Blessed Are the Weak
For most banjoists, the fretting hand index finger and middle fingers are the strongest, most dexterous fingers for fretting the banjo. We tend to focus on these fingers for most left hand techniques and give little thought to the ring and pinky fingers. Years ago I discovered that training the pinky and ring fingers of the left hand had an amazing strengthening effect on my entire hand. The following simple little exercise had an enormous positive effect on my left hand strength, coordination, speed and agility.
With the left hand, fret the first string at the ninth fret with the pinky. Pluck that string with your middle finger of the right hand.
Then, fret the third string at the seventh fret with your ring finger. Pluck that string with your thumb.
Make sure your fretting finger gives you a clean, clear tone. Do not settle for buzzing or muffled tone. Make sure you are moving slow enough to accomplish this.
Do not hold down the pinky and ring finger simultaneously. First fret with the pinky and then when fretting the ring finger, let the pinky raise off the string. Don’t hold both fingers down at the same time.
Next, fret the second string at the ninth fret with the pinky. Pluck that string with your index finger.
Then, fret the fourth string at the seventh fret with your ring finger. Pluck that string with your thumb.
Repeat this exercise for five minutes.
Move extremely slowly. Remember, this is not music. This is a technique builder. If the fretting fingers create a clear, bell like tone, then your left hand is doing this correctly.
Rest your hands after the first five minutes for at least five minutes. More rest is better than less.
Repeat this exercise again for five minutes, moving extremely slowly. If this second session feels like too much -stop - you’re done for the day. Rest. You’ve earned it.
If you get anything other than a clear, ringing tone, you are pushing yourself too fast and you must slow down.
At this point on the first day, stop doing this exercise.
It is best at this point to take a two hour break and do a few household chores like washing dishes, doing laundry, mow the lawn etc. Then after two hours of doing something completely different with your hands, you can come back to practicing the banjo for your usual practice, but not this excercise.
On the second day, repeat this exercise for five minutes and then rest. If your hand is too tired, do not practice this exercise for two consecutive days. This exercise will help you even if you only do it two to three non-consecutive days a week.
After resting, when you begin practicing again, move your left hand toward the nut, one fret and do the exercise again.
That means, fret the first string at the eighth fret with your pinky and pluck that string with your middle finger.
Then fret the third string at the sixth fret with your ring finger and pluck it with your thumb.
Then fret the second string at the eighth fret with your pinky and pluck that string with your index finger.
Then fret the fourth string at the sixth fret with your ring finger and pluck it with your thumb.
Repeat this exercise at this different fret board location for five minutes and then stop practicing and go do some chores around the house, using your hands in regular daily ways.
As you can see, we started fretting on the ninth and seventh frets and then moved down (down in pitch) one fret. As you progress with this exercise, you will gradually move your hand down further toward the nut, moving the two fret span of this exercise, one fret at a time which will very slowly, gradually spread your pinky and ring fingers out, while strengthening them.
Do not over-do this exercise in one day. This training technique is working very small muscles that can easily be over-taxed. So, for the first week, don't do more than ten minutes a day on this, and be sure to break it up into no more than five minutes each practice session and if your hand gets too tired or feels like it wants to cramp up, stop immediately for that day and try it again the next day or three days later. This is a case where, at the beginning, thirty seconds each day, is worth far more than five minutes with an injury. Work only as long as you are not feeling any painful strain.
Also, do not change your fretting hand position at the seventh fret area more often or sooner than recommended here. Stretching and fretting cleanly for this exercise is a strain for the hand and must be approached very slowly. Do not go too far or too fast too soon!
We all tend to favor our left hand's index and middle finger. When our ring and pinky fingers are strengthened and stretched, our ability to move, reach, and move more quickly is radically enhanced. This alone, will help make your other exercises seem easier.
In the fourth week, you can probably add another five minutes to this while moving down the neck (down as in pitch, toward the nut). In the eighth week, another five minutes, etc.
By the twelfth week, you will likely be able to do this exercise about as much as you want. But if it takes longer to achieve that level, don’t feel as though you have failed or you can’t cut it. Everyone’s hands are different and respond to training at different speeds. Work this slowly, gently and relaxed, and it will work.
This is a very advanced and difficult practice technique but one that will improve your left hand dexterity tremendously.
The weak will be made strong.