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Mar 31, 2009 - 12:32:44 PM

9 posts since 2/20/2009

Glad it makes sense and hope it helps. Just today I tried to play something I learned not too long ago a LOT faster than usual to see what would happen. <<<TRAIN WRECK!!>>> Then I tried playing it just slightly faster than usual and no problem. <sigh> No fast way around it here . . .

Apr 10, 2009 - 10:50:17 AM

86 posts since 4/10/2009

"I found when I first started playing that my picks were out too much, now they stick out less than an 1/8th of an inch beyond my trimmed nails. This was one of those "breakthroughs" for me and took the muscle strain away."

Thanks, Greengrassband, for that post! I'm brand new to Banjo Hangout, but picking up that one tip is going to make me a regular! I've always played with the picks out probably 1/4 inch. Last night I tucked them in to 1/8 inch, and the difference was instant! My speed and ease of play improved immediately - I sampled a few songs in my catalog and found them to flow more freely and naturally. Thanks for the tip!

Apr 21, 2009 - 4:23:31 AM
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1415 posts since 12/5/2004

Wild Turkey works great Even my mistakes sound good.


Apr 23, 2009 - 7:37:20 AM
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2797 posts since 12/16/2005

If pulling the pick tips in closer works for you, great, but keep in mind it's not a "one size fits all" deal. Both Bela and Tony Trischka wear their picks practically straight (no curve) and far out from their finger tips. Seems that the tightly curled in and close to the fingertips thing works for more people, though.


May 4, 2009 - 3:48:52 PM

86 posts since 4/10/2009

Yep, a month later and I still prefer the picks curled in tightly. Before I was stumbling with some of the right hand fingerings because my picks would catch on the wrong strings. I agree with you though Zach, my preferences may change over time.

May 10, 2009 - 5:07:53 AM

55 posts since 3/10/2009

i guess it must be the same reason why it all falls apart whenever i say to someone.."hey, listen to this"...i can play a few tunes without a flaw but the moment i ask even my daughter to listen it all goes wrong...or sit in a shop & play a banjo...all starts to go well if i'm there for a while but at the start i know people are listening &/or watching & it goes badly...same thing if i set out to record myself for something specific like putting on the Hangout, but if i leave the recorder on,forget about it and just play for an hour i'll get some decent stuff to upload...just need to sort out the editing side of it & it'll be fine

May 12, 2009 - 9:18:11 PM
Players Union Member



831 posts since 6/29/2007

Just keep playing in front of people. I mean after all - you are a banjo player! How much pride can you have?
Seriously - get a buddy and go down to the nursing home and play - they will love you, you can get practice in front of people, and will loosen up and have fun.

May 14, 2009 - 9:56:34 AM



160 posts since 7/11/2008

I have the same problem with trying to record myself. So the camcorder is now a regular training aid. Once you get used to it being there, things start to flow. I still have problems playing in front of people, but my neighbour, who can hear me through the wall sometimes, says I sound great.........

May 14, 2009 - 10:40:33 AM

1436 posts since 7/12/2004

There's another issue people haven't touched on here (at least I didn't see it): making your hand movements as simple as possible. For the right hand, that means having your fingertip move around in a circle, which is one constant motion, instead of a line back and forth, which is a very complex movement involving accelerating, decelerating and changing direction. I've gotten many students to even out their playing and relax by having them watch their right hand and train themselves to do circular motion. In a roll done this way, your fingers look like they're pedaling a bicycle. Your knuckles correspond to ankles, knees and hips. And as any good bicycle rider will tell you, nothing above the hips should move. The thumb traces its own circles, but it moves as a single "stick" from the wrist joint. I hope that's a good enough description.

A side benefit of using circular motion is better speed control, since it's easier to adjust the speed of a circle than to change all the complicated movements of a linear movement - and better speed, since a complicated picking stroke will fall apart at a much lower speed than a simple circle.

I also suggest the mental exercise of connecting notes. Think of each note as "pointing to" the next one, so your playing will have momentum from one note to the next. This is much like follow-through in a golf swing or pool shot - the ball (or note) is already played, but thinking about the whole finger movement - not just the part that produces the note - adds to smoothness, and smoothness is one key to relaxed playing.

For the left hand, I try to get people to keep one finger in contact with a string at all times, when possible. This reduces excess hand motion, keeps the fingers close to the fingerboard, and reduces movements to one dimension (a slide along the string) instead of three dimensions (lift off the fingerboard, wander around in space, and try to find the string again on the way down).

