Flatpicking the Banjo

Casey Henry

Casey Henry

I’ve written in the past on several occasions about my student Ginny (here, here, and here) who, in response to some right-hand issues, is now playing banjo with a flatpick. I think her story is unique (at least I’ve never heard of any other student switching to a flatpicking technique) and I’m really excited at how well it’s working out, after some initial floundering around on my part to find a suitable approach. I wrote my March Banjo Newsletter article about her and this post is a supplement to that article. (The magazine doesn’t have content online, so if you want to read it, subscribe already!)

Below are some sound files, mp3s of Ginny playing the flatpick versions we’ve developed of some of the beginning songs. (Click on the song title to hear it.)

First, Banjo in the Hollow. I know all of you know this one. It’s the first song on Beginning Banjo Vol. 1, and the first one we went back to each time Ginny and I started over with the flatpicking approach. She actually hates this tune, but because it’s the first one everybody learns, she ends up having to play it a lot.

Cripple Creek. I was really happy at the way this tune laid out in the playing-half-the-number-of-notes style we’re pursuing now.

Old Joe Clark. This is one of the tunes Ginny worked out on her own while I was away on tour. She said this version, “seemed to fall right out,” much like “Cripple Creek” did.

And finally Lonesome Road Blues. Ginny worked out both the high and low breaks on her own, and in this recording, from early February, you can really hear how this approach allows her to play fast. This one is at a regular jam tempo, and although it is not mistake free (and we’ve worked on the timing on the ending lick), clearly the tempo is comfortable. In this version I particularly like the lick she uses in the low break to lead into the C chord.

I’m sure you’ll hear more about Ginny in the future. Recently we’ve started learning the first entirely new song (as opposed to modifying a break she already knew three-finger style): “Groundspeed”. A whole new set of challenges has arisen, not the least of which is that the melody in the first phrase is very syncopated. Also, as is the case with a lot of the tunes Earl wrote, because it is a tune written on and specifically for the banjo, I consider ALL the notes to be the melody, which makes choosing which notes to play and which to leave out particularly challenging. Stay tuned!

4 thoughts on “Flatpicking the Banjo

  1. Martin Bacon

    It sounds great and reminds me of some of Snuffy Jenkins recordings even though he was probably playing a three finger style.

  2. Pat

    Casey, I seem to have this same problem with my hand and was so glad (sort of) to read your article in the March Banjo Newsletter. I tried lots of the same ideas, like changing hand positions, holding the whole banjo differently, starting over with songs I already knew, etc. I just kept getting slower and playing worse. I never visited your blog before (not to tech savvy), but I’d love to hear more about this. I’m not sure how to start, but at least have a little hope now. I started playing three years ago at age 54, and thought maybe my hands were just too old to start something so different. I think Ginny is amazing. Thanks for sharing, and for giving me a lift.

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