Looking for your first left handed banjo? Awesome! The banjo is an immensely satisfying instrument to play, and mastering it will give you many, many years of pleasure and enjoyment. But where to start?
In this buying guide for beginners we’ll give you all of the information that you should need in order to jump straight into your new instrument. From suggesting some great beginner banjo choices, to explaining the differences between each model style – this article has you covered.
Left Handed Banjo – Beginner Guide
Should I Play Banjo Left or Right Handed?
Right or left handed banjo? If you are brand new to playing a stringed instrument you might be debating over which way to play. For a quick answer, refer back to this article.
It’s worth noting that for most styles of banjo playing I would suggest that it is especially important to have your dominant hand as your picking hand. Banjo is typically a very picking-centric instrument, so it’s critical to have a good sense of rhythm and control with your picking hand.
Four or Five String Banjo?
This really depends on the style of music you’d like to be playing.
4-String. A 4-string banjo typically comes in two flavors – a tenor, or a plectrum banjo. A plectrum banjo is the same as a 5-string, minus the shorter drone string (5th string) and is popular with jazz players. The tenor has a shorter scale length and is popular with Irish folk players. They are typically used to perform a Dixieland style of playing and are mostly played using a plectrum (guitar pick). Example video.
5-String. The most popular banjo by far, and probably the style that most will opt for. A standard 5-string banjo has 22 frets, with the 5th string tuning peg being located at the 5th fret. They typically come in two different variations – with a resonator, or with an open-back. Often called a Bluegrass Banjo, the design with a resonator is the most popular style of banjo for playing bluegrass. An open-back banjo is preferred for Clawhammer (frailing) style play due to its softer tone.
- Bluegrass (resonator) banjo is typically played with a thumb-pick and two metal fingerpicks (also known as Scruggs style). Example video.
- Clawhammer style is played with either the fingernails or specialised plastic or metal fingerpicks. Example video.
6-String. If you already play guitar then a 6-string banjo may be an appealing option to you. However, note that these are essentially just banjo shaped guitars. They are tuned and played like a guitar, but give a banjo style sound. Example video.
Best Beginner Left Handed Banjos
If you stumbled across this article through a Google search you’re probably itching to get started with your new instrument, right? Cool! Before we look at the instrument in more detail, let’s take a look at a few excellent left handed banjos you can pick up right now which will be ideal for new players.
- Vangoa 5-String Package – click for pricing and info
- Savannah SB-100L 5-String – click for pricing and info
- Oscar Schmidt OB5 5-String – click for pricing and info
The Vangoa is going to be your most affordable route into the world of banjos. This 5-string model is undoubtedly the most popular left handed banjo currently available due to it’s low price and killer features. Main appointments include a mahogany body, mahogany neck and walnut fretboard. The resonator can be removed using the thumb screws, allowing you to achieve a quieter sound more in line with an open-back model. The right-handed model is currently the best selling banjo on Amazon, with an almost 5-star rating from over 800 customers. A great choice to get you off on the right foot!
The package includes the banjo, gig bag, extra strings, strap, picks and a clip-on headstock tuner. It even comes with a pickup to allow for amplified play.
The video below will let you see and hear the Vangoa in action…
For a little extra cash, another solid choice for aspiring southpaw banjo players is the Savannah SB-100. It features a mahogany resonator with thumb screws, allowing you to remove the back for open-backed tones. Other appointments include a a strong laminated maple rim, geared 5th peg, and 24 brackets.
Lastly we have the OB5 from Oscar Schmidt – a sub-brand of Washburn Guitars. Price-wise it sits in between the Jameson and Savannah and features a 30 bracket cast aluminum tone ring, mahogany resonator, and a geared 5th string tuner.
Any of these 3 models will make an ideal starter banjo for new players. Check out the links above for information and current stock.
- GoldTone CC50 5-String – click for pricing and info
- Deering Goodtime 5-String – click for pricing and info
Affordable left handed open-back banjos are not as easy to come by as resonators, so these 2 suggestions do cost a little more than the models above. If these are a little outside of your budget you could consider picking up one of the banjos above and removing the resonator. It won’t be quite as authentic, but it’ll get you by!
The GoldTone CC50 is the most affordable of the two choices presented here and is perfect for old-time or folk style playing. It features a multi-ply maple rim, maple neck and rosewood fingerboard, guitar style tuners, and a rolled-brass tone ring. At just 5.5lbs it’s also nice and lightweight! Check out the video below to see it in action.
