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 Playing Advice: Bluegrass (Scruggs) Styles
 ARCHIVED TOPIC: How are the picks supposed to fit on your fingers?

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:

mglerner - Posted - 05/14/2020:  15:41:07

Hi all,

I'm completely new to banjo. Browsed the forum, got a Goldtone 50-CCRP from after talking to Ross on the phone for a while because I'm pretty sure I want to learn bluegrass, but there's a chance I want to try out clawhammer. I'm super happy with it. I'm starting with the Jim Pankey lessons here. I have (at least!) two problems:

1. I'm not sure how exactly the picks should fit on my fingers. Specifically, the thumb pick. When I plant my two fingers as recommended, the thumb pick makes about a 20 degree angle with the strings when it strikes them. Is that OK? It seemed like I was reading that it should be more like perpendicular to the head of the banjo. If I'm doing it wrong, how do I correct it? This is my main question.

2. My index finger REALLY wants to move away from the strings after it hits a note. I've read a few threads, and it seems like I should play slower, play softer, and just focus on it until I have that fixed. Cool. But if you have extra pointers (ha!), I'd appreciate them.

3. I'm having a hard time planting two fingers and *not* having them rub up against the strings/bridge. I assume that just comes with time, though.

Thanks, all!

Banjo Lefty - Posted - 05/14/2020:  17:33:51

Post a photo of your hand position, or better still, a short video of you playing.

Helix - Posted - 05/15/2020:  04:39:09

1. Welcome to the hangout
2. Thumbpick angle is fine. It does not need to be 90 deg. And will make muscle memory while you sleep
3 I warm up for bluegrass by using clawhammer, Frailing and Up picking
4 I sometimes put my little finger in the bridge foot

I went to the jam and forgot my fingerpicks. I borrowed some from the host , but he bends all his picks to make them play 90
I could Not play that night

My picks look nice and round and shiny

Use needle nose to form your picks to you
Put the left tab under the right one like roof shingles so they won’t snag
I curve the front up in front of my fingernail. It makes them give a little

People play them pointing straight out, I don’t know how

Texasbanjo - Posted - 05/15/2020:  04:47:44

I agree with Helix: thumb pick sounds okay just like it is. Wearing finger picks is a personal preference on how you do it and whether you like them bent around your finger or straight out. Picks are fairly inexpensive, so you might have a pair of each; i.e., one bent, one straight out. Try both out and see which feels the best to you. Caveat: you're a beginner, at first the picks are not going to feel normal, they're going to feel clumsy and weird. You'll get over that with practice, practice, practice.

I had a student whose index finger flew up after she struck a string and stayed up until she was ready to pick with that finger again. It did slow her down. She worked hard keeping that index finger down closer to the strings and eventually, her finger and brain got together and the flying finger decided to do what it was supposed to. Keep working on it, go slow, don't try for speed. Let muscle memory kick in.

If you can't plant 2 fingers, plant 1. As long as you have a stable platform to pick with, you'll be okay. As far as touching the bridge with pinkie or ring finger, as long as it's a light touch, there shouldn't be a problem. There's no "law" that says you have to plant 2 fingers or that you have to stay away from the bridge.

As one of our esteemed members has said: it's your banjo, play it your way. I agree.

RB3 - Posted - 05/15/2020:  07:06:57

Go to YouTube and watch and listen to as many videos of Lester Flatt & Earl Scuggs as you can. Some of those videos have good, close-up views of Earl's right hand. Pay close attention to how Earl positioned his hand, used his fingers and bent and wore his finger picks. No one has ever played Bluegrass banjo better, or got better tone out of a banjo than Earl Scruggs. If you can learn to use your right hand the way Earl did, you'll be way ahead of the game. As the famous Yogi philosopher once said, "you can observe a lot by just watching".

thisoldman - Posted - 05/15/2020:  11:12:37

I don't think too much about thumb pick angle other than making sure the blade is parallel to my thumb nail. As one other poster suggested, a picture would help. Subtle changes in forearm placement and/or wrist angles can make a difference. Options like picks with "speed" blades that are very narrow or the Zookies thumb picks that are angled at 10, 20 or 30 degrees might be worth taking a look at.

schaumannk - Posted - 05/15/2020:  19:43:10

I find that in order to get my fingers into a comfortable picking position relatively parallel to the strings, that I can only get my ring finger on the head. The moment I attempt to put down my pinky the contortions necessarily for my hand to address the strings become painful because my little finger is very short. Not fond of the plastic thumb picks or the metal ones either. I like the Delrin.
I used to be kinda obsessed about addressing the strings straight on, to the point where I would twist the finger picks a little on my fingers to make it easier to do. I no longer really find that necessary.
If you hands are larger than mine, none of these observations may apply.

