The Ergonomic Subtleties of Playing Banjo

OK, so you are saying to yourself that “banjo” and “subtle” are an oxymoron, right? How can a banjo in any way be connected with that word? Well, folks, just as “still waters run deep” so it is with our beloved banjo. If you aren’t paying attention to those subtle little details of playing the banjo, you may just be working too hard!

BODY PLAYING POSITION:
One of the most critical factors to playing the banjo is playing position. A very nice lady asked me about this question on our Support Forum not too long ago. It prompted me to think that I had not shared this point with the rest of you. Try focusing on some of these tips the next time you sit down to play your banjo.

1. You should be sitting in a firm chair with no chair arms. This allows your body to have freedom of movement and good stability. You can use a stool but make sure you can rest your feet comfortably for good stability. Have a good back on the chair is optimum so you are well supported. Let’s face it; banjos are, for the most part, heavy.  Having something firm against your back will help you sit up straight.

2. Use a banjo strap. Some folks tell me, “But I sit when I play, so I don’t need a strap.”
What they are addressing is the weight of the banjo. What I am addressing is the ease of movement for your fretting hand. If you are supporting the neck of the banjo as well as trying to move freely up and down the neck as you play, your hand is doing two jobs. A strap that is properly adjusted will allow the banjo to be well supported and give your hands their much needed freedom for playing.  If you need to lift the pressure of the banjo off your lap, just adjust your strap accordingly to make it more comfortable for you to play.

3. The banjo should sit about 45 degrees relative to your body while sitting in your lap.  The banjo is not a guitar. I can always tell a guitar player when he comes into my showroom. He sits down and cants the banjo onto his thigh which is how he holds his guitar. By placing the banjo in the middle of your lap, you give your arm a much easier access to the neck. Try it and you will see what I mean. You will be able to sit up straighter and not strain your back. Your body will thank you for just this one little change.

4. Try and sit with your shoulders in a relaxed position and sitting fairly straight. This will take the strain off your back.  Using the strap just nails this one down.

5. With many upper line banjos, there are dots on the side of the neck for you to use to help your fingers reach the right frets. These will help prevent you from leaning over and straining your neck while you play.

6. If your banjo does not have side dots, try canting the pot just a bit to help so you see the fret markers instead of leaning over to prevent neck and back strain.

HAND POSITION:
Thumb placement is something that many folks forget to consider. Many callers complain about not having long enough fingers to play the banjo. I know…I did too. But my teacher asked me to show him how I hold the banjo. He caught the problem immediately. I had my thumb in the wrong place.

1. The thumb should be at the middle of the back of the neck; thinking of the neck as the “spine.” When you place your thumb at the middle, your fingers have a shorter distance to extend. The thumb then acts as a fulcrum from which you can pivot so that your hand comes OVER the top of the neck and your fingers should come DOWN VERICALLY over the top of the strings for a nice, clean fret.

This is so important that Jens Kruger actually had us put a V-shaped neck on the Tenbrooks banjos so that the player would have an “indexing point” for his thumb to find the best playing position. Because Jens is knows as a virtuoso on the banjo, his focus on thumb position can assure us of its importance.
I know you will see players who put their thumb on the far side of the neck. They are essentially holding the neck in the web of their hand. While it can be done, they usually have much bigger hands or longer fingers.

2. Muddy/fuzzy notes can occur if the fingers of your hand are “leaning” over the strings instead of coming down over the strings. What happens here is that the pads of your fingers are coming into contact with the string next to the one you are fretting. This causes that string to “ring” in response to the pad of the finger touching it. By bringing your fingers up and over so that just the tips of the fingers come into contact with the strings, you will have nice clean notes.

3. Cut your fingernails! I know this sounds basic, but you would be surprised how fast your fingernails can grow. If you trim them so that they do not extend over the pad of the finger, you will have a nice clean sound when you fret. The nails can prevent the fingers from coming into good contact with the strings. Another benefit of this is that you will not wear “valleys” into the fingerboard. Over time, believe it or not, the fingernails can carve out valleys in even ebony fingerboards. Trimming your nails will solve two very important banjo playing issues.

4. Your elbow should come in close to your body, in more or less a vertical position while playing. Again, this will allow your hand and thumb greater ease while playing.

5. Be careful to keep your wrist in a straight alignment with your hand. If you angle the wrist to reach the strings, you run the possible risk of injury. I had this problem when I first started playing. I began to get soreness in the thumb to wrist region. I was told to look at myself in a mirror while playing to watch that I kept the wrist/hand relationship straight on approach when plucking. This took the pain away and it has never returned. It is similar to what folks who have carpel tunnel syndrome complain of so focus on this region may help prevent some future health problems.

