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 ARCHIVED TOPIC: thumb pick hits the head


Please note this is an archived topic, so it is locked and unable to be replied to. You may, however, start a new topic and refer to this topic with a link: http://www.banjohangout.org/archive/272906

capo matt - Posted - 10/26/2013:  21:38:15


How do I solve this?  I've gotten into the habit of allowing my thumb pick to hit the head of the banjo, particularly on the 5th string.  I use a Golden Gate thumb pick like the one in the link. I've thought about filing down the blade, but that might not be a good idea... I dunno.  What do you think?  I've tried holding my wrist a little higher, but it makes everything uncomfortable... but maybe that's what I need to do!  How high should my wrist be from the head?  I'm wondering if I keep it too close and that is causing the problem.  Does anyone have a photo or video of the proper right hand position?  I'm self taught, so for all I know I've been doing it wrong since I started 18 months ago.


Dingoman25 - Posted - 10/26/2013:  22:22:23


It might be worth filming yourself picking and posting here.



Or demonstrate in front of an accomplished banjo picker, if that's an option.



That way, someone may notice something that is easily corrected.


shamsterdam - Posted - 10/26/2013:  23:53:44


There are more threads about this ( try the search function on the top right of this web site)...
There are some interesting discussions about picking technique.

Most people say that practice helps... I agree with Dingoman.

Banjelo - Posted - 10/27/2013:  00:24:31


Most thumb picks are just too long and pointy for my preferences and it feels like my thumb has to ride higher than what I am comfortable with. Way too much real-estate under the thumb. So whenever I buy a new pack of them I reshape and file down a few extras so I always have one that I can use (the cats steal them).  Later I learned that a lot of people do this for better control and sound.



So go ahead a file one down until it gets more comfortable.  The picks aren't that expensive.  Actually, after using needle-nose pliers and dipping in real hot water to do the thumb fitting I take them outside and drag that nasty long and pointy tip on the sidewalk a few times while giving it a rolling motion to round it somewhat.  Once you find the sweet spot, then make a few extras.  



And if anyone tries to tell you that its your technique that is problem then they don't jack.  Many of the greatest players on the planet reshape, round off and shorten the reach of their thumb-picks.



 



Edited by - Banjelo on 10/27/2013 00:41:53

Banjelo - Posted - 10/27/2013:  01:08:23


Think of it as a matter of mechanics. If you are messing with tiny screws like those that may be on the truss rod cover, do you need a foot long screwdriver?

 



wink  Just had a strange thought.  Would the ultimate banjo diss be something  like, "Heck, I wouldn't tuch yer banjo wid a ten foot pick!" 


pastorharry - Posted - 10/27/2013:  01:29:07


You'll notice in most all the videos and pictures of Earl, his thumb is hitting the head, which is clearly seen in the wear above the 5th string. We should all have such bad habits ! 




Banjelo - Posted - 10/27/2013:  02:53:03


That wear from his pick is the result of residual contact and anchoring his thumb much like a CH player.

It is not a sin to touch the head or use it as an anchor. We all do it.

The issue here is getting capo matt's thumb-pick adjusted right for him. Sure, there is going to be contact with the head. I think he just seeks some advice on tayloring his thumpick to be at the right length for how his thumb and fingers work on the strings.

The whole objective is to make the picks work for you.

Lew H - Posted - 10/27/2013:  06:34:05


Banjelo, My cat steals my thumb picks too! What on earth do they want them for? Cats don't even have thumbs. Seriously though, I also tend to hit the head (or the resonator cover on my dobro also. I use Zookie thumb picks. They are nice and short. Their tips are offset at various angles--10 to 30 degrees--which can be discouraging for some.

captbanjo - Posted - 10/27/2013:  07:56:53


I'll just ask: you do have an arm rest, right? If so, is it adjusted so it doesn't force your arm into an excessive downward angle?



Wayne


pickNgrin - Posted - 10/27/2013:  08:32:28


The way to solve it is to quit hitting the head with your thumbpick.



