How to Play a Choke on the Bluegrass Banjo - dummies

How to Play a Choke on the Bluegrass Banjo

By Bill Evans

When you push a string against your banjo fingerboard to raise its pitch, you’re playing a choke. The choke that you’ll play most often in bluegrass banjo is on the second string at the tenth fret. Here’s a step‐by‐step guide:

  1. Fret the second string at the tenth fret with the index or middle finger of your fretting hand — or both!

    Earl Scruggs used his index finger to play most chokes, while banjo great Ron Block uses both his index and middle fingers for more control, with the index finger fretting the ninth fret and the middle finger fretting the tenth fret on the second string.

  2. Pick the second string with either the thumb or index finger of your picking hand.

  3. Push the second string up toward the third string to bend the string.

    Remember to keep the fretting pressure down so that you’re experiencing the choke as one continuous sound. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself bending the second string so far that you’re also pushing the third string out of the way as well.

  4. Return the second string back to its normal position by releasing the tension of the fretting finger.

    If you keep your finger in contact with the string as it returns to its original position, you’ll be ready to follow one great‐sounding choke with another (which is always a good thing!).

    (a) Getting ready to play a second‐string, tenth‐fret choke; (b) bending the string to
    Credit: Photographs by Anne Hamersky
    (a) Getting ready to play a second‐string, tenth‐fret choke; (b) bending the string to raise its pitch.

Try bending the second string for yourself. The more you bend the string, the higher the pitch you hear. Try bending the string to raise the pitch the equivalent of one fret, and then try bending some more to raise the string two frets in pitch. The tab below uses the word full to indicate a choke that bends the strings in this manner.

Playing the second‐string, tenth‐fret choke.
Playing the second‐string, tenth‐fret choke.

String and pitch bending techniques on the guitar, banjo, and harmonica represent musicians’ attempts to capture the emotion of the human voice. You, too, can bring expression to your chokes by experimenting with how much and how quickly you bend the string. There’s no one right way to play a choke because you’re playing what you’re feeling at that moment. If you’re feeling it, you’re playing it right!

When you combine the second‐string choke with the Foggy Mountain roll, you’re playing one of the most exciting phrases in all of bluegrass banjo. As you start to integrate chokes into this roll pattern, be careful to release the pressure of the fretting finger after each choke so that when you pick the string again, the second string has returned to its normal pitch.

Playing the Foggy Mountain roll with tenth‐fret chokes.
Playing the Foggy Mountain roll with tenth‐fret chokes.