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Potentially grabbing a banjo or mandolin

Charles KinboteCharles Kinbote Registered User regular
edited June 2011 in Help / Advice Forum
Hey guys,
Lately I've been really bummed that I don't have an instrument with me--my keyboard and ukulele are on the other side of the country for a few months, my guitar is halfway across the country, and I really like having something around to pick at. I've never been a very talented or focused musician but I do love just trying things out. It's prohibitively expensive to ship one of the instruments out here (especially for the few months) and I don't want to buy something that I already own, so I've actually been thinking of picking up a banjo.

I don't know anything about them, really. I know I like the sound and I know that, with stringed instruments in general, I'm unusually good at finger-picking and unusually bad at strumming, which seems like it would work well with a banjo. I don't know how hard they are, though. Is it something I could learn through just my own efforts and some internet videos and what-have-you, or is it hard enough that I shouldn't get into it unless I'm taking lessons and so on? Any advice or anecdotes would be helpful--again, I don't know too much about what I would be getting into, but it looks like a fun instrument and it's one that I don't have.


e: actually, lemme retool this. I'm also thinking of buying a mandolin, as it seems like it's a little more versatile while still letting me play around with folk and bluegrass. Does anyone have any experience with that? Is either better suited to a fairly amateur musician?
Charles Kinbote on


  • JebusUDJebusUD Adventure! Caaba Beankomy XobthroRegistered User regular
    edited June 2011
    I don't know first hand, but it seems like a banjo would be hard to learn, because of the weird short string on the top.

    However, Modest Mouse and other indie bands prove that banjo doesn't have to sound like bluegrass, so if you wanted to learn something more rock and roll, banjo will do you.

    JebusUD on
    And I won, so you lose,
    Guess it always comes down to.
  • DietCokeTinDietCokeTin Registered User
    edited June 2011
    I'd suggest mandolin. I've been playing for about 5 years now, and it's one of the easiest instruments to pick up and get into, literally! It's small enough you can take it anywhere without it being too cumbersome, and you can pick up a decent quality beginner instrument for ~$50. My only advice is to try to physically hold a mandolin you're thinking of buying instead of grabbing one online; the action is a lot different than a larger string instrument, as it's a lot of force to press and hold down the strings. Find one that you won't have to adjust too much that's comfortable. Other than that, the mandolin is a solid instrument for just messing around with by yourself or accompanying another instrument. A neat beginner song you can learn starting out is the Wind Waker theme, which for me sealed the deal.

    DietCokeTin on
  • rocketshipreadyrocketshipready Registered User regular
    edited June 2011
    I play both, and really, you can't go wrong. Neither are particularly hard to be competent with, there are TONS of free resources for both, and they both sound great. I'd say the banjo might be more the more versatile solo instrument just because you can get a fuller sound out of it, but that's pretty nit-picky as solo mandolin can sound great also. All that being said, I've been picking a lot of mandolin recently, so that's going to be my official suggestion.

    Be sure to check out for a bunch of free Tabledit files, and pick up the Shady Grove songbook (published by Mel Bay, I think). It's full of David Grisman's arragements from the album he did with Jerry Garcia. It's probably my favorite mandolin songbook for traditional music.

    rocketshipready on
  • joshofalltradesjoshofalltrades Demodog It's a play on wordsRegistered User regular
    edited June 2011
    Get a chapman stick!

    Really, banjo and mandolin are both good instruments for you to pick up a little experience with. As with all instruments, you can learn enough to get by or really master them. I do have a soft spot for banjo, though.

    joshofalltrades on
    Friends don't lie.
  • McVikingMcViking Registered User regular
    edited June 2011
    I play both (and teach banjo), and I would say that the mandolin is a marginally more versatile instrument, but banjo is more fun to play solo. If you think you'll be spending a lot of time picking at home by yourself, you'd probably enjoy banjo more. If you think you'll be out playing with other people soon, take your pick (no pun intended). Especially if you already play guitar, I don't think a teacher is strictly necessary for either instrument, although it may get you going faster.

    McViking on
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