Ok... that sounds like a jackass response, but it is true. In other words, you just need to develop more control of your picking hand. Pick slow and deliberately. You will gradually gain more control. If you get really frustrated, listen to Reuben on Foggy Mountain Banjo. You can clearly hear Earl's thumbpick hitting the head. Even the big boys do it from time to time.



Keep picking, gain better control, minimize your finger motion, and pay attention to your tone. Your problem will gradually disappear.



The amount of wrist arch is different from player to player, but a good place to start is to hold a racketball between your wrist and the head. That will give you a good amount of arch.



-Matt



Edited by - pickNgrin on 10/27/2013 08:36:21

swamplunker - Posted - 10/27/2013:  09:04:37


One downside of a frosty head is that it'll tattle on you every time your thumb, or finger picks touch it. Clear heads don't do that, and I'm talking about equipment, not state of mind!

Dave Magram - Posted - 10/27/2013:  11:30:21


quote:


Originally posted by capo matt

 

How do I solve this?  I've gotten into the habit of allowing my thumb pick to hit the head of the banjo, particularly on the 5th string.  I use a Golden Gate thumb pick like the one in the link. I've thought about filing down the blade, but that might not be a good idea... I dunno.  What do you think?  I've tried holding my wrist a little higher, but it makes everything uncomfortable... but maybe that's what I need to do!  How high should my wrist be from the head?  I'm wondering if I keep it too close and that is causing the problem.  Does anyone have a photo or video of the proper right hand position?  I'm self taught, so for all I know I've been doing it wrong since I started 18 months ago.







Self-taught is great, but if you’re having technique problems, I’d suggest you hire an instructor (live or via Skype) for at least a few lessons to make sure you are not learning a lot of bad technique habits.



I would strongly advise NOT contorting your hand or wrist into awkward and non-ergonomic positions to match how your fingerpicks came from the factory. That is totally unnecessary and ill-advised. It is much easier (and smarter) to shape your fingerpick-blades correctly and select the optimally sized thumbpick than to undergo carpal-tunnel surgery! smiley



Most proficient banjo players re-shape their fingerpick blades. I’ve attached a diagram for shaping your fingerpick blade at what seems to be the optimal angle (32 degrees), based on extensive research and experimentation. The diagram also shows the optimal “strike zone” where the blade hits the strings. (See my homepage for additional diagrams.) Shaping your fingerpick blades correctly will help you position your hand and wrist correctly, help increase your tone and volume, and help you play comfortably with good ergonomics.



Your thumbpick should not be hitting the banjo head. If you have the correctly sized thumbpick and are striking the string at the optimal location on the thumbpick, this will not happen:



-I measured how far the thumbpick blade extends past my thumb on a couple of my thumbpicks and it was about 3/16”. If your thumbpick blade is protruding more than 3/16” or so, you might want to shorten it or buy shorter thumbpicks.



-The wear on both of my thumbpicks is about 1/4” from the end, which means that I am hitting the string right at the edge of my thumb. If you have a standard 5/8” bridge, the end of your thumbpick blade should be at least 3/8” from the head (since 5/8” minus 1/4" = 3/8”). So either you are hitting the string at the middle of your thumb, and/or you are positioning your hand much too close to the head. I’ve attached a photo of how Earl held his hand, which I’ve always believed to be the most optimal playing position (notice the absence of wrist-arch).  



I’ve also attached a close-up of how I hold my hand-- which I think is pretty close to how Earl does it (not saying that I can play like him). big  I originally posted this photo to show an example of how close to the strings most experienced players keep their fingers: about 3/16”. Economy of motion is a good technique habit to learn; which brings me back to my suggestion of getting at least a few lessons.



I hope this is helpful.



-Dave




Fingepick blade angle


Earl Scruggs' right hand-- screenshot from "Earl's Breakdown"


1. Getting ready to pick 3rd string

a g cole - Posted - 10/27/2013:  11:45:12


I am probably the least qualified of all the folks who responded above (I am somewhere between a novice and intermediate picker).  I formerly hit the head with my thumb pick very often.  To solve this, I experimented with shorter blade lengths, which helped.  I also concentrated on picking without striking the head.  All this eventually worked.  I now seldom strike the head with the thumb pick, which allows me to focus on correcting other mistakes.  I know this is simplistic, but it worked for me.


