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Someone once told me I should know guitar first. Are these instruments different enough that learning banjo is independent of knowing guitar?

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Did that person provide a reason? Generally, I think you should study the instrument you're interested in playing. If you're interested in doing both then there might be a benefit in doing one before the other. – vjones Sep 7 '11 at 21:18
This happened many decades ago. The person who told me this was a seasoned banjo player and I was a child. I think he told me this because he didn't want me bugging him about learning banjo. Perhaps it was his way of telling me to go away. – zundarz Sep 7 '11 at 21:37
up vote 8 down vote accepted

I play both fingerstyle guitar and clawhammer banjo, and aside from basic left-hand fretting technique, they are very different. Here are some ways in which learning the guitar first will actually make learning the banjo harder, not easier:

  • On the standard five-string banjo, the top string isn't a bass string; rather, it's a treble drone string. If you're used to your thumb playing bass notes (as on the guitar), this will be really confusing. All of your Travis-picking habits will get in the way.
  • Clawhammer technique is totally the reverse of fingerstyle guitar technique. Instead of using the fleshy part of your fingers and plucking up, you use the back of your fingernails and hammer down. Very disorienting at first.
  • Except for between the G and B strings, the intervals between guitar strings are all the same, which makes fingering scales relatively consistent in different ranges. This isn't the case on the banjo, where the most popular tunings have completely different intervals between strings.

This isn't to say you can't do it. I'd been playing guitar for almost twenty years before I picked up a banjo, and with practice, I overcame all of these obstacles---and I love them both. But if you're only interested in the guitar as a gateway instrument to the banjo, I'd say don't bother. Go straight for the banjo.

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There are common elements between both elements, moreso than between a cello and a flute for example, but there's absolutely no reason you should know guitar first. Experience with guitar would probably help to some degree with banjo, and experience with banjo would probably help to some degree with guitar. But that assumes prior experience.

If all you want to learn is banjo, then learning guitar will be a waste of your time. You can learn banjo most effectively by learning banjo. Spending a year on the guitar might make you better at banjo than someone who has never played an instrument, but it definitely won't make you better than you could be if you played banjo for that year instead.

Now, if you have decided to practice banjo exactly 1 hour per day and are looking for something else to do in your free time, adding guitar wouldn't hurt (assuming you don't strain yourself). But decreasing banjo time in order to play guitar will result in worse banjo playing in the end.

Disclaimer: I play guitar but not banjo.

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