Last time, we looked at an overview of techniques and why we need to keep control of both hands on the banjo. Today, we’ll look at what to control with respect to the right hand; next time, we’ll look at left hand techniques. Here is a checklist of physical details I’ve found useful to keep track of as a beginner, and from time to time as you progress in your banjo studies as well.
Drum Fingers on Right Hand
This is all-important in my book (at least in my 5-string bluegrass book!). It supplies the much-needed support anchor between banjo and fingers. You may be able to get away without any such support closer than where your arm is against the armrest, but you won’t be able to play very fast or precisely without that support.
Snug pick fit – All Fingers
Nothing is more frustrating than having a finger pick get caught on a string on the return movement! It instantly forces a halt to your rhythm. To have your picks consistently be at the exact same distance in relation to your finger tips and the strings will help minimize this and help make your playing as precise as possible. Also make sure you have the drum fingers on the right hand firmly planted as described above. The rest is simply practice.
Something I have all my students do is go home and get a pair of needlenose pliers. Examine very closely how each pick fits on each finger. If there is the least amount of space between finger and pick, close it up by reshaping the pick.
Now, this won’t work with plastic picks, obviously – you’ll have to use Earl Scruggs’ boiling water technique, covered in his book. Don’t try heating plastic picks over a flame or heat!
Length of Thumb Pick
I try to keep a fairly short thumb pick for two reasons. The first reason is because occasionally I do play without picks. Not for very long, but it is nice to sit on the couch and just plunk around with a new lick or melody without formally blasting everyone else out of the house. As I’ve written before thought, I’m careful not to do this for very long, lest I make a habit of it. So if I have a short thumb pick, it isn’t as much of a change to go between picks and no picks.
Secondly, and most importantly, I keep a short thumb pick because the longer a thumb pick is, the more torque, or twisting is introduced into the pick as it is secured to the thumb. Less torque means less tugging to pull the pick away from the thumb, and so less chance of the pick coming off while you are playing.
Right Hand off the Bridge
This can creep up on you before you know it. All of a sudden, you look down, and your right hand is resting solidly on the bridge – no wonder you’re getting a muffled sound. Obviously, it isn’t a good think, usually. It muffles the sound and makes for less volume. Actually, you could use this to good effect for a special technique, but don’t let it start happening unconsciously. This is the same principle behind how a violin, guitar and banjo mute works – adding mass to the bridge makes less vibration that carries through to the rest of the instrument, hence less volume, along with an impaired tone.