For both hands, simplifying and reducing the movement to essentials leads to reduced muscle tension, which leads to better playing all around. Hope this helps.

Rich Stillman

Banjo - it''s what''s for dinner.

Skype "banjoteacher" home of Kel Kroydon banjos, Dannick tone rings and cryogenic strings Home of Southern Rail.

May 14, 2009 - 8:01:58 PM

55 posts since 3/10/2009

now there is some advice i havent read in any of the books i have...really makes sense, especially the cycling analogy...i'm off to put that to the test right now, thanks Rich


"never put off ''til tomorrow what you could do today, ''cos if you do it today & you like it, you can do it again tomorrow"

May 17, 2009 - 2:42:30 PM

1262 posts since 2/12/2008

One of the main reasons for tensing up when playing is trying to play fast, hard and with bad hand position at the same time. You are asking your hand to do two opposing things, move quickly and freely to create speed and move with muscular power to create the loudness.

Here is the drill I use to help correct this. Play fast but deliberately try to play as softly as possible. This allows you to concentrate on right hand posture. If you take away the brute force part and can play fast all that is left is posture. It is much easier to play softly and maintain correct posture that playing hard.

There are many things going on with the right hand posture-wise that can be addressed while giving yourself this soft-play opportunity. Two of the worse, in my oppinion, is wrong hand to string relationship and wrist to hand relationship.

You will notice as you play fast and hard your ball of your wrist comes down closer to the head as it tries to produce more power. This puts you wrist-hand-finger profile in a tense, awkward position. Also, the attack angle of the plucking fingers to the strings tend to get off of the 90 degree angle. This means that less power is delivered to the string for the same amount of energy or worse, you compensate by trying to pluck upward at 90 degress, even though your fingers are not at the 90 degree angle (or close to it).

Hope this helps,


May 19, 2009 - 9:55:01 AM



24 posts since 3/20/2007

Originally posted by Jonno B

I'm certainly not an expert ... BUT Ross Nickerson has a tuition book that deals totally about 'Building up your speed on the Banjo'. Have a look at see what you think. However, all the advice given is sound and worth taking note of.

Well, I actually got this in the mail today.. Seems nice.. It's a separate form where you can fill in date, roll, speed etc. ,so you can follow your own progress.. I was actually wondering about use my recorder to try to document my progress.. My pickin's not fast, so it would be fun to try to see what I can do about it.. ITs many good advice here

May 19, 2009 - 10:32:09 PM

365 posts since 3/10/2008

It's funny that this thread came up. I have noticed for a while now that when i try to play single string on follow the leader at a faster tempo, my right shoulder always tightens up , sometimes to the point of actually hurting. I remember Jason Skinner advising that Don Reno played lighter than most other players. I noticed also, after much trial and error that shifting chord positions eg. F position to D position, sounds cleaner when i put a sort of loft or floaty wrist movement in my wrist almost like pushing down in a circular motion with my wrist. I cant't explain it much better, but i promise it sounds a lot better to my ear. Anyway back to the single string. I decided to try this wrist movement more with single string and it makes things worlds easier. If you watch Don Reno or even Don Wayne Reno on his dvd, and i would guess that Jason Skinner and any other good Reno player, they use their wrist to get more speed and especially more precision out of the ascending scale on FTL. Heck I even saw Jeremy Stephens run the Major pentatonic, which is harder and almost like an extended scale compared to the other, effortlessly on FTL, and i would bet that he used some sort of wrist motion. I haven't tried using this on a normal roll, i might try and experiment with it tomorrow. Anyway this helped the tension in my shoulder and forearm both. The other big thing that helped was when i thought about how i was sitting when i play the banjo. It is much like the hunchback of Notre Dame. My shoulders are pushed up and my head is really close to the banjo. It makes sense why its easier for me to play standing up now. When i stand, my banjo is worn fairly lower than when i sit. My arm is at a relaxed position and it's not stretched out ot reach the banjo either. I tried sitting in a more comfortable position with my shoulders leaned back more and my arm having to reach a little bit farther so it's not cramped up playing. When i combined these to things, it took away at least 60% of the tension, probably a good amount more. It also made playing many of the songs a im working on much easier to play. I actually found that playing many of the speedy sounding single string passages in Reno's songs like follow the leader, remington's ride and limehouse blues felt more like keeping normal time, instead of me having to rush to get the licks in. Well i hope that helps someone.

