Playing Banjo 4-Finger Style – Benefits & Challenges

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

A new sound. Skillfully playing a four-finger roll can give you a completely new cadence to add to your picking repertoire, just as three-finger playing did in comparison to two-finger playing.

Speed. Not speed just for the sake of speed, but as an extra spice, if you will. Being able to play a really fast breakdown and being able to modify the cadence of your picking is something that will be readily apparent in your playing.

Versatility. With an increased repertoire of rolls at your disposal, you’ll be able to vary your breaks to a much larger extent. Think about going from 2-finger (such as in single-string style) to 3-finger Scruggs style. Now imagine adding another finger and you’ll open up even more avenues to explore with new rolls. Add that to your existing 2 and 3 finger techniques and you’ll have even more!

One big challenge I immediately saw upon donning a pick on my right ring finger was that everything I had always taught myself about keeping that ring finger down had to go. “Heresy!” I said. What if I want to play standard stuff with three fingers and just pop a quick 4-finger roll in there occasionally? I could, but I would have to keep that pick on for the whole song, which means I’d better get used to wearing it for any of a variety of picking situations: pull-offs, double pull-offs, Reno-style thumb brushes, up-the neck stuff, etc. Would that be worth it?

Another challenge is simply the newness of it. It really is starting over again, complete with the excruciating slowness of beginning anything for the first time. But I remind myself of the fastest banjo player I had ever seen (at the time). I never knew his name, or the band he was in. He was a banjo player on APT (Alabama Public Television) back in the late 70’s. He could play about 15 notes per second. But what was really inspiring about him was the fact that he had no thumb! Perhaps he had been in an accident, I don’t know – but he had learned to use his index finger to pick down and his middle and ring fingers to pick up. Simply amazing! If he could learn that, then I could learn anything, I have since told myself.

Also, does this mean you won’t be able to play three-finger style anymore, as your fingers will somehow not be able to do both? I don’t think so. I can play both Scruggs style and single string style without each interfering with the other, for instance. And so far, experience has validated this. As I improve with this new technique, I find that I can do it either with or without that 4th pick, keeping the ring finger down on the head when the time comes to do that.

One more challenge I’ll list here is that with four fingers, the number of possible rolls increases tremendously. I’m not sure how many of these are truly practical rolls, but I’m sure there are more variations than you have for 3 fingers.

About Pgibson

I'm from Huntsville, Alabama where I work as a Software Engineer and part-time banjo instructor. My wife Miiko and I worship at Rivertree Downtown. I've been playing various instruments since my teen years. I started mandolin and dulcimer at about age 17 and banjo at 20. I love just about all kinds of music. In terms of banjo styles, I play and teach Scruggs, melodic, clawhammer, and 2-finger styles. I'm also very keen on theology, being a Trail Care Partner with the Land Trust of North Alabama, photography, urban planning, architecture, astronomy, ATM (amateur telescope making), birding, martial arts, and about 30 other distracting hobbies to a (mercifully) lesser extent.
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4 Responses to Playing Banjo 4-Finger Style – Benefits & Challenges

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

  2. Spillen says:

    I started playing 4 finger banjo without planting a finger on the head a couple of years ago because an number of things dawned on me. 1st. what is the point of putting unnecessary pressure on a resonating surface? 2nd – using it as an anchor point or a point of reference is nonsense as a) the point where your arm rests on the banjo is sufficient b) it has never been problematic for guitarists. 3rd – why waste fingers that you can use to pick i.e. why restrict yourself just because an individual from Georgia did it that way? We have followed like sheep. I am not saying that he wasn’t good, far from it, but that was simply his style and the way he chose to do it. If he had come onto the scene picking with 4 fingers i doubt we would be pondering whether we should reduce the number of fingers used. 4th – there is a physiological tendonous connection between your middle and ring finger. Restricting the movement of 1 finger can (but not for all) restrict the movement of the other (this can lead to tendon strain at worst but for me caused minor coordination problems which have now been eliminated by not anchoring a finger down – this is solved by some 3 finger banjo players by just planting the pinkie and letting the ring finger flap about in a rather clumsy, inelegant way (watch Steve Martin!)).
    There are no reasons to use 3 fingers over 4
    I rest my case 🙂

    • John says:

      Really appreciate your comments, Spill! i have dropped both fingerpicks and anchoring, and play my Banjo now more like my guitar, i.e., also slowly introducing the ring finger, which creates a number of advantages when it comes to playing alternating base notes and complex rolls. Another huge advantage to playing Banjo bare fingers and without an anchor is the increased ease in transitioning from playing Banjo to Guitar.

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