Bluegrass: It's all in the wrist

If I could travel back in time and change one thing about how I set about learning to play Bluegrass Banjo it would be to pay more attention to what I was doing with my picking hand. However I just delved in, focusing on learning the notes with little regard to technique. Sadly, unless you stumble on the right way to hold your wrist by accident you are unlikely to ever achieve the speed and quality of playing you are trying to emulate. This was certainly the case for me, and this was not helped by the amount of tabs out there, which enabled me to bypass any fundamental Banjo theory, which I might have learn't from a book or a teacher. Saying that, many of the books I have read seem to cover the matter in brief, right at the beginning on those pages we always skip past. I personally feel most students need regular advice about technique, which would do more to communicate the vital importance of hand position.

So here's some advice.

Firstly, go to youtube and watch some experienced Bluegrass Banjo players play, you will learn more by watching other players then any other method, and you will soon notice that their picking hand hardly moves, and their arm is really relaxed. When you practice make sure you anchor your picking hand on the Banjo with your ring and little finger fixed to the head (the skin), as this will reduce movement and improve accuracy. Always try to keep your wrist straight with your figures in a cupped and relaxed, and only rest your palm on the bridge when you want a muted or deadened sound.

Practice your rolls daily, as they will become the foundation of your playing…

Practice your rolls daily, as they will become the foundation of your playing. You don't need to practice for hours, 10 minutes will do, and as you practice focus on reducing the amount of movement your fingers are making (the more your fingers move the longer it takes to play a note). I also find that using a metronome really helps, as you need to accent the 1st beat of each bar on most Banjo rolls. If you don't have a one, then either add one to your amazon wish list, use one online, or for those with iPhones, install one of the many apps that have tuners, metronomes, etc. I recommend Guitar Toolkit, which also has Banjo chord charts and scales for all tunings.

My final piece of advice is to use finger/thumb picks from the start. At first I didn't because I thought they felt too odd and regretted it as I was not been able to get adequate volume and attack in my playing. This is most noticeable when playing with others, where your instrument can easily become over powered. You choose between plastic or metal, as I believe this is a personal choice on the tone you want to produce.

There is much more I could tell you, but to be honest you don't have to look far to discover more. Remember to watch the professionals, and don't just learn notes, learn technique :)

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About Me

I have been playing guitar for over 20 years, at first playing in indie bands, followed by a long stint playing rockabilly on the streets of Oxford, a short excursion into dance music, followed by looking at early blues styles. Now after a few years of listening to Dylan, Guthrie, and early Americana I find myself in possession of a banjo, and I'm addicted! Currently I play Banjo and Guitar in an Oxford based group called Swindlestock, you can hear our music our myspace page.

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