In short, you sure can teach yourself to play banjo. In fact, I’d argue everyone is self-taught when you get down to it. At the same time, teaching yourself can present some serious challenges and it’s best to understand what you’re getting yourself into.
First and foremost, you’re relying on your own abilities to figure things out. Maybe it will go well if you’ve played an instrument before. For some people, they’ll need a teacher to help them along the way.
I’ll begin by looking at the resources you can use to teach yourself and go over the disadvantages of each. I’ll also break down what I believe are the main trouble spots when someone tries to teach themselves banjo.
Teaching Yourself to play Banjo
- No feedback mechanism
- Buffet Bar approach
- Not great for learning backup and accompaniment
- No personalization
With Youtube, there isn’t a feedback mechanism to let you know what you are doing wrong. You are simply following along with what is on the screen. Is there a potential for you to misjudge what you are doing? There sure is.
Buffet bar approach-This tends to be my greatest criticism of YouTube. It allows you, the student, to pick off the buffet bar. You can pick whatever you feel like “eating”, except, maybe there is a good reason someone shouldn’t have put out the snacks yet, haha. I’ve seen it too often-students will pick something they have no business trying to attempt yet. As the old saying goes, “we overestimate what we can do in the short-term and under-estimate what we can do in the long-term.” If you are going to use YouTube to learn, you are better off sticking with something that’s presented as a series or some logical fashion.
Teaching yourself banjo from YouTube isn’t great for learning banjo backup: I have plenty of banjo backup stuff on my channel. However, all you are doing is learning licks or ideas. You still have to jam along with someone and try putting them in. With an in-person or online lesson, the teacher can play the lead while you plug in the backup licks.
No Personalization-Not everyone faces the same challenges and issues. Some of us are REALLY messed up!! Some of us are geniuses that don’t need ANYONE’S help. No, seriously, I’ve had students that caught on to certain things faster than others, some needed additional guidance and help with certain topics. These are things you aren’t going to get from a video or book. Not to mention, I’ve had students with disabilities. If their way of learning was from a YouTube video that only presented it ONE WAY, they wouldn’t have been able to learn.
On a positive note, there are some good instructional videos on YouTube. Not everyone can afford or has access to a teacher. YouTube presents a great way to teach yourself banjo in that case.
Here is a video from my own YouTube Channel covering the Alternating Thumb Roll that’s a good place to start:
- Lack of Feedback mechanism
- Limited Accompaniment Details
- Visuals not included
Just like YouTube, you don’t get any feedback with banjo books. It assumes you are following the instructions and music correctly. In addition, most banjo books present the lead and skim over what you should do for accompaniment. I get it, accompaniment isn’t easy to teach from a book. Accompaniment is interaction with another person; you can only get so much from a book.
Lastly, another issue I have with banjo books is how many of them don’t represent how people actually played on recordings. I often find the author is writing for themselves, or to just crank out another book to make money off of. Please don’t assume because someone wrote a banjo book, that they actually know what they are talking about. GASP! I’m sorry, but there’s a lot of bad material on the market. Sometimes it’s written by people that barely play the banjo and are mostly guitar players.
Here are my recommendations for beginner banjo books in the order of my preference:
Anything by Jack Hatfield in his beginner series. Here is an easy straight forward book to start with. Then maybe move on to his Bluegrass Banjo Method One
My 2nd recommendation is Ross Nickerson
I don’t have many recommendations and there is a reason for this. I’ve seen banjo books that are 200 pages long and they are filled with stuff I have never seen anyone play in over 25 years as a professional.
Be sure to check out my list of other Banjo Books I recommend as you progress as a player.
Online Banjo Courses
- Lack of feedback
- No 1-on-1 personalized content
In my opinion, a banjo course is better than the other options. Notice the fewer disadvantages. Why do I think a course is your best route? It’s methodical and progresses in some sort of organized manner. It contains the visual and audio. With a course, as opposed to YouTube, you won’t be so quick to fast forward to the part where you are “incredible” and try something you shouldn’t. That’s the joke my friend always says, can we fast forward to the part where we sound incredible? A course keeps you away from the temptation to sample everything on the buffet bar.
Really, the only disadvantages are it assumes you are following everything correctly. There isn’t any feedback. On the other hand, some online courses do allow you to message the instructor. Lastly, it doesn’t contain personalized content. You might have some unique challenges.
Not to plug my own course, but I do have one over on Udemy for PURE BEGINNERS entitled Beginner Banjo: Roll your way into songs. This is essentially what I would teach someone in the first couple of months in my banjo lessons. I’m currently working on part two. I am available through Udemy and on here should you run into any issues.
Specific Challenges of teaching yourself
- Timing and Rhythm
- Right and Left-hand technique
I find the number one issue students face that teach themselves is a lack of timing or rhythm. Without a background in music and reading rhythms, it is SUPER easy for the self-taught to teach themselves the timing wrong. Even students with previous musical training don’t pay enough attention to the timing. If you teach yourself the wrong timing, then it will take twice as long to dig it up and re-teach yourself the correct timing. I deal with this all the time. Someone will try to teach themselves for about 9 months and then they’ll decide to sign up for lessons. Then we spend the next two months fixing things.
Right hand technique-The most common error is inefficient motion of the right hand. Students will often use too much or incorrect motion with their fingers. It is easy to miss this if you don’t know what to look for. Incorrect right hand technique can lead to poor tone quality. This is yet another thing that once it gets cemented into your fingers wrong, it’s difficult to get out.
Left-hand technique: The most common error is too much squeezing or improper wrist angle, making banjo chords troublesome.
I hope this helps you along on banjo journey. I’m not saying you can’t teach yourself banjo. However, I do believe many wrongly assume it’s going to be easy. Many assume that since they played the piano, bass, guitar, or some other instrument for 10 years, learning the banjo by themselves is the thing to do. That may or may not go well for the number of reasons I’ve listed above.
I think the more jams you have available, the more great banjo players you can befriend at jams, the less of a problem teaching yourself is. These people can help you. The more interaction you have with other musicians, the better.