By Michael Hofer

© 1999

Lets Get Picky

Well there are a few more things you need besides just the banjo itself. You will need picks. Ok, someone is going to say, grandma never used them on her banjo. Ok, maybe not, but if you intend to play Bluegrass today you will need them. They dont use gut strings anymore (unless your into minstrel or classical banjo) and those steel ones will tear up your fingers, so just plan on getting picks. Dunlap and National both make good picks. You will need a thumb pick made from plastic and two metal fingerpicks. The metal fingerpicks come in differant gauges. I prefer the .018 and .015 gauge. The lower the number the lighter the pick. Experiment and find out which pick you pick the best with. Its okay to be picky with picks. Did that last sentance make you grin? See thats why they call it pickin and grinnin.
Beware of the pick gremlins.Theres a phenomena with picks, just like socks, they seem to dissapear mysteriously. I know Ive lost hundreds of them never to be found again, very few wear out.


If you intend to play standing up, you will need a strap around that banjo of yours. There are many kinds available, I suggest finding the widest one possible. I know the skinny ones are stylish, but the wider they are, the more comfy they are to wear. Thats the kind of guy I am, prefering comfort over fashion. Make sure once installed on your banjo its easily balanced, you dont want to contend with the banjo moving around while you're playing. Its tough enough finding the strings and frets without the added excitement of a moving target. Also make sure the strap is the proper length recently my old strap finally worn to a frazzle had to be replaced, it was always a bit short, but I put up with it. I made sure the new strap was the proper length, what a differance made playing a whole lot easier!! So get a strap that FITS !

Special Tuning Pegs

There are special tuning pegs out, concieved by Earl Scruggs and perfected io design by Bill Keith, popularly called Keith tuners. ( Schaller also makes them, but Keiths are far superior according to most banjo players who have used both) Basically they allow you to change the tuning of your strings very quickly using a cam set up. Im only familiar with maybe 5 bluegrass songs where they are used, Earl used to play a few of these by just retuning, and thats where he got the idea for the cams. These tuners cost in excess of 60 bucks each. To me its a bit pricey ( ok another of my opinions I dont expect everyone to agree with) just seems like alot of dough to spend to put a slight special effect on a tune. Some people like the flash of it though, so whatever makes you happy.

Have I Made a Case for Cases?

You need a case for that banjo. Even if its deemed a dont get caught in the rain case, pick up one. A good hard shell case will protect your banjo for years. Its worth the money.

Other Stuff

Here are a few other items you may wish to consider in your pursuit of excellance as a banjo picker.
An electornic tuner, pitchpipe or tuning fork. (in G). You need something to referance your tuning the banjo. Electronic tuners have come down to about 20 bucks a pop. They work well, but a good pitch pipe or tuning fork can do the same thing and they are cheaper. Get what works best for you.
A music stand. To hold your instruction books and tablature. These arent very expensive and they are handy.
A metronome. They've got some small ones out now that run on batteries, almost a must for beginners. Learning how to keep time is very hard without one. Yes you can learn without one, this just makes it a little easier to focus on developing other new skills.
A banjo bridge mute. This little device slips over the bridge of your banjo, it mutes the sound. A very handy tool if you are in an apartment building with neighbors who just cant appreciate your musical endeavors. There are actually a few tunes too that call for a muted banjo. They are not very expensive. Some of the old timer dont need fangled gadget pickers, just put a couple clothespins on the bridge theyve wittled down a bit, does the same thing.
When you start playing with others, you will need a capo to transpose keys. Most fiddle players and mandolin players like to play in the key of A or occasionally B. I recommend you get a Kyser Clip type capo for the bottom 4 strings,( fast and easy to use one handed ) and have "spikes" or "taks" as they are called installed on the fifth string. The spikes or taks are model railroad spikes, you need to drill a few small holes and place them so they dont intefere with the 5th string when not in use. You may want a luthier to perform this for you. Placing spikes in the A and B slots will allow you to play most of the time with others. Jim Awater offers a kit for doing this, see the products for purchase page.
There is an alternative to the spikes, a regular 5th string capo. It mounts on the side of the neck and uses a sliding wire to depress the 5th string. I had one on my first banjo, it works well. However it makes the feel of the neck fatter. I prefer the spikes. The advantage of the regular 5th string capo is however you can play in many other keys. Be prepared to get ribbed by the fiddle player when he sees you using a capo, they refer to them as "cheaters". They of course never use them. Answer that with well just play in the key of G and Ill take em off.

If you are interested in purchasing products like those mentioned above, you might want to visit my Products To Purchase page.