The American made Deering Goodtime is a little more expensive than the Gold Tone CC-50, but does come with a few extra premium appointments. Main features include a violin grade maple rim, steel tension hoop, a slim rock maple neck and fretboard, and a durable satin finish. It’s also super lightweight at just 4 pounds.
Something that may sway you toward the Deering is the company’s excellent #YesBanjo trade-up program. This offer allows you to trade in your Goodtime banjo for its full value against a higher spec model further down the line should you wish to upgrade. You can find out more about this here.
See it in action in the video below.
A few extras that you might like to pick up with your new instrument.
Tuner. A good headstock tuner is a must to ensure that you are playing in perfect pitch – my personal favorite is the Snark clip on. Simply clamp it on to your headstock and it will tune your banjo perfectly via vibration. Check it out here.
Straps. A banjo strap is slightly different to a regular guitar strap and is a must have if you plan to stand up while playing. Take a look through a selection here.
Fingerpicks. If bluegrass or clawhammer is the style of music you are opting for then a good set of picks is a necessity. Both plastic and metal varieties are available. Most players favor a plastic thumb pick coupled with metal fingerpicks. However, be sure to test all options (including your own fingernails!) to see what works best for you.
So you’ve got your new instrument – now all that’s left to do is learn to play the damn thing! I’ve listed below a few popular books which will help get you off to a great start.
- Bluegrass Banjo for the Complete Ignoramus
- Clawhammer Banjo for the Complete Ignoramus
- Earl Scruggs and the 5-String Banjo
- Banjo for Dummies
I’m sure the information above will be enough to get many of you started. However, for those of you who might need a little more information before taking the plunge, here’s a bit of extra reading that’ll cover a few extra things you might like to consider.
Resonator versus Open-Back
Resonator. If you look at the back of a resonator banjo you’ll notice a plate which is attached to the body – also sometimes referred to as the ‘pot’. The purpose of this resonator plate is to help the banjo to produce a louder sound, which helps in band situations. The sound bounces off the plate and is projected forward toward the audience. As mentioned above, you’ll probably want to opt for a resonator if bluegrass is your intended play-style.
Open-Back. It should be fairly self-explanatory, but open-back banjos are essentially resonator banjos without the resonator! Because of their open back, these instruments produce a slightly quieter, mellower sound than their resonator cousins. Due to their softer tone they are generally favored for playing old-timey American music, and are typically played using the clawhammer playstyle (or variations of this style). Another benefit to open-backed banjos if their lighter weight!
It’s worth noting that on some resonator banjos, the plate can be removed to give a quieter sound if needed.
Strings and Tuning
As a new player it is generally felt that you should stick to lighter gauge strings at least initially.
If you’re coming to banjo from playing guitar, the order of the strings might surprise you a little. Unlike on a guitar where the strings are in order from thickest to thinnest, the string order on a standard 5-string banjo is 4th, 3rd, 2nd, 1st and then 5th.
The 5th string differs to the others in that it attaches to a special tuner located at the 5th fret, resulting in it being 3/4 the length of the other strings. It is often called the ‘thumb string’ and is used to create a drone sound. Specialised capos are available to alter the pitch of the thumb string.
The most common tuning used in bluegrass is open G (G B G B D). When playing older styles of music, common tunings are Open D (F# D F# A D) and Double C (G C G C D)
The two most common banjo playstyles are Scruggs style and clawhammer. Other styles exist (such as simply playing with a guitar pick), but these are the two which are most commonly associated specifically with banjo playing.
Scruggs Style. The most common form of picking in bluegrass music is Scruggs style (named after Earl Scruggs), where the player uses fingerpicks on the thumb, index and middle fingers. The ring and pinky fingers are typically used as a brace against the body of the banjo. In this playstyle the strings are plucked very quickly in repetitive patterns (rolls), resulting in a very fast, lively sound.
Clawhammer. Also known as Frailing, the clawhammer style of play is preferred for old-time American music. The thumb and index or middle fingers are primarily used to pick. The hand forms a ‘claw’ shape with most of the movement coming from the wrist or elbow, rather than the fingers, which remain relatively stiff throughout.
A big difference between clawhammer and Scruggs style is the direction in which the strings are plucked. Scruggs style players will pick down with the thumb and up with the fingers, whereas clawhammer players will pick downwards with all fingers. While Bluegrass can be called a picking style, clawhammer is more a rhythmic strumming style.
Popular Banjo Brands
A list of a few well known banjo brands who offer left handed models.
Leave a comment below with any brands that need to be added to this list!