Bluegrass Banjo Right Hand Technique

In these 2 videos by Eli Gilbert, we teach you everything you need to know regarding right hand technique for banjo. Specifically, bluegrass Banjo. Learn left hand technique here.

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Video Text

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hey everybody my name is Eli Gilbert and today I want to talk to you about the most important aspect of playing bluegrass banjo and that’s right hand technique if you listen to Earl Scruggs or JD Crowe or any bluegrass banjo player worth listening to you’ll notice that they have a rock-solid right hand and that’s a really big part of what makes bluegrass so exciting the rhythmic intensity coming directly from the right hand of the banjo player so let’s get into all that but first do me a huge favor and subscribe to this channel and like this video that’s a huge help to anyone who makes their living making videos like I do and if you’re looking for tablature and practice tips and live streams all kinds of stuff that you can’t find here on YouTube then you should head to patreon.com/scishow anyway let’s talk about right hand technique every suggestion that I’m gonna give you today is with the intention of emulating and participating in the bluegrass banjo language that means that we’re gonna try to play with a sound influenced by Earl Scruggs and the lineage of great banjo players that were influenced by Earl Scruggs like JD Crowe or Sonny Osbourne all the way to bailiff Fleck and Noble County we’re not trying to sound exactly like any of those players we’re just

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trying to land somewhere in that ballpark of course if you don’t like any of those banjo players then don’t follow any of this advice and by the way I really mean it you can and should play however you want but if you’re watching this video that I’m going to assume that you’re interested in playing in the style of Earl Scruggs and the banjo players that came after him and if you disagree with anything when I say in this video that’s totally fine the fact that you disagree means that you’re happy with what you’re doing now and you don’t need my help anyway there are three main areas that we’re gonna focus on today with respect to right hand technique and those are finger picks planting on the head of the banjo and the angle of your wrist and your hand all three of those factors can be adjusted for virtually unlimited options in terms of tone and volume so let’s start with finger picks yes you do need to use finger picks if you want to play bluegrass banjo note that I didn’t say that you have to use finger picks to play the banjo but if you want to play bluegrass banjo and Scruggs style with three fingers then you’re not going to be heard over even one instrument let alone an entire band without finger picks beyond that it’s absolutely impossible to achieve bluegrass banjo

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tone without them and trust me I know that in the beginning it can be a little uncomfortable and at first it can be harder to play with finger picks than without finger picks but I promise that’s temporary but what pick should you be using well first of all I’m gonna suggest that you use a plastic thumb pick there are a few companies out there using other materials for thumpings like metal for instance but I haven’t met many people who have particularly good things to say about them it’s not the end of the world but I don’t recommend it I personally use a dunlop alt-text thumb pick and I’ve had good results with GoldenGate picks there are a lot of different manufacturers but in the beginning just find yourself a plastic thumb pick that fits securely on your thumb and doesn’t move around too much as for finger picks I use the same e Sheeler signature picks which are considerably more expensive than anything you’re gonna find in your average music store so I wouldn’t even bother looking at those yet part of the reason you don’t need to worry that much about which picks you’re using is that in the beginning stages you don’t actually have enough experience to know what you prefer so later on down the line you’re gonna have a good idea of what you like and what you don’t like in terms of the sound that they create so for now as far as finger picks go just

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find something reasonably priced that doesn’t have any special gimmick or special material and hopefully they look somewhat like this once you actually have your finger picks you want to bend and shape them so that they fit securely on your finger you don’t want to cut off your circulation but you also don’t want them sliding off while you’re playing you may have also noticed that I’ve bent the blades of my finger picks in a particular way and if you look at other banjo players you’ll see that there are a wide range of ways that you can bend your picks and there isn’t just one way to do it but you probably want to have a decent curve in the pick so that the string slides off the tip of the pick without too much resistance but don’t worry about getting this all perfect right now because we talked about in the rest of this video it’s going to inform how you bend your picks okay so now that we’ve actually got our picks before we even play anything we need to make sure that we’re planting one or two fingers on the head of the banjo and that’s going to give us more control over our tone and more stability and unfortunately this is yet another aspect of bluegrass banjo that’s not so comfortable in the beginning but if you get used to it now it will become the new normal and you’ll forget it was even an issue but which fingers do you plant well you could plant your ring finger or your little finger or both your ring and