HOW MUCH PRESSURE DO I USE WHEN PLAYING?
I am fond of telling the folks who come into our showroom that “You don’t have to be a linebacker to play the banjo.” Why do I say this? Because a well made banjo, the kind we make here at Deering banjos, is a very responsive instrument.

1. Customers sometimes complain about notes sounding “sharp” when they play. This can be caused by using too much pressure on the string when you play. What you are essentially doing is “stretching” the string over the fret instead of have it come into a firm contact with the string with less pressure. If you have this problem, play the string as you usually do. Now play it again, but back off the pressure just a bit. Continue this process until you hear the note ring true and you will begin to understand how much pressure you need.

2. Visitors to our factory sometimes get a “2-finger banjo lesson.” The simple Barre chords that we teach with this method are easy to learn but you do have to learn how much pressure you need to make them ring clear. Again, remember that the strings need to ALL come into contact with the frets. When forming a Barre chord, you have a ridged finger coming into contact with straight frets. You learn, over time, how much pressure you need to flatten your finger so that it connects with all the strings so that they meet the fret at the same time.

3. The banjo head is very responsive the vibration of the strings through the bridge. A good firm strum will sound better than a massive amount of energy. Even a nice, even, light pressure will give you the grandest sparkling sound. If the practice this strumming, you will learn how much pressure you need to give the strings to get the sound you like the best.

4. Pushing or pulling on the string can cause the note to be sharp. Again, remember to come down over the top of the string. The pushing/pulling rather than direct, downward pressure can cause the notes to be sharp. Now, there is a playing technique that is called “a pull” so let us not confuse this with what I am talking about. A “push” or a “pull” (sometimes called choking/bending) is a way to distort a note for intentional musical variety.

Many of these suggestions have come about through my experience as a banjo player or through customer interaction. Each of you may have personal health concerns that prevent you from using any of these ideas.  It is always best to consult your physician if you experience any problems. These suggestions are meant to give you some ideas to bring more joy to your journey with banjo. It is, after all, for all of us about having fun with a banjo!

July 10, 2012 by Barry Hunn
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Comments

Carolina

Carolina said:

Thanks, Jeff. I am glad the article was helpful. I appreciate your taking the time to read it and write to us. :-)

Jeff Beal

Jeff Beal said:

Thanks. You’ve confirmed what I suspected for a long time, regarding the use of a strap, even when sitting.

Kirt Salisbury

Kirt Salisbury said:

Hi Caroline…good article! My banjo came with medium strings, it was slightly used and the previous owner put a new set of strings on it for me. But I noticed that all the Deering banjos I saw came with very thin strings. So I tried them. The “Sharpness” as you said was very noticeable…too much so. Now, I play in a Contemporary Christian Band and the music we play does not really condone a lot of the bluegrass style of rolls and sounds. So I quickly went back to medium strings and all was well again. So if someone out there consistently hears their strings/notes going sharp they might find using a medium gauge set of strings solving the problem.

Kirt -The crazy banjo player

Brian

Brian said:

That tip about thumb placement has completely changed the banjo for me. Doggone if I haven’t been doing it wrong for years. That one tip doubled the pleasure and halved the difficulty! It is always the little things that mean so much. Thanks.

Carolina

Carolina said:

Hi Kirt,
Thanks for writing and you make a very good point. The caution on this would be in the case of the Goodtime banjo. We recommend only light gauge strings on that line to protect the integrity of the neck as regards bowing from too much strain by higher gauges.

Carolina

Carolina said:

Awesome, Brian! I am so glad that it helped. Thanks for writing to let me know.
That tip came from my first banjo teacher…he really knew what he was talking about. :-)

Charles Neal

Charles Neal said:

Thank You for the article,anything is helpful.Hi to Carolina,best Lady in the world Helped me so much,Thanks A Bunch.From Nashville

Larry Rosenberg

Larry Rosenberg said:

I’ve been making a study of players who use a strap and players who don’t. (While sitting, that is, of course.) I am pleased to observe that although it seems to be pretty evenly split (for guitar, as well as banjo, BTW), most of the players who are considered the top banjoists do use a strap while sitting. Recently, I had a chance to observe and discuss this with Ken Perlman at a workshop who explained that he uses a strap even while sitting due to the construction of modern banjos, in that they often will have a lot of weight in the neck and the strap, as you say here in the article, helps with balance.

