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Does learning a New Instrument Help or Hinder?

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Jan 27, 2020 - 3:59:53 AM
33 posts since 1/10/2015

I am about six years into banjo and I play a lot. I'm only just okay, IMO. Not Super happy with my playing but I have fun and love it. I'm wondering if I were to start learning another instrument, like Mandolin, would that be a negative, positive or neutral thing for my banjo progress? Assuming my banjo picking time remains the same as now.

Jan 27, 2020 - 4:11:36 AM



8 posts since 9/1/2019

I think it really comes down to what works for you, and what it takes to keep your brain interested and keep the feeling of novelty alive.

To give you an example, when I practice a song or a break for too long my brain will go on autopilot and I will get progressively sloppier. Practicing several things at the same time usually prevents that from happening. Sure it takes longer to master any single song or break, but in the long run the overall progress is faster and more fun.

So if you feel like you need something new to keep your brain and your practice fresh, I'd say go for it.
Worst case scenario you can always roll back.

Edited by - CarloSc on 01/27/2020 04:13:46

Jan 27, 2020 - 5:03:03 AM
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Texasbanjo (Moderator)


24218 posts since 8/3/2003

It would be according to your level of experience on the banjo and how much time you spend practicing/jamming, etc. A new instrument would, naturally, take up more of your time and you'd spend less time and effort on the banjo.

When I first got my guitar (I'd played banjo for several years), I found my banjo sat there while I was learning to chord and flatpick. Same thing with my mandolin: it took center stage until I got to the point I felt I pick it at least somewhat. Each new instrument took less time to learn at least the basics and be able to chord, jam and play backup and maybe a simple break. And yes, the banjo picking suffered.

However, my banjo experience did help me learn new instruments quicker, as I was already aware of chords, chord structure, timing, technique and tone, etc.

Jan 27, 2020 - 5:07:13 AM

156 posts since 3/16/2008

Another option would be to try a new style on the banjo. If you play clawhammer, try bluegrass, vice versa, or try out classic style or old time fingerpicking. I've done that as a way of breaking out of a rut. It's generally a less expensive option, though it can also lead to the need to acquire a new banjo for each style!

Jan 27, 2020 - 5:20:48 AM



1228 posts since 4/21/2003

Since flatpicking and 3-finger rolls are very different you wouldn't have to worry about learning on one interfering with the other. If you have limited time to practice, then the trade-off is obvious. However, any music theory that you learn on one will transfer to the other. I played banjo for many years before taking up guitar (just like Sherry I went all in on flatpicking and my banjo gathered dust), but the chord-based basis of Scruggs playing helped me in learning to improvise solos on guitar, and then the scale-based stuff from the guitar helped me with the banjo fretboard.

If learning two instruments keeps you motivated and engaged, then that's a win. As for practice time, it's just as much about the quality of the time (intentional, effortful, goal-oriented) as the total time. Plus, in a jam with too many banjos you can pull out that mando and at the very least chop along.

Jan 27, 2020 - 5:40:18 AM
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1660 posts since 9/11/2004

Sounds like you play for fun and new instruments are fun.

Playing mandolin will will likely strengthen your fretting hand so when you return to banjo it should play easier than ever.

I always learn new things from other instruments, most of which transfers over to banjo. Music is music and understanding even a little bit about other instruments will make you a better musician.

Jan 27, 2020 - 6:15:20 AM
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Players Union Member



10937 posts since 6/30/2015

I play several instruments, all for fun. Every time I learn a new instrument, my previous knowledge it portable, and the new things I learn can improve what I do on the other instruments. If I were planning to make a living, I would concentrate on one and master that. But for me it is far better to be able to pick up something and be able to play it. For example, the instrument that helped train my ear the most was fiddle. Now I mostly alternate between banjo, guitar, and uke, but I have a bass sitting here that needs a lot more attention. Just don't have an amp for it yet.

Jan 27, 2020 - 7:17:32 AM
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1733 posts since 2/10/2013

I think playing rhythm guitar often helps. A good rhythm guitar player is always welcome. And banjo players, especially those who play alone, often neglect playing backup. I also does wonders for strengthening your left (i.e. noting) hand/fingers/forearm.

There are times when another banjo player is not needed, or there are just two banjo players, and the other guy is "the big dog". One of those folks who is so darn good you are afraid to take your banjo out of its case.

Jan 27, 2020 - 10:18:06 AM
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5515 posts since 6/5/2011

Lots of people disagree with me, but I see skill transference in proportion to innate musical ability/aptitude.  If you have some, it will transfer.  If you don't have some, that too will transfer.   Good luck.