"This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object."
-Heath Ledger, "The Dark Knight"

May 26, 2009 - 11:39:17 PM

7 posts since 5/12/2009

they always say people play banjos to get disability! HAHAHAA


Matt D

Jun 14, 2009 - 9:52:16 PM
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639 posts since 5/29/2009

Wow! what a terrific topic! I have struggled with this same thing and have found some relief with different techniques - most of them have been covered. Once I was struggling with tensing up, making a mistake, and then being unable to go on. Murphy Henry told me at a banjo camp when I asked her about it, that I was talking myself into stopping. So, I conquered that and found that my mind was a pretty strong force. I applied that to my tension problem and have learned to relax a lot. One other thing that has helped me a lot is that I have forced myself to play in front of people till I gave up being nervous - then I relaxed a lot more. That sounds kind of stupid but the more I forced myself to keep playing and making mistakes but going on anyway, I found that I was able to relax enough to muddle my way through a lot of tunes and even pick up speed. Forcing myself to talk through the tension and make myself relax has helped a lot. Sometimes when I feel the tension begin, I close my eyes and focus on the tune or picture my Mom in my mind and that relaxes me. At 60 - I'm still influenced by Mama!

Jul 28, 2009 - 3:54:33 AM

5 posts since 7/26/2009

it happens to me when i play for somebody that hasn't heard me play yet.

Jul 28, 2009 - 7:22:50 AM

7183 posts since 3/20/2008

I think Ron Block has said all that needs to be said to nail the topic.

Edited by - Richard Dress on 07/28/2009 07:23:23

Jul 30, 2009 - 11:03:58 AM

95 posts since 7/24/2003

Though I will never be a fraction of the musician Ron Block is, I find great comfort in realizing playing the banjo is not easy. When I realize what I am doing is hard and takes discipline, things somehow get easier. As Norman Mclaine said "grace comes by art and art does not come easy."

I guess there are many paths to the Zen like state of relaxation and being in the moment.

Good thread and intriguing on many levels.

Jul 30, 2009 - 12:30:44 PM

646 posts since 6/24/2008

I have been around guitarist Curtis Jones for about 4 years and have played a lot of gigs with him. Curtis has a reputation as being the fastest cleanest guitar player on the planet. To see this you can go to the following:link

Why am I bringing a guitar player into a banjo discussion. Incidently Curtis can play Sweet Georgia Brown about 20% faster than on this video with accuracy, Basically I have never run into a guitarist that could play faster than I can. Curtis can play about 15 to 20% faster than I can. My goal was to find out how can this guy play so fast? One thing that is significant is that Curtis has had a lot of marshall arts training starting as a youngster which includes the ability to relax and meditate.

One of Curtis’ main secrets to playing fast is his ability to clear his head of all thoughts. The second is being aware of when he is tensing up. My tension usually shows up in clenched teeth which I am not aware of unless I focus on that. Basically to increase speed I take a 1 or 2 measure lick and play it over and over with the metronome gradually increasing speed no more than 5 numbers. If I start to tense up or think about anything I will hit a wall. The way around the wall is to clear my head. Sometimes I’ll be doing this and hit a wall around 165 That’s 4 notes per each click of the metronome. If I have previously played the lick at lets say 190 and can’t get by 165 I immediatley start clearing my mind and play softer. As soon as this clicks in the speed jumps to the 190. It is like riding on air.

A couple other points

1. There is speed and there is stamina. I may be able to play a particular lick at 175 but when playing a song can only play 10 or 12 measures before my speed slows down and I tense up. In this case I know that I can you can achieve 175 but also realize that the key is to play maybe 1 measure then 2 measures then 3 and so forth and so on.

2. Keeping clear requires checking in occasionally with yourself. You can start out the night playing very clearly and if other thoughts such as “Did I roll my windows up, It might be raining?” creep in your playing will loose it’s clarity.

3. When practicing, focus some of the time playing slowly and clearly. When playing fast be aware of your clarity also.

4. Isolate trouble areas and focus your attention on these.

5. My practice is about 85% exercises over and over and 15% actually playing songs. If you have all of the parts of a song down it is not necessary to play the song iover and over again.

6. If you can record yourself it will let you see problems and progress.

Originally posted by peghead59


I seem to be tensioning up a bit when I am trying to play at a faster rate or even if I'm trying to play a new tune accurately. The tension is in both hands and my left forearm. This sometimes results in getting the shakes.

What practice tips have you got to get me out of this.

Geoff Hohwald

Sep 14, 2009 - 5:10:26 PM

4528 posts since 1/17/2007

There's some really good info in here. I've been noticing some tension in my right hand, witch has really been hindering me at higher speeds, I'll be working on it, and this topic will be a great help.

