and sing without too much pain.
Make sure your banjo is in tune; there are various electronic tuners you can buy and there are apps and sites with tuners -some that use the microphone on your smartphone, tablet or computer. A good basic, free, online tuner is at get-tuned.com.
You can check the tuning of the strings against each other: if your 4th (low D) string is in tune, press down on the 5th fret and it will play a G, which is the same note as the open 3rd string; the 3rd fret on the 3rd string should sound the same as the open 2nd string, and so on....
The chords here are based on the standard “G” tuning. If you pluck the strings ‘open’ (without pressing on the frets) the notes for the 4 main strings will be D,G,B,D.The 5th (short) string will be tuned to G. If you are a guitar player, you can see that the 4th, 3rd and 2nd strings are the same as on a guitar, but the 1st string is 2 semitones lower.
Here are the notes you will make when you press down on the fingerboard (note that as you go along the frets, you are in effect shortening the strings and raising the pitch a half-tone each time):
The chord diagrams I have made for banjo also have the notes written in at the top of the strings; don’t worry too much about the actual notes – I’ve added them in for interest and so you can see what notes are in each chord.
On a stringed instrument such as a banjo (or guitar or ukulele), you make the notes by pressing the strings down behind the frets, to ‘shorten’ the string and make the sound higher.
A chord is just a set of notes played together to make a certain sound; each chord has a name - G, D7, (D7th) Em (E minor) etc. Chord formations are a way of making those notes to form the chord on the fingerboard.
The chord diagrams (sometimes called Tabs) show you a suggested way to make the chord with your left hand. You need to press down each string where shown, close behind the fret (it's especially important on a banjo to get close behind the fret, as the frets are quite far apart and the note won't sound good if you are too far away - you may need to really stretch out your fingers for the harder chords!).
The diagrams give suggested fingering for the chord (so the 1 in the circle is your index finger, 2 is middle finger, 3 is ring finger and 4 is little finger). Form the chord with your left hand and strum slowly across all the strings with your right hand, checking that each strings ring clearly. Adjust your left hand fingers if necessary.
The Chords on this Site:
I have put the chords in levels so that you can start with a couple of easy chords and play some songs straight away, then gradually add more chords as you progress.
There are many ways of making the chords on a banjo, but I have included mainly the “first position” chords which use the first few frets, and I’ve tried to avoid chords that need too much stretching to reach all the notes.
I have concentrated on a selection of chords that can be used for a range of songs. There are many other chords to learn as you expand your range, but these will get you started.
The Song Sheets
These are in .PDF format; you can download them onto your computer or tablet and read them direct or print them. The chords are printed above the words (lyrics) so you can see when to change chords. I have done the chords in blue so they show up, but they are fine to print or copy in black and white too.
The songs sheets all have chord diagrams at the side, and they should also have the timing for the song (e.g. 4/4 - ONE, 2,3,4 etc.) and the starting note (to start singing).
If you notice any odd things or errors in the song sheets, please let me know (via the form at the bottom of the page, the Guestbook or the CathysChords Facebook page). Feedback/comments (and Donations of course if you have a few spare dollars) are always welcome!
As always, my advice is to start with shorter, more frequent practice sessions, to allow your fingers to adjust to new movements and to build up callouses on your left-hand fingertips.
As the banjo has such a long neck, you will find the first 5 frets can involve quite a lot of stretching of the fingers. You might want to practise stretching your left-hand fingers frequently even when you’re not playing…or even practise making the chord shapes when you’re sitting watching TV etc. (you don’t have to make a noise that way, so it won’t drive the rest of the family mad).
The Right Hand
If you want to play rolls etc. with your right hand, you’ll find good videos on YouTube to help, but to start with you may find it easier to just strum the rhythm and concentrate on remembering the chord formations.
You can use a pick (or set of picks for rolls etc.) if you want to, but that will make it very loud; I prefer to use my thumb or fingers and keep it softer, especially for practice or to fit in with other softer instruments.