From the beginning with my first Goodtime, I have found this to be true, but I also noticed that more advanced players often have no strap on their instruments, or leave it off while playing in a seated position. I had to do this informal study to make sure that it was not my lack of playing experience or skill that made me more comfortable with a strap at all times. I am glad to know now not only what works best for me, but also why it works. Thanks for a great article.

Dave Hard

Dave Hard said:

For years (50+) I’ve been playing what I call “subtle banjo” and folks have told me, jokingly, that that’s an oxymoron. I play bare finger-style with a rag (Pete Seeger gave me an old work shirt at Newport in ‘64) in the back and it sounds just fine. If I didn’t play my original ODE long neck, I would for sure play a Deering. I tried a Vega PS-5 in the 60’s and found the neck way too fat. I definitely enjoy your tips….even old banjo dogs can learn new tricks….so keep up the good work.
BoulderFolkie

Larry Shroth

Larry Shroth said:

Great article on holding the banjo. As someone who also plays guitar it’s quite easy to forego keeping your thumb on the back of the neck. I’m looking forward to trying the suggestions when I practice and see how it feels.

Charles Baranowski

Charles Baranowski said:

Great article, after reading carefully made some changes in my practicing and playing! Holds true for thumb and chair no question about it! Please keep these little gems comming! It’s great to hve someone like you contributing to things that few people question.
CB. Montreal

Jack O'Shea

Jack O'Shea said:

Great article. I have taught and coached the banjo-lorn for many years, I still learned a bunch. You’re onto something big. Keep writing about the banjo. Jack thanks. J

phil alberts

phil alberts said:

i really want ta learn how to strum or pick the banjo i do have a deering whitetail deer 2 special luv the sound when strummed can u help me get this problem taking care of thanks if u can phil. p.s. with the right hand savin the cords with my left im lefthanded . thanks.

Gregory Strickland

Gregory Strickland said:

Thanks for posting this information. It is very important and extremely helpful.
This is exactly the kind of advice that a beginner trying to teach themselves (which would have been me due to lack of access to an instructor early in my playing) really needs to know.

Carolina

Carolina said:

Hi Gregory,
Yes, it is often hard to find a banjo teacher. There are many good books, CDs, and DVDs but the kind of points I mentioned are not always covered in them. I am glad you found the article helpful and thank you for taking the time to write and let me know.

Carolina

Carolina said:

Hi Randall,
Thank you for taking the time to read the article and write. Sharing your personal insights with the other readers is very helpful. I am glad you could “see yourself” in the article.
Much of what I wrote about is from what I too have learned from being a player. If we all can share our experiences, then maybe we can all come away better for it. Standing is a good
solution but the heavier banjos are more cumbersome so you have to appreciate the professionals who stand and play on stage for hours and hours for us. :-)
Keep in touch.

Randall Smith

Randall Smith said:

I had to laugh to myself when you commented about guitar players holding the banjo on their knee. That was me. I had the hardest time balancing that round banjo on my round leg. Even with a strap, the old song lyrics ‘banjo on my knee’, just didn’t work. My solution was simple. Stand up. Works pretty well with my Goodtime Classic. I imagine it would be very taxing with a heavier banjo, though. For some reason, that slight shift of my left arm further to the left with the banjo on my lap becomes uncomfortable after a few minutes but it is definitely easier to play than on my leg.
I have experimented a little with the thumb on the back of the neck. I was experiencing some soreness in my index finger. I have long fingers and was holding the neck with the web of my hand as you described. Using the thumb on the ridge seems to help if I can remember not to revert to my old ways.

Carolina

Carolina said:

Hi Phil,
The great thing about banjo books is that whether you are right handed or left handed, you can still use them. They number the strings and list the tablature as T(thumb), M(middle), and I(index) so it does not matter whether you use the right or left hand because they both have thumb, middle, and index. :-) Chord charts are the same. Do you get what I mean? Strings 1-5 are the same; you just have it switched the other direction because you are lefty but your 5th string is the short one just like the 5th string is the short one on a right-handed 5-string banjo…
We do have a nice two-finger DVD on the website that shows some strumming songs that you might find helpful.Get a nice Chord chart…we have one for $4.95 that is great. Find a book you like. Just look at the chords listed above the plucking pattern and STRUM those chords instead of picking. That is what I think you are asking and it does work…it’s one of my favorite ways to play banjo!!

