One of the most often asked banjo tips I get asked is “Do I have to rest fingers of my picking hand on the head of the banjo?”
While I always make a sincere effort to never step on toes when writing about banjos and banjo playing, what I’m going to talk about today is likely to be considered controversial.
Probably the greatest promoter of resting two fingers of your picking hand on the head of the banjo was the late, great, Earl Scruggs. However, he stated quite clearly, in his later years that he no longer “pressed his pinky and ring finger tightly against the head.” He was very clear stating that his fingers just floated above the head or barely touched the head. He did, however, continue to keep the same posture of his right hand which certainly gave the appearance of resting his finger solidly against the head.
Now, I know that Mr. Scruggs was one of the most influential banjoists in history. And I also know a large number of current banjo players have adopted his picking hand posture.
But I also know that Earl was an extremely open-minded person and he developed his approach to playing the banjo based on his needs and his physiology. He was not “imitating” other established techniques. It is true, there were other fingerstyle players in North Carolina where Scruggs grew up. Whether they rested fingers on the banjo or not, I think it’s fair to say that it was not a thoroughly established approach.
I know that some lute players traditionally would rest a pinky on the top of the lute to play a finger style approach.
Problems with the Two Finger Anchor
What prompted this article today was a recent conversation with an employee here at Deering who was having great difficulty keeping his ring and pinky finger on the head while plucking strings. He found the movement extremely restrictive.
Here is where the controversy shall now begin.
After more than four decades of learning, teaching, performing, selling and interacting with banjo enthusiasts of all levels, I am convinced that resting fingers on the head of the banjo to achieve steadiness, is not a necessity. What’s more, this posture is virtually impossible for some individuals.
Pianist, composer Robert Schumann damaged his hands trying to force his middle and ring finger to move completely independent of each other. He constructed training devices to strengthen and in theory, give his ring finger more skill. As my hand surgeon said once, they did not know back then that there is a common tendon between the middle and ring finger which does restrict movement of those two fingers.
Granted, resting two fingers and moving to fingers independently are two completely different matters. I only mention this as an example of how important the understanding of ergonomics and physiology can be to any musician.
While resting two fingers of the picking hand on the head of the banjo is a position of comfort and stability for some, it really doesn’t work that way for everyone. For some new players, and even some experienced players, this technique is terribly restrictive mechanically and does not allow the complete freedom of movement needed for fast smooth bluegrass style playing.
I can tell you from personal experience, if you force your hand to do something it was not designed to do, you increase the chances of injury.
Okay Barry,… If this is true, why do so many players play this way?
The great pianist Vladimir Horowitz had a “drooping wrist” posture when he played the piano. He played that way all his life. However, many of his students damaged their hands imitating the master. Their wrists when drooped below the keyboard like their teacher became injured. Maestro Horowitz was able to play with that posture, but that same posture severely damaged some of his students.
I have heard over the years many, many people who have tried to fingerpick the banjo, in a bluegrass style, (like Earl Scruggs) who gave up claiming, “it’s too hard.” Virtually every student or enthusiast who said this had a problem with the picking hand and not the fretting hand and virtually every one of them was trying to put two fingers of the picking hand down on the head of the banjo just like “you’re supposed to.”
An Alternative Way of Thinking
We are blessed in San Diego, California to have a banjo teacher named Walt Richards who teaches bluegrass style fingerpicking banjo without resting any fingers on the head at all. I watched Walt play a performance with the San Diego Symphony where he fingerpicked an orchestral version of dueling banjos and his sound lacked no drive or any other exciting attribute of fingerpicks bluegrass style banjo.
I’ve seen Chinese musicians playing stringed fretted instruments that are something like a banjo with finger style technique who actually use all five fingers of the picking hand playing with amazing articulation, precision and fluidity and without resting fingers on the top of the instrument.
Flamenco guitar players, classical guitar players, some lute players have displayed dazzling fingerpicking skill without resting any finger on the top of their instrument.
After all, harp players deal with literally dozens of strings on their instrument, with their hands floating in the air, and nothing to rest their fingers on and yet they can play intense passages with their fingers seeming to walk across the strings.
While classical guitarists sometimes lightly rest their forearm on the soundboard of the guitar, they do not rest their fingers on the top. I know some classical guitar teachers who discourage students from placing a lot of pressure from their forearm on the top of guitar as this can mute the sound somewhat of a classical guitar.
I’ve seen ukulele players play fingerstyle without resting fingers on the head of the ukulele.
I’ve seen “classical” banjo players playing nylon strung, open back, banjos without touching the head of the banjo with their fingers at all and they had no problem creating tone intensity or drive found in many classical pieces.