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little finger and all three options are valid but I’m gonna suggest that if you want to play bluegrass banjo that you at least try to play it both your ring and little finger planting both fingers is going to give you the most stability which is really helpful when you’re trying to control volume and tone without your hand moving around unpredictably in addition to that it’s what Earl Scruggs did which is really never a bad place to look for guidance and as a result of Earl Scruggs planting both fingers players like JD Crowe and Sonny Osbourne bailiff lek and nobuk le all plant both fingers but now I need to confess something I actually don’t plant both fingers I only plant my little finger trust me I tried to plant both fingers I actually spent over a year planting both fingers on the head and you can watch some of my old videos where I do that and it actually sounds okay but here’s the reality when I plant my ring finger in any capacity it severely limits the range of motion of my middle finger and even though in some cases I was able to even get a decent sound by planting both fingers I had to work significantly harder just to be able to reach all the strings and that created a lot of tension in my right hand which was

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ultimately detrimental to everything that I was doing so my advice to you is this start out by trying to plant both fingers that’s your best bet if you can do it if you can’t then planting both fingers is ultimately going to hinder your development so then try planting just one either the ring finger or the little finger and when you do plant on the head you don’t need to apply too much pressure just enough so that you’re not moving around unintentionally and if you’re wondering where to plant on the head of the banjo that’s going to become more clear when we talk about the wrist position but the short answer is anywhere between the bridge and the neck depending on the sound you want if I’m playing the kickoff to a song or rolling back up then I’m probably going to put my finger about a half inch to an inch in front of the bridge like this but if I’m playing something like up the neck back up and I want a little bit more of a mellow tone then I’ll put my hand a little closer to the neck for now just try planting close to the bridge maybe a half inch or an inch away okay so we have our picks and we’ve plant on the head but now we need to make sure the position of our hand and our wrist is it could actually

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help us play with good tone and good volume and for the most part everything we do with our hand on our wrist is going to serve the goal of getting our picks perpendicular to the strings it doesn’t necessarily have to be exactly perpendicular but what we’re avoiding is something like this so to achieve this we have a couple different options we can change the angle of the banjo strings we can change the angle of our wrist we can change how much our wrist is arched we can also rotate our pics so that they hit the strings at a different angle but especially with the angle in your wrist you want to be really careful so you don’t injure yourself you really don’t need any more than a slight angle in your wrist and if you look at most banjo players playing in the style of Earl Scruggs and Earl Scruggs himself they actually all play with a relatively straight wrist a place to start you can put your banjo in act at about a 45 degree angle and keep a relatively straight wrist and maybe a little bit of an arch and then your picks you can rotate to see if you can get them perpendicular to the strings one of the best things you can do is look at pictures or videos of a lot of great banjo players if you see a lot of people doing something it’s probably a good place to start if you

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see one person doing something it might just be an exception to the rule if you can’t find anyone out there doing what you do then you might be the exception to the rule but it’s kind of unlikely there are definitely differences in our physiology that means every person is gonna play slightly differently but it’s just that slightly differently it’s unlikely that you’re gonna achieve the tone that we’re looking for by doing something wildly different than what most other banjo players do that means you probably don’t want to be playing like this or like this so assuming you’ve got your picks on and you’re planted on the head of the banjo and you’ve got your hand position more or less figured out it’s time to actually play something and if you’re new to the banjo then you probably just want to start with some basic roll patterns like this start slowly and try to play each note cleanly and in time and hopefully add an even volume across the strings right now it doesn’t matter so much what you’re playing just pay attention to how it feels one of the biggest misconceptions about right hand technique is that everything’s supposed to be loose all