The banjo is a loud instrument and timing is very important when you are playing with others… once you have some chord changes smooth, you need to practise steady strumming without pauses or speeding up/slowing down. You can get an electronic metronome or a metronome app for your smartphone etc. to help you practise.
Tapping your foot or nodding your head may help you to keep in time, too (just be aware if you’re playing with others that a loud tapping foot can be very disconcerting unless you’re leading the group, so keep it soft).
To begin, you can just strum all the strings without using your left hand at all – the banjo is usually strung to a G chord! Use a tuner to check that the strings are tuned to the notes in the G diagram below.
Try strumming and singing ‘Frere Jacques/Are You Sleeping’ or ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’ with just the open G chord. Strum the rhythm with your right hand thumb or fingers, nice and relaxed.
If you ‘bar’ across all the strings (i.e. hold down all the strings with one finger right across the fingerboard just behind the fret*) you can make your chord higher, fret by fret (so the first fret would be Ab chord, then A, Db, B…). So then you can make a C chord by barring across the 5th fret, and a D chord by barring across the 7th fret.
5-String Banjos - Note that on a 5-string banjo, the 5th string is usually tuned to G, so it won’t fit all chords (check if they have a G in them). It’s fine for C and G, but for the D chord you need to either make your bar across all 5 strings (to make the 5th string into an A) or not play the 5th string. One way to avoid playing the 5th string is to rest your right thumb against it (to mute it) and strum with your fingers.
For the first levels of chords, I’ve made a 5-string chord diagram to indicate the note made on the 5th string (with an X if it doesn’t fit the chord).
Bar Chords: when a bar chord uses more than one finger, you will need to do the bar with your first finger – but when you’re only using one finger to bar, it may be easier to use your middle finger – that way you can use your other fingers to help get plenty of pressure and hold the strings down firmly to get a clean sharp sound when you strum or pluck. Make sure your thumb is in a good position behind the neck to get the best pressure against your bar.
Most of the chords here won’t require you to move up that far on the fingerboard (as it can be challenging to count up the frets to start with as well as making the chords - although you notice there are useful dots on the fingerboard at the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 10thetc. frets); but as this is just a simple one-finger bar formation, we’ll start with a few 2- or 3-chord songs using the open G, bar C, and bar D chords.
2-chord Songs: These songs use only 2 chords, so you can play them with the open G chord and the bar D(song titles). Click on the links to open a .PDF document that you can read or print:
Tom Dooley (1) is a good, slow song with well-spaced chord changes so it’s an excellent song to start practising strumming (or more fancy right-hand techniques).
The Old Grey Mare is another slow song with no fast chord changes. It has the same 2 chords (open G chord and bar D), and it also has a 3-finger D chord to work on once you have a bit more practice.
3-chord Song: Here is a song that uses the C chord (bar 5th fret) as well as the open G and bar D chords:
Oh Susanna (G, Bar C & D) - there is a very good instructional video of this song by Tony Thomas on YouTube: Beginner's Old Time Banjo Lesson - As Easy As 1-2-3 - Volume 1
G chord is easy to play (just strum or pluck the 'open strings', i.e. no left hand needed!).
To play C, you don't need to hold down the bar on the 5th fret; you can make a '1st position' chord (in the first few frets) like this:
Here are several songs using this C chord and an open G (if your left hand fingers are still getting used to pressing down on the metal strings, playing G gives them some welcome relief):
Achy Breaky Heart only has a chord change at the end of each second line, so you have plenty of time to get ready for the change.
Mockingbird (Hush Little Baby) is another slow song with just a change at the end of each line.
Clementine is slow, but it has a faster change at the end of each verse.
Keep practising until you can do the chord changes without hesitating.
D7 on a banjo needs quite a stretch to form, but you can play an 'easy' 2-finger version (this is not a full D7 chord as it doesn't have an F# note, but it still has a good sound). You can use the easy D7 until you are used to stretching your fingers, then try the full D7.
