"Can anyone recommend a good book to learn banjo by?"

by Rick Otten, 31 Mar 97
with addenda:
Comments of George Doughtie and
Comments of Bill Hays

I have been attempting to learn this instrument for about 2 months as of this writing. Perusing used bookstores, the web, and music stores I have acquired a few books and have been experimenting with them.

For what it is worth here are my thoughts and reviews of some of the books and other resources I have acquired:

Phil Mann's web page has some preliminary lessons. http://bluegrassbanjo.com This includes some of the best text based instructions and tips I have found to get you started. The audio files and tablatures are a great help also. Highly recommended.

Pete Wernick's "Bluegrass Banjo" by Oak Publications is another well done and easy to learn from book to get started. My only complaints here is that the accompanying CD is of really poor quality and sounds terrible, and the demos are a bit fast for a beginner to follow.

Tony Trishka teaches "20 Easy Banjo Solos ... Play along with a Master Picker" is wonderful. Not only does the CD include some great music listen to, the tablature is easy to read, clearly explained and the songs are fun to play. (true I can barely pick out at a crawl the first song, but they seem to be a lot of fun...)
This is what I am now spending most of my time with and receiving the most satisfaction from.
There are a couple of typos in the book (very minor).
Although it says "Banjo Solos" most of the tunes on the CD have guitar and voice accompaniment. (which is not a bad thing, per se...)

Harry Reser's "How to play the 5 string banjo" is useless. None of the tunes are in tablature. His descriptions in the beginning of the book are really confusing. And there doesn't seem to be any "picking" in it.

Wayne Erbson's "Starting Bluegrass Banjo from Scratch" is really entertaining to read. The plastic record is a little cheesy. However I really liked his inspirational words, sense of humor and cool pictures.
A better accompanying recording would really make this book worthwhile.

Pete Seeger's book, "How to play the 5 string Banjo" is dense and packed with information. It lacks any sound to help you out. It also doesn't really seem to be very step-by-step for complete novices like myself.
It, so far, has been my best 'reference' book on banjo techniques and such.

"Playing the five string banjo, for Beginners Only" by Dick Weissman has what appear to be interesting, well known, and simple melodies (no rolls!).
However none of the tablature is "standard", it is hard to read. I have to translate any song I want to try to play into normal tablature format. The songs are really easy and playable on the first try. (This also makes them kind of dull and lifeless as transcribed.)

The "Banjo Newsletter" beginner's column has also presented some interesting variations on rolls to practice these past couple of months. I liked the detailed descriptions of the rolls. I wish there was a sound file on the web or somewhere to hear master banjo players play them as written in the newsletter.

This newsletter, along with this mailing list have been an incredible source of information and inspiration.

(The following was added 31 Jul 1997)
I've been playing 6 months now and just picked up yet another banjo book. Mel Bay's "Bluegrass Banjo" by Sonny Osborne. I really liked the illustrations which were clear and easy to understand. (as well as their accompaning text). The tab in the beginning part of the book was simple and fun to play. A real plus to this book is two pages devoted to rolls, slides, hammer-ons, etc... that make up a great little set of excercises for practice sessions. The descriptions of these staples of bluegrass playing are really great. The only thing this book could really use is an accompanying CD or tape so that we know what the songs in tab in the second half of the book are supposed to sound like. On the positive side, since there is no CD or tape this is one of the cheapest books I have come across ($6.00). A must for any beginner's library...

Other resources:

Other musicians. Folk guitar players have helped me with concepts such as "What is a capo?" and "How do I wear these picks?" and "How do I travel with an instrument".

Watching banjo players. "Oh! That's how you are supposed to hook the strap on the banjo!"

Rick Otten's Home Page

Further comment by George Doughtie:

I have purchased most of these books and some that are not on this list, and have found that The Janet Davis book and CD combination, "You Can Teach Yourself Banjo" is worthy.

For the beginner of banjo, Janet works through her book with the CD, lesson by lesson. She explains each lesson, explains each lick, and plays each very slowly and tells you how to learn them. She will then play them at a medium tempo and will then play them at normal speed so you can see how they are to sound.

Further comment by Bill Hays: As a banjo player/learner of about 2-1/2 years, I'd add these comments to Rick's and George's. I started using books (eventually acquiring *all* of the above, plus others) after about 9-10 months of unsatisfactory instruction, and found the reading materials far more useful, if no less expensive, than a less-than-excellent teacher.

"Back-Up Banjo" by Janet Davis. As with the "You Can Teach Yourself Banjo" book, Janet produces excellent teaching materials. All in Scruggs-style three-finger picking, the book has both left-hand and right-hand sections, leads as well as back-ups of several standard tunes, plus a tape that explains everything on a page-by-page basis. Be sure to get the tape; it's extra. At over 200 pages, this is the best pound-for-pound deal around.

"Banjo Method I & II"by Jack Hatfield. Two different books, which include tapes, from beginning (Method I) to intermediate (Method II). These are written by a long-time Banjo Newsletter columnist who's intimately familiar with both the Scruggs style and how to teach it. Has the singular advantage of showing which is the melody notes in a Scruggs-style piece (this isn't always evident to the neophyte). Tapes play at both slow speed and performance speed.

"The Key to 5-String Banjo" by Pat Cloud. This book, with tape, will teach you more about the banjo neck and the relationship of chord structures to each other than anything else I've seen. But it won't have you playing actual tunes very fast. I use many of the exercises from here to warm up with -- they seem to get my fingers up to accurate playing speed faster than anything else.

If I were asked by a rank beginner which banjo instruction books, from the many on my shelf, to start with, I'd say the two Janet Davis books (You Can Teach Yourself Banjo and Back-Up Banjo) and the two Jack Hatfield books (Banjo Method I & II). There is some overlap between them, so you could do with one pair if funds or time were limited. But having both is not an exercise in redundancy.

Add Pat Cloud's book (The Key to 5-String Banjo) when you're ready to move beyond Scruggs licks, or for a better understanding of the neck.