Which is easier? Banjo or Guitar?

Is the banjo harder than the guitar?

This question keeps coming up in my live streams; so, I thought I’d do a blog post giving my thoughts on this topic.

First, let me start off by saying this-You shouldn’t pick an instrument based on which one is easiest. You should pick the instrument whose sound you enjoy and one you’re drawn to. After all, your goal is to play for years to come, hopefully anyways.

If easy is your main criteria, you might as well get a stick, tie a rubber band across it and say, “hey, I’m done, this is a piece of cake.”

Ok, let’s get a bit more serious here….

I know something about this conundrum, picking an instrument to take up and worrying if it might be too hard.  I started on guitar at age 12 and banjo at age 15. I can tell you exactly what carries over, what doesn’t, what I found challenging with each, and more.

acoustic guitar
2004 golden era D-18 martin

I’ll break this down by each hand and the unique characteristics of each instrument.


 

LEFT HAND TECHNIQUE

Guitar:  The neck of a guitar is larger than a banjo, it has more strings (six to be exact); meanwhile, the banjo only has five strings and a smaller neck.  However, the banjo has that weird thing sticking out from the side of the neck (The 5th string) that makes it completely different.

Why does this come into play?  An example: Suppose you have a four note CHORD.  There are more ways to play that chord across the guitar due to the fact it has more strings.  This is the same thing with arpeggios and scales; there are more ways to play each of those due to the extra strings of the guitar.  (Keep in mind, even though the banjo has five strings, you’re really looking at FOUR equivalent strings to a guitar, as the fifth string on a banjo is a drone and largely un-fretted until later in your studies).

Don’t take this the wrong way, more strings doesn’t equal greater difficulty.  A contrasting example-since the banjo has fewer strings, it makes doing a two octave arpeggio more difficult. You’ll have to run throughout the ENTIRE length of the fingerboard, rather than move across the fret board.  In some ways, banjo is like a VIOLIN with shifting. To demonstrate: Here is a video I did on arpeggios (Notice how much my hand moves vertically throughout the banjo fretboard)

Some personal Experience:

Guitar will drive you half mad when it comes to learning all the possible fingerings for your scales.  There are an absolute TON of them.  However, if your goal is to accompany yourself while you sing, aka strumming, you won’t have to worry about all of this stuff.  Maybe you don’t want to learn to “shred” lead guitar?  Different goals have different levels of difficultyRandom side note-If you want to play jazz, in my opinion, guitar is one of the most difficult instruments you can pick for that style of music.

FURTHER THOUGHTS ON THE SIZE OF THE NECK

A banjo neck is pretty small, this means less room for error when squeezing your fingers in there.  I’ve had women with small fingers have trouble playing something without hitting the other strings.  It’s certainly all doable, just understand that smaller doesn’t mean easier.  

HOW IT FEELS ON THE FINGERS

Since we are comparing the guitar to a banjo, I’m assuming you are looking at ACOUSTIC GUITARS.  Banjo is easier on the fingers than the acoustic guitar.  Typically, on an acoustic guitar, the 1st string weight is a 12 or 13  (I’m leaving off decimals for convenience here); meanwhile, the 1st string of a banjo is typically a 9 or 10.  Therefore, banjo is a bit easier on the fingers and lighter to the touch.  In addition, the guitar has the heavier bass strings as well.

Challenges of lighter strings-While lighter strings are easier to press down, they come with their own set of problems.  Lighter also means they’re easier to push out of tune, and harder to stay in tune.  I find people with big hands often push too hard and bend notes out of tune.  You might be thinking, both instruments have FRETS, so they’ll play in tune no matter what?  Not the case. You must apply the right amount of pressure or you CAN indeed bend it out of tune.  


TUNING

I’m going to give it to you fast and straight, neither instrument is “winning” this category.  A banjo is seriously aggravating to keep in tune; this is due to so many moveable parts.  A guitar is definitely easier to keep in tune, but you’ll still find yourself reaching for the tuning pegs often.  There are days I wished I played the keyboards instead of either, hahaha.  As far as learning how to tune either by ear or with a tuner, you are looking at the same difficulty level. 