Texasbanjo - Posted - 10/27/2013:  12:36:09


You may be digging in too deep when you pick with your thumb.  Try watching your thumb as you pick and try to  barely touch the strings as you pick them rather than digging in deep and see if that takes care of the problem.


capo matt - Posted - 10/27/2013:  14:09:58


I should have mentioned, that I noticed this issue just after putting on a brand new thumb pick.  The Golden Gates are pretty long right out of the box.  So I tried a shorter pick (a National) and it was better, but I like the comfort and fit of the Golden Gate, so I took a file to it.  I practiced a few songs for 30 minutes and tried to listen for the hit.  I still struck the head on occasion, but not as often.  Need more practice of course... but it is nice to know that even Earl hits the head now and again.



Edited by - capo matt on 10/27/2013 14:16:12

Banjelo - Posted - 10/27/2013:  15:19:46


You can take the pick and put it very hot water for a few seconds and reshape it to fit your thumb. Sure they come in S, M and L but not everyones thumb is the same shape and I've never found one that fits perfectly right out of the package.

Ira Gitlin - Posted - 10/27/2013:  16:01:27


Texasbanjo is probably right. You may very well be trying, unconsciously, to hit the string with the edge of your thumb, as you would if you were playing without picks. But really, you need to hit the string with a point (the tip of the pick) that's maybe 3/8" from the edge of your thumb--a point that has no nerve endings to boot! See how fer out you can keep your thumb, and still hit the string. It's a process of biofeedback.



 


Richard McVicker - Posted - 10/27/2013:  17:17:01


Matt
If you are hitting the head when striking the other strings the SADDLE pick will prevent that, but if, as you say, it's before you are striking the 5th string then your out on the head away from the string and no way to stop that but to shorten the pick or restrict your thumb from moving to far by placing some temporay stop on the pick blade that will hit on top of the 5th string before your pick point can hit the drumb. Try drilling a small hole in the pick at a distance shorter than the distance from the drumb head to the top of the 5th string. Insert a nail in the hole and cut it off about 1/4 inch long. If it is not tight in the hole you may need to glue it . Try it for a while to get the feeling and then you can remove the nail. My other sugestion is to learn to play the Guitar it has a HOLE to hit.

capo matt - Posted - 10/27/2013:  17:52:35


Ira, you got it.  I've played guitar (without picks) for 18 years.  I am used to being right on top of the strings with my thumb.  Shortening my pick has helped though.


banjoman56 - Posted - 10/27/2013:  19:30:47


I use the large Golden Gate picks for several years, and the points have to be shortened before I can use them. I can get used to picking without hitting the head with them too much, but they are uncomfortable and cause pain in the second joint of my thumb. try filing the picks down and see it it's not more comfortable.


Banjelo - Posted - 10/28/2013:  01:19:46


I haven't seen much mention of anchoring. If you use the pinky and ring finger as an anchor for 3 finger you will hit the head with the thumb-pick much less often.

You'll note the anchor wear in the photo resulting from anchoring. My banjos have more wear than shown here but then again I don't go on tours or have a staff that changes the heads and strings before every performance. I also have a lot more wear above the strings because frailing relies more on using the thumb as the anchor.

I played guitar and other instruments for 25 years before picking up banjo 5 years ago. Three finger with anchoring was much easier to pick up than frailing. Probably because 3-finger and guitar fingerpicking use the same anchoring when playing fast and precise patterns with the right hand.

I don't really concur with the notion of putting an eyeball or even a camera aimed at your thumb to figure this out. It has to be what you feel. Trying to make your eyes tell your fingers what to do seems to work the same way as in skiing. For skiers and non-skiers alike it works this way. Focus down the mountain at the path and your legs and feet will do just fine. If you want to do a face plant stare at the tips of your skis.

