Is One Banjo Style More Difficult than Another?

by Barry Hunn

We are asked regularly, is Bluegrass style finger picking more difficult than Clawhammer?  Is Clawhammer more difficult than finger picking? Is plectrum/tenor style with a flat pick easier than Bluegrass style finger picking?

These questions usually stem from two issues:

  1. A customer who wants to play the banjo but doesn’t have the confidence to choose what they actually want, and are trying to figure out which style they “might be able to accomplish”.
  2. A banjo student who is having difficulty with their technique, can’t see their way out of their difficulty and are wondering if they tried “an alternative” style, perhaps they would have better success.

Issue # 1 

It is always hard for anyone to assess accurately, their future ability in an activity when they have little to no experience with the activity.   Whether it’s banjo playing, golf, archery, running, ping pong, fashion, wine tasting, perfume making, cooking etc, how can you know that you’ll be successful until you actually try it? 

The single best, most reliable and most satisfying answer to this is…. just do it.   

There is no amount of reading, studying or theorizing that will tell you whether you can be a successful banjo player.  Reading other people’s experience can be entertaining but really can’t help YOU know what YOU are capable of accomplishing. 

Once you have tried it, you will know, from first-hand experience what is possible and what is not for YOU as an individual. 

So, if you’ve decided to give it a try, you still don’t know which style is “easier”.

Start With A Goodtime BanjoThe best solution here is to “choose the style you REALLY want to play.”
If you second guess yourself and choose the style you THINK might be easier, and it’s not exactly what you want, you might not be as motivated or inspired to persist because, “it’s not really what you wanted anyway.” 

Bluegrass fingerpicking:
Virtually anyone can learn to finger pick a banjo.  By learning three or four picking patterns or rolls, a very basic fingerpicking style can be easily learned. 

Click here for a video series on learning 3-finger banjo

This technique is very repetitive from a standpoint of picking hand motion.   The motion takes a little time to train, but once the basic motion is learned, a huge amount of music can be played using the most basic technique.

Flatpicking the four string banjos:
Strumming the banjo with a flatpick and playing notes and chords is very easy to understand.  The flatpick strums down and then back up.   Playing individual notes means the flat pick plucks down and up.  This is a technique used my millions of guitar players who enjoy a simple style of playing.

But, are one of these techniques easier than the others? Well, not really.

Some people may “feel” more comfortable or more “natural” when playing one of these techniques over another.   Some people might play all three techniques with equal ease and comfort. There are certain “ergonomic” factors that each of us as individuals might possess that help us learn one technique faster or easier than another. But, almost everyone can learn the technique they want, through slow, relaxed and steady training.

The best advice here is:

  • Choose the style you want.
  • Be gentle with yourself.
  • Give yourself reasonable expectations of success and persist until you succeed. 
  • You don’t have to play like the world’s greatest players to have fun. 

Issue #2

I have met many fingerpickers and clawhammer players who decided to change styles of banjo because they were stuck and couldn’t move forward in their current style. This is VERY difficult to address because it’s hard for any of us to know if we’ve given up too soon or moved on to something that is more ergonomically well suited to us as individuals.

In my own teaching experience there is usually a “missing ingredient” in the student’s technique or in their practicing approach that stops their forward progress.  It might be a problem with their arm posture, wrist angle, finger positions, thumb position, shoulder, back posture, playing too fast, etc.   When we have helped them make adjustments to their technique, their progress resumes.

Finding these “missing ingredients” takes patience.  Knowing that something is missing is helpful.  In other words, it’s not that you are incapable of playing the song or the technique, but it probably means there’s something that needs your attention. Are you tensing up when playing this section of the song?  Are you squeezing the banjo really hard?  Are you comfortable playing the passage really slow or can you not play it at all comfortably whether slow or fast?

The best self-diagnostic is try the technique so slow that you feel “anyone could do this.”   If you can’t play it slow, with comfort, and in a relaxed fashion, speed will only amplify your discomfort and therefore your difficulty. If during your slow diagnostic you can’t play with comfort - STOP.  Re-design your fingering, your posture, your wrist angle, your finger angles, you shoulder, etc.

You can track down what is bogging you down. This may be seem tedious when you’re in the middle of tracking this down, but when it becomes a habit (stopping to re-evaluate what you are doing) you do get better at it.   You get better at diagnosing your discomfort.

Also know that EVERY player goes through this process.

It might be true that one of the above techniques - fingerpicking, clawhammer, flatpicking is more “natural” for you as an individual.  You will likely discover this when you try all three and find that you seem to take to one easier than the others. 


Kristin Scott Benson chooses the Deering Golden Series banjos
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