Banjo 101: Finding the notes [Part 1]

The aim of this post is to begin de-mystifying the banjo fretboard. Let’s face it, when we first look at all those strings and frets it just looks like a nonsensical grid.

There are a few good reasons for learning where the notes are: understanding scales/modes, improvising and building chords etc. It also helps us to communicate with other musicians – try saying ‘3rd fret, 2nd string’ to a sax player and see how far that gets you…

I’ll assume you’re reading this as a beginner so will start with a little bit of basic info…


The most common type of banjo is a 5-string banjo. There are many ways of tuning it but the standard is as follows:

1st string = D

2nd string = B

3rd string = G

4th string = D

5th string = g

This is referred to as ‘open G’ tuning because the combination of notes creates a G major chord (a topic for another post). When we say a string is ‘open’ we mean it’s not held down or ‘fretted/fingered’.

The 1st string is closest to your toes, the 5th (the peculiar, shorter one) is closest to your nose.


The pieces of metal that run across the fingerboard are called frets and they divide the neck into semitones. Ideally you want to be pushing down just behind (ie. to the left-hand side) the fret wire to achieve clean sounding notes.

OK. Let’s get going. Life is short.

For now we’re just going to focus on the 4th STRING (the thickest). Use the INDEX finger (1) of your left hand (L.H.) and the THUMB (T) of your right hand (R.H.) to produce the notes. (NB I’m a lefty. Reverse all the L/R stuff if you’re the same.)

Practice the following:

Pluck the 4th string open with R.H. thumb. It produces the note D.

Now press the 4th string down at the 2nd fret with L.H. index finger. Pluck the string. The note is E.

Continue along the string:

3rd fret = F

5th fret = G

7th fret = A

9th fret = B

10th fret = C

12th fret = (your banjo should have two dots here)

And back down:

12th fret = D

10th fret = C

and so on…

Banjo - natural notes on 4

What you’ve done here is play all the natural notes on the 4th string from open to the 12th fret. Congratulations! Admittedly it doesn’t sound like much but please hang in there! (If you must impress your friends then tell them it’s a Dorian mode).

Practice this until it’s firmly lodged in your memory bank. Try saying the notes and frets as you play them – or if you’re without your instrument just run through the note/fret combination out loud. (I find people give up their seats on a crowded train pretty quickly if you board shouting ‘FRET 5… G!’) You may notice your brain works a little harder on the way back down. This is normal since we’re generally more comfortable saying our alphabet forwards. Fortunately, in music we only have to deal with A – G… Phew.

That’s it for now. Next time I’ll show you how to use this exercise to find more notes…

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