Teach A Child To Play the Banjo
Written by Carolina Bridges
Whether it’s your child, your grandchild, or a neighborhood/friend’s child…music is meant to be shared with children. We teach them to walk, to read, to eat, to dress themselves…and just as important is to teach them to bring out the joy of music that is already inside them. But, HOW do we go about doing this?
I have some beautiful customer photos of banjo players with their children on their lap. This gets them safely close to the instrument and allowing them to gently pluck or strum your banjo is a good way of enticing them to begin. To the right you can see a picture of Harvey Reid’s son Otto…in his beloved Spider Man costume (that he wore well beyond Halloween) just “ripping” away at a banjo. Look at his face. He KNOWS banjo is cool! And he is holding a standard sized openback Goodtime banjo that weighs 4 pounds. He may not be able to chord the neck, but he certainly knows what it means to strum. And, since the banjo is tuned to an open “G” chord…he really is making music.
Kids come in different sizes but then why should they be different than other people? We all come in different sizes as well. So when you begin to think about teaching a child to play the banjo, you need to keep their physical size in mind.
The lightest weight Deering banjo is our Goodtime openback. We make one in a shorter scale length with only 19 frets (23” scale) that is called the Goodtime Parlor. This is a good size for a child of around 6 years of age. If you have a 4-year old who is big for their age…you could use this one as well. However, most children will do better if you give them a few years to catch up to attention span and size requirements for really learning to play the banjo. At just under 4 pounds and with only a small 11” circumference to the rim, a child could sit with this one in their lap and learn to strum. I have taught many young children in the showroom to strum the banjo. We use the “2-finger method” that we have explained to you in previous emails. It is a good way to give them a “success” that will keep them coming back for more. You can buy our 2 Finger Method DVD here...
If you have a banjo that is already equipped with spikes, you can capo at the fifth fret, put the 5th string under the spike at the 10th fret, and teach them to strum on your now child-friendly standard sized banjo. The part of the neck they will play on, once it is capoed, will make it short enough for the child to reach. As they grow, you can move the capo to the 4th fret and spike the 5th string under at the 9th; then on to the 2nd fret and spike at the 7th fret when they grow a bit more. Pretty soon…their arms will be long enough to use the whole neck and you will have used your original banjo during the whole learning period. Buy a Shubb banjo capo here...
Weight may be an issue for a younger child so please consider any of our Goodtime banjos using this method of adaptation unless you already have a light weight banjo of your own. I would not suggest putting a heavy banjo in their lap because it could be uncomfortable for their little legs. You can use the same chord forms with this banjo adaptation that you use on a standard, open G neck.
With a child, the intensity of their strumming/plucking efforts on the strings is most important. Help them to understand that they are perfectly suited to play the banjo because it requires just a light touch to make music! This will definitely be the most challenging thing you have to teach them. Illustrate to them what a “lighter” touch or “softer” touch really means. It seems fundamental but remember, they are children…they may not really understand that until you help them see, hear, and feel the difference!
If a child can count to 5, then they can learn the strings on a banjo. The string gauges on a 5-string banjo are easier for a young child. Though the 17-fret tenor banjo has a shorter neck and fewer strings, the string gauges are thicker and it is not necessarily easier for a child to play. The lighter gauge 5-string banjo strings are light enough for most children to strum or pluck easily.
By using some of these hints, you can get your child started on the 5-string banjo. Learning picking patterns, forming chords, and learning to read tablature…all of these will take time. Introduce plucking one string at a time and one finger at a time. Let them get comfortable with each step. If they are getting frustrated, stop. Let them strum, sing with them. It’s about the JOY of music, not the MARATHON of music!
Find a teacher in your area if you can who works with children. Once you have given your child a few basics, they will feel even more comfortable with the teacher. Rent a banjo from your local music store…make it a Goodtime banjo, they really ARE easier to learn on!
Sharing the joy of music with children is one of life’s most abundantly great gifts. Pass the gift around.