I love exploring different styles of playing the banjo. Although I’m mostly a modern three-finger style player, I do know a smattering of other styles. I realize I’ve not blogged on another style I’ve recently started playing: two-finger style.
I was introduced to this very interesting style by a friend and student, Jim Goins. Jim learned this as his primary playing style from Mac McCleese in Talladega, Alabama. Also influential on Jim’s playing has been Ed Teague from Georgia, who I’ve mentioned here before.
It is a great style for getting a certain sound that far from modern bluegrass. It’s a slow, calm, nostalgic feel, as I see it; more so than even clawhammer, even though clawhammer style seems to be a bit more flexible than two-finger style. Two finger style is like neither modern three-finger with picks, nor like clawhammer. And yet, it has similarities to each. Let me explain.
Two finger style uses just the right hand thumb and index finger, with no picks. The thumb almost always stays just on the 5th string (the only exception is if you are using the drop thumb technique, similar to drop thumb in clawhammer style). The index finger picks up, as in three finger style, yet without a pick. So the picking process is this:
1 – Pick up with the index finger on any of strings 1 through 4.
2 – Brush down with the index finger
3 – Pick down with the thumb on the 5th string.
Typically there is a rest between steps 1 and 2, with no pause between steps 2 and 3.
After talking with Mac McCleese, he recommends these steps in the following sequence:
1 – Pick down with the thumb on the 5th string.
2 – Pick up with the index finger on any of strings 1 through 4.
3 - Brush down with the index finger as needed.
Of course to get a certain melody either way, you’ll have to vary this a bit, maybe picking two or three times before a brush, or some other such variation, depending on the song at hand. Occasionally, you may want or need to drop thumb, where you bring the thumb down from the 5th string to pick one of the other strings; either for a series of thumb picks, or else alternating notes with the index finger.
Now I have heard some old-time players who simply do this; thumb on the 5th string and index for a simple melody. But as you see, this two-finger styles adds a down-stroke brush; an interesting element borrowed directly from clawhammer style . The first time I saw Jim play this, I had to do a double and triple-take; then, I had to get him to slow it way down so I could see that brush. When compared to the more usual clawhammer brush, the brush in this style is almost invisible unless you really get close in to inspect it, and thus gives it a bit of a mysterious feel to it. A “how is he doing that?” sort of an effect. Much like the first few times you see someone play modern bluegrass style banjo and wonder what on earth is going on.
So that’s it! Two-finger style is relatively easy. It doesn’t take volumes to explain, so all that’s left is to go practice it some!
BTW, my very first exposure to two-finger style banjo playing was many years ago. I recall hearing a recording of Aunt Bertha Robinson play “Big Jim” back in the 1970s. She was a well-known banjo player who played in the two-finger style. This song was on a vinyl record put out by the local Huntsville Association of Folk Musicians (HAFM), now called the Huntsville Traditional Music Association at http://www.huntsvillefolk.org/.
Give this intriguing style a try. It has a distinct, graceful, slow sound that’s different from both modern three-finger and from clawhammer.