Congrats on the discovery that shorter may be better. Your fingers are working in close proximity. Why should the thumb have some big long hang-nail coming out the side? You are probably closer to finding that sweet spot where the thumb-pick is your best bud.

I would HIGHLY recommend shaping your thumb-pick to fit YOUR thumb with zero slippage. Even the smallest amounts of slippage and you have lost control. Every pick I take out of a package has wobble. I can't play with any out-of-the-package thumb-pick because it flops all around.

Thumb-picks come in one shape. Totally flat on the bottom with a rainbow over head and the horizon line jutting out to one side. If you look directly at your thumb head-on does it look like the top half of a pie that you sliced in half horizontally and discarded the bottom half? I didn't think so. Or maybe I am just weird and have thumbs that are not perfectly round on top and flat on the bottom?

Shape your thumb-picks so that you can control them. And once you have your Matt-Capo non-wobbling shaped picks in order, you'll probably realize that hitting the head, OK it happens once in a while, no more to see here folks. It's not a problem.



   

Ybanjo - Posted - 10/29/2013:  13:32:08


What is the height of your bridge?? I have always used 5/8 inch bridges, but when I bought my Stelling, it came with an 11/16 inch bridge. At first I thought I would have to change it out, but after playing it for only a short while, I began to really like it. Since then I have changed out all my banjos to 11/16 inch bridges, by the way. Anyway, before changing the bridge height, I had a chronic problem of letting my hand drop too low and cause trouble, and the picks (all of them) hit the head more than I wanted. Now, I very seldom hit the head, and there is almost no head wear (other than some dirt when I forget to wash up before playing!).



Edited by - Ybanjo on 10/29/2013 13:34:11

capo matt - Posted - 11/08/2013:  07:00:54


All this advice has been helpful.  I've been working with the shorter thumbpick and it has helped.  That said, I think I need more work on my right had position.  My wrist has only a slight arch in it when I play.  And I keep my hand fairly relaxed, and try to get my hand to look like earl's right hand in this picture.  But my wrist naturally wants to rotate to pull my thumb closer to the head.  Some times, when I'm tired, my palm (the muscle that controls the thumb) will actually rest on the head!  Yikes.  I've heard of the trick of pretending to hold a ball in your hand, but all this thinking gets in the way of actually playing clearly and accurately.  I'm also only anchoring my pinky.  Sometimes I can feel my ring finger drop and touch the head, but it doesn't stay there.  From reading several posts on this site and talking with an instructor in my area, it sounds like getting that ring finger down is not terribly important - so long as I have a stable pinky.  One other issue is that i like to play in between X and Y, rather than at one or the other.  Not sure if that is a critical area to work on, but something I've noticed. 



Any additional advice is appreciated.



Dave, your diagrams and photos are useful and I am thinking you might have some ideas to help me correct these issues too.



Matt



 




   

steve davis - Posted - 11/08/2013:  07:26:30


Try a taller bridge.
.656 is between 5/8 and 11/16.
Some folks enjoy a 3/4" bridge height.

Ybanjo - Posted - 11/08/2013:  07:32:39


Matt, I used to have the exact problem with my hand sinking too low on the head. Many times my hand would touch the head, much like you describe. I tried everything I could think of, including a rolled up hand towel to make a spacer to force my hand up off the head. This went on for over a year without a good resolution. Then I went down to Atlanta to buy my Stelling banjo at Banjo.com, and Mark Bramlett was kind enough to play all their banjos and let me play them. In the process, he noticed my hand dropping. He simply said to keep my elbow tucked in close to my side and the hand can't drop! That little advice, included with the new banjo having a taller bridge, completely fixed my problem! I still feel it wanting to start dropping down, but now I know what to do, and the higher bridge makes it feel really uncomfortable if I do get too low. Hope this helps. It sure helped me!

Dave Magram - Posted - 11/09/2013:  11:21:54


quote:







Originally posted by capo matt



All this advice has been helpful.  I've been working with the shorter thumbpick and it has helped.  That said, I think I need more work on my right had position.  My wrist has only a slight arch in it when I play.  And I keep my hand fairly relaxed, and try to get my hand to look like earl's right hand in this picture.  But my wrist naturally wants to rotate to pull my thumb closer to the head.  Some times, when I'm tired, my palm (the muscle that controls the thumb) will actually rest on the head!  Yikes. 



