Whether you saw one at a bluegrass concert, Winston from Mumford & Sons or Deliverance, the allure of the banjo surely must be ubiquitous. After pondering the idea of getting one for years, listening to Sigh No More by Mumford cemented it for me: I bit the bullet and bought a Tanglewood TB18-5. While it's a pretty basic model, it still has a lot of quality and sounds amazing. So I started to play.
My assumption was that banjo, like guitar, involves a lot of the fretting hand. I was so wrong. While I'm not exactly a fingerpicking amateur on the guitar, I completely underestimated the complexities of the banjo. I tuned mine to Open G, the standard tuning for a 5-string banjo, and put on the ever-important banjo picks (two finger and one thumb pick) and began to learn.
5-string banjos have the fifth string and first string in open tuning as G and D, or the perfect fifth in the key of G that the banjo is tuned to. This is used in the pinch - in between playing a melody, musical phrases are punctuated by playing the first and fifth strings simultaneously. And then there are the rolls, the alternating thumb roll and the forward rolls which allow banjo players to play as fast as they do, by grouping the notes together in clumps which allows a degree of automation.
So my banjo playing infancy was dominated by frustration. While some of the other banjo-related nuances, like hammer ons and pull offs came relatively easily on account of the background in guitar, it is taking a while to get used to some of the other facets of banjo playing.
But do not be discouraged! Not only am I thoroughly enjoying my banjo experience, it is building skills in other areas too for my guitar playing. And I can say without doubt that getting a banjo was one of the best musical decisions I have made in a long time.
So if you're wondering what to get for your birthday this year, think about a banjo. Seriously, it will change your playing for the better, and you won't look back.