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One Finger or Two? By Murphy Henry

Posted by caseyhenry on Friday, December 26, 2014

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Let's ring in the New Year by talking about one of the earliest issues to confront beginning banjo students: right hand position and whether to plant both fingers (ring and pinky) on the head of the banjo or just one (ring OR pinky).

Conventional wisdom dictates that you should plant both fingers firmly on the head, and that you should do everything in your power to keep them there. That would include taping the fingers together, taping the fingers to the head of the banjo, or even gluing them down!

I disagree. (Casey disagrees, too.) 

Why does "conventional wisdom" insist on planting two fingers? Two words: Earl Scruggs. Or five words: That's How Earl Done It. And why did Earl do it that way? Because it came naturally to him. Because for him, it was a no-brainer. I guarantee that if Earl had only planted one finger, we'd all be trying to do it that way!

Case in point: Many early pickers used to wear their banjos slung over one shoulder because "that's the way Earl done it." However, when someone finally asked Earl why he wore his banjo that way he said it was because he and Lester always wore hats on stage and it would have been awkward to take his banjo off over his hat when he picked up the guitar. Yet for years banjo players copied Earl's way of holding a banjo, thinking that was the "secret" to Earl's playing. As soon as Earl stopped wearing a hat, he started holding the banjo the "normal" way, with the strap going completely across his back.

So, just because Earl kept two fingers down on the head doesn't mean we all have to do it that way. Keeping two fingers anchored on the head is not the "secret" to Earl's playing. The secret to Earl's playing was Earl! Everyone's hands and fingers are constructed differently. Some people find it easy to keep both fingers down. I am one of those. Casey is one of those. [Actually, interjects Casey, I have my ring finger on the head and my pinky on the point of the bridge, so technically, I only have one finger on the head!] I never gave the issue of "one finger or two" a single thought. (I did think a lot about where on the head to put those fingers but that's another subject!)

Some folks, however, seem to have their middle fingers and their ring fingers connected in some cosmic way. Their fingers are like Ruth and Naomi: "Whither thou goest I will go." (King James Version of course!) Meaning, in secular terms, that the ring finger moves together with the middle finger when it's picking the banjo. It will NOT stay anchored. And this is fine! Having your ring finger flying around while you are picking will not hurt a thing. You do yourself a disservice and you waste a lot of valuable practice time worrying about this non-issue. Keep your pinky anchored and you'll do fine.

Allen Shelton is my favorite example of a fantastic banjo player whose ring finger would not stay down when he played. Allan played for years with Jim and Jesse and his playing was clean, fast, and inventive. Anchoring one finger (his pinky) had no adverse effect on his playing whatsoever. Imagine if, when Allen was learning banjo, he had obsessed about keeping both fingers down. He might never have learned to play! 

The same thing is true about anchoring your little finger. Some folks can anchor their ring finger fine, but they cannot keep their pinky down. No problem. Let 'er fly! "It won't hurt a thing if you only plant that ring!" (A bad paraphrase of that great song "It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing." Claire Lynch used to sing that with the old Front Porch String Band. Delicious!) [Casey interjects: Scott Vestal is a ring-only anchorer.]

Every new student who comes to me has a slightly different way of holding their right hand. (Yes, I will use "their" as a singular term!) When I initially show them how to position their hand, I use my own hand position--anchoring two fingers--as an illustration. If they can anchor both fingers, that's fine. If they can only anchor one, that's fine also. It's no big deal. The most important thing is to get them picking the banjo. One of the worst things I could do is to start them off with a hangup about hand position.

It's also easy to think that anchoring two fingers is the cure to all banjo problems. It is not. (The cure to all banjo problems is playing more banjo!) But when students come to teachers for advice it's easy to see that they have problems (stopping and starting, messy playing, poor tone) and say, "Well, the first thing you need to do is starting anchoring both fingers." As if. As if that would fix everything. It makes the student feel like the teacher knows what she's talking about and it gives the student something concrete to work on, but it's a false goal, an "idol of clay" (to keep the Biblical metaphors going). It wastes practice time and distracts you from what you should be doing which is PLAYING THE BANJO. With a hand position that is comfortable for you. 

I have been guilty of this myself. It happened most often at banjo camps, when students would sign up for a 15-minute "tutorial" with me. I would ask them to play something and would see all kinds of problems--that couldn't be solved in 15 minutes. Still, wanting to offer some kind of advice (besides PLAY MORE BANJO), I would say, "I think it would help if you would start anchoring both fingers on the head." And they would go away happy and I thought, at the time, that I was doing good. But breaking old habits--even if it is a good idea, which this clearly was not--is hard. And it gets harder as you get older. So not only was my advice terrible it was also pretty much impossible to execute.