I've heard of the trick of pretending to hold a ball in your hand, but all this thinking gets in the way of actually playing clearly and accurately. 



I'm also only anchoring my pinky.  Sometimes I can feel my ring finger drop and touch the head, but it doesn't stay there.  From reading several posts on this site and talking with an instructor in my area, it sounds like getting that ring finger down is not terribly important - so long as I have a stable pinky.  One other issue is that i like to play in between X and Y, rather than at one or the other.  Not sure if that is a critical area to work on, but something I've noticed. 



Any additional advice is appreciated.



Dave, your diagrams and photos are useful and I am thinking you might have some ideas to help me correct these issues too.



Matt







Matt, I’m glad that you have found my suggestions helpful.



It would be very useful if you could post a photo, or better yet a video clip, of your right hand while you are playing. Without any visuals, we can only guess as to what is going on.



Meanwhile, here are my comments on your statements above:




  1. I need more work on my right hand position”.  I suspect you are absolutely correct. I do not think you need a new bridge or other equipment change-outs.

  2. My wrist has only a slight arch in it when I play” That is perfectly fine—it worked for Earl and lots of other top players. It is also much more ergonomic since little or no wrist-arch allows your finger muscles (which originate in your forearm) to work without going around a bend in your wrist.

  3. I'm also only anchoring my pinky.” That is perfectly fine—many top players only anchor their little finger. Some people have more elastic tendons and ligaments between their finger bones than others and can anchor both. For many years, I anchored both fingers and then as I got older (who, me?), I found that my hand ligaments had become less elastic and I had unconsciously switched to just anchoring my little finger.

  4. I like to play in between X and Y, rather than at one or the other”. You need to be able to do both, and one’s hand position changes from one to the other. I’d recommend just playing close to the bridge (X position) for now, until you get your hand position problem sorted out.

  5. I've heard of the trick of pretending to hold a ball in your hand…” Not a trick really, but a description of what your hand position should look like. This to me is a big clue that you say you have to think about this—it should be a natural position, not something you need to consciously think about.

  6. But my wrist naturally wants to rotate to pull my thumb closer to the head.  Some times, when I'm tired, my palm (the muscle that controls the thumb) will actually rest on the head!”. I believe this is the crux of the problem. It sounds like your hand is too flat—and I think I know why. (The solution may surprise you.)



Here are some things to consider to solve the problem:




  1. Hand position: It sounds like your hand is too flat. I suspect the reason for this is that your fingerpick blades are too straight. I have seen this problem with some of my banjo students. Most fingerpicks come from the factory with a blade angle of 55 degrees or so measured to the fingerpick band. This straighter blade angle may be fine for playing an autoharp, but it is not optimal for playing a banjo. This is why needle-nose pliers were invented. big



When the picks are too straight, the string “slams” into the blade and “stops” momentarily. This resistance makes it hard to pick the strings and slows your picking down. To overcome this resistance, many new players contort their hand into a less-than-optimal position—such as flattening their hand.



The pick blade should be re-shaped so that the string hits the pick blade at a glancing angle and quickly glides off it. Once the fingerpick blade is re-shaped to an optimal angle, the right hand usually slips into the optimal playing position-- without even thinking about it.



What is the optimal angle to bend the fingerpick blade? I have found, after a lot of experimentation over many years (and studying photos of master banjo players with a protractor for a recent BHO discussion), that around 32 degrees is the optimal blade angle. Based on the photos, this appears to be the angle used by Earl Scruggs, Don Reno, Ralph Stanley, etc. I’d suggest 32 degrees as a good starting point, plus or minus a degree or two to accommodate different sized hands.



New evidence supporting the “magic” 32-degree angle: In June 2013, I had the pleasure of meeting the great banjo player Kenny Ingram, who graciously allowed me to trace his fingerpick shape on a notecard.  When I returned home, I measured the angle of Kenny’s fingerpick blade with a protractor. It was exactly 32 degrees!