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the time but actually we need to use our muscles to play the strings and when we use our muscles their tents are engaged and if we want to play loud and with power like some of our favorite banjo players then that can require some pretty intense use of those muscles the trouble starts when we don’t release those muscles after we use them or we store tension in other parts of our body that we’re not actually using to play the banjo so again pay attention to how it feels to play those basic roll patterns are you using your muscles to play each string or are you finding that you’re using the muscles in your wrist or your arm or even your back to try to muscle through the notes this is not an easy thing to have control over but especially in the beginning you want to build a habit of limiting tension if you don’t I promise it’s gonna be a lot harder to fix later on and then from this point on you’re ready to continue to learn new things on the banjo using this information as well as your own observations about other players right hand techniques the real process of developing your right hand technique involves listening to your own playing as well as paying attention to how it feels to play and then making adjustments and deciding if you like the results that could mean changing your picks or changing the shape of your

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picks or changing your right hand position but remember as you make these adjustments to listen and evaluate so you can make an informed decision anyway I hope you found this video helpful and if you’re looking for more tablature or more banjo content that you can’t find here on YouTube don’t forget to go to patreon.com/scishow a like Gilbert banjo and don’t forget do me a favor and subscribe to this channel and like this video thanks for watching and I’ll see you next time [Music] [Music]

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hey folks today i want to talk about fixing bad habits when it comes to right hand technique and if you saw my last video about right hand technique then in theory you should be all set to get started playing the banjo as far as the right hand is concerned but it’s not always that easy we talked about finger picks and planting on the head of the banjo as well as the placement of your hand and your wrist none of which is particularly hard to achieve the real challenge is maintaining those basic principles of right hand technique while you’re learning to play new things on the banjo and maybe you’ve experienced this where you try to play something a little faster or a little louder or maybe something that’s just a little bit more complex and all of a sudden it gets a little harder to control everything that’s going on with your right hand and maybe you don’t notice that something isn’t quite right or maybe you just don’t feel like dealing with it right now but eventually those things that aren’t quite right become the new normal otherwise known as a bad habit but it’s not out of nowhere all of our bad habits were developed while we were there with the banjo in our hands and we didn’t do anything to stop it but fortunately if we can

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develop bad habits then we can also develop good habits to replace them so let’s go over some of the most common bad habits that i see when it comes to right hand technique and what you can do to fix those bad habits but first i should tell you about patreon.com eli gilbert banjo because that’s where you can find tablature for all of my lessons as well as bonus practice tips for instance a bonus practice tip for this video as well as live streams all kinds of stuff you can’t find here on youtube so you’re going to want to check that out and it’s also just a great way to support the work that i do here so i really appreciate that and if you don’t mind do me a favor and subscribe to this channel and like this video that’s another really great way to support the work that i do here and i appreciate that too so when it comes to these bad habits some of them are actually pretty easy just a quick reminder to do this instead of that but some of these are going to require that you retrain yourself to play in a different way and that does take time and it takes patience when i can i’m going to give you some specific techniques to deal with these bad habits but in general there’s one common solution for all of them first you need to understand that you

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might have a bad habit and then you need to be willing to not do that thing again as with a lot of things it’s simple but it’s not necessarily easy this video will hopefully make you aware of those bad habits but you need to also notice them as you’re playing and not only that you need to have the willpower to say i’m not going to do that when i play the banjo and that can be challenging because what you’re going to have to do is choose to do something that doesn’t feel totally natural right now but what we’re doing is weighing our short-term comfort against things like technique and speed and volume over the long term but luckily in this case the long term isn’t even that long it might only take days or weeks to eliminate some of these bad habits as long as you’re committed to eliminating them it really just depends how important making progress is to you anyway let’s take a look at some of these bad habits one of the first bad right-hand habits that i see people getting into is either forgetting to plant on the head of the banjo or not being able to stay planted on the head of the banjo and this is a really bad habit to get

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into because if you’re not planted on the head of the banjo then there’s a really low ceiling in terms of the amount of progress that you’re gonna make with things like speed and volume and tone so you should really prioritize this aspect of right hand technique as absolutely essential but if you’re trying and struggling to stay planted on the head of the banjo then one thing you can do is try applying a little extra pressure obviously we don’t want to apply a lot of force that’s going to create tension and it doesn’t necessarily help our tone any but you do want a little bit of pressure so that there’s a little added friction that way you can actually stay put and sometimes we really just get ahead of ourselves if this is early on in the process of playing the banjo for you then it’s possible you just need to try to play really slowly until it’s comfortable to stay planted so whenever you play just make sure you’re paying a lot of attention to what your right hand is doing and if you find that it’s floating away from the head of the banjo it’s possible that you’re just trying to play a little faster than you’re ready for planting on the head of the banjo is a foundational technique and to build that foundation you do need to spend a decent amount of time doing simple things with good technique so that might just mean playing role

