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Banjo Tips For Guitarists

by Claude Samard Polikar

Your regular country/folk banjo player is a moody individual. Most times, he'll just stand there, playing 16th notes, killer licks and machine-gun rolls without a bat of an eye-lash, and never even earning half the applauds he really deserves, because visually his left hand (if he's a right-hander) is apparently motionless compared to other guitar & mandolin styles. Even though his right hand is plucking away complex arpeggios, it's certainly not visually 'impressive'.

You may wonder: how does he do it?
3 things essentially: his tuning, his open-strings & his picking technique. Of course we're talking about a 5 string-banjo, the "folk" banjo, not the 4-string jazz banjo, also known as the tenor banjo or plectrum banjo according to the size, and played with a pick.

To understand banjo techniques in order to apply them to the guitar, you need to know a few banjo basics, about the instrument itself and how it's tuned.

Strings 1 to 4 of the 5 strings make an open G (the 4 high strings ) = DGBD. The 5th string, a high G, is set where a bass string should be. The highest is therefore under the thumb of your right hand and is generally tuned to the key you need to play in, to get the high drone.

You can already imagine how to get the right sound by applying a simple picking technique to this set up. Add to that the use of open strings with the thumb and the next two fingers and you've got your basic ingredients. Not to forget the capo to transpose riffs while still being able to use the open strings.

How can a guitarist use this technique? Simply use the same tricks, and you'll quickly understand how useful it can become in a guitarist's vocabulary. The most simple phrase will take on a new perspective thanks to the added resonances, by creating unusual ringing tensions of 1 or 2 steps between open and fretted strings or by using unissons.

The 2 licks of Blue Grass State from my album Unplugged Journey (KOKA Media) are built on the chords of That's All Right Mama. It works for rock, country, rockabilly & blues too. You can also add a combination of pick and fingers from the right-hand.


The main interest is to experiment this with other styles of music, even if you destructure it to meet the purpose. You can use it on other guitars, nylon for instance, like Jerry Reed used to do.

Photo by Matheus Ferrero for Unsplash

Further to these one bar banjo licks, we'll see what a longer and more elaborate lick will do in a song, as I used for a break in "Blue Grass State".

The chord progression is from "That's All-Right Mama", with an up-tempo (136), played in the style of like Albert Lee or the Hellecasters, either in finger-style or with a 2 fingers & pick technique. The 5 string banjo's best used with open-string playing and right-hand finger-picking techniques.


If you play this instrument in a traditional guitar manner, without the open strings, the notes will be there, but the smooth harp-like effects, the ringing of the strings, the sound and the style in general will be lost. On the record I played acoustic, but it would sound great on a Telecaster.