The banjo is a fun, up-tempo instrument found frequently in bluegrass and country music, and even used in slapstick comedy music skits. There are several kinds of banjos, but the playing techniques for them are all basically the same as the popular tenor or plectrum banjo. Learning to play the banjo isn't difficult, but it does take patience and practice to become proficient.
Familiarize yourself with your banjo. There are a number of types. The most frequently played is the tenor banjo. Your banjo will have five strings, or four if it is a plectrum banjo. There are many tunings for these five strings. The most popular is an open G tuning, which means the strings will be tuned to G-D-G-B-D and will sound a G chord when played without pressing down on any frets. A beginning banjo book will offer you other tunings, but the open G is a good place to start. You also can find various tunings online free of charge.
Learn a few basic banjo chords. You will find simple beginning chords in your banjo instruction book. You can also find banjo chords online free of charge (see Resources). If you're using an open G tuning, you already know you can play the G chord without fretting. Add a basic C chord. To make a C chord, place your first finger on the first fret of the second string, your second finger on the fourth string at the second fret, and your third finger on the second fret of the first string. Strum the chords with your right hand, using the pick. Once you've mastered smoothly switching between them, add a couple of new chords. A chord diagram book is essential. It will show you where to place your fingers on the frets and on which strings.
Practice fingerpicking techniques. This technique is essential to the feel and sound of banjo playing. With the chords you've mastered, work on your picking technique by using your fingers to pluck the individual strings. Pluck the strings individually, from the thickest banjo string to the thinnest, ensuring that each note rings clearly. If you hear a note that's muffled, make sure you are pressing your fingers down on the frets (the spaces in between the fret bars on the neck of your banjo).
Combine left- and right-hand playing techniques to get a full playing sound. Your left hand is typically the one forming chords, and your right is either strumming (running your pick over the strings from thickest to thinnest or vice versa) or picking your banjo strings. Practice forming each new chord you learn and holding it while you pick the notes of the chord individually (as described above) or strum them.
Play simple banjo sheet music to start. You can purchase banjo music at a sheet music retailer or online. Most beginning banjo books include simple tunes, in some cases for free (see Resources). Learn to read banjo tablature, also referred to as tab. Banjo tab is written on a four- or five-line graph that represents your banjo strings. The notes you need to play are written on the graph, with a number on the string where the note you should play is located. The number represents the fret you'll play. Most banjo players prefer reading and writing music this way.