Doug Knecht - Posted - 05/15/2020:  20:40:34

Not like this!


mglerner - Posted - 05/16/2020:  07:24:12

Thanks, all! It took me a minute to figure out how to take and upload a video, but don't worry, I haven't gotten any better in the meantime!

My kids ran off with one of my picks, so I'm using a plastic guitar pick here. I doubt that's anywhere near the top of my list of problems. Anyway, you can hopefully see the positioning of everything here. About halfway through, I remembered that I was supposed to curl my wrist, so I curled it a bit more, but probably not enough?

I think I have my index finger under control on the forward roll, but not quite so controlled on the pinch.

I've tried quite a bit to plant my pinky finger, and the only way I can seem to do it, it ends up brushing/resting against the strings or bridge. Maybe I just have a small pinky? It seems reasonably comfortable for me to plant my ring finger and let my pinky pretend it's drinking fancy tea, so maybe that's OK?

Anyway, I'd appreciate some tips, and I know the main thing is "keep practicing slowly, speed will come naturally."

schaumannk - Posted - 05/16/2020:  07:32:16

Looks good to me. I know this is a difficult concept to think about for a beginner but spend as much time as you can picking, and think about throwing your fingers at the strings in a relaxed manner. Tensing your hand just makes it slow and awkward. In other words dont “try” too hard. The muscle memory and fluidity will come. I learned this from advanced piano theory. And also Ned Lubrecki.

jbrookeiii - Posted - 05/16/2020:  07:35:53

Only thing I'd suggest is to push the thumb pick further down on your thumb. That'll stop some of the movement you wrote of.

Go slow and know that everyone has a bad day every once in a while.

schaumannk - Posted - 05/16/2020:  07:42:54

Keep a few more picks around and try different kinds. Cats are really hard on them too, with the added problem, they like to sleep in your banjo case, and get fur all over the inside.

bosborne - Posted - 05/16/2020:  07:56:04

Hmm. So they should not be too tight, and at the same time they shouldn't slip. Very helpful, right?

You asked about the angle of the pick (best perpendicular) and you asked about how your index does not stay near the string. So these issues are related, in that when you begin to play neither the position of your hand, nor the angle of picks, nor the position of your fingertips near the strings are optimal. What all of these details are really about is getting your fingers, and those picks, to strike the strings in just the right way so that the sound is the most pleasing to you. It's all about the sound.

You are learning to do something that is not entirely natural. But accept that what is gradually happening, already, is that you are learning, in an almost subconscious way, to position your hand and fingers and strike the strings in ways that produce the sounds that are the most pleasing for you to hear. Do not get caught up in "rules" that others may convey to you. Your hands are shaped differently from theirs, your finger lengths are different, and so on.

Relax, as much as possible. Play steadily, as much as possible (not just slowly). I have to say that the notes are sounding good, so you're definitely on the right track.

SimonSlick - Posted - 05/16/2020:  08:06:27

Are you using a plastic fingerpick on your index and a metal fingerpick on your middle? The index sounds soft compared to the middle which sounds brighter.

Texasbanjo - Posted - 05/16/2020:  08:28:20

If you really want to try to plant that little finger, you might try turning your wrist a little to the left so your little finger can reach the head. Hard to explain in type, but looks like your hand/wrist is completely straight and by bending/turning it a little, your pinkie can then reach the head. Experiment a little and see if it helps. If not, don't worry about that pinkie, let it do its thing.

Realbluegrassfan - Posted - 05/16/2020:  08:40:20

Glad to see another beginner ask this question. I have taken some lessons, and pick position on the fingers was not addressed, nor was wrist position.

