How To Build Speed & Dexterity

While many banjo enthusiasts admire fast banjo playing, it isn’t always clear how to train to play fast, effortlessly and with precision. Speed and dexterity will be loosely described here as a kind of familiarity. Familiarity is usually “created” when we repeat something, comfortably, slowly and regularly.

Do you know what the easiest, simplest concept is in speed training?

  • When you practice slow, you learn fast.
  • When you practice slowly, your speed increases without trying to do so. That is why students practice with a metronome, to prevent speeding up beyond their comfort level.
  • When you practice too fast, you introduce un-wanted muscle tension and therefore, bad habits.

Practice Technique

Here is a simple exercise that, when practiced slowly and comfortably, has been used by virtually every champion banjoist and guitarist that I know. Please note, this is not music, but speed and dexterity training, designed to enable the student to move both right and left hand with greater ease and accuracy.

  1. For the right hand, choose one roll or picking pattern. For this demonstration we’ll choose the thumb, index, thumb, middle pattern. (often called the thumb in and out roll.) We will confine this roll ONLY to the first string. In other words, we will pluck the first string with thumb, then index, then thumb again and them middle finger. For now, that is only what the right hand is going to do and the only string that will be plucked with the fingers of the right hand.
  2. The left hand will press each consecutive fret on the first string with each consecutive finger each time the right plucks the string. So, as the right hand is plucking the first string, we fret the first fret with the left index finger. Then fret the second fret with the middle finger. Then fret the third fret with the left ring finger and then the fourth fret with the pinky finger.
    Once the fourth fret is reached, the player shifts the left hand up to fret the fifth fret with the index finger, positioning the left hand over the next group of four frets. Then the sixth fret is fretted with the middle finger, the seventh fret with the ring finger and the eighth fret with the pinky.
    The player shifts the left hand again to start this pattern again with the left index finger on the ninth fret, etc.

Fine Points to Remember:

  • One of the “tricks” of this exercise is keeping an “even amount of space between the notes”. This detail is critical for smooth speed development. Whether you are moving your fingers from fret to fret or shifting your entire hand from position to position, you must keep the same amount of time or “space” between each note. This detail alone builds smoothness.
  • Practice this exercise fretting every fret from 1st to 22nd and then, come back down the finger board in the exact same manner as you ascended. Remember to keep an even space (space here refers to time, not physical space.) between every note.
  • If your “hand shifts” are taking longer than you finger fretting, slow down your finger fretting until you are fretting at the same speed as your “hand shift.” Keep your right hand plucking no faster than you can keep an even space between notes.

To illustrate this, think of this exercise like this:
Pluck, space, pluck, space, pluck, space, pluck, space.

Don’t do this:
Pluck, spaaaaaccccee, plk, spc, pluucckk, spaaccce, pluuucckkkkkkk, spce.

Frequency:

  • For the first two weeks or so, do this exercise on the first string. In the third week, do this exercise on the first AND second string. In the fourth week, do this exercise on the first string, then the second string and then the third string. In the fifth week do this exercise on all five strings (one at a time of course.) You may find it more comfortable to use a thumb and index alternating picking pattern on the third, fourth and fifth strings, but the more fingers you can reach to the third, fourth and fifth strings, the more flexible, agile and strong your right hand will become.
  • Make sure that you make absolutely every note as clear and ringing as possible on every fret on every string during this exercise. Practicing slowly will enable you to accomplish that in a short time. It will also develop finger strength and dexterity that you start to notice within the first two weeks. (Or even sooner) If any of your notes are dull, or buzzing, SLOW DOWN! With this practice technique, you are not interested in speed…. Leave that to playing your songs.
  • If you are an intermediate to advanced player, you will notice that your speed and dexterity have increased on the songs you already know without any attempt to make them so. If you are a total beginner, this will build you a foundation that is more solid than learning a hundred songs.

Where to Go From Here:
When you have practiced this little exercise for 30 minutes a day, for five weeks, get a copy of Mel Bay’s Banjo Scales Chart and hang it in front of you on the wall. When you are finished with your daily practice of the above exercise, you can start applying the same “even space between the notes, slowly” approach to learning the scales. You will be ready for it after only five weeks of 30 minutes a day with this wonderful little exercise.

What to Expect:
If you make this exercise part of you daily routine with your banjo indefinitely, your skill, speed and dexterity will continue to grow, develop and improve. Sound too good to be true? Try it…. And like virtually all champions and professionals, you’ll roll through “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” or “Blackberry Blossom” with the smooth, effortless speed, we all dream about.

January 09, 2012 by Barry Hunn
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Comments

Dan Carey

Dan Carey said:

Keep these tips pages coming! and put them in one, accessable place on your website so folks can come & review them anytime!

Elliott Hall

Elliott Hall said:

I just read thru"how to increase speed&dexterity and I admit that I never
thought that I could learn speed,now I can
All I need is a banjo. I have a mandolin also
a guitar But I need to WIN a BANJO.

Alfred Brown

Alfred Brown said:

great practice exercise- wish I had it years ago!

Gus D

Gus D said:

I’ve been learning to play the banjo for well over 10 years and still use this exercise everyday. It is an absolute must.

I by no means am presuming to tell anyone how to practice, but if you name the note as you are picking the fretted string it goes a long way to learning the fret board.