Jan 27, 2020 - 10:29:49 AM
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71679 posts since 5/9/2007

I started banjo,guitar and mandolin at the same young age at home.
I tended to spend most of my time on banjo,but it is very refreshing to pick the other instruments.
I think they help each other rather than hinder in any way.It's all good.
It's very appreciated by other jammers if someone can fill in the guitar or mandolin part.
Just having a good chord rhythm chop goes a long way.

Jan 27, 2020 - 12:25:06 PM
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Alex Z


3797 posts since 12/7/2006
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"I'm wondering if I were to start learning another instrument, like Mandolin, would that be a negative, positive or neutral thing for my banjo progress? Assuming my banjo picking time remains the same as now."

With that assumption, and your current status with the banjo, all positive.  You'll have more fun and there can be some skills transfer both ways.

The only situation where a second instrument would be negative is a the highest levels of musicianship.  For example, if a concert pianist wanted to take up the organ.  The feel of the organ keyboard is different from the piano, and therefore similar but different learnings may interfere with each other when going back and forth, at least for a while.  If the pianist is going to give a piano concert, he/she won't be practicing up to it on an organ keyboard.

I know, I know.  Someone's going to post that "I play the banjo and the sackbut, and going back and forth doesn't bother me at all, so you're wrong."  smiley   Good for you that you can enjoy both instruments.  

Jan 27, 2020 - 12:36:05 PM

100 posts since 12/21/2012

You won't learn as quick on either instrument per say since your interest and practice time is divided. It shouldn't do you any harm though either!

I personally love all instruments and have quite a variety. Never regretted trying a new one.

Jan 27, 2020 - 12:37:49 PM
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7816 posts since 8/20/2016

As long as you keep regularly practicing banjo, learning a new instrument will be beneficial. If you stop picking banjo and focus on another instrument entirely, your banjo picking will suffer. Just keep a good balance and you will probably become even better while learning a new instrument, because it will help you think in new ways. Have fun.

Jan 27, 2020 - 12:56:30 PM

Paul R


12682 posts since 1/28/2010

Time considerations aside, I think taking up a new instrument is quite beneficial. It gets you out of the box, and, if it doesn't transfer particular skills, gives you a "freer" mindset. I found that taking up banjo helped me to improve on the guitar, my first instrument.

However, context is important. I've always wanted to improve my playing, and other things, such as getting out and performing and jamming, and exposing yourself to new musical ideas, also factored in.

Jan 27, 2020 - 1:55:51 PM
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darryl k.


710 posts since 1/12/2006

Yes. Go for it. I play banjo, guitar and noodle a bit on the mandoline. That's how I keep the music alive and fun. There are days for each and days when each is boring, or just sounds like ####, or something won't stay in tune. Pick up something else and you're off to the races. Come back to that same instrument the next day and love it.
I write quite a bit and find that every different instrument has its own songs, songs which I never would have found on another instrument.
And if you do any gigging it's a huge bonus, especially solo.

Edited by - darryl k. on 01/27/2020 13:56:49

Jan 27, 2020 - 3:21:19 PM

3335 posts since 7/12/2006

tricky question . what works for one person may not work for another. of course time on another instrument takes away from banjo. if you have a solid grounding on banjo then it shouldnt be a hindurance. i think rhythm guitar is the best alternate instrument to learn. its usually the first .it was for me

Jan 30, 2020 - 7:59:41 AM
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11 posts since 10/12/2018

I came here to ask this, and what do you know! I inherited a beautiful sunburst 1985 Martin D-35 that I started messing around with this week. I find out I know a ton of guitar chords already, just from playing with guitarists. The flat-pick is weird, but it's probably just getting accustomed to it(ala fingerpicks).

Jan 30, 2020 - 8:07:58 AM
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71679 posts since 5/9/2007

You'll notice players going easily from banjo to fiddle to guitar and mandolin and sound fine on all of them
They don't have some special,rare gift...they simply put in a lot of time playing all those instruments and having a good ear.
A good ear is,like all things,developed.

Feb 2, 2020 - 4:34:57 AM
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3440 posts since 12/6/2009

seriously I play banjo but first I learned guitar at an early age. I can play some mandolin....If I were starting on a bluegrass journey again I'd start the way I started...guitar first then banjo, than other things....some may disagree but bluegrass with guitar IMO is grass roots for all bluegrass including banjo.

and by the way, knowing the guitar is an advantage when you show up at a jam and there's 500 banjo players....a git-tar flat picker is always a welcome advantage.

Edited by - overhere on 02/02/2020 04:39:46

Feb 2, 2020 - 8:21:29 AM
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71679 posts since 5/9/2007

If you develop your "ear" you will be able to get chords and tunes out of any instrument.

