Notes from the woodshed

Correcting poor technique

I’ve been putting serious effort into playing the banjo for about two years. Before that I’d been playing mandolin, a little fiddle, octave mandolin and bouzouki. I’d picked up a lot of poor technique along the way. Some of these problems had been mentioned, more or less tactfully, in various classes that I’d taken, mostly with Folkworks at the Sage.

I’m as stubborn as a mule, and it wasn’t until I started trying to play some of the more complicated Irish reels that I had to admit that my poor technique was holding me back.

‘Posting’ was my first problem. That’s propping the right (plectrum) hand up by resting the little finger on the banjo head (or mandolin soundboard). I was surprised to find that this was fairly easy to correct. Pretty much from day-one on the banjo I freed-up my plucking hand.

Playing the long-scale tenor banjo is quite a stretch for the fingers. After checking You-tube I found that all of my favourite banjo players were covering the fifth fret with the little finger. Recently I was having real trouble getting some tunes up to full session speed so I gave the ‘pro’ fingering a try. It felt slightly awkward, but the patterns of movement across the fretboard were definitely much more economical. I decided to stick with it.

I’ve been ‘woodshedding’ for about three months, gradually retraining my left hand to cover the fifth fret automatically. This has meant that I’ve had to repetitively re-program all of the Trad tunes that I’d learned previously. I’ve avoided all of the sessions – worried that the old instincts would take over and undo all of my hard work.

Thankfully it has paid off. I’m already much faster than I was. The down-side is that all of the twiddly-bits around the 4th and 5th frets (ring and fifth finger coordination) still feel slow and unnatural. More practice should gradually solve this problem.

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