How to Make a Banjo Sound Like Bluegrass


I hesitated to title this page "How to play the bluegrass banjo" as that sounds a little too ambitious for one web page. Instead, I'm going to assume that by the time you read this you know a few rolls, some licks, and perhaps even a rough song or two. But perhaps you are having some difficulty making it sound like bluegrass banjo. This is the single most difficult and critical concept that I work with students on. And the most rewarding when it clicks.

Quick quiz: What makes the bluegrass banjo sound different from any acoustic string instrument in the world (with the exception of perhaps the dobro?) Answer: Almost all plucked, strummed, even bowed instruments are played in a binary fashion. You know binary, like 1s and 0s in computer talk? It actually just means in one of two states, up or down, on or off, back or forth. With a single pick, bow, whatever, you rub, pluck, bow, strum, etc, in a one-two, up-down, back-forth fashion. This works out great when playing in the typical metric of 2/4 or 4/4 time, meaning "One and two and one and two..." Fits great. So here we are with our 3 picks trying to figure out how on earth to fit what we do into a 2/4 or 4/4 time frame. When you play a simple three finger roll - thumb, index, middle, on any three strings, let's say 5, 3, 1, you create three notes. In order to make this work in some kind of binary sense where there are 4, 8, or 16 potential notes in a group, you have to add a note. Let's say you play the thumb again, as if you were going to repeat the pattern:

Thumb, index, middle, thumb.
A nice four note pattern, but it has a problem. If you wanted to repeat this pattern 4 times to fit into a 16 note measure, you'd repeat the pattern like this:

Thumb, index, middle, thumb, Thumb, index, middle, thumb, Thumb, index, middle, thumb, Thumb, index, middle, thumb.
This violates a basic premise of bluegrass banjo: Don't repeat a finger twice in a row. Firstly, it isn't expeditious or efficient (or even possible if you are playing quarter or eighth notes), but it just doesn't sound right, either. It doesn't sound like bluegrass. There is a cadence we are shooting for; a rolling three finger, constantly-one-note-out-of-time-syncopated sound.

How, then, do we fix this? There are a number of ways:

Modify the roll
to create 8 or 16 note patterns: Thumb, index, middle, thumb, index, middle, thumb, index (repeat twice-16 notes)

Hard to demonstrate in writing (see Tablature and what's wrong with it...) but simply putting pauses where nothing is played between notes can make the count work out right. J. D. Crowe is a master of putting pauses in his playing, super effectively drawing attention to the notes he is playing.

Half notes and quarter notes:
A half note has the time value of two quarter notes. You can mix up half notes and quarter notes to make the count come out to 8 or 16. (Note: When you are playing half notes, the "no two notes in a row on the same finger" ban is lifted.)

Does all this add up to "how you make a banjo sound like bluegrass?" No. I can't in any written form demonstrate this. It has to be learned either from listening or watching. DVDs are a decent alternative to live teacher lessons, but you can't ask a DVD a question. Find a teacher.

Return to Banjo Primer Home Page