Playing Banjo 4-Finger Style – Some Observations

Intro | Background | Observations | Benefits & Challenges | Getting Started | More Getting Started | Applying it to a Song

Now move forward in time to today. A few banjo players, seeking new boundaries to push, have started to use not only two fingers (one way to do single string style) and three fingers (Scruggs, melodic and single string styles), but 4 fingers as well. Not surprisingly, some of the changes brought about by going from 2 to 3 finger style also apply in going from 3 to 4 finger style. Notably:

1) Speed increases by roughly 33% over 3 finger styles. Again, this assumes the same amount of effort is expended for either style.

2) The cadence changes once again, although I think a bit more subtly. Here, I’m thinking of 4-finger style not as a replacement for 3-finger styles, but as a supplement; much the way single string and melodic style licks can be interspersed in a Scruggs-style tune. To me, Scruggs style is the ‘glue’ that binds everything together. So it is more subtle a change in cadence. Also, we aren’t converting everything from 3-finger to 4-finger style – just what’s needed.

I suppose someone could convert the whole song into a 4-finger style, but I don’t see enough ‘return on investment’ to warrant that, normally. We can already do just fine with incredibly rich musical expression within Scruggs style for the majority of technical requirements. Why reinvent the wheel when the end result will be pretty much the same? In other words, use 4-finger style for licks that will indeed showcase it, not for things better done with 3 fingers. Yes, speed could be a valid reason, what with approximately a 33% increase using 4 fingers. Just remember though, as you learn to pick with 4 fingers, it is going to take a little while to actually see that speed come to fruition, especially with more detailed rolls and licks.

Notice in the two-point list above, I didn’t include point #3 from the last blog (tunes could be reworked to take advantage of the new 3-finger style). That’s because I don’t see 4-finger style as being as revolutionary as three-finger was: with 4-finger style, you can fit more notes (so that it sounds faster) into some licks with a subtle new cadence that gets noticed. And, it also fits well into your existing songs – no need to rework everything from scratch.

Next blog, I’ll start detailing the benefits and challenges of 4-finger style. After that, I’ll look at how to get started, plus some of my own thoughts, perceptions and choices in learning 4-finger style banjo playing.

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About Phill Gibson

I'm from Huntsville, Alabama where I work as a Systems Engineer and part-time banjo and mandolin instructor. I've been playing various instruments since my teen years. I started mandolin at about age 17 and banjo at 20. I love just about all kinds of music. In terms of banjo styles, I play Scruggs and melodic and am working on becoming more advanced with single string. I'm also working on 4-finger banjo, which is way off the beaten path. I would like to see more jazz techniques integrated into bluegrass situations; counterpoint, especially. So long-term, that's what I'm doing. I'm also very keen on astronomy, ATM (amateur telescope making), birding, christian homeschooling, martial arts, organic gardening and about 30 other distracting hobbies to a (mercifully) lesser extent.
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2 Responses to Playing Banjo 4-Finger Style – Some Observations

  1. Pingback: Playing Banjo 4-Finger Style – Benefits & Challenges

  2. Pingback: Playing Banjo 4-Finger Style – Getting Started Yet More | Phill Gibson's Blog

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