Thanks all!


Sep 16, 2009 - 6:10:30 PM
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4332 posts since 6/15/2005

Smile when you play. It automatically relaxes you. You can literally feel the reduction in tightness. I've found that when I'm trying to play something that's technically difficult for me (a fairly large category), whether I'm practicing or jamming or performing, everything becomes easier and problems resolve themselves sooner if I remember to smile.


Sep 16, 2009 - 8:27:22 PM

639 posts since 5/29/2009

Arnie, this sounds like good advice for a lot of situations!

Sep 27, 2009 - 4:51:47 AM

281 posts since 11/2/2007

Thinking and the brain are nowhere mentioned in the course of learning and playing the banjo.

If Dr. Frankenstein was still in business and we could all get a brain transplant, we'd be fine.

Bluegrass in my blood. Now, if I can only get it to my fingers ?

Oct 15, 2009 - 1:30:48 AM

6444 posts since 8/31/2004

Originally posted by RonBlock

Always maintain the most relaxed hand and body as possible when practicing. If you don't you'll end up with bad habits, and speed will always be an issue. I'm currently working on speed and am finding it easier than ever before because I'm getting all the tension out of hands and body.

Tension usually comes from this:
"Maybe I'm not good enough to learn this" (unbelief).

Which creates this:
"I might mess this up!" (fear).

Which creates this:
"I want to control my hands so I don't blow it" (desire to control)

Which creates this:
"I am TRYING REALLY HARD!" (self-effort, striving, trying)

Which creates this:

Tension in the body and hands.

This paradigm seems to have been true of every bit of my life where I've had tension, whether in music or relationships or whatever. It seems to start with unbelief and fear. Fortunately Jesus Christ is my therapist and he's dug most of those areas out (at least the ones I'm aware of).

In order for any habit to change, thinking has to change first.

"In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself...I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see...Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do."
C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism

Colin - Lots of great advice here. Your archery analogy is instructive because you originally made the assumption that you couldn't do something - relax your arms after coming to a full draw - but found out differently, through experience, that you could. You had to let go of a doubt in order to overcome and progress as an archer. That's the kind of mental modus operandi you need as a banjo player.

All too often we are the victims of our own doubts, fears and self-fulfilling prophecies, trapped in mental constructs that block us from "going with the flow" or being "in the moment."

Ron's epiphany, as described above - about "Whom" and not merely "what" he believes in - is about spiritual connectedness that replaces fear and self-doubt with calmness and "Is"-ness, transcending the internal dialogue of doubt (questioning and answering in advance of experience), and allowing Him - a deeper consciousness - take over and guide. Believe it, it works. I believe that it works for Ron, though I cannot speak for him. I'm still listening. All who wander are not lost....

Whether it's through Jesus Christ or another avatar of enlightenment and philosophical acceptance, it's always about letting higher awareness prevail, not being locked in preconceived notions, doubts, masked fears and unrealities.

For me it's this: Believe in yourself and your ability to overcome these things and be patient. Break the chains of assumption after assumption: Don't squeeze reality so hard. All will be revealed.

To that I would add, get good sturdy picks that are comfortable, experiment and find what is best for you, bend them so that they work for you, and set up your banjo so that it is as loud as possible, so you don't have to play loud consciously.

If you're trying to hit the strings too hard, becauce of a soft instrument, that will tense you up every time. Relaxing, not thinking and just picking softer covers a multitude of sins (falling from higher awareness).

Above all, center yourself and practice slowly, with good body posture in a proper chair, with your back straight and no distractions (internally or externally). Focus, breathe and play. Go with the flow and let the finesse come naturally, peacefully. Bend the notes - don't break them. Let the music happen.

Okay, that's my philosophical screed for the day. But listen to Ron: He knows. It's about Whom he believes in, not just what he believes in.

Happy pickin,

Tom Hanway

Visit tomhanwaymusic on MySpace

Please see my homepage and digital stores.

'Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.' - W. B. Yeats

Edited by - Tom Hanway on 10/15/2009 06:33:33

Oct 15, 2009 - 9:16:42 AM



2797 posts since 12/16/2005

Everything always comes down to everything else, doesn't it?

The most minute task can be affected by your outlook on life and how much crap is going on in your head.

On the simple end of things, I still find that simply trying to relax is a huge step. Indentifying when you're tense and trying to loosen up. Gets easier and easier. But as stated, a lot of what makes you loosen up is the confidence that you know the song, that you can play it.


Edited by - MTBanjo on 10/15/2009 09:18:52

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