As I grew as a teacher I learned to tell my students this: keep at least one finger on the head, keep your forearm on the arm rest, and don't let your wrist buckle. Then your own hand will figure out what is most comfortable for you. And the only way for that to happen is to PLAY MORE BANJO. As you play--slow and steady, not fast--your hand will make minute adjustments to help you achieve the sound you want. It will take some time to arrive at the your best hand position. Don't rush it. But don't be led astray by someone telling you "you have to keep two fingers on the head." 

After your hand has found its own comfortable position, don't let anyone change it. Changing your hand position will not "fix" your playing, anymore than changing your picks will. If someone in "authority" tells you to change your hand position, just be Southern about it. Listen politely, say thanks, and then do whatever you damn well please which is nothing.

So, one finger or two? It doesn't matter. Both work. Do what is most comfortable for you. Stop obsessing about it and PLAY MORE BANJO!


PS: This column was inspired by Ellie, a young student who came for some lessons over Christmas (all the way from Seattle) and was wondering about this very issue. Three different banjo teachers insisted that she anchor both fingers and all of the internet sites she'd visited said the same thing. But anchoring both fingers was hard for her and yes, she'd tried taping them together! She found, however, she didn't want to pick up her banjo much anymore. And that ain't good, as we say here. She was extremely relieved when I told her, no, she did NOT have to anchor both fingers and she left the lesson all excited about banjo playing again. And I was left with an idea for a blog! So, thanks, Ellie! Hope to see you at our Women's Banjo Camp in July!

PPS: Full disclosure: My good friend and super banjo player Bill Evans, author of Banjo For Dummies, disagrees with me on this issue, or at least he used to. 

See all Murphy's teaching materials at

25 comments on “One Finger or Two? By Murphy Henry”

Just Bill Says:
Saturday, December 27, 2014 @7:56:11 AM

Yes, yes, YES! Thanks for posting this. Hopefully, some struggling new banjo pickers will find new enthusiasm for their banjo picking after reading this. My right ring finger has a "mind of its own," and flies all over the place when I pick a fast tune. I just let that finger do as it pleases, because I KNOW it's still attached to my hand and can't go too far. ;^) Happy new year, Henry's!

From Greylock to Bean Blossom Says:
Saturday, December 27, 2014 @11:13:16 AM

I have heard this discussed before but one thing (& I ask for you expert thoughts on this) that does not seem to be discussed in this, and that seems relevant to me, is the angle of the anchoring fingers on the banjo head. It seems to me that it is easier to have the outside edge of the finger (edge of the finger away from the thumb - almost where the fingernail ends) on the head instead of the exact longest tip of the finger on the head. This seems to make the bridge and keeping the hand stable much easier to me and makes it very natural to have two fingers on the banjo head. Thanks for your thoughts on this.

From Greylock to Bean Blossom Says:
Saturday, December 27, 2014 @11:17:41 AM" target="_blank">

With a picture of Earl's hand angles as I tried to describe it.

From Greylock to Bean Blossom Says:
Saturday, December 27, 2014 @11:19:28 AM

Excuse me, I will try for a better link showing the angle of the anchoring fingers.


caseyhenry Says:
Monday, December 29, 2014 @4:18:34 AM

Hi Ken,
Basically whatever is comfortable for you and allows you to get the kind of tone you like is what is going to work best for you. Whether side or tip of your finger doesn't matter so much as long as it doesn't move around. I think you're okay!

ipipe4u Says:
Monday, December 29, 2014 @3:07:52 PM

Love this advice.....I've always told my students to relax and let your hand be your guide....One finger or two, who cares, right? Opinions are like...Well you know.

dixonmg Says:
Monday, December 29, 2014 @3:24:41 PM

Very pleased to read this as I have always felt guilty that I was unable to keep both fingers anchored.

mikehalloran Says:
Monday, December 29, 2014 @4:16:47 PM

There are many of us who believe that the correct number of fingers anchored to the head is "none".

Most classical and many jazz guitarists learned that way. My playing got a lot better when I freed my ring finger from anchoring duties. I found it much easier to control my finger position from the arm and wrist.

This puts me firmly in the "it doesn't make a difference–do what is comfortable" camp.

Roger Frost Says:
Monday, December 29, 2014 @4:24:29 PM

Timely for me Murphy. I had trained my two fingers to the head fairly easily to stop that flailing ring finger. But I soon discovered I had this problem of middle finger pick scraping the head. Googled and Pete Wernick says "you just don't let it happen" - yes but how? I tried all sorts of hand contortions to no avail. Then I noticed my pinky was 15mm or so shorter than my ring finger and in putting them both on the head the pinky was pulling ring and all the rest down. I figured maybe with just the ring finger down my other fingers would rise and keep the picks higher. And it seems to have done the trick! I was prepared to go with it even if it were "unconventional" which I am pleased to learn now it is not. Roger, New Zealand

Klondike Waldo Says:
Monday, December 29, 2014 @4:58:29 PM

If all our hands were the same size, and all our fingers were in the same relationship in size, then "one size fits all" advice would fit. In the real world, however, "Always plant both" is bogus advice for many players.
. My ring fingers, for example are slightly longe than my index fingers and a full joint longer than my pinkies. There's no way to keep both on the head and still have freedom of movement for the other three. Do what works and enjoy it.

