Most banjo players struggle a bit with the strength and dexterity of the fretting hand pinky and ring fingers. These two difficult digits tend to be a little less easy to command and to compensate, we tend to focus mostly on the index and middle fingers to do most of our fretting work.
Here are some exercises to help develop strength and agility with these two fingers. One note of caution: the pinky/ ring exercise MUST NOT BE OVER PRACTICED. This exercise is VERY EASY TO OVER DO. Hand training involves mostly small, fine motor skill muscles and these tiny muscles are slower to train and can be injured if over trained.
For small muscle training: “A little is a lot.”
The First Exercise
Practice this exercise no more than one minute every other day for the first week. If your hand gets too tired and/or sore, stop immediately. If your hand DOES get tired or sore, let at least a week of not doing this exercise go by before attempting it again. “A little is a lot.”
This is a great exercise to focus the training on the ring finger and the pinky finger of the fretting hand.
Using only these two fingers, fret the first string with the pinky at the 14th fret and the ring finger on the second string at the 12th fret. Hold these strings down and carefully pick each string making sure each string rings clearly and cleanly.
Now, move both fingers one fret closer to the peghead, so that your fingers are fretting the 13th and the 11th frets. Pick each string making sure each string rings clearly and cleanly.
Again, move both fingers one fret closer to the peghead so your fingers are fretting the 12th and the 10th frets; Again, picking clear and clean.
Continue this as far down the neck as you comfortably can. As you get closer to the peghead, the frets get wider apart. The change is very gradual and will allow your fingers to stretch slowly. If you only feel comfortable going down to the 9th and 7th frets, stop there. Don’t force this exercise to happen for a long practice session. A little is a lot.
After having comfortably, painlessly practiced this for a month or two, starting at one minute a day (and no more) for the first week, and then perhaps two to three minutes a day in the next three to five weeks, you will feel a great increase in overall hand strength. You will likely not need more than five to ten minutes a day of this exercise once your strength and endurance catch up with your desire. A little is a lot.
The Second Exercise
Start by picking the first string once open. Then fret the first string at the first fret with the index finger, the second fret with the middle finger, the third fret with the ring finger and the fourth fret with the pinky. Then, move your hand up the neck so the index finger frets the fifth fret. Then fret the sixth fret with the middle finger, the seventh fret with the ring finger and then the eighth fret with the pinky. Then move your hand up the neck so your index finger lands on the ninth fret and continue this pattern all the way up the neck until you end with your middle finger on the 22nd fret.
When you are poised with middle finger on the 22nd fret, reverse all of the above patterns, and “walk” back down the finger board on the first string.
When you get to the first string open, then shift your fretting hand to the second string and start the exercise all over again. Walk up the finger board one fret at a time using all four fretting fingers, and then walk down from the highest fret like we did on the first string.
When you get to the second string open, then shift your fretting hand to the third string and start walking up and down the third string with all four fretting fingers.
This exercise ONLY works if you consistently use all four fretting fingers. This will enhance your left hand speed and strength.
Slow makes Speed
With the first exercise, you want to practice at a pace which is comfortable both in how many minutes per day you practice and how long you hold each fret position.
The second exercise MUST be practiced slow enough so you move your fingers at the same speed as you “shift” your hand position.
For this second exercise, remember; when you practice slow, you learn fast. Unfortunately, when you practice fast, you learn slow. So, stay with the slow, slow, slow speed and you will learn fast, fast, fast.
What About The Picking Hand?
For plectrum and tenor players, the first exercise can be as simple as alternating between up pick and down pick with the plectrum. (flat pick) The second exercise would be simple up and down per string.
Finger pickers can use any picking combination. The first exercise could be a great time to practice picking the first string with the middle finger and the second string with the index finger. Using the two fingers to pick with will build good coordination and independence for the two fingers.
For the second exercise, finger pickers can alternate the two fingers as above, or alternate the thumb and index finger as practice for “Reno” style OR, picking thumb, index and middle for each note plucked will challenge your ability to keep track of what you’re doing all the way up the fingerboard and back down.
Clawhammer players can use the alternating thumb and fingernail, or alternate, fingernail, fingernail, thumb. This can be applied to both exercises.
Why Does This Work?
While I’m not a physical therapist, most musicians agree that fine motor muscles are slower to train than gross motor muscles. (large muscles like biceps or quadriceps)
Most of us can increase the number of push-ups we can do within a few weeks of starting.
Most of us require longer to develop a forward roll or strengthen our ring and pinky fingers.
Smaller, fine motor skills can be improved in almost every person, with time, patience, understanding and SLOW training.
The reason this exercise makes us faster and more dexterous is mostly because you have increased the natural strength and agility of two “weaker” fingers.
On a sports team, four strong athletes will always move better than two strong and two weak.
So your ENTIRE fretting hand now has four strong fingers instead of two strong and two weak. You almost have to experience this to believe it. We don’t think much about our “weaker” fingers, until they aren’t weak. Passages that once were hard to play, become easier. Reaching chords that were sloppy and buzzing are now clear, clean and MUCH easier to reach.
Your left hand is faster because all of the fingers are working stronger than two strong and two weak.
Finger It Out
Once you experience the increased strength in your fretting hand, and are able to play songs and licks you’ve always dreamed about, you will experience more control over the strings than you’ve ever had.
It works if you move slowly and “finger it out.”