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Lesson 1c: Right-Hand Positioning and Exercises

Edited by Paul Race for Creek Don't Rise?

Editor's Note: Between 1999 and 2004, Mitchel "Mickey" Cochran posted an extensive collection of free musical instrument lessons on his web page. Sadly, we lost Mickey in 2011. After e-mailing surviving family members for permission to repost some of Mickey's most popular materials, we have begun restoring them to host on these pages. (Please see the Introduction page for more information on that effort.)

This page is Mickey's explanation of how to hold your hand and how to user your fingers when playing the 5-string banjo. - Paul Race

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.

Place the 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 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...

4. 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 vibration.

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)

Notice 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 ensure that you're not distracted with having to work both hands at the same time.

There are 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.

Note: 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

Practice 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


Mickey's instructions are as valid today as when he wrote and recorded them years ago. Here's hoping that you find them just as helpful as his original followers did back when he was interacting on a daily basis with his them.

Please contact us if you're hitting any brick walls and we'll try to help you get therough them.

Best of luck, all, enjoy your music, and support the arts.

Paul Race

And when you're ready to move on, click here to go to the next part of this online lesson.

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All text and any illustrations and/or videos within the white box above are copyright 1999-2004 by Mitchell Cochran. All other materials, illustrations, and content on this web page, including the text reformatting and illustration restoration within the white box are copyrighted ? 2016 by Paul D. Race. All rights reserved.
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