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patterns or playing something slowly at some point that’s going to be the most comfortable way to play and you’re not going to need to think about it at all but time has to pass from now until then so spend that time with your finger planted on the head of the banjo even if that means you have to play really slowly and on that subject i occasionally see people planting in less than ideal locations that can mean on the bridge or behind the bridge or clinging even to the strings behind the bridge for support and there are definitely examples of people who do these things and actually sound good but it’s a pretty rare group and if you do these things then you’re kind of gambling with the idea that you’re part of that rare group if you’re planting on the bridge you’re actually reducing the amount of vibration that’s traveling from the strings to the head throughout the rest of the banjo the way the banjo works is that the strings vibrate which travels through the bridge to the rest of the banjo which causes the air to vibrate in a unique way that’s why the banjo sounds the way that it does but if you put your finger on the bridge then you’re effectively limiting the amount of vibration that travels from the strings to the rest of the banjo you’re just killing tone and beyond that planting in any of those

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other unusual locations is going to make it harder to travel up and down the strings which is how we get different sounds from the banjo and that leads me to our next bad habit which is improper hand placement and there’s a couple different ways to think about this one is that it’s not a great idea to keep your hand placed in one area all the time it’s going to work for one type of playing but it’s not going to work for really any other type of playing and there really isn’t just one location for each type of playing you want to get comfortable playing across the entire [Music] spectrum [Music] but take a look at some of your favorite banjo players and see where they put their hands for certain types of playing and then emulate that and see if you like the results [Music]

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just make sure that you’re not staying in one location for all types of playing our next bad habit is something that can affect players of all skill levels and it’s too much unnecessary movement in either our fingers or our hand that can manifest as stretching your fingers out too far while you’re playing or it could mean bouncing your hand up and down as you play now there is some leeway with this and if you watch other players you’ll see that there is a wide spectrum of different styles in terms of the amount of movement that you’ll see each person using in their hand but consider that as you play faster you’re asking your hand to do more work in a shorter period of time at slower speeds you can get away with it but the faster you play the harder it’s going to be to keep up and when your hands have to work really hard in a short period of time it’s really easy to get a lot of tension in your hands and the reality is you’re not winding up to hit a baseball when you play a note

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and your fingers don’t need to gain momentum before they can hit the string with an appropriate force and that means they can be pretty close to the strings at all times but then the question is how close well let’s take a look at the right hand of earl scruggs [Music] if this is an issue for you then the best thing you can do is play roll patterns really slowly with your fingers really close to the strings and the harder this is for you the slower you should go it’s possible that you need to just play one note at a time making sure that you’re not traveling too far to get to or from any note the more you do this the more comfortable you’re going to be doing it faster and faster until it becomes your good habit and fixing this problem can also help you with another bad habit which is uneven volume on different strings and with different fingers there are definitely times when you want to be able to accent certain notes or certain strings that’s part of what makes earl scruggs and jd crows playing so exciting but we

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always want that to be intentional what i’m talking about is unintentionally playing harder or softer with one finger than the other two that can sound like this and to understand this you’re really going to have to listen to yourself so try playing some basic role patterns slowly and see if you can hear one note ringing a little louder than the others or maybe one’s a lot softer you can also try recording yourself and listening back that way you can devote your full attention to listening and analyzing and then you’re going to want to make an adjustment based on those results so play the same exercise again and record yourself and try to compensate for whatever the issue was then listen back to that recording and see if the adjustment had the intended effect maybe you need to compensate a little more or a little less it can take a while to get comfortable with what you think is even volume across the strings and now we have to talk about what is probably the most pervasive bad habit among banjo players

