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Learning 5-string Banjo Chords

Learning 5-string Banjo Chords

Learning 5-string Banjo Chords

Learning 5-string banjo chords is easier and won't take you as long as you might think. It really just takes focused practice, exercise and repetition. Often banjo players struggle with learning chords simply because they enjoy practicing picking and do not take the time build skill in the fretting hand. In comparison guitar students get right to learning chords because the picking is not as involved but that is what they learn first. As a banjo player if you are struggling with fretting chords, remind yourself how much practice it took in getting your picking improved. It does not hurt to be reminded that it's the amount of hours of practice on a specific skill that builds balanced improvement, not weeks, months or years. Spend more focused practice time on improving your fretting hand ability.

As I mentioned it won’t take long with some focused practice but it certainly won’t happen without it. When you consider that the guitar is much harder to make a chord on because it has 6 strings and the strings are thicker. That fact in itself should tell you that you are certainly capable of it if you just put the reps in. There are plenty of guitar players in the world, it can’t be that hard. 
This is a bit blunt but I've taught 9 year olds to play chords on a guitar in very a short time, simply because they practiced it.

My Stumbled on Flat Pick Theroy
In keeping with my observation that banjo players struggle with weaker skills in the fretting hand simply because they enjoy practicing picking more and that guitar students in contrast learn much more difficult techniques on the fretting hand faster. If you took your finger picks off and picked up a flat pick, I can almost guarantee you would get very interested in the fretting hand. I do that sometimes and it helps me focus on exercises my fretting hand. I stumbled on it when my right hand was sore from playing so much and I noticed how much focus it was causing and ultimately improvement in my left hand. Remember this is practice time, I am in no way suggesting playing a 5-string banjo with a flat pick other than as a trick to help you focus on developing skill in your fretting hand.

Reasons why you should!

Just because we have an open tuned instrument and get away with sloppy left hand technique maybe easier that on the guitar, doesn't mean you should.

Let tell you some reasons why!

  • Having more skill than you need will help you to relax when you play. You wont be worried about hitting that chord or pull-off anymore. Can we all agree that tension is the likely the leading cause of problems when playing the banjo.
  • Playing in tune; I'm sure many of you do not realize just how out of tune you can play a banjo even when its perfectly in tune just by squeezing notes too tight, or bending strings unintentionally when fretting or sliding, or unbalanced pressure on chords.
  • Use this practice time to learn the fretboard, it might come in handy! it absolutely will, its a fact.
  • Fretting Hand Prqactice will improve slides, hammer-ons and pull-offs and chokes tremendously! This is almost always underestimated by banjo students. 

Besides Timing, poor fretting hand technique is the probably biggest thing that separates the good from the not so good.

Learning the Chord Shapes (Forms) and Practicing Them so they Stick

Learning the chords up the neck on the banjo is a fairly simple process when approached in the simplest way. There are three major chord shapes used in 5 string banjo playing. You can learn those shapes from a book or video but after that it’s best to learn and retain what you learn by moving the chord shapes rather than simply reading and reacting to a thick chord book. It’s best to learn it by simply memorizing the three four finger major chord shapes, then learning how to find the chords by moving the chord shapes using the chromatic scale.

Chromatic scale starting with G
G G# A Bb B C C# D Eb E F F# G
     (Ab)      (A#)         (Db)      (D#)        (Gb)

When you are ready, you can next learn the minor and seventh chords by simply manipulating the three major chord shapes into the Minor and Seventh chord shapes and using the chromatic scale.

If you know where C MAJOR in the 3 MAJOR CHORD Forms we use on the banjo, you can then change that MAJOR CHORD Form to the MINOR CHORD Form and you will then be playing C Minor, change the MAJOR CHORD Form to the SEVENTH CHORD Form and you will then be playing C7th and so on.

Do I call it Bb or A#
#=Sharp b=Flat. Technically G# is in the same place in the scale as Ab (Bb same as A#) (C# or Db) (Eb or D#) (F# or Gb). 

The ones I chose to use on top are the ones that are most commonly defaulted to in "Jam Talk" For instance I've never heard somebody at a jam say. Play a Db, but C# is common, Bb is what someone would say, not A# and so on.When reading music which you use is based on if you are in a Flat key or a Sharp Key, If it's a Flat key, they all default to Flats, in a sharp key, they all default to Sharp.

I hesitate to even bring this up because in our case, its best left in layman's terms. We don't even need to know if its a Sharp key or a Flat key because we are not reading music. We just need to know what chord to play when we hear someone yell... F# ...when they are calling out the chords. So, the ones I chose to list in the chromatic scale above are the most often used in the vernacular of bluegrass musicians. G# and Ab are about even, they are both used commonly.

Here is an excerpt from my book The Banjo Encyclopedia "Bluegrass Banjo from A to Z" which will get you started. The Banjo Encyclopedia shows all the chord shapes and explains in detail how to accomplish this easily. 

I hope this helps you to move further into the interesting world of fretting hand technique and using the chords to make better music on the banjo.
Thanks again, Ross Nickerson

Download - Banjo Chords and Chromatic Scale Instruction

Learning Major, Minor, 7th Chords Easier Video - On the video I demonstrate how to easily find the chord shapes in major minor and seventh positions iusing split-screen close-up. This will save you loads of time.Learning Chords Video $10.00 - available for immediate download. Details

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Posted by Ross Nickerson Home, Learning Banjo, Instruction Articles 1

1 Comment

  • Carl Leibengood

    Carl Leibengood 08/28/2017

    sweet, never thought of that good job ross

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