Sharon, grandmother of Harry, writes:
Strange as it sounds, my autistic, left-handed, 8 year old grandson has developed an interest in blue grass music and specifically the banjo. His indulgent father has purchased a banjo and sent it to him. It is actually a guitar/banjo. I assume we will have to have it restrung for the left-handed, (which I have been told is a fairly simple process) but can you recommend any instructional videos for a beginning left-handed child? He is strumming some and picking a bit, but don’t want him to form bad habits if he really wants to stay with it. Maybe he will, maybe he won’t, but he learns very quickly and I have no musical experience with which to help him.
Do you have any advice?
A guitar banjo is not a banjo. The tuning of a banjo as a 5-string instrument including a short, high-pitched 5th string is critical to the identity of a banjo. The guitar banjo is a hybrid for people who know how to play guitar and don’t want to adapt to the realities of a banjo, and yet still get some kind of “banjo” sound. The lack of the short, high 5th string undermines a critical aspect, and banjo technique and teaching are then not relevant. The person would learn guitar technique and it would come out sort of like banjo sound.
If your grandson really likes banjo, I suggest he get a real banjo.
If that’s not in the cards, approach a guitar teacher for advice. Some would suggest restringing, some would say he could play “upside down” like Jimi Hendrix and others, and some would say he should play right handed even if he’s lefty. I’ll stay out of that one.
I hope I don’t sound too negative about a guitar banjo. Good music can be played on it. But almost no one has it as their main instrument. It’s a novelty, and it’s not a fixture in any kind of popular music.
If a person learns real banjo, they can fit into various folk and bluegrass music that traditionally includes banjo.
If the prospect of your grandson getting a real banjo becomes possible, I welcome you to get in touch again. The two choices are “lefty banjo” (can be found, but not common, and so rare that he will only be able to play his own instrument and no one else’s), or see if he can learn to play righty, as many lefties do. The upside down option is not really possible with a banjo.
I hope the above info helps you understand the choices.