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What is Three-Finger Picking?

Written by Paul Race for Creek Don't Rise™
and School Of The Rock™

When we started out trying to describe basic "Banjo Rolls," we realized that we needed to provide more details about certain styles of picking than we had room for in our tutorials. This page will discuss a certain way of playing 5-string banjo that was popularized by Earl Scruggs. It's often called 3-finger picking, or "Scruggs-style" picking, or simply "Bluegrass" picking. Because all three terms are often used the same way, any attempt at a definition needs to explain all three.

If you have yet to begin learning 5-string banjo, some of the discussion in our article Beginning Five-String Banjo - Part One - Introduction to Banjo Chords. may help this article make more sense.

What is Bluegrass Music?

Today, there is a tendency, even among certain musicians, to classify almost any music that comes from Appalachia and is accompanied with string instruments as "Bluegrass." But that is far too broad a description. If you're planning even to dabble in Bluegrass banjo, you should know what Bluegrass music is and where it came from.

Folk Music Transplanted from the British Isles - For several generations, the Scotch-Irish settlers in Appalachia were isolated from the rest of the world by the mountains. Their musical styles, based in English, Scot, and Irish folk music, adapted as their culture evolved, and as they adopted new instruments like banjo. For examples of what this music must have sounded like by the time of the Civil War, check out the Cold Mountain sound track. Though it may remind you of Bluegrass (and the banjo parts include some anachronistic Bluegrass licks) it is not Bluegrass.

"Mountain Music" - In the early part of the 20th century, radio, mail-order catalogs, and better transportation made Tin-Pan Alley songs, better guitars, and louder banjos available to Appalachians. Conversely, early recording and radio technology began to make the music of the Appalachian people available outside their mountain ranges. Folklorists like John Lomax helped Appalachian songs to get published and heard.

Appalachian musician and songwriter A.P. Carter realized that there was a demand for recordings of the music he grew up with. So he scoured the region for songs that hadn't been recorded yet, and wrote some of his own. At the time, there was no such thing as "Bluegrass" music or "Country Music" or "Country and Western Music." When folks call the Carter family the "First Family of Country Music" they are attaching post-WWII terminology to a 1920s and 1930s phenomenon that was called "Mountain Music" more often than anything else.

"Hillbilly Music" - With the exception of a couple songwriting tricks A.P. Carter picked up from Tin Pan Alley, much of what the Carter family did for the first fifteen years or so was an authentic representation of their regional culture. Several other folks were recording in a similar vein. However, the record industry was beginning to grow, and certain companies realized that there was a demand for the kind of music the Carter family and their peers were making. Those companies started recording, not only Appalachian music, but also songs inspired by Appalachian music.

Soon commercial recordings of Appalachian-inspired music were mostly accompanied and sometimes performed by non-Appalachian performers whose drawls and twangs are frankly insulting stereotypes. In fact, with the help of Al Capp's Li'l Abner comic strip (begun in 1932), "hillbillies" became an icon in popular culture. Folks who only knew "hillbillies" from the radio and funny pages assumed that all Appalachians were ignorant and unclean, and likely to be shiftless or drunk on moonshine.

Ironically, many Appalachian artists saw those stereotypes as a source of humor within their own performances. Comedians like Homer and Jethro, whose popularity started to rise about 1939, were laughing all the way to the bank. But it still wasn't Bluegrass.

Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys - Mandolin player Bill Monroe reportedly had his first paying gig at square dances in the band of Arnold Shultz, a black fingerpicking guitarist who incorporated blues licks into his playing. Monroe himself began adding "blue notes" to his picking style. These are notes like flatted thirds and fifths which "ought" to be a half-step higher.

When Monroe started the "Bluegrass Boys" band about 1938, those blues notes crept into some of the arrangements. But it wasn't until 1945, when the band added Earl Scruggs, that the sound of the "Bluegrass Boys" began to take the form that later came to be called "Bluegrass."

The crucial difference between Bluegrass and what had come before was the "blue notes," those flatted thirds, fifths, and sevenths that gave the Bluegrass Boys their distinctively bluesy sound. One of Monroe's banjo players, Earl Scruggs, made a point of incorporating them into many of his licks and solos.

By the time the term Bluegrass took hold in the early 1960s, there were a number of groups playing in similar styles, including Flatt & Scruggs' Foggy Mountain Boys, co-founded by Earl Scruggs, whose banjo styles had apparently been overpowering the sound of the other Bluegrass Boys. Other bands that hadn't fully bought into the styles of Monroe and Scruggs' bands were nevertheless dubbed "Bluegrass" as well, since there wasn't really another good name for what they did at the time. Eventually, Bill Monroe was recognized as the "Father of Bluegrass," and Earl Scruggs' name became synonymous with "Bluegrass banjo."

What is Three-Finger Picking? - Though a small handful of other banjo players had dabbled in similar styles, the most popular kind of "three-finger picking" was first popularized by Earl Scruggs while Scruggs was playing for Bill Monroe. Most banjo players at the time used styles that included strumming the strings with the back of the fingernails, on the second half of each beat. Scruggs replaced that strum with a single note picked upward, which gave him more flexibility in playing melodies. Since he no longer had to rotate his wrist to play the strum, he could "nail" his pinky and ring finger to the banjo head next to the bridge and pick at lightning speeds with his thumb, index, and middle finger only. This is the heart of "three-finger picking." It also took the banjo from being mostly an accompaniment instrument to being a lead instrument.

