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Get Set to Play Bluegrass Banjo

One of the main reasons people love bluegrass banjo music is that it's so incredibly fast and loud. In order to play at those tempos that approach the speed of sound, you need to find a right-hand position that provides a stable foundation for the thumb and fingers to do all that unimaginably rapid picking.

Relaxation is key to great right-hand bluegrass technique, so remember to constantly check for tension from your shoulder to your fingertips as you work through the following steps to find a comfortable right-hand position (also refer to Bluegrass Banjo: Right-Hand Position).

Here's a quick way to get your right hand set in a good bluegrass playing position. This method has been used successfully with hundreds of players, and it can work for you too. Try the following steps while sitting comfortably in a chair without arms, with your feet resting on the floor:

  1. Relax your right arm and hand, letting the arm dangle loosely at the side of your body (see Figure a).

  2. Bring the right hand up, resting it on your right leg and keeping your arm relaxed (see Figure b).

    Note the position of your right hand: When the hand is fully relaxed, it should assume a cupped position with all the finger joints slightly bent.

  3. Place your right forearm against the armrest (or against the side of the banjo, if your instrument doesn't have an armrest), positioning the right hand to be over and above the banjo strings (see Figure c).

    You don't want to position your right hand either too high or too low in relation to the strings. If your right-hand ring and pinky fingers are touching the banjo strings, your right hand is positioned too high. On the other hand, if you feel you're having to reach in quite a bit to play the 3rd string with your index finger, your hand is probably positioned too low in relation to the strings.

  4. Slide your right forearm back along the armrest until the ring and pinky fingers come to rest on the banjo head close to the bridge, but aren't actually touching it (see Figure d).

    By completing Step 4, your right-hand thumb, index, and middle fingers should be set in a good playing position. You may have to move the right elbow out just a bit to allow your fingers to contact the head. As you anchor the right hand with your ring and/or little fingers, arch your wrist slightly so that your wrist and forearm don't touch the banjo head.

    An arched wrist is just about essential for getting the right-hand fingers in a good position for playing close to the bridge. However, falling into the bad habit of bending the wrist in the opposite direction, toward the banjo head, is a common problem with many new players.

    This way of playing only adds tension to your right hand, forearm, and shoulder, and makes it difficult for the thumb to easily reach all the strings that it needs to play.

    Some players arch their wrists just a little and others a lot. You can work out the fine details of your wrist arch as you continue to practice. For now, try to remember to keep at least a bit of an arch in the wrist, and you'll be fine!

    Follow these steps to find a good right-hand bluegrass position. [Credit: Photographs by Anne Hamer
    Credit: Photographs by Anne Hamersky
    Follow these steps to find a good right-hand bluegrass position.
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