Feb 3, 2020 - 1:47:43 AM



1409 posts since 8/1/2005

If playing traditional bluegrass banjo at an advance level is your end goal, and you only have so many hours in a week to practice, I think spending as much time as possible getting to know the banjo neck is probably time well spent.

But if you want to branch out of bluegrass, I found it very helpful to learn other instruments.

I "studied" jazz tenor banjo and jazz ukulele for a while and it gave me a completely new understanding of chords. Not just how they are constructed, but how to substitute basic chords for something that might sound more interesting in some places and how to add "in-between chords" (for lack of better description) to construct basic chord melodies.

What I learned there I can now modestly apply to my five string banjo, which I'm not sure when or if I would ever have gotten around to learning if I stuck just with the five string. I have a jazz instructional book for five string banjo, but found it very difficult to get my head around compared to the jazz tenor banjo and jazz ukulele books I've worked through.

For the last six months I've been working hard at flatpicking guitar, so I'm back to the more common bluegrass keys and chords, but for pretty much the first time in my life I'm getting a much better understanding of scales. Flatpicking solos are based much more out of scales and it's nice to not just theoretically understand scales, but to actually get hands on really see how the scales relate to the melodies and the chords up and down the neck. We'll see if this will eventually be useful for my banjo playing or not, but at least I appreciate the knowledge of it.

Thanks to the work previous banjo players have done, we get a lot of cool sounding licks worked out for us that we can just copy and paste over chords to build solos and advanced sounding backup, without really knowing what we are doing. But I personally always felt I lacked a certain understanding of it all which playing other instruments made it much easier for me to see.

Smarter banjo players than me can obviously figure it all out on the five string though. :-)

Feb 3, 2020 - 3:47:45 AM
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3440 posts since 12/6/2009

Learning bluegrass rhythm guitar is a tremendous advantage for when picking banjo. You kinda then have this rhythm / rhythms embedded in your head which can be better than a metronome sometimes

Feb 3, 2020 - 6:39:41 AM
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71679 posts since 5/9/2007

The best fiddlers I know are also adept at playing the piano,guitar or mandolin accompaniment of their music.
Playing guitar doesn't take away anything from your banjo playing or learning.It didn't hurt Earl or Ron Block.

Edited by - steve davis on 02/03/2020 06:40:53

Feb 3, 2020 - 6:42:13 AM



1102 posts since 10/26/2003

I say absolutely, learn another instrument, especially guitar. In my experience it is very important that a banjo player have a good understanding of rhythm and timing because it is very easy to to develop bad habits early and without good timing your banjo playing will never be very good. I started out as a fingerstyle guitarist (thumb and 3 fingers) and luckily had a banjo player tell me early on "get that guitar roll out of your playing" and I had the smarts to listen. Good banjo timing involves knowing which beats to accent and with which fingers. When playing a typical Scruggs style 3 finger forward roll in a typical 4 beat measure, different fingers will be used to accent the downbeats as you roll through the measures of music.  Knowing how to play good proper bluegrass rhythm on the guitar will help teach you where to accent the downbeats and help you better understand the banjo's role and place as a rhythm instrument in a band and how it fits in with the bass and mandolin (beat & back beat). Notes are fine but good rhythm and timing is everything in good music in my opinion.

Edited by - chief3 on 02/03/2020 06:46:48

Feb 3, 2020 - 8:41:37 AM
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71679 posts since 5/9/2007

I like how strings 2,3 and 4 are the same for both guitar and banjo.
Same partial chord and melody rules apply.

Feb 5, 2020 - 10:29:56 PM



7304 posts since 9/29/2004

I gradually slid into the guitar after playing only the banjo for 6 years.

For me, a change once in a while was good; I played different music on the guitar, stuff that didn't sound as well played on the banjo. Changing the music widened my tastes in music, and learning things on the guitar really helped learning them on the banjo.

Learning the guitar didn't change my overall choice of instrument, though... I still liked the banjo the most of the two, an I still played it the most for a long time.

Very gradually however, as I began playing professionally more and more, I played the guitar more often, became a better player, and became more serious about it.

There are a lot of similarities between the guitar and banjo, so there were a lot of things I would learn on one and transfer to the other.

Over time, my skill on either of them was about equal, but my banjo became less played, mostly because the guitar was making the most money for me.

When I quit playing out, though, and realized how rusty my banjo playing had become, I went the other way and only played the banjo again for at least 4 years. I was very happy playing it only, too.

Then, I realized I was rusty on the guitar, so I slid back into it once more. These days, I play both about 50/50. Some times, just one or the other, and other times, I'll play one then play the other in turn.

It's whatever makes you happy, I think. I limited my other instruments to just the guitar, because I never wanted to dabble on many and never get any good on any. I think that can happen if someone tries learn more than 2-3 instruments.

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