The diagram on my previous post provides a template for shaping your fingerpick blades to a 32 degree angle.




  1. Body posture: Play the banjo standing up and adjust your strap so that your banjo is in an accessible and comfortable position.



Many top players position the banjo so the top of the resonator is at or just below the center or their chest (the sternum). Try playing the banjo standing up without any fingerpicks to find the right position. When you do play sitting down, the banjo should be in the same position sitting down as when you are standing up. Sit with your back straight in an upright chair with a hard seat—not curled up on a soft couch as if you are reading a book or watching TV. Good posture counts in banjo-playing-- Mom was right. smiley




  1. Arm position: As a previous poster suggested, keep your right elbow close to your body when playing at the X position (near the bridge). However you will find that your elbow will move forward and away from your body when you play in the Y position (near the neck). This is why I suggest that you first work on the X position.



BTW, I must disagree with the notion another poster proposed that Earl Scruggs hit the banjo head with his thumbpick, based on observing a smudge above the strings on Earl’s banjo head. If you watch Earl’s playing on the many videoclips that are available, his picking motion was extremely precise and economical. I have a similar smudge on my banjo head (visible in the photo above), and it comes from resting the ball of my thumb on the head to mute it slightly when playing backup and/or to mute the 5th string — not from hitting the banjo head with the thumbpick. cool



-Dave


steve davis - Posted - 11/10/2013:  10:43:11


The thumbpick will stain the head as it wears itself out on the string.
The pick first gets stained black then scrapes the blackened plastic off on the string and sends it through air to the head.

capo matt - Posted - 11/11/2013:  10:10:43


quote:

Originally posted by Dave Magram

 

quote:









Originally posted by capo matt




All this advice has been helpful.  I've been working with the shorter thumbpick and it has helped.  That said, I think I need more work on my right had position.  My wrist has only a slight arch in it when I play.  And I keep my hand fairly relaxed, and try to get my hand to look like earl's right hand in this picture.  But my wrist naturally wants to rotate to pull my thumb closer to the head.  Some times, when I'm tired, my palm (the muscle that controls the thumb) will actually rest on the head!  Yikes. 




I've heard of the trick of pretending to hold a ball in your hand, but all this thinking gets in the way of actually playing clearly and accurately. 




I'm also only anchoring my pinky.  Sometimes I can feel my ring finger drop and touch the head, but it doesn't stay there.  From reading several posts on this site and talking with an instructor in my area, it sounds like getting that ring finger down is not terribly important - so long as I have a stable pinky.  One other issue is that i like to play in between X and Y, rather than at one or the other.  Not sure if that is a critical area to work on, but something I've noticed. 




Any additional advice is appreciated.




Dave, your diagrams and photos are useful and I am thinking you might have some ideas to help me correct these issues too.




Matt









Matt, I’m glad that you have found my suggestions helpful.




It would be very useful if you could post a photo, or better yet a video clip, of your right hand while you are playing. Without any visuals, we can only guess as to what is going on.




Meanwhile, here are my comments on your statements above:





  1. I need more work on my right hand position”.  I suspect you are absolutely correct. I do not think you need a new bridge or other equipment change-outs.

  2. My wrist has only a slight arch in it when I play” That is perfectly fine—it worked for Earl and lots of other top players. It is also much more ergonomic since little or no wrist-arch allows your finger muscles (which originate in your forearm) to work without going around a bend in your wrist.

  3. I'm also only anchoring my pinky.” That is perfectly fine—many top players only anchor their little finger. Some people have more elastic tendons and ligaments between their finger bones than others and can anchor both. For many years, I anchored both fingers and then as I got older (who, me?), I found that my hand ligaments had become less elastic and I had unconsciously switched to just anchoring my little finger.

  4. I like to play in between X and Y, rather than at one or the other”. You need to be able to do both, and one’s hand position changes from one to the other. I’d recommend just playing close to the bridge (X position) for now, until you get your hand position problem sorted out.