I have seen six string banjo players, who were originally guitarists, who do not rest their fingers on the top of the banjo and who played with drive, power and extraordinary dexterity.
You Can, But You Don’t Have To
In saying all of this, I am not suggesting that “no one should rest their fingers on the head of the banjo”. I am saying here, controversially so, that you don’t have to rest your fingers on the head of the banjo to play beautifully and comfortably.
I am also saying, that there are hands that should never rest two fingers on the head of the banjo. Determining this qualification, takes a little time and patience. We don’t want to meet with challenges in learning new techniques and give up quickly. That is why it is good to try the traditional approach but to know when to quit if there is a problem with progress.
How To Figure It Out
When you are just starting fingerpicking, try resting your pinky and ring finger of your picking hand on the head of the banjo. If you feel that your middle finger moves easily, comfortably and without resistance, then try practicing that way for a few days.
If after practicing this way for a few days your middle finger moves smoothly, and easily and your practice feels comfortable, then keep working on the fingerpicking with your fingers planted on the head.
If on the other hand, you rest the pinky and ring finger down and your middle finger is stiff, or very awkward then try this:
Raise your hand completely off of the head of the banjo and try fingerpicking without resting any fingers on the head. If your middle finger moves freely, comfortably then continue practicing without resting any fingers on the head of the banjo.
It can be difficult for beginners to know what is “correct” or “incorrect”. In fact, it’s just about impossible because you have no foundation of awareness because you are a beginner. That’s the nature of trying something new. What you can determine is what is, more or less, comfortable.
Only You Know If You Are Comfortable
No teacher, expert, or authority figure can tell you if you are comfortable. Signs of discomfort can be tension in your forearm, upper arm, shoulder, back, neck, buttocks, legs, feet and etc.
A good teacher will often recognize signs of comfort in the student or lack thereof. But if a teacher is strongly attached to a tradition, like placing both fingers down on the head, this makes students job more difficult.
Trust your awareness.
My voice teacher used to say there is a difference between muscle action and muscle tension. For an example, she would tense her arms and hands and pick up a glass of water. Of course with all the muscle tension the glass would shake and quiver and the water would splash out and she would put it down. Then she would just reach over and pick up the glass with only the necessary amount of muscle action and the glass moved smoothly and spilled no water.
In learning to pick, it’s exactly the same. If you move your picking fingers or fretting fingers while clenching your muscles or fighting against unwanted muscle tension anywhere you will not be able to reach the strings comfortably and your playing will be endlessly choppy.
If you can move your fingers comfortably, easily and reach the strings without straining or feeling any “tension” then your training will proceed smoothly and you will learn quickly.
Resting the fingers on the head can be an aid in holding your fingers steady above strings. But with a little practice you will find you are holding your hand above the strings comfortably without resting the fingers on anything.
The Head Dampening Effect
Some players say they like to rest their fingers on the head because it dampens some of the sympathetic vibration of the head. Some say it reduces some of the unwanted harmonics.
Regardless of the definition, this is real. Resting two fingers on the head definitely dampens some of the vibration that is in the head. This mild dampening, for many players, helps make the sound of their banjo a little clearer.
However, having played with several players like Walt Richards and having heard his beautiful fingerpicked banjo with no dampening of the head, I think that some of the “unwanted harmonics” can be used and controlled by fretwork and picking timing.
In other words, when a guitarist feels that the string is ringing and he wants the ringing to stop, it is common to either lift fretting finger to stop the ringing or to go on to the next fretted note which can stop the ringing string or pluck the next note with the picking finger.
It is the same on the banjo. The few players I’ve heard who don’t rest their fingers on the head have a beautiful, fantastic ringing banjo and as a listener I am more drawn in by their musical expression than by a subtle dampening of some extra vibration. A case could be made that it is “incorrect” to dampen the natural vibrating characteristics of the banjo. But I’m not making that case here nor would I. I’ve heard great players use both techniques and they are both wonderful, exciting and elegant when beautifully executed.
Again, I am not suggesting we should never rest our fingers on the head. What I am suggesting, is that if you are having trouble with this technique, do not force yourself to do it under the intimidation that it is “the only correct way”.
Listen To Your Body
In athletics, there are individuals who are more naturally adapted to certain activities. That doesn’t mean all of us can’t do these activities. But it might mean we have to adapt to our own ergonomic requirements.
It is the same in music. A person with large hands will have to adapt differently than a person with small. But make no mistake, everyone has to adapt.
Follow your comfort. That is where you will find your music.