A basic Bluegrass banjo rollThe graphic to the right shows a version of a common 5-string banjo roll pattern shown as a three-finger picker might play it. The top staff is ordinary sheet music. The bottom row (called "tablature") represents the strings of a banjo. The bottom line represents the string closest to your chin, and the top line represents the string farthest from your chin.

The little numbers on the strings show when the strings should be hit and whether the string should be fretted. In this case - an "open G chord" on a Bluegrass-tuned banjo - none of the strings are fretted, so the numbers are all zeros.

The labels below the tablature ("tab" for short) shows which fingers a three-finger picker might use to pick those strings: Index finger, Middle finger, and Thumb, respectively. Notice the ring finger and pinky of the right hand are never used. Many Bluegrass pickers, following Earl's early example, would rest those fingers "permanently" on the head of the banjo as they played. In fact, you can always tell if a used banjo was owned by a Bluegrass player by the extra wear and or discoloration on that part of the head.

In the example above right, you would use your index finger to pick the first note of the pattern, your middle finger to play the second note, and your thumb to play the third note. Then you would start all over again with your index finger. Click the little banjo icon to the right to hear this roll as it would be played slowly: Click to hear this roll played slowly enough to follow.

Double-thumbing - Another basic Bluegrass banjo roll Some 3-finger pickers do double-duty with their thumb, using it to hit low strings as well as higher strings. In the example to the right the picker is playing an arpeggio pattern similar to the patterns used by many modern Celtic banjo players. Click to hear this roll played slowly enough to follow.

My thumb has never moved that fast. But it's just another acquired skill, I suppose.

Putting the "Blue" into "Bluegrass Banjo" Whatever happened to those "blue notes" we were talking about earlier? We have to skip ahead a little in our teaching sequence to show a typical example, so don't get too upset if our explanation is a little unclear - we explain it all in lesson three.

Earl Scruggs sneaked those flatted thirds and fifths into his rolls a number of different ways. One of the most common was as a "passing tone" that would resolve into the correct note for the chord or melody.

Playing a C chord, hammering the fourth string. In the example to the right, a Bb is played on the third string, which is fretted at the third fret. Then the player whangs a left-hand finger down hard at the fourth fret on the same string, causing the string's vibration to go a half-step higher. This is called "hammering on," and is indicated by the little H under that note.

To hear this measure repeated four times slowly, click the little banjo icon:

"Hammering on" is used in most banjo and guitar styles. What makes it different in Bluegrass is the way it's often used to introduce "blue notes." "Hammering on" in general is described in detail in Lesson 3.

Adding the Lightning - Just as the monster comes alive in the old movies when lightning strikes the operating table, Bluegrass banjo really stands out when it is played at the lightning-fast speeds that 3-finger picking allows.

Just for the fun of it, I have strung together the 3-finger-picking version of the patterns that you learn in the main part of lesson 3 and sped them up to a reasonable (not a breakneck) speed, so you can hear how these things come together to create the Bluegrass banjo sound. To hear the sample, click the little banjo icon:

Sample hammering-on patterns in three-finger picking.

There is much, much more to Bluegrass Banjo, of course, but these are the main things that set it apart from other styles.

For more examples of Bluegrass banjo rolls, check out the Elfshot Banjo Rolls page.

Which Technique Should You Use?

Although lots of folks dabble in several techniques, the one you start with will probably be the one you get the most use out of from now on. So you might as well start out with a technique that will best satisfy your idea of what a banjo should sound like.

Who are the banjo players you'd most like to emulate? Now figure out what techniques they use, and find a teacher who can teach you that technique. Or if, like I was as a kid in the 1960s, you live in a "vast wasteland," try the different techniques we describe and see what you think sounds the best. Then get so good on banjo that when someone tell you you're doing it "wrong," you can just blow them off. The proof is in the playing.

On Getting a Louder Banjo - Between 1880 and 1920, banjo manufacturers had added several improvements to their 4-string banjos to make them loud enough to play in the jazz bands of the day. Because three-finger picking was inherently quieter than strumming all 5 strings, three-finger banjo pickers chose 5-string banjos with the same enhancements. Features like resonators and tone rings which are optional in other genres became mandatory for professional 3-finger pickers. Yes, you can learn three-finger picking on any playable 5-string, but to play in ensembles, you may want to consider getting a banjo that's fully "juiced." Our article "What is a Bluegrass Banjo?" has details on some of the enhancements you would look for. Of course, steel fingerpicks are a "must' as well.

Conclusion

This page is one representation of what sets "Bluegrass Banjo" apart from most other kinds of banjo playing - the combination of three-finger picking, blue notes, and lightning-fast speed. Many Bluegrass banjo players have additional techniques, and some use different techniques. In fact, religious wars have been fought over the most minor technical differences.

If you see or hear a "Bluegrass banjo" player doing things much differently than the way I describe, please do not tell him or her that "Paul Race says you're doing it wrong." Once again, other than strumming it with an ax, there's no way to play banjo wrong, only thousands of possibilities for playing it period.

If you got here from our lesson two, it may be time for you to go back. If you have any questions, please contact us and let us try to help. If you have anything to share with our readers, please consider joining our online discussion forum and participating.

The most important thing is for you to derive pleasure from our music and to use it to give pleasure to others!

- Paul Race, CreekDontRise.com

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