How to Find a Great Picking-Hand Position for the Bluegrass Banjo - dummies

How to Find a Great Picking-Hand Position for the Bluegrass Banjo

By Bill Evans

If you really want you to become a great bluegrass banjo player, it’s time to relate the single most important recommendation to help get you there. The key to great playing is to find a comfortable picking‐hand position that allows you to play with relaxation and ease while producing a beautiful, full tone with good volume.

Bluegrass banjo is all about precision and power in the picking hand, and successful playing begins with how you position the hand to strike notes with the thumb, index finger, and middle finger.

Play with relaxation

Although many great players have been playing almost all their lives, you, too, can discover a sense of ease, even as a new player. Finding your comfort zone begins with relaxing the entire arm that will do the picking, from shoulder to fingertips. You’ll then position your picking hand on the banjo head to get ready to play.

  1. While seated upright in a chair without arms, relax your picking arm completely, releasing all tension. Try shaking out your hand a few times and feel the weight of your arm as it extends toward the floor.

  2. Send a wave of relaxation from the shoulder of the picking arm, down through your elbow and wrist to the ends of your fingers.

    Hold this posture for a few moments and then try relaxing down a few more notches by allowing additional tension to escape from your arm in successive steps.

  3. When you feel just about as relaxed as you’ve ever been, lift your arm and place your hand on your thigh, with your palm facing upward.

    As your hand remains relaxed, your fingers should be curved inward, as if you were loosely holding a ball.

  4. Move your forearm to the armrest of your banjo and position the picking hand such that the palm and fingers face the banjo head and strings.

    As you keep your elbow relaxed in toward your banjo, your hand will be above the strings and your wrist should be arched.

  5. Slide your forearm along the armrest until your ring finger and pinky finger make contact with the banjo head just below the first string and to the left of the bridge as you look down on your picking hand.

A good playing position results from keeping your arm relaxed and positioning the picking fingers so that it’s easy for them to reach the strings. Your ring finger and pinky finger should be making contact with the head but not touching the bridge. Remember to keep your wrist arched for the best results.

Using relaxation techniques to position the picking hand. [Credit: Photographs by Anne Hamersky]
Credit: Photographs by Anne Hamersky
Using relaxation techniques to position the picking hand.

Picking with the thumb

The thumb is the most active of the three fingers in bluegrass banjo, commonly playing the fifth through the second strings and sometimes even the first string, moving down and across to strike each string. The thumb adds drive and volume to your playing, and many picking patterns begin with a thumb note.

With your wrist arched, use the blade of your thumbpick to meet the strings with a sweeping motion from the joint that’s closest to your hand. The thumb should make contact by moving across the strings rather than having to move down and then up again.

Picking with the index finger and middle finger

The index finger most often plays the second and third strings, and the middle finger plays the first string in bluegrass banjo. With the wrist arched, use your first joint to make contact by moving directly across the strings toward your palm without any sideways finger motion. After your finger has moved through a string, there’s no need to purposely sweep it back out. Just relax, and the finger will return to its ready position on its own.

You’ll get much more volume and power from your index finger and middle finger by moving primarily from the first joint of these fingers. How exactly do you do this? Well, you’ve probably already moved your fingers in this way before. Have you ever had to scratch a mosquito bite? If you’re really needing to scratch that kind of itch, you’ll be using the first joint of your fingers.

Anchoring the picking hand

You’ve probably noticed by now that your ring finger and pinky finger aren’t allowed to wear picks and don’t even get to strike the strings in bluegrass banjo. However, they’re still important position players on your picking‐finger team. By anchoring your hand on the banjo head, these fingers establish a stable and consistent picking‐hand position. Your picking fingers know exactly where they are at all times in relation to your banjo strings, thanks to the support of your trusted anchor fingers.

Many new players have a difficult time at first keeping both fingers touching the banjo head to support the picking hand. They find that when the middle finger plays the first string, the ring finger just naturally wants to lift off and move together with the other finger. If you’re arching your wrist and picking from the first joint of your index finger and middle finger, you’ll find it easier to keep both fingers down.

Try the following trick: Spend a few weeks anchoring with just the ring finger touching the banjo head, training it to remain steady and independent of the middle finger. When your ring finger is cooperating, it’s a relatively easy task to plant the pinky finger to give further support.

If you’ve made the effort and you’re still having trouble keeping both fingers down, you have the green light to play with only the pinky anchoring your hand. Getting a good sound and playing with relaxation should be your primary goals as you discover your optimal picking‐hand position.

Anchoring the picking hand with (a) the ring finger and pinky finger gives more stability than usin
Credit: Photographs by Anne Hamersky
Anchoring the picking hand with (a) the ring finger and pinky finger gives more stability than using (b) just the pinky alone.