  5. I've heard of the trick of pretending to hold a ball in your hand…” Not a trick really, but a description of what your hand position should look like. This to me is a big clue that you say you have to think about this—it should be a natural position, not something you need to consciously think about.

  6. But my wrist naturally wants to rotate to pull my thumb closer to the head.  Some times, when I'm tired, my palm (the muscle that controls the thumb) will actually rest on the head!”. I believe this is the crux of the problem. It sounds like your hand is too flat—and I think I know why. (The solution may surprise you.)




Here are some things to consider to solve the problem:





  1. Hand position: It sounds like your hand is too flat. I suspect the reason for this is that your fingerpick blades are too straight. I have seen this problem with some of my banjo students. Most fingerpicks come from the factory with a blade angle of 55 degrees or so measured to the fingerpick band. This straighter blade angle may be fine for playing an autoharp, but it is not optimal for playing a banjo. This is why needle-nose pliers were invented. big




When the picks are too straight, the string “slams” into the blade and “stops” momentarily. This resistance makes it hard to pick the strings and slows your picking down. To overcome this resistance, many new players contort their hand into a less-than-optimal position—such as flattening their hand.




The pick blade should be re-shaped so that the string hits the pick blade at a glancing angle and quickly glides off it. Once the fingerpick blade is re-shaped to an optimal angle, the right hand usually slips into the optimal playing position-- without even thinking about it.




What is the optimal angle to bend the fingerpick blade? I have found, after a lot of experimentation over many years (and studying photos of master banjo players with a protractor for a recent BHO discussion), that around 32 degrees is the optimal blade angle. Based on the photos, this appears to be the angle used by Earl Scruggs, Don Reno, Ralph Stanley, etc. I’d suggest 32 degrees as a good starting point, plus or minus a degree or two to accommodate different sized hands.




New evidence supporting the “magic” 32-degree angle: In June 2013, I had the pleasure of meeting the great banjo player Kenny Ingram, who graciously allowed me to trace his fingerpick shape on a notecard.  When I returned home, I measured the angle of Kenny’s fingerpick blade with a protractor. It was exactly 32 degrees!




The diagram on my previous post provides a template for shaping your fingerpick blades to a 32 degree angle.





  1. Body posture: Play the banjo standing up and adjust your strap so that your banjo is in an accessible and comfortable position.




Many top players position the banjo so the top of the resonator is at or just below the center or their chest (the sternum). Try playing the banjo standing up without any fingerpicks to find the right position. When you do play sitting down, the banjo should be in the same position sitting down as when you are standing up. Sit with your back straight in an upright chair with a hard seat—not curled up on a soft couch as if you are reading a book or watching TV. Good posture counts in banjo-playing-- Mom was right. smiley





  1. Arm position: As a previous poster suggested, keep your right elbow close to your body when playing at the X position (near the bridge). However you will find that your elbow will move forward and away from your body when you play in the Y position (near the neck). This is why I suggest that you first work on the X position.




BTW, I must disagree with the notion another poster proposed that Earl Scruggs hit the banjo head with his thumbpick, based on observing a smudge above the strings on Earl’s banjo head. If you watch Earl’s playing on the many videoclips that are available, his picking motion was extremely precise and economical. I have a similar smudge on my banjo head (visible in the photo above), and it comes from resting the ball of my thumb on the head to mute it slightly when playing backup and/or to mute the 5th string — not from hitting the banjo head with the thumbpick. cool




-Dave







Hi Dave,



Thanks for the advice.



So the 32 degree angle - I saw your diagram for finger picks, but what about thumb picks?  I have no problems hitting the head with my fingers, just my thumb.  Not sure how I would adjust the angle of my thumb pick anyway...



Some other notes:




  • I've moved my hand to the x position, and I'm getting used to it and actually starting to prefer it.

  • In the X position, I tend to hit the head less, not sure why, but its an improvement

  • I've decided to stop trying to put down that ring finger.  Its just too distracting to focus on that.  My pinky seems stable enough and is more natural to me, which is allowing me to relax and pick more accurately and build speed. 

