I typically play guitar with an informal group and we mostly play traditional and old-timey songs. When I am not soloing I usually just play the chord progression of the song. Recently however I have been playing a 4-string banjo tuned to 5ths (GDAE).

I really like the sound on this banjo but I have had a hard time figuring out what to play when I am not soloing. I can't really reach the chords with the banjo tuned this way and I don't want to capo, since that would affect my solos. I am reluctant to just play the melody, since this seems like it might interfere with the singers and soloists.

What should I be playing instead of the chord progression while the others are playing and/or singing?

Also how would you suggest I practice to best prepare me to play with the group in this manner?


  • Just to be sure: you play a tenor banjo or another kind of 4-string banjo?
    – Eric
    Commented May 10, 2011 at 21:22
  • @Eric actually it is a 5 string with the little string removed - essentially a plectrum banjo at this point - but then I found that I liked playing it better with it tuned to 5ths like a tenor.
    – DQdlM
    Commented May 10, 2011 at 22:11
  • 2
    That's actually the same tuning as violin and mandolin. Maybe you could check out the repertoire for those instruments. The Violin II parts of orchestral and string quartet pieces might give you some inspiration, albeit probably not in your style. Bach could be especially good since his music generally has interesting counterpoint. If you're interested, imslp.org is a good place to look. Commented May 22, 2011 at 19:40

4 Answers 4



  • As a supporting melody instrument, you should support the melody (without playing it). This means playing notes that fit well with the chord progression (as with soloing).

As an example, if the rhythm chord progression is G, C, D (bear with me! :) ), then you should play notes that fit with G, C, or D. That means GBD during the G, CEG during the C, and DFA during the D. If you want to go beyond that, you can add surrounding notes to fit the mood you want. If you are playing a bluesy song, for instance, you might want to emphasize the dominant sevenths. This means you would want to throw in the occasional F during the G, Bb during the C, and C during the D.

  • You should give the singers/leads a lot of space. Try to pull back when they are singing. This means sticking to the backbone of the rhythm and not getting too fancy. In the breaks between the lines, feel free to throw in some flash!


  • Try putting on some CDs and playing with them. Try to add to the song without stepping on the other instruments' toes too much. Don't solo over them - support them.
  • Listen to great bands that have multiple melody instruments. Listen to the background instruments instead of the leads. Pay attention to how the bass changes during a guitar solo. Listen to how guitars and pianos support each other. Great authors learn by reading great books. Musicians should do the same :) .

I hope this helps! Feel free to ask questions in the comments if I was unclear.


You could also use mandolin chord shapes and do a chop/backbeat thing like a mandolin, or appeggiate based on the chords. Keep in mind, you don't need to play all four strings; you can suggest the chord with one or two strings.

  • thanks. I do fall back on some of the 2-finger mandolin chords but I am hoping to spice things up a bit more
    – DQdlM
    Commented May 18, 2011 at 2:00
  • Cool. You can play any note at any time. But it's usually expected that you'll mostly play notes contained within the current chord or at least the current scale/key. Try developing riffs around the root or the 5th note of each chord. The chord shapes can be useful for developing riffs too-- you don't need to get all fingers on the shape at once, but you can think of them as important milestones to hit.
    – Nathan
    Commented May 18, 2011 at 19:42
  • Oh yeah- don't forget to listen to the other musicians a lot and know when to not play. A little banjo can go a long way - like plucking one note per backbeat or per measure or wherever there's space in the arrangement.
    – Nathan
    Commented May 18, 2011 at 19:45

A banjo tuned to GDAE is known as an Irish tenor banjo. While your question explicitly asks for "what to play instead of chords", I found a pdf demo of an Irish tenor banjo chord book that may nevertheless be of use to you.

  • thanks for the link. Its actually not an Irish tenor but a 5 string restrung with 4 heavier strings. It sounds similar but has 22 instead of 14 frets which means I can't reach many of the normal Irish tenor chords (at least with my fingers).
    – DQdlM
    Commented May 18, 2011 at 1:58
  • 2
    "at least with my fingers"... have you considered using your nose? Commented May 18, 2011 at 3:48
  • Bouzoukis have a similar long scale - you might look at bouzouki materials.
    – Nathan
    Commented May 18, 2011 at 21:36

Don't just think about your left hand (chords). You can do a lot with simple arpeggios and other patterns in your right (picking) hand to make the accompaniment more interesting.

Beyond that, I'm surprised no one has mentioned the (major) pentatonic scale.

Finally, and I don't know what you mean by 'old-timey' but much of what is considered 'old-time' music traditionally had the backing instruments doubling the melody.

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