I’d never played any other instrument when I learned the banjo a decade ago. I’m still not entirely sure why I picked up the banjo, beyond the fact that it wasn’t a guitar. So weak were my musical recognition skills that instead of learning the style I really liked (Peter Stampfel’s two finger style) I picked up clawhammer.
So, you’ll need a banjo. Beyond being what you can afford, having five strings, a straight neck with frets that won’t shred your hands, and tuning pegs that don’t slip, it can be anything you want. Almost everyone learns on a Deering Goodtime, just as they did on a Harmony Reso-Tone in the 1960s. There are others: the Gold Tone CC-OT, the Epiphone MB-100; they’ll do. Don’t get anything too heavy at first.
Other kit you’ll need: a strap, a tuner, spare strings, and a metronome (maybe). Nails on your right hand kinda help. It helps to swap out the fifth string for a heavier gauge. Most beginner banjos come with a 0.010″ string, while a 0.012″ is much stiffer and won’t squirm about under your thumb.
Three banjos, same thumb
The key to clawhammer is that your thumb lives on the fifth string. No matter what you do, your thumb always returns to the fifth string. Is the action on your banjo high enough to make the fifth home for your thumb? If not, a taller bridge is a cheap way of fixing this.
Find a teacher, and get a couple of lessons, just so you know how to hold the thing and do some very basic frailing strums. As Peter Stampfel said: “Find a teacher whose playing you like — who is not a jerk”. I found Chris Coole:
Players I like? Apart from Coole, there’s:
(and before you complain about your banjo not being good enough, Reed’s playing that on a very basic Gold Tone.)
(and, perhaps slightly unfairly because she had the world’s worst cold at the time, here are Cathy and the Banjo Puppets … the cold didn’t seem to slow her down any.)
You don’t need chords for clawhammer banjo. I’m barely aware of what they are (and with only 4½ strings and no sustain, they don’t sound great on a banjo). You’ll end up knowing more tunings than chords. That’s okay.
Banjo Hangout is both a resource and a trap. If in doubt, play banjo instead of reading BHO.
You may never get great at this. That’s okay; it’s not a destination. As Peter Stampfel said, I like “… the idea of something you’ll never finish”.
(and if you really do want to learn two finger style, Sean’s Thumb-Lead Banjer is great. It’s a totally different style from clawhammer, but it’s part of the old time canon.)