Plectrum Banjo Chords

First a little music theory.

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I know, I know, you just want to start playing, but I promise you will be happy about learning this when the lightbulb turns on and you suddenly “get it,” and howit applies to the banjo. My lightbulb suddenly flashed on in about 1963 when I was only a few pages into the “McNeill Chord System for Plectrum Banjo” on the page that showed “Moveable Chords,” but it required just a teeny-tiny bit of music “theory” to really catch on.

Intervals, Scales and Chords

For our banjo purposes, chords are 2 or more notes played at the same time producing various harmonic qualities. The distance in pitch between 2 notes is known as an “interval” composed of a series of whole tones and/or half-tones. A single half-tone interval usually sounds pretty terrible, but higher number intervals are the entire basis for harmony. A one and one-half tone is the definition of a minor 3rd interval. Two whole tones is a major 3rd. Higher numbered intervals also have names, but we really don’t need to worry about them right now.

Now, a definition/rule: All major key scales, whatever note you start on, have 7 intervals per octave: whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half. This is the major reason why the piano keyboard is laid out the way it is for each octave from “C” to “C”.

About musical intervals—we humans are generally adept at distinguishing between various types like “major” and “minor.” Whatever the first note is (called the “root” of the scale and what is the name of the chord) that we start with (give it number “1”), we can tell the difference between 1 and 3 (major 3rd) vs. 1 and b3 (minor 3rd). This works out to 4 half-tones for a major interval vs. 3 half-tones for minor.

By convention, we name chords with the name of the root note of the scale they are built from, ie. “C” from the C scale, “Eb” from the Eb scale, etc. The chord “suffix”, ie. “m”, “7”, “m6” etc., specify what notes of the scale are included in the chord.

This whole idea is really best illustrated, again, with a piano keyboard, where the interval between keys, including the black keys, is a half-tone. If you count the half-tone intervals from “C” which is “1” in a C scale up to “E” which is 3 in a C scale it comes out to 4 half tones, or a major 3rd.

On a banjo or any other fretted stringed instrument, as you go up the fingerboard each fret corresponds to a half-tone pitch difference from the one preceding it. Funny note: There is a common misperception with beginners confusing “up” the fingerboard as physically “up” in direction (into the sky) toward the peghead rather than the correct interpretation, “up in pitch” toward the head of the banjo.

By the way, “fret” refers both to the raised metal bar across the fingerboard of a stringed instrument as well as the empty space between the bars. When you play a chord or single note, your finger should be placed inside the empty space close to, but not on, the metal bar.

We usually think of banjo chords as normally having 4 notes, one for each string. The exception would be, for instance, when the melody or highest note is below the pitch of the 1st string—we would try to play just the lowest 3 strings—and if fingering were displayed, it would show an “x” on the first string.

Moveable Chords

With all this “theory” out of the way, you might be surprised to learn that there are (only) 12 “shapes,” or ways that are physically possible to play, that you can place your fingers for the most basic chords on a 4-string banjo, both plectrum and tenor. There is a good reason for this:

– major chords have only 3 notes in them (1, 3, 5) so there are only 3 places (called “inversions”) on the banjo fingerboard (in one octave, up to the 12th fret, that is) where those 3 notes happen on any string.

– minor chords are the same 3 notes except the “middle” one is flatted or down one-half tone in pitch (1, b3, 5), again resulting in only 3 inversions per octave.

– 7th chords are basically major chords with an extra note (b7) added (1, 3, 5, b7), so there are 4 inversions on the fingerboard per octave.

That makes 10 shapes right there plus:

– diminished (1, b3, b5, b7) and augmented chords (1, 3, #5, 7) each have the same shape wherever they are played on the fingerboard. The reason for this is that the intervals in the chord are all equal; in the case of diminished (“°”) chords, all the notes are one and one-half tones apart. Augmented chords (“+”) are all 2 whole tones apart.

(Of course, there are lots more types of chords than these basic ones (“maj7”, “9”, “m6”, “7b5”, etc.) that each have inversions with moveable shapes, but they can all be built or derived from these basic ones and we’ll get to them in much later lessons after you get proficient with these.)

With that said, these are the 12 basic chord “shapes” or formations, called “inversions”, of the chords for plectrum banjo (as well as a different set of only 12 shapes on the tenor banjo):The Roman numerals signify the degree or note of the scale that is played on the 1st string. For example a C major roman numeral “I” inversion would be the C chord inversion with the note “C”, the 1st note of the “C” scale, on the first string, “C III” would be the inversion with “E”, the 3rd note of the “C” scale, on the first string.

Here is the same chart with various example chord names and the fret positions they fall on. Notice the C III chord is at the nut so there is a heavy bar drawn and there are no position dots on the 4th and 3rd string.

Of course, if the goal is to be able to read “lead-sheets” and play chord-melody banjo, it is obviously important to know where the melody note falls on the 1st string, the usual string for plectrum banjo players. So, here is a stylized chart of a plectrum banjo fingerboard with the note name for each fret on the first string. (The little diamonds are the “fret markers” that appear on most or many banjo fingerboards.)

We’ll leave matching the note name to a musical staff (reading music!) to a later lesson. For now, however, here is an example using an F chord, musically spelled “F, A, C” (1, 3, 5) of an F scale. The F III chord falls at the 7th fret note “A”.





Another example is a C7 I chord spelled “C, E, G, Bb” (1, 3, 5, b7) that winds up at the 10th fret because the “I” of the chord is the note “C” at the 10th fret on the first string.

(I 7)




Don’t worry about memorizing any of this right now. The important point of these examples is to understand the relationship between the inversion shape of the chord on the fingerboard and its relation to the note of the scale that it corresponds to on the 1st string. These shapes are all “moveable” so once you learn how to play the basic shapes and where the top note (usually the melody) is located, they can be used anywhere on the fingerboard.

We’ll finish up this “pre-lesson” with an illustration of chord “moveability.” Check out all the sounds in this series. Note that the shape of the chord is the same all the way up the fingerboard, one fret at a time, for an entire octave, except for the first “C7 altIII” shape. This altered fingering is necessary because using the standard “III 7” shape, the “dot” for the finger position on the 2nd string would be at a fret that doesn’t exist (-1)! The fingers to use for Db7 (III 7) is also altered because it is at the nut. Above that, however, the fingering is the same all the rest of the way up the fingerboard.

Incidentally, this “III 7” shape is probably the most difficult of any to master—the 3rd and 4th strings should both be fretted at the same time with the middle finger, the 2nd string with the index finger, and the 1st string with the pinky. It will take a lot of practice hit it cleanly anywhere on the fingerboard. It took me years to get it right, actually, so don’t get too discouraged.

(altIII 7)
(III 7)
(III 7)
(III 7)
(III 7)
(III 7)




(III 7)
(III 7)
(III 7)
(III 7)
(III 7)
(III 7)
(III 7)




So, moveable chord shapes are the basis for banjo “chord melody” playing. Hopefully pretty soon, after working with simple chord-melody examples, the lightbulb will flash on for you as it did for me almost 60 years ago!

Now to get your fingers toughened up with some simple chords…

On to Lessons

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