Lesson 1c: Right-Hand Positioning and Exercises
By Mickey Cochran
Right hand positioning is very critical to properly learning how to
play. To gain a good foundation by establishing good habits from the
start should be your objective.
right hand comfortably over the strings while placing your little
finger on the banjo head. Your thumb and fingers will now be free to
play without losing their place. The right hand will now pivot from the
little finger which remains stationary on the head. Now, remember, your
little finger is only supporting the position of the right hand; you
will still need to keep it free enough to slide up and down from the
bridge to the end of the fingerboard. For now, simply place it a couple
of inches from the bridge towards the fingerboard.
Notes on using a Thumbpick and Fingerpicks:
When playing 3-finger 5-string banjo, the standard medium is to
use one plastic thumbpick and two metal fingerpicks. Here are some notes
on how to best utilize them...
1. Make sure you're not using too large of a
thumbpick...smaller thumbpicks work just as well for creating
volume...and, in fact, have a better tone to my ear.
2. Make sure the fingerpick is not turned slightly
sideways...in other words, make sure the fingerpick is on straight and
makes contact with the string on a direct plane...not the edge but the
very front of the pick. This also eliminates any scratching noises.
3. If you angle your wrist, similar to classical guitarists,
where the knuckles line up with the strings in perfect angle, you'll
find that the thumb stays a good distance away from the index
finger...and, this also contributes to item 2 where the fingerpick
should be hitting the string straight on...
All new fingerpicks need to be shaped before using...bend the tip of
the fingerpick back and tighten the collar, that wraps around the
finger, so that it fits tightly and comrortably. Be careful not to
overtighten...after playing and experimenting, you'll find you very own
happy medium on shaping the metal fingerpicks.
Notes on Right Hand Positioning:
Using the little finger, along with the third finger, as a pivot
point on the head is a traditional precedence...for bluegrass banjo,
this standard was set by Earl Scruggs himself...of whom places not only
the little finger but the third finger too. He plants two fingers on the
head, and all three remaining fingers of his right hand are dedicated
to picking. This is really a good practice for several reasons:
1. It gives the right hand a solid reference point...even when moving from the bridge to the fingerboard.
2. With the pivoting off the fingers placed on the head, there's a solid placement of the hand...
3. The fingers placed on the head, help eliminate the overtones that the banjo head will naturally create otherwise...
This is the bluegrass banjo tradition. Earl Scruggs set the
precedence for all other bluegrass banjo players to follow...many
players spend a lifetime emulating what Earl has achieved with his
approach to the banjo. The purism of bluegrass is defined by players
such as Scruggs and his approach to the 5-string banjo...his medium and
approach is aspired to by banjoists...similar to what Bill Monroe
achieved with the mandolin...not only is the playing emulated, but the
banjo used by Earl Scruggs also set the standard for player's to
recreate the very same sound through set-up and model choice.
Now, so far, we've discussed the importance of these styles and
approaches within the framework of bluegrass as a purist standard. If
you're an eclectic banjoist, and hope to play a variety of other styles,
such as jazz, ragtime and classical, you can deviate and create your
own approach to the banjo...and, play in the manner that's most
comfortable for you...since there really isn't a standard set within
these genres...for instance, on classical banjo, many players use three
fingers and the thumb with no picks...while floating the hand...
If your desire is to learn bluegrass banjo, I highly recommend that
you at the very least support your right hand with the little finger on
the head...and, if comfortable, use both the little finger and the third
finger to support the right hand...within a bluegrass context, I
support my right hand with my little finger pivoted on the head...within
other genres of banjo playing, I float my right hand...especially for
classical or ragtime banjo....
Further Notes on Right Hand Positioning:
When playing 5-string, in a bluegrass context, it's most
definitely a requirement to play with a pivot finger on the head. This
solidifies your playing and establishes the purist approach of which
Earl Scruggs originally established. Earl braced both his third and
fourth finger on the head...however, this would necessarily be required
unless you truly want to emulate Earl's playing technique. At the very
least, when playing bluegrass, you'll most definitely want to establish a
solid right hand with the fourth finger braced on the banjo head. It
also contributes to the bluegrass tonal quality by minimizing head
Everyone's hands are built different; therefore, what may be
easy for some, can be most difficult for others. This is why I'm a
proponent of allowing the student to choose between using the third and
fourth fingers, or just the fourth finger.
To learn to do this without lifting your hand, you'll want to
start off slowly, and from the beginning, and play rolls methodically
through one at a time. Eventually, you'll become accustomed to pivoting
your little finger on the head. Unlearning your current habits can be
far more difficult than learning as a complete beginner.
Be sure to consider picking up a banjo instructional video
which would offer exercises, as opposed to songs, which would establish a
solid right-hand foundation.
If you're pursuing 5-string banjo outside of bluegrass stylings, you
might also experiment with a floating right hand...for instance, when I
play classical, ragtime or pop standards on 5-string, I'll float my
right hand without any pivot finger on the banjo head...whenever I play
bluegrass, I usually always pivot with my fourth finger..
How to read the number system (tablature)
the string names to the left of each line. Picture these lines as the
strings on your banjo. The very top line is the bottom string of your
banjo. The bottom line is the top string of your banjo. The numbers on
each line represent where the string is to be played. For instance, a
"0" on the top line means to play the D string open. A "2" on the top
line means to play the D string at the 2nd fret. In the following
exercises, all strings are played open...notice that the only number on
the tablature is the numeral "0". These studies are all played in the
open position, without fretting, so that the focus will be on the
picking hand...to ensure that you're not distracted with having to work
both hands at the same time.
4 beats to each measure...for each measure count out four beats as if
you're keeping the rhythm by clapping your hands or tapping your foot.
Keep in mind that you're trying to keep these notes played evenly
without faltering. There are no pauses between the notes. Start off
slowly and keep the timing even.
Thumb = T
First Finger = I
Second Finger = M
these rolls repetitively. Our goal is to first gain a strong right hand
before we attempt to add our left hand chords. We will learn a couple of
more right hand rolls in the lesson 3.
Copyright ?1999-2004 Mickey Cochran