I really enjoy reading your playing tips and have always found them to be useful tools.

Thank You.

Jim Glover

Jim Glover said:

Good I’ll try it!

barry

barry said:

Fantastic tip thanks.

Mike Harley

Mike Harley said:

I was talking to my wife just last night about how to improve my speed and dexterity (I’m self-taught and have been playing for nearly three years now – a Goodtime). I’ll try this exercise this evening, when I next practice. Many thanks.

Will

Will said:

A great article but is there not a slight error in -
Frequency – first paragraph? It reads ’ agile and strong your right hand will become’. Shouldn’t that be left hand? Perhaps I’m reading it wrong. But very good advice anyway.

Thanks Will

Richard Bernier

Richard Bernier said:

Great advice! My first banjo teacher said these same things and they have worked effectively.

Buck Thrailkill

Buck Thrailkill said:

Barry,
What a great write up for this training. I tell my students this ALL THE TIME, but now I can show them your article so they can see it isn’t just me…lol My favorite quote them and to all banjo pickers, “Just relax and play the banjo”

Thank, Buck

Rich

Rich said:

Thank you this exercise. As a beginner I find myself using a “death grip” on the left hand to attempt even the basic chords. How can I press the strings hard enough to do this exercise and end the death grip on the left hand?

Richard Rabkin

Richard Rabkin said:

As a neuroscientist and banjo player, I see the goal as solidifying certain pathways in the brain (actually coating the gray matter (nerves) with white matter (myelin). One cell in the brain (astrocyte) looks for pathways that are being used a lot and signals another cell to coat it with myelin which allows nerve impulse to go much more quickly down the nerve. You can think of myelin as insulation on an electrical wire.

The reason for practicing slowly is, that if you make a mistake, the astrocyte doesn’t recognize what you’re doing as a repeated behavior and doesn’t build a fast pathway. The admonition to not practice your mistakes by repeating them is to prevent the astrocyte from insulating the wrong pathway.

I also think that what you suggest will certainly allow you to be very fast with the “thumb in and out roll”, but I’m not sure it will transfer to other patterns. What would you suggest a two-finger index lead player do?

Tom James

Tom James said:

Great piece of infomation. Keep puting up great info. like this

Brian

Brian said:

My thanks for this. But will it work for a frailing / clawhammer technique or is there a better option that will also help with this technique? A video demo may help also. Kepp up the good work. Cheers.

Chris Clarke

Chris Clarke said:

Great article, David. Keep them coming!

Gabriel

Gabriel said:

Nice tip. Do you recommend using a metronome?

Ed Domanico

Ed Domanico said:

What a valuable practice technique.
As a banjo “newbie” I m totally in David s debt.
Thank you for your clarity and supportive helpful technique suggestions

micah

micah said:

I’ve completed day #2 of the 5 week program. the 30 minutes go by pretty quickly. not as boring as i thought it would be. 3 questions:

1. what speed should my metronome be set at? today i did 50 bpm.

2. should i vary the speed every 5 minutes or so? or stay at one speed the whole time.

3. over the course of the 5 weeks, should i be trying to go a little faster when doing this exercise?

Thank you,
future banjo champion

eddie fingers

eddie fingers said:

that sounds good must get on with it my promblem is that i am missing the top joints of my picking hand and have to wear my picks on first finger and third fingerwill his still help me regards eddie

Cj Brown

Cj Brown said:

Hey folks , well at age 51 i bought my Good Time 2 and have been playing for about 5 months now. I am going to try this tip as i work a great deal of hours and would like to improve my skill as I can. Also I bought a cheap chair with a back that is only used to play my Banjer on lol. Yup this too helped me playing in part i think because I am more relaxed. Thanks for the tips. I wonder though if Deering could on web site have a section devoted to these tips for easy access and reading. Thanks to you all.

don butler

don butler said:

At 59 yo im going to give the banjo another shot..i just ordered a Deering Goodtime due to all the excellent reviews..i bought a Fender FB 55 new about a month ago but cant get use to the bulkiness at my beginning stage so im hoping the Goodtime will mentally change my approach..I also like the idea of maybe being a little lighter for mobility when traveling or just sitting on the sand dunes watching the waves break on the beach for some peaceful undisturbing practice excersises..cant wait for my Goodtime..

Tom

Tom said:

Having a problem with my thumb pick hitting the banjo head while playing. Focusing on preventing that but then I lose focus on actually playing. Too large of a thumb pick? Bad right hand position on the head? Advice please. Thx

Mike

Mike said:

Guitarist but l like the ideas. Maybe I can warp my guitar into a banjo

captdan

captdan said:

Just a beginner so i will be trying this exercise starting today. i will let you know how it’s going in a month or so.

Framusbanjer

Framusbanjer said:

Question: Do I lift the Index Finger before pressing down with the Middle Finger, lift the Middle Finger before pressing down the Third Finger, etc., OR press & hold each finger until it is time to shift the left hand?

Tyrone Wilson

Tyrone Wilson said:

Thanks for all these good tips, keep them coming.

Kevin McGinty

Kevin McGinty said:

Thank you! This has been a very helpful article. One recommendation I have is to include a link to some of the YouTube videos you have of performing/practicing techniques.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L_l-Jkkt9RU

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