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.
Thanks for the interesting explanation. It sounds similar to what Pete Seeger plays.
I’m learning two finger thumb lead, where the thumb plays the melody on strings 2, 3 &4 and the index plays the first string as a drone, with the 5th string as an accent.
I’ll have to try this style, too. It looks interesting.
Sorry to take so long to reply (I keep saying this over and over as I’m replying to EVERYONE!…)
You’re two-finger style sounds very close to what I’ve learned from Jim, who in turn learned it from Ed Teague in Georgia; except for the brush – do you do a brush? That’s what seems very mysterious about Ed’s style, and you really have to get down and look at those picking fingers, close and slowly, to catch what is going on at first!
Thanks for the posting – have a great day!
My maternal grandfather played two finger style. I’ve still got his old banjo, with a groundhog skin head, at my mom’s house. I’ll have to take a picture and send it to you. He traded a pig for it in the ’30s I think. I can still barely remember him playing Ol’ Joe Clark, Froggy Went a’ Courtin’, and other favorites. I’m glad this style isn’t going to fade into oblivion.
Thank you for posting.
Hey – thanks for the post – sorry to take so long in getting back. I’m about to get started blogging again – that’s exiting to me!
Yes, I’d like to see a photo of that old groundhog-head banjo! Two-finger style is indeed still a viable method. It has a distinctly different sounds from, say, clawhammer.
On a different note, I am sad to say that Ed Teague, one of the great two-finger players, isn’t doing very well these days. I don’t think he is expected to live much longer, from what I hear…
As a beginning clawhammer disciple, I find this technique very interesting. Thank you for sharing information about it. Also divermarv, what an awesome banjo! I would love to play the groundhog song on a banjo with groundhog skin head, lol.
There have been a number of people down through the years who have played the two finger style you explain here. Expatriate Derroll Adams who played for years in Europe used this style exclusively. You can hear samples of his playing on the Official Derroll Adams website. Other exponents were Kirk McGee, brother to Sam McGee, Dock Boggs, and Clyde Troxell to name a few. But it you want to hear incredible two finger picking excluding any brushes, get anything you can of Will Keys’ playing. Also Chip Arnold.Arnold has a Banjo Hangout page where he explains brushless two finger banjo picking, alternatiing between index and thumb lead. Kentucky picker, Roscoe Holcomb was another exponent of brushless, thumb lead, two finger picking. Even Earl Scruggs explained somewhere, in something I’ve read, that his 3-finger picking evolved from a 2 finger style that he began with.
Thanks for the kind words David. Will keys was my greatest influence and a friend.
Interesting to read. I’ve been starting to research this style after getting heavily in to Roscoe Holcome. As you say there is a lot of cross over with three-finger style and clawhammer. I can play clawhammer relatively well so hoping this won’t be too difficult to pick up. I think I’ll be using a thumb pick for now though just to get some definition on the string.
Thanks for the info.
I love the banjo, but my fingers won’t bend right to make the angelic bluegrass sounds I love and so badly want to play.
Do you have any suggestions for me ?
Hey! Drop by to see me sometime, ok? You can contact me Phill@PhillGibson.com
Have a great day!