Thumb’s Up! Banjo Technique That Works For You

by Barry Hunn

A beginning banjo student called us a while back to ask us to address how to hold the thumb of the fretting hand.  She tried to hold her thumb in the center of the back of the neck and learned on a video lesson to “hook” her thumb on the edge of the fingerboard for good stability with difficult fingerings.  As a beginner she wanted to know “which approach is correct?”

We All Are Snowflakes

Just as every snowflake that has ever fallen to the earth has been unique in shape, so is every human being a beautiful and unique masterpiece.

No two people sing the same, walk the same, dance the same, play tennis the same or play the banjo the same way.  It’s just part of being human… and in my estimation, it’s one of the most perfect and beautiful aspects of being human.

So, when we all approach playing the banjo, we must look at our own uniqueness and allow for individual “adjustment” to accommodate for specific needs in hand and body shape, size, temperament, etc.

Flexibility is King

Techniques from the world of classical music have much to offer.  Most classical instruments are much older than the banjo and classical players have found over the years the ergonomic benefits of certain postures, ways of moving, etc.  But even classical musicians will vary their technique away from the “accepted and traditional technique” because of individual comfort or the needs of a certain piece of music.

Still, the classical “traditional techniques” have much to offer in terms of ease of movement, flexibility, and time tested ergonomic validity.  They are a good place to start, while allowing you the flexibility to find your own “comfort zone.”

The Fretting Hand Thumb 

In the classical guitar technique, the thumb of the fretting hand rests in the middle of the back of the neck of the classical guitar.  Many banjo teachers and players recommend this approach for the banjo student.

In general this posture does allow for the greatest freedom of movement for the fretting fingers regardless of how large or small the player’s hand is.  In other words, this allows the fretting finger to reach “over” the strings comfortably.

It helps avoid leaning against adjacent strings or deadening adjacent  strings by not creating enough “arch” in your fretting  fingers. The thumb in the middle of the neck gives all players this ease of reaching “over the strings” without interfering with the non fretted strings. The thumb is both a pivot point and a fulcrum to offer stability and freedom of movement. 

However, it is very important to remember that the classical guitar, from which this hand approach has been derived, has a neck that is two full inches wide at the nut. Deering five string banjos have a nut width of only 1 ¼ inches at the nut and Deering tenor and plectrum banjos have a nut width of 1 3/16 inches.    

As a result of this difference it is very common for banjo players to allow the neck to rest in the web and palm of the fretting hand. This only works because the neck of the banjo is so narrow compared to the classical guitar so reaching the strings and frets on a banjo usually doesn’t require as long a reach as it does on the guitar.

Is the Palm On the Neck Bad?

Well… yes…. and - not necessarily.

If you have long fingers and big hands, that allow you to arch your fingers over the strings, without touching the other strings, and can make clear notes when fretting while you are resting your palm on the back of the neck, then resting on the palm is probably ok for you for certain pieces of music.

If your hand is more in the medium to small size, then you will probably need to increase your reach by resting your thumb only on the middle of the back of the neck. If you need more “grip stability” for certain chords, note passages, etc. and if your hand is large enough, then you might benefit from “hooking your fretting hand thumb around the neck on the fifth string side” to help reach or grip the strings you need.

It’s probably accurate to say that, players with longer hands are more likely to feel comfortable with the palm on the neck approach and players with medium to small hands will find little or no use for this technique.

Is the Thumb On the Neck Better Overall?

Yes, definitely.

The thumb on the back of the neck offers the most freedom of movement for the fretting hand, regardless of hand size. Therefore, it is the best technique to develop for virtually all players. 

There are times when a player might want to hold down all five strings with each finger on a different fret on a five string banjo.   This can ONLY be accomplished by using the thumb wrapped around the neck and therefore with the palm or web of the thumb and index finger gripping the neck.  (I have to say, this is pretty un-usual so don’t worry if you can’t do it…I’m really speaking here hypothetically.)  This is a technique that some players will not be able to accomplish because they can’t reach the strings in this posture. This is rare and the need of this technique is even rarer.

Players of all instruments throughout history have always made adjustments in their technique to work around their own ergonomic needs.  The great violinist Yasha Heifitz had to hold his violin in front of him after a shoulder injury prevented him from holding the violin under his chin and yet, his tone, technique and musical expertise was un-rivaled even with this “injury related adaptation.”   

Being able to reach your fingers to the strings you want, being able to arch your fingers so they don’t lean against the adjacent string, and being able to move from position to position is what your goal is.   How you go about doing this will work best if you adapt the music to YOU and your ergonomic needs.

  

Again With the Flexibility

As long as you are able to move from “palm on the neck” to “thumb on the back” of the neck easily, then the best idea is to use BOTH TECHNIQUES, as needed. 

Some players do like to “hook” their thumb on the fifth string side of the banjo neck to help stabilize their fingers for certain chords, or other fretting techniques.

This is an excellent technique when needed, but if your hand just can’t “hook” around the neck, don’t feel that you are “inadequate” or “you’re not cut out for banjo”. 

I think it was the great Bill Keith who said, “if you think there is only one way to play a tune, look again, and again, and again.” There are often many ways to accomplish the same musical goal. 

Learn to Embrace Whatever Works

The classical techniques are great as a foundation for your learning. Many seemingly unorthodox techniques have great value for certain chords and fingering patterns. If you need to try something out of the ordinary, try it.  Ask your teacher.  Beginners don’t always know what is better or more efficient, but with time and experience, these techniques will usually reveal their benefits or detriments.

But… if you never try them because “they aren’t correct” you might be missing an ergonomic benefit that could improve your comfort, speed, or dexterity.

So if you ask most professional players about the benefits of certain un-conventional techniques, you are likely to get a thumbs up!

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