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and that’s excessive tension this can affect any part of your body but for right now we’ll just address the right hand i’ll be honest this is something that i have to work on every single day and i might not necessarily be the best resource on solutions for this problem but i can tell you my experience and what’s worked for me and hopefully that’ll work for you when i’m not holding the banjo there’s little to no tension in my right hand but when i pick up the banjo and start playing it’s only a matter of time before tension creeps in and i’m muscling through the notes most of the time it happens when i’m trying to play a little faster or a little louder or maybe something a little more difficult but whenever it happens it’s out of negligence because if i have it in my mind to not play with tension and i’ve practiced playing without tension then i can pretty reliably play without tension but it’s not always in my mind maybe i have to play a little faster than i’m comfortable with for a certain song or maybe i get a little nervous at a jam session or a gig and then i prioritize those thoughts above staying loose above my good habits and because of the fast tempo or the fact that i’m nervous

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i might make a mistake and when i make a mistake i’ll get even more nervous and then the tension creeps in and then i’ll keep playing with tension until i realize it and then actively release it again it doesn’t happen by accident and it’s not always easy to realize that that’s what you’re doing and the longer you play with tension the more normal it feels hence the bad habit but what can you actually do about it how do you adjust well sometimes it’s as easy as just letting go of the tension again playing slow basic roles and just paying attention to how it feels to play if you can actually just sit there not playing the banjo without tension then maybe you can try putting your hand in position without tension and if you can do that maybe you can play a note without tension and if at any point in this process you feel tension creeping in then just stop and reset and try again and i know this can feel like a painstaking process and at first it is but once you do this a few times you’re going to get used to the feeling of playing without tension and then you’re going to know what to expect when you’re playing and it doesn’t feel like that when it feels like something

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else then you know things aren’t right and you need to do some work and if you find yourself coming back over and over again to release tension then you’re doing it right that’s the process there isn’t anybody out there who’s just playing without tension eternally without having to think about it without having to do any work it just doesn’t exist of course some people are good at it and some people like me struggle with it all the time it’s something that i think about all the time and it’s something that i work on all the time and i’m not perfect with it in fact i feel a little tension right now because i’ve got a bright light shining on me and i’m in front of a camera and i’m just trying to say the right words so it’s not always going to be the most comfortable situation but if i can always start from the beginning if i can reset if i can just try again then i’ve got a shot at building that new habit just don’t let it get away from you because it’s a lot easier to maintain on a regular basis than it is to start over from square one every time it becomes a huge problem okay now we can talk about the last bad habit which applies to all of these bad habits and it’s called impatience right now you’re capable of playing at a certain level without any of these bad habits

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and the reality is it might be just a few notes at a very slow tempo or maybe it’s at a medium tempo maybe it’s even pretty fast but once you try to exceed that once you try to play a little faster or a little louder or with a little more difficulty sometimes those good habits deteriorate and we use those bad habits to compensate for the added difficulty and aside from the fact that that doesn’t even work that doesn’t even help us play better it points to a much bigger issue if in the process of playing something at a certain speed or volume or difficulty level you can’t avoid bad habits it means you’ve surpassed your limit for things like speed and volume and difficulty if i can’t play something without tensing up or extending my fingers further than they need to or anything like that then it really just means i’m not ready to play that yet and if i keep surpassing those limits with bad habits that i’m going to be undoing all the work i did to play with good technique in the first place so i know i sound like a broken record but it’s possible that the best solution to all of your bad habits when it comes to the right hand or any issue in music

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really is to play slowly and on the banjo that usually means playing basic role patterns slowly and listening to yourself and paying attention to how it feels it’s a cons process of listening and paying attention and then adjusting based on those results and by all means you should be trying to get better you should seek the boundaries of your ability to try to grow but you really need to be paying attention to when your technique isn’t holding up i know it doesn’t always feel like it but you are in control of your hands and that doesn’t mean that you can make them do anything right now but it does mean that you can always choose to take your time practice thoughtfully and patiently and ultimately get better so i hope you found this video helpful and if you did please let me know in a comment below and don’t forget to subscribe to this channel and like this video and if you’re looking for more banjo content of course you can check out patreon.com eli gilbert banjo thanks for watching and i’ll see you next time

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