Carolina

Carolina said:

Hi Larry,
Thanks for giving the suggestions a try. Not everything will work for everyone but it is nice to know you are open to seeing if it will work. :-)

Carolina

Carolina said:

WOW, Jack. Thank you. I really appreciate your comments. I am always hopeful that one or two things will be helpful to folks out there and it is nice to know that the articles are well received. :-)

Carolina

Carolina said:

Hi Charles,
Always good to hear from you!! Thanks for reading my article and I am always happy to be of help. I appreciate your compliments!! :-)

Carolina

Carolina said:

Hi Charles,
Thanks for writing. I have made so many mistakes that I have good practice at changing! The article is an accumulation of insights from teachers I have had and customers I have spoken to. It is wonderful to have such a rich community of folks to share ideas. I am glad you found something of use. If you have any suggestions or questions, please send them my way. I always need new ideas!!

Carolina

Carolina said:

Thanks, Dave, for taking the time to write and for the compliments. I think it is this combined sharing of thoughts from all of us that is so healthy! I play without finger picks as well and enjoy the warm sound I get. (And folks who don’t want to hear me probably appreciate it as well. LOL) Keep in touch and I am glad you enjoyed the tips.

Carolina

Carolina said:

Hi Larry,
Good to hear from you. You know, Jens Kruger wears a strap while he plays. I am happy to hear about your “independent study” on straps. I like what Ken had to say and he is a well-experienced banjo expert.
Isn’t it fun to share ideas? Thanks for your insights on straps. It is this kind of sharing that will help us all be better and happier banjo players.

Carolina

Carolina said:

Hi Jeff,
I am glad the strap tip was good for you. It really makes life easier..and boy, we can always use something that will do that! I appreciate your reading the article and taking the time to comment.

Carolina

Carolina said:

Great, Brian! Thanks for letting me know. That one is really from my first banjo teacher and I was happy to share it with you all. I am glad it helped. :-)

Ken Perrotta

Ken Perrotta said:

Carolina,

You don’t address what kind of strap should be used. I’m currently using a some what inexpensive full cradle strap on my 5 string Deluxe. Some websites say this type of strap will mute the tone ring. I don’t think at this point in my playing career I would notice the difference, but I was thinking of asking the family for a fancier one for Christmas. I’ve seen straps that wrap around the head brackets, but it seems to me that would put stress on the brackets. Additionally, my strap goes over my left shoulder, around my back, and under my right arm. I’ve seen pictures and video of Earl Scruggs with his strap slung over just his right shoulder. What’s the word on straps?

Thanks,
Ken Perrotta

Bill

Bill said:

I have an Eagle II. I’ve been playing some classical music lately and needed better intonation on the 4th string. So I switched to a GHS 16 gauge phosphor bronze string. MUCH better.

Carolina

Carolina said:

Hi Ken,
The way you describe your body position with the strap is the more common way of using the straps for easier body support. I have seen players use the method you described by Earl. When it comes to ergonomics of strap use, it is best to use the one that works best for good support and comfort. We have recommended cradle straps for our customers. They do not damage the finish on the banjo and we have not heard of any muting due to their presence on the rim but I can understand how that might occur. The brackets are made of steel and can be used to support the strap on that kind of attachment. The important thing there is to be sure the hook is well connected at the bottom to the hex nut so it does not pop up with the strap tension.
Thanks for reading the article and writing.

Carolina

Carolina said:

Great, Bill. I am glad you were able to solve the problem with some string gauge changes. Thanks for sharing.

Carolina

Carolina said:

Thank you so much for the compliments. We try to write helpful articles. :-)

learning to play

learning to play said:

Hi there, just became alert to your blog through Google, and found that it’s really informative. I’m going to watch
out for brussels. I’ll appreciate if you continue this in future. Numerous people will be benefited from your writing. Cheers!

Adam K

Adam K said:

It would be nice to post a picture of proper thumb positioning, perhaps holding a few 3 and 4 finger chords.

Hilarie Burhans

Hilarie Burhans said:

I happened on your post through a Google search and had a suggestion. It would be great if this article pointed out at the outset that these instructions do not apply to clawhammer banjo. In particular, the neck angle and placement of the banjo mid-lap are not appropriate, ergonomically, for most clawhammer banjo players. It’s very difficult to maintain a neutral wrist in the right hand in that position. We also seldom play barre chords so the thumb-on-the-neck stuff is also not something that you’ll see 99% of the best clawhammer players do except when playing an occasional barre chord. I like a lot of your other stuff though!

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