Like any international folk instrument, the banjo can be played in many styles. Some are very similar, and some are more complex. Choosing your style is generally decided by the genre of music you want to play. Still, knowing the others can open up more playing opportunities for you, so it is worth knowing. Three styles of play are quite common, although no style is perfect for everything. Each has advantages and disadvantages for the player interested in a specific style.
First, a pick (plectrum) is used on plectrum banjos. This is similar to mandolins or guitars. With this style, the banjo can play like a mandolin, and tunings facilitate that. Tuned like a viola or violin, you can directly play melody lines. It is louder and has better sustain, although repeat picking like on a mandolin is still used for effect.
Very common today is the three finger style, or Scruggs style, which was made famous by Earl Scruggs. This is the predominant style in bluegrass and is used on a 5 string banjo. Syncopated three note rhythms fill in background and the melody simultaneously. Because the rhythm may not line up with the rolls, tricks like hammer-ons, hammer-offs, and slides allow for fitting in extra notes and hinting at the melody. With very clever fretting, this can also carry the entire melody very rapidly in so called “melodic banjo playing” where adjacent notes avoid being played on the same string. In Scruggs style, strings are even sometimes retuned on the fly, but special banjo tuners can help to facilitate that accurately.
Old Time Banjo
Claw hammer or frailing is an earlier style of banjo playing dating back to the minstrel period at least. This relied upon the backs of a primary finger and the pad of the thumb. Strings are struck downwards by the back of a finger, then a chord is brushed with the same finger, and finally the drone (5th string) is hit with the thumb. This creates a characteristic Bum-ditty sound throughout the song. Again, this can be played quite rapidly. The overall feel is less rapid than the frenetic 3 finger style, and the fingernail work makes the strings less strident. The brushed chords fill in the sound on the song while the drone string emphasizes the high notes in the harmony. Sometimes the thumb will drop down as well, creating “drop-thumbing” to add extra melody notes.
Some players will mix elements of many styles. Some will opt for up-picking, plucking with the pads of the fingers, in combination with the brushed chords of clawhammer. Others will use a plectrum on a fiver string banjo. As with any instrument, you can feel free to invent yourself and your sound on the instrument. Each of these styles had innovators at one point, and you could be the next one. Experiment and if you like what you hear, do it.
Native Ground: What is Clawhammer Banjo
Folk Of The Wood: FAQ: Clawhammer and Frailing vs Bluegrass
Shlomo Music: Tenor & Plectrum Banjos