Thanks to those who responded in a courteous manner to those of us who are ignorant on the subject.

mglerner - Posted - 05/16/2020:  10:27:44

Thanks, all!
SimonSlick yeah, the kids ran off with one of my metal picks, so I'm using a plastic one until I can get new ones.
Texasbanjo sure enough, turning my wrist does make a difference. Now I just need to figure out what's actually best. Good to know one planted finger might be enough.
schaumannk and everyone else who told me to relax ... good call. I'm trying. It's hard to play loudly and precisely while relaxing but, obviously I don't expect to be great my first week.

And I did start watching some Earl Scruggs videos. I can definitely see what a lot of you are talking about in terms his hand being relaxed, but also, wow, his hand moves around a lot!

Realbluegrassfan right? I was pretty surprised that this wasn't the first thing covered in some lessons. I figure I want to spend time not building up bad habits. But I suppose there are a million things to worry about first ...

schaumannk - Posted - 05/16/2020:  10:35:54

I know this is going to sound trite. I have been reading Jim Mills book on prewar Gibson’s. Jim had several discussions with Earl Scruggs. According to Jim, Earl experimented a lot, especially in the early days, with both his playing, and his banjo. Allow yourself the latitude to do the same, and use your ear to figure out, what is working for you.


Dont worry about the loud part.   Work on clean notes.  

Edited by - schaumannk on 05/16/2020 10:37:08

jan dupree - Posted - 05/16/2020:  13:44:55

You need to have a slight bend in your wrist. Seems like your hand is completely flat over the strings. The Moderator mentioned this also. If you have trouble doing this a wooden armrest might help. The ones from Dr. Arm are designed for wrist stability and improving angle of attack.

RB3 - Posted - 05/16/2020:  14:55:04

Take a look at the video associated with the link below. There's a good view of J.D. Crowe's right hand at the 1:47 mark of the video. The back of his hand is essentially parallel to the surface of the head of the banjo.

Back To The Bar Room


mike gregory - Posted - 05/17/2020:  06:32:58

Since I don't wear fingerpicks, all I can say is Welcome to the HangOut, and offer this photo, from the Swedish classic "The Seventh Seal".

Death give the Knight his first banjo lesson:


jan dupree - Posted - 05/19/2020:  19:05:53


Originally posted by RB3

Take a look at the video associated with the link below. There's a good view of J.D. Crowe's right hand at the 1:47 mark of the video. The back of his hand is essentially parallel to the surface of the head of the banjo.

Back To The Bar Room


He has a bend in his wrist. If you have super long fingers I guess you could play with top of hand and forearm straight, but for most people it would be too hard to reach the strings. J.D. is known for his cocked up wrist.

Bart Veerman - Posted - 05/20/2020:  10:40:47

I find this way the most comfortable:

TheWoodBoss - Posted - 05/20/2020:  11:01:25

From his video I would say the thumb pick needs to be pushed on further down the thumb. The right hand is a little flat, make sure you can get two fingers under your wrist and that should put you at the correct hand height. I wear my picks pretty tight but you will get used to them after a couple weeks if you play everyday. Good luck.

Buck the Banjo Player - Posted - 05/21/2020:  14:20:47

the metal picks were a big problem for me, then I switched to tortex picks and all was better. The metal ones can be bent more easily than the plastic, but the plastic eventually forms to your fingers if you can remember which is which , or mark them.

This is mostly an early issue for me and not after a few months

the large picks are only slightly larger, you can heat them with a heat gun to form them, but be careful, a hair dryer and pliers also works to melt them slightly

then when warm , curl them up or stretch them out

there is less than $1



Edited by - Buck the Banjo Player on 05/21/2020 14:34:59

Buck the Banjo Player - Posted - 05/21/2020:  14:36:51

if anyone knows where to get the recording king picks, please let me know

Buck the Banjo Player - Posted - 05/21/2020:  14:38:55


Originally posted by Bart Veerman

I find this way the most comfortable:

That thumb pick is super-short in my world. My pick motion is at a sharp angle to the string, nearer parallel , so I need long picks to play loudly

mglerner - Posted - 05/22/2020:  07:41:03

Thanks, all! This is great advice. And lots of it. Getting some arch in my wrist is starting to feel more natural. The picks *sometimes* feel good hitting the strings, and sometimes just get jumbled up. But the fact that it sometimes feels natural seems like a ton of progress. And I now have metal picks, which do seem better on my fingers than the plastic ones. I'll work on pushing the thumb pick down, I'll keep rereading through this thread. Thanks, all!

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