Tag Archives: right hand

Murphy HenryI have one thing to say about right-hand position on the banjo: if it hurts don’t do it! If someone tells you you should hold your hand in a certain way and it hurts don’t do it! If someone says this is the way Earl did it or J.D. did it and they are great banjo players so their way must be the right way and their way hurts you don’t do it!

And now I’ve said more than one thing, but the sentences all end the same way so it really is just the one thing, said three times in different ways in case you didn’t get it the first time: If it hurts don’t do it!

I don’t care what anybody says you do NOT have to keep both fingers (ring and little) down on the head. Nor do you have to have a great deal of arch in your wrist. There is NOT NOT NOT only one “correct” way to hold your right hand. There are many “correct” ways to hold your right hand (that’s the hand with the picks on it [unless you play left handed 🙂 ] ), and you have to find the one that is right for you. And once you’ve found something that works and is comfortable, stick with it. Don’t be changing your hand position just because someone tells you to.

Murphy HenryMark, who has been taking banjo about six months now, and I had an interesting discussion at our lesson tonight. Mark said he’d been watching clips of really good banjo players picking on U-Tube and he noticed that all of them look at their left hands and none of them look at their right hands. Mark, on the other hand (no pun intended, I swear), looks at his right hand exclusively. He told me that he thinks this is hindering him from picking up speed. He’s afraid he’ll never be able to play fast if he keeps looking at his right hand. I told him I knew what I’d be blogging about tonight!

Initially I wasn’t too concerned. After all, he’s still a beginning player and he’s really doing well. He’s a little over the one song a month average and he can vamp and come in off the vamp for his breaks. What’s not to like?

But then he told me that when he’s looking at his right hand he’s actually thinking of the strings he’s hitting, as in 4,2,3,1/5,3,4,1. (That’s the double square roll, usually in C chord.) Then I got concerned. Because if he’s thinking of the individual strings, then, he’s right: he’ll never be able to play fast. You don’t want to be doing the Cripple Creek lick and thinking 3,2,5,1.

So, of course, I then asked him to play something easy and NOT look at his right hand. He played “Banjo in the Hollow” and, while it was really hard for him not to look at his right hand, he could do it. Ditto “Cripple Creek” and even “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” The songs even sounded smoother to me.

I told him that since he obviously could play the songs without looking at his right hand, what he was doing was pure habit. Is it a bad habit? I’m not sure. But since Mark was concerned, I told him to start out with easy songs, play them slow, and make himself look only at his left hand.

He told me that in just trying not to look at his right hand on those three songs he was already experiencing quite a bit of anxiety.

I told him that he shouldn’t do anything that would disrupt his playing, since even looking at his right hand he was already doing very well. I reminded him that this was supposed to be fun, not torture.

He told me that he thought he’d try not looking on some songs. But that for the rest of the lesson he was going to have to look.

I told him that would be fine.

So, I think Mark has a legitimate concern. I relate it to you as something to think about. DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT get yourself all tied up in knots if you, too, happen to look at your right hand. DO NOT ruin your playing by trying to fix something that might not need fixed (as we say here in the Shenandoah Valley). In Georgia we say “might not need to be fixed.”

Although I have not run any kind of study, I suspect that most people who play banjo long enough eventually stop looking at their right hands.

Stay tuned to the Murphy Method Blog for updates on Mark and the question “to look or not to look?”

And me? I look at my left hand!

Casey HenryIn thinking about right hand position, which I wrote about on Friday, I thought I'd dig out some pictures to show the variation in how people's right hands look. This first one should need no explanation or identification:

Earl Scruggs right hand

(That's Earl!) In an ideal world, everyone's hand would look just like this. But, it's not an ideal world and people's hands look all sorts of different ways.

J. D. Crowe right hand

J. D. Crowe at a show in Kentucky, April 22, 2001. I wish I'd been able to zoom in more, but my little camera would only do so much.

Pete Kuykendall

Here's someone you don't see pickin' the banjo very often: that's Bluegrass Unlimited editor Pete Kuykendall at the Maryland Banjo Academy, April 18, 1997.

Casey Henry

And this is yours truly, from early 1998, playing my Stealth banjo. I still have that flannel shirt...just sold the banjo, though.

Casey HenryOne of my students is currently working on changing her right hand position to get better accuracy and tone. Changing one's right hand position is not something that should be taken lightly. Generally students will naturally fall into a position that is comfortable and relaxed, and that works fine. You have to have three key points:

1.) Fingers anchored on the head (at least one, either pinky or ring, is OK).

2.) Wrist arched. It should look like a bridge.

3.) Forearm resting on the armrest. It's what it's there for.

Outside of those criteria, there is a lot of variation in how people's hands look. The most important thing is that you are striking the string right down the middle of the pick (it should wear a shiny place). Also, your hand should not have any tension in it, and your fingers should not be flying all over the place; they should stay reasonably curled.

Changing your position after you've been playing a while is a huge undertaking and should be approached cautiously. Like I told my student, play everything slow. Play nothing fast until your new position is well established, or you will immediately revert back to your old position. Make sure you play through ALL of your old material with this new position. And do not introduce any tension into your hand, wrist, or arm, even if you think it looks/sounds better. It will hurt your playing in the long run.