Ed Emrich Says:
Monday, December 29, 2014 @6:03:19 PM

This issue and article is very close to home for me. I have tried everything to keep both fingers down on the head. I have resolved myself to control my ring fingers by using two small rubber bands to hold two fingers together any d touch the head with the pinky. It was a setback in my playing ability but I try to emulate the experts. Now I'm free to go el natural. Thanks Murpheys

RB00 Says:
Monday, December 29, 2014 @6:31:08 PM

Glad to see this! My pinky is at least an inch and a quarter shorter than my ring finger. If I planted my pinky at all I'd be picking sideways across the strings. Luckily my pinky and planted ring finger stay very still when I pick so I have no problem.

HinduKushMtnBlues Says:
Tuesday, December 30, 2014 @5:01:03 AM

I was self taught and anchored the pinky, my first real lesson the teacher said I had to anchor both fingers. I learned to do it, but lost a lot of range of motion in my middle finger.

paul rock god Says:
Tuesday, December 30, 2014 @6:33:00 AM

this is all well and good but im left handed

rsiferd Says:
Tuesday, December 30, 2014 @8:22:42 AM

I was always told to have two fingers down. I tried everything, including a rubber band to hold them together. When the rubber band came off, my little finger stayed down and the other flipped around. I think it probably has something to do with the way the good Lord made me. I have never been able to touch my toes. My wife can put her palms on the floor. If I did that, I would be in the hospital with torn hamstrings. I think that some people have ligaments that are supple, and some do not. As they say, "It is what it is."

banjer5 Says:
Tuesday, December 30, 2014 @8:41:08 AM

I guess I will have to number myself among the "long of tooth" but when I taught I always suggested to my students that a two finger anchor was a bit more solid than one. I did stress that we are individuals and and should do what was most comfortable for us.I quit teaching some years ago but have played some 44 years and am now 76 years young and play with several groups whenever needed. The banjo has been a terrific friend and now include a 1932 TB3 conversion among my best friends.

detoxbanjar Says:
Tuesday, December 30, 2014 @9:05:49 AM

those ringfingers use to be so heavy , such a "cachetring " around around your finger keeps it "down "
Keep in mind it is an African instrument , pinky and ringfinger would be used for something else !
But also keep in mind Earl almost never missed a note !
happy newpickin' year !!!

Laurence Diehl Says:
Tuesday, December 30, 2014 @9:38:59 AM

I agree with what you said. It would be great if that finally puts this issue to rest, but for some reason people can't let it go. I think this will help though!

Banjophobic Says:
Tuesday, December 30, 2014 @10:02:43 AM

Good article Casey. The 'proof' is always in the playing. I would venture half the worlds professional players only plant one finger and they sound great doing it. If it works it works, simple as that.

caseyhenry Says:
Tuesday, December 30, 2014 @10:14:33 AM

Doesn't matter whether you're left handed or right handed. All the stuff Murphy says applies applies to your picking hand, regardless of whether it is the right hand or the left hand.

krazyspank Says:
Tuesday, December 30, 2014 @2:52:27 PM

Ever watch Steve Martin play. he doesn't anchor any fingers, and he can hang in there with the best of them!

Guy Says:
Wednesday, December 31, 2014 @4:40:54 AM

Sage advice Casey. It is great to hear someone such as yourself speaking out on this subject, I get so annoyed with the "die hards" who insist that you can't play properly without planting both fingers when Earl said himself that he only planted that way because it was natural to him. You pointed out that some peoples middle and ring finger are connected. This is the case with me; the point being that if try to plant my ring finger, it actually impedes my middle finger making it almost impossible to play. My pinkie however is quite short so on some occasions I actually don't plant at all (pauses for gasps from the audience).
BTW I also teach and always do as you say, letting the student work out what's best for them whilst offering encouragement and advice if they look awkward or are just plain getting it wrong. :-)

Bemo Spider Says:
Thursday, January 8, 2015 @9:55:04 AM

thank you murphy, I waisted two years of practice trying to anchor the ring. The ring makes every move that the middle makes.

MJBooker2 Says:
Monday, February 9, 2015 @7:15:08 PM

You are correct. Thank You!

Jen Grant Says:
Tuesday, April 7, 2015 @9:04:10 PM

This is great. My ring finger follows the middle one too, and I was told I'd just have to find a way to make it work. I ended up ignoring it after enough frustration. Since then I've seen not only that Steve Martin doesn't anchor both, but neither do John Hartford or Alison Brown. Good enough for me!

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