The wrong way to go about learning your banjo chords up and down the neck is to get one of those big chord charts and start trying to memorize them.
How many do you think you can memorize before the memory bank runs out? You’ll end up with a bunch of memorized shapes but no real understanding of how it is all put together. The more connections you can make and the less memorizing that is needed, the better this will go.
Hopefully, you already know your basic open position beginner chords. If not, you can review it in my beginner banjo chord guide.
Another thing that may shock some of you is I’m only use THREE FINGER chords in this guide. I don’t begin FOUR FINGER chords for a number of reasons. More on that at a later date. It’s easier, trust me!
Contents of the Article:
- Major Chord Shapes
- Minor Chord Shapes
- Closing Thoughts
The method: You need to start with your Major chords. You need to know the difference between major and minor chords, how to derive the MINOR chords from your MAJOR chords using that knowledge.
Three Major Chord Shapes for Banjo
Some people like to use the words D shape, F shape, Barre shape to reference these moveable chord shapes. I don’t like that AT ALL and wish it hadn’t started! It’s seriously confusing to beginners.
If you move the D shape up two frets, it’s silly to think of it as a D shape. It’s now an E major chord. I prefer to call these shapes based off how they look to me. I call them the BARRE, DIAGONAL, and DIAMOND shape. I battled for years what to call the diamond shape as it’s not a perfect diamond, but this is what students liked and it stuck.
Here are your three banjo chord shapes that you must know:
Everyone calls this the barre shape because you just barre your finger right across the fret.
Diagonal Shape Chord
It looks like a Diagonal to me??
Diamond Shape Chord
So, those are your three moveable major chord shapes on the banjo. I am showing them in G. If you move any of them up two frets, you’d have an A major chord. Hopefully, you already know how the SERIES OF NOTES runs, which notes have sharps and flats as you move about.
Now on to the minor chords for 5-string banjo in G tuning:
Minor chords for 5-string Banjo
To derive minor chords, you must understand that a minor chord is only one note difference. You take ONE NOTE and move it down a fret in each of the shapes. Many people make the mistake of moving two notes, but only one moves down.
For my theory nerds, the chord formula changes from 1-3-5 to 1-b3-5. I’m going to spare everyone the music theory on what that means and ask you only to look at the SHAPES and memorize it from a SHAPE perspective if you don’t understand what I just said.
Barre becomes Triangle
This one is the easiest to see geometrically
In this chord chart or TAB, notice that the 12th fret of the 2nd string moves down to the 11th fret. That’s the ONLY thing that moves. The barre chord becomes the following fingers
Ring on the 1st, Index on the 2nd, and Middle on the 3rd string.
Here is the catch-This works anywhere on the banjo neck. Make a barre chord at the 4th fret, that’s a B major. Move the 2nd string down a fret, now it’s a B minor. There, you just saved yourself a lot of trouble trying to ‘memorize’ chords. All you need to know are the steps (which notes have sharps have flats and sharps). If you memorize the MAJOR chords up and down the neck, you’ll know the minor chords instantly via these rules.
Diagonal becomes L-shape
I call it the L-shape, you might be able to think of something better?
The 1st string moves down a fret. In this case the fingering becomes as follows:
Ring on the 1st, Middle on the 2nd, and Index on the 3rd string.
Diamond becomes Flag?
Really I have no idea what to call this, it almost looks like a flag on a pole to me. Come up with your own names, whatever it takes to memorize it.
Now the 3rd string note moves back a fret.
The fingering is as follows:
Barre across the 3rd fret of both the 2nd and 3rd strings with your INDEX. Use your PINKY to play the 5th fret of the 1st string.
I know this is a lot to take in, you’ll have to go over and work through it a bunch of times. My advice is to read through it without the instrument in your hands, look at the note moving down in each shape.
In one shape, the note that moves down is on the 1st string. In another shape, the note moves down on the second string. Finally, the note moves down on the third string. You don’t need any theory to be able to ‘memorize’ those patterns. Look at it from a shape point of view only.
How to practice? Exactly as I have written above. Play the MAJOR shape and then the MINOR. Go back and forth numerous times over and over. If you do this enough, pretty soon you’ll have mastered your major and minor MOVEABLE chord forms on the 5-string banjo.
Closing Thoughts on Learning Chords
There are many ways to go about learning chords on the 5-string banjo. I think this is the most direct route. You are learning via shapes. Yes, I think it’s important to understand the theory behind it. If you already played piano and know the theory, then it might make sense to start by knowing where your 1,3, and 5 are in each chord. If you don’t, don’t worry about it, just memorize how each shape moves down as shown above.
In summary, you just learned SEVENTY TWO chords and you didn’t even know it
12 Majors and 12 minors for three different shapes. 36 Major chords and 36 Minor chords. That’s not even counting the higher octave ones past the 12th fret.