  • All systems go! cool


pickincat - Posted - 11/11/2013:  22:52:06


I was seriously getting into some fast bluegrass improv tonight and suddenly this post came up in my mind as I realized how much I was anchoring my thumbpick on the head. It doesn't seem to mar up the head like the pinky/ring finger do as anchors. My thumb was doing the head shuffle like crazy and I was amazed at how much control I had. It also added an element of percussion.
Kind of like I reached a new plateau. Maybe this is something like a habit I picked up in my constant attempts to get my frailing up to speed.

Either way, my conclusion is that hitting the head is not bad. Actually using every nuance of the banjo makes it even more fun than yesterday. It's a tool, not an encumbrance.

Dave Magram - Posted - 11/11/2013:  23:54:04


quote:







Originally posted by capo matt



Hi Dave,



Thanks for the advice.



So the 32 degree angle - I saw your diagram for finger picks, but what about thumb picks?  I have no problems hitting the head with my fingers, just my thumb.  Not sure how I would adjust the angle of my thumb pick anyway...







Matt,



As I mentioned before, it is rather difficult to diagnose your problem without seeing a video or photo of your hand while playing. From your comments, I am guessing that your hand posture is too flat, which is causing your thumbpick to hit the banjo head. If your hand was in the normal cupped shape, it would be fairly difficult to hit the banjo head with your thumbpick.



In other words, I suspect that your thumbpick hitting the banjo head is an effect of the problem; the cause is that your hand is too flat.



Here’s my theory on why your hand is too flat…



When the pick-blades have too straight of an angle, the string “slams” into the blade instead of smoothly gliding off it. This makes it hard to pick the strings and slows your picking down. To overcome this lack of gliding, some new players contort their hand into a less-than-optimal position—such as flattening their hand, when they could easily solve the problem the way the pros do—bend their fingerpick blades to curve more around their fingertips, which allows the strings to glide off the pick-blades.



So I am suggesting that to fix your “thumbpick-hitting–the-banjo-head” problem, you might try curving the blade of your fingerpicks to follow your fingertip shape more closely and allowing the strings to glide off your pick-blades. This should help put your right hand into the optimal cupped-shape—and your thumbpick will no longer hit the banjo head.wink



It may seem a bit counter-intuitive; so think of it as an experiment. It should only take a few minutes to gently curve your fingerpick blades into the “magic” 32-degree angle with a needle-nose pliers—use my diagram as a template. Then try playing your banjo for 30 or 40 minutes. If you don’t like the results, it only takes a few minutes to reshape the fingerpick blades back to the original angle.



If that doesn’t do the trick, I’d highly recommend that you hire a banjo teacher (in-person or via Skype) for a at least a couple of lessons to help you start off with good technique. cool



--------------------------------------------------------------------------



Pickincat, I must respectfully disagree with your comment that hitting the banjo head is normal for bluegrass banjo playing. I have been playing banjo for many years, and I do not ever recall having a problem with my thumbpick hitting the banjo head, nor have I ever seen or heard any proficient banjo-player do this. It is not good technique for bluegrass banjo playing. OTOH, rapping the banjo head is definitely a part of the frailing/clawhammer style. smiley



-Dave


pickincat - Posted - 11/12/2013:  23:19:32


Like pastorharry posted: Earl Scruggs did it and we all should be glad if we have that "problem".

steve davis - Posted - 11/13/2013:  18:52:01


No need to hit the head.
I don't do it.I used to,though.

brewerpaul - Posted - 12/08/2013:  17:55:30


I'm a Scruggs newbie, and I've been finding that thumb pick 'way too long.  I'm not hitting the head, but I've been finding that I have to cock that thumb up a lot to clear the strings.  I have carpal-metacarpal arthritis in that thumb and this has been ranging from uncomfortable to downright painful. In addition, it seems like I have to move the pick a lot further than necessary to pick the strings.  A few minutes back, I reshaped my thumb pick, removing about 1/8" of length and then tapering ,rounding and smoothing the remainder.  Right out of the gate, it seems a LOT better.  Only after the fact did I look for a thread on reshaping picks...


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