Here are some good songs to practise D7:
2-chord songs (G and D7)-
The Streets of Laredo - B.L. 3 Streets of Laredo - Key G; chords: G, D7 - this song has a good, slow pace with mostly regular changes between the 2 chords (open G and 'formed' D7)
Lord of the Dance -BL 3 Lord Of The Dance - Key G; chords: G, D7 - this song has a nice, easy pace, and the chord changes are not too fast.
Down in the Valley - B.L. 3 Down In The Valley - Key G; chords: G, D7 - This is a good, slow song with a chord change at the end of each line. Note - In this song sheet, the chords are inset in the lines of lyrics instead of over the lines. This means that more lines of lyrics will fit on the page, but you will have to work out how many bars fit in between each chord change; if you know the song, it shouldn't be hard as you just keep strumming (ONE, two & three &) until you get to the next chord change.
3-chord songs (G, C and D7) - These are the main 3 chords in the key of G. As the G chord is just played with 'open' strings on a banjo, you can get your fingers ready for the next chord. The change from C to 'simple D7' is very easy (keep your 1st finger down as an 'anchor', move your 2nd finger down one string and lift your 3rd finger up).
These songs use these 3 chords -
Goin' Up the Country - there is mostly at least a bar between chord changes, and the open G is between the other chords, so you have time to remember where your fingers need to go for the next chord!
These next 2 songs also have an open G between the other chords, so you have time to get ready for the changes (with a couple of faster changes) . There is also a suggested strum pattern that you can try once you are confident with the chord changes:
I'll Tell Me Ma B.L 3 I'll Tell Me Ma_Key G_G,D7,C
When the Saints go Marching In -This also has an optional G7 that you can add in when you find the basic version easy.
I Am Weary Let Me Rest - There are 2 versions of this song: a simplified one, with regular 4-beat bars for the chord changes, and a 'Cox Family' (CF) version where you need to change halfway through the bar sometimes (this is indicated by a smaller 'bar' symbol / ). This makes for faster chord changes, but it sounds more interesting.
Big Rock Candy Mountains - this has plenty of chord changes, some quite fast, but still the 3 chords G,C and D7 so it gives you plenty of practice.A
Levels and Tips for Chords on Banjo - for 5-string banjo tuned as above
This chart may help you to pick out songs that have easier chords to play (you can use any song that has chords written in, even if it's supposed to be for guitar/ukulele etc. - if it has chords you can play on your banjo, just play your banjo chord shapes).
As you can see, these levels are not always progressively more difficult; they are designed to begin with 2 or 3 easy chords, then build up gradually so that more and more songs can be played as you move up each level. You can of course just pick out songs with easy chords (e.g. songs in A with just A, D and E7 chords).
The degrees of difficulty that I’ve noted here are also just my opinion, based on years of working with beginner guitarists and my own experience of starting banjo (coming from a guitar background). Your experience may be different – and you may find easier ways to play some of the chords - there is more than one way to form each chord, and they are easy to find on the Internet.
If you have small hands, you may find some banjo chords may be too much of a stretch. You can add a capo on e.g. 4th -6th fret to “shorten” the fret board, and the frets will be closer together- but remember that when you play chord shapes you will actually be playing in a higher key (half a tone for each fret, so C played 4 frets up = E, etc.). Also note that with a 5-string banjo, using a capo on 4 strings means you may need to avoid playing the 5th string if it doesn’t fit your ‘new’ chords.
BANJO LESSONS - FREE VIDEOS
There are lots of tutorials for banjo on You Tube; I find most of them a bit daunting for a beginner player.
However, I've discovered an excellent site with free video lessons for beginner banjo.
I attended a workshop (here in Victoria, Australia) with local teacher Mark Wardle, and was most impressed with his clear, easy-to-follow instruction... and was delighted to hear that he has a website with free lessons! You can buy ad-free downloads if you prefer, or just watch the free videos.
Have a look - the lessons start with absolute basics and go up to Lesson 40!
Beginning Bluegrass Banjo with Mark Wardle