RIGHT HAND TECHNIQUE

right hand banjo

Guitars are usually played with a flatpick or fingerpicked.  Technically, a banjo can be flatpicked as well (as in tenor or plectrum banjo); however, if you have made your way to this site, I’m assuming you want to learn THREE FINGER STYLE BANJO.  Personally, I don’t think flatpicking is easier than fingerpicking, or vice versa.  Either way, you’ll have to spend lots of time practicing the techniques on both instruments.

From a banjo perspective, one thing to consider is, you must make smaller motions while attempting to avoid the other strings due to the smaller neck.

Personal Experience-Banjo Fingerpicking came more natural to me.  No matter how much I practiced, the flatpick always felt unusual with my right hand.  Gaining speed with a flatpick was more difficult for me.  I know LOTS of other people that the opposite is true.

TONE:


Getting a good tone out of either instrument isn’t easy. Banjo is a super responsive instrument, especially if you one day own a high-quality one. A good banjo amplifies every little nuance your hands make.  Acoustic guitar is the same way, you have to work hard to pull good tone out of an acoustic guitar.  Scratchy tones or muffled notes are quite common with acoustic guitar players.  This is easily verifiable by how few guitarists have a BEAUTIFUL sound when they play with a flatpick.  Once again, there’s no winner here.

PHYSICAL ASPECTS:


A banjo that has a tone ring is heavy, up to 15 pounds. Standing up with a banjo for an hour, even with a good quality strap is painful at times. An acoustic guitar doesn’t weigh much. If you have physical limitations this is something to consider.  For example, if you have a bad back or neck issues, a banjo is not your friend if you want to play standing up.  Of course, there is nothing to say you can’t sit down and play the banjo.  One of my jokes is a banjos were made to be played sitting down!  If you have shoulder issues, particularly your right shoulder, you might want to look at getting a smaller bodied guitar.  A dreadnaught shaped guitar pulls the right arm up and can be uncomfortable over long practice sessions.  Perhaps something like a OO, OOO shape or even a classical guitar.

SINGING AND PLAYING:


I personally find the banjo harder to play and sing at the same time. That’s me, it MIGHT be different for other people. On a guitar, you can get this natural bass-strum pattern going that assists with your vocals.  Once you are in the zone, you don’t have to think about the guitar strumming. Banjo is a bit more complex when it comes to making it sound good with your singing.

First off, the banjo isn’t a quiet instrument, so it doesn’t blend as easily. Secondly, doing banjo rolls at the same time as your singing doesn’t always work; vamping doesn’t always work either. It’s this thing that you have to figure out.  What exactly do I do while I’m singing? Truthfully, sometimes I stop playing when I’m singing, as it’s the best answer.

SOME PERSONAL EXPERIENCES AND FINAL WORDS:


I personally find the guitar more difficult.  On the other hand, I’ve had clients that previously played banjo that thought the banjo was “impossible.”  It’s an individual thing, and in my opinion, a large part of it is determined by how much time and effort you put into it.   Another large part of  the equation is what TYPE of music you want to play, how far you want to go down the fingerboard knowledge hole.  Next I’m going to answer the question, “If I already play guitar, will banjo be easy?”


If you already play guitar will banjo be easy?

Many people think this-“I ALREADY PLAY THE GUITAR, banjo should be easy!” You are in for a rude awakening with this sort of attitude, not everything transfers over.  
Even if you play FINGERSTYLE guitar, there is a lot of new stuff to learn. In some cases, your guitar prowess might even make it more difficult.

I’ve noticed with former classical guitarists, they get confused when it comes to the way the typical banjo player uses their thumb. The main advantage you’ll have as a prior guitarist is your LEFT-HAND. You’ll have experience playing chords, hopefully having the strength and flexibility in your left-hand fingers already.

Some other thoughts-Banjo is less of a single-note instrument and more of a hold a chord shape instrument, so if your guitar playing has primarily been strumming open chords or sizzling single note leads, this won’t be of much help with all of the new banjo chord shapes.  Yes, BANJO and GUITAR chords are in fact different. 

WHICH SHOULD YOU CHOOSE?


The one you like. Yes, I said all of those words to end at my original point. Pick the one you like the sound of.  CHOOSE WISELY!

As always, please leave a comment on your own experiences with these instruments, I’d love to know about your own journey.

 

 

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