How to play the 5 string banjo



edited from Michael Eck (

In the 1940s, Pete Seeger did have a unique perspective on the banjo.  Ever since hearing Samantha Bumgarner frailing on a five-string at the 1936 Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville, North Carolina, Seeger had become an avid student of the banjo, soaking up its history, its styles and the peculiarities of players like Pete Steele, Rufus Crisp, Bascom Lamar Lunsford and Uncle Dave Macon.

When Seeger self-published the first edition of “How to Play the Five String Banjo” in 1948, it was a compendium of information, with tidbits about the instrument’s evolution from “a possum hide stretched across a gourd” to its contemporary incarnation; advice on tuning and tablature; and a selection of picking patterns and samples of folk songs (including the tune that inspired Seeger’s first longneck, “Viva La Quince Brigada”).

“It was 41 pages and it sold for $1.59,” Seeger says, “and I sold 100 copies in four years.” In the burnished manner of a man with an oft-told tale, he continues. “Then I ran off the mimeograph stencils again–or rather, somebody ran them off for me. I printed 500 copies, and they sold within four years. Then I got ambitious and I rewrote the book a bit and I rented an IBM typewriter and printed it by photolithography and ran off 2,000 copies, and that sold in four years. That was ’54, I think.

“In 1962, I got my family to help, my children and my wife, and I pasted up 72 pages. The 1962 edition has now sold 100,000 copies; it’s my best seller. No other book I ever wrote sold 100,000 copies.” In a lesson recorded in 1991 for Homespun Tapes, also called How to Play the 5-String Banjo, Seeger says proudly of the book, “It put my kids through school.”

By the time it expanded to 72 pages, Seeger’s book had already been massively influential, with revisions covering trends like the pioneering three-finger, bluegrass wail of Earl Scruggs (which, according to Neil V. Rosenberg’s Bluegrass: A History, Seeger first heard around 1950) and the similar but less aggressive style of Ralph Stanley and his forward rolls. Seeger’s half-brother, Mike, is credited in the book with “assistance in preparing this [bluegrass] chapter,” but the younger Seeger humbly says that his contribution was essentially one night’s work.

(In his book When We Were Good: The Folk Revival, music historian Robert Cantwell notes how Seeger distilled the famous “Basic Strum” from elements he’d learned from the rough-hewn Rufus Crisp. “By nestling a resonant chord between two precise notes,” Cantwell wrote, “a melody note and a chiming note on the fifth string, Seeger gentrified the more percussive frailing style, with its vigorous hammering of the forearm and its percussive rapping of the fingernail on the banjo head.”)

Eric Weissberg says, “It was the only thing like it at the time, as far as I know.  Before that, most of the knowledge was handed down from person to person, and not much of that was happening up in the North. That was mostly a down-South thing, so as far as the urban development of banjo players, it was vital.”

A condensed version of the book appeared within the sleeve of the 1954 Folkways LP The Five-String Banjo Instructor with Pete Seeger, a recording that, like the book, has long been supplanted by an entire shelf of hot-shot instruction manuals with attached CDs. But it was Seeger’s book–which coined the terms “hammering on” and “pulling off,” among others, in its landmark pages–that returned the instrument to American music.



2 Responses to “How to play the 5 string banjo”

  1. REED MARTIN Says:

    I think that another gift of Pete Seeger’s banjo playing and teaching was his ability to explain verbally to the listener of his instruction records HOW to produce the sounds of the banjo.
    Until he slowly explained and demonstrated banjo techniques – we all heard banjo tunes, but had no way to slow those sounds down and produce them ourselves. When he talked about learning from the older players – we were inspired to go south and find those older players and learn from them directly. I remember packing clothes and a banjo in my first car and driving off into the sunset –
    inspired to find those older folks myself. Thank you, Pete Seeger, from all of us who woke up to all the older musicians who were out there waiting to share their stories, songs and tunes.
    – Reed Martin
    – Union Grove, N.C. Fiddler’s Convention parking lot student.
    – and thank you, Joe Greene & A.L. Wood – who showed us urban kids what “playing from the heart” looked & sounded like.

  2. pressplay Says:


    How to play the 5 string banjo | Old Time Party

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