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Oct 16, 2009 - 6:50:51 AM

6444 posts since 8/31/2004

Originally posted by Richard Dress

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

Agreed, but I can't resist the temptation to give it one last lash!

Originally posted by MTBanjo

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. Identifying 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.


Everything is everything, is that what you're saying?

I agree though, having that bottom-line-self-confidence is the key to being able to pick 'Dear Old Dixie' flawlessly or, to use a baseball analogy, to call your shot, and then hit a home run on the next pitch, as Babe Ruth did with the NY Yankees.

Ruth pointed to the center field bleachers during the at-bat. It's the stuff of legend, a declaration that he would hit a home run to this part of the park. On the next pitch, Ruth hit a home run to center field. Babe Ruth's "called shot" homer was his last World Series hit.

Baseball is always a good analogy when we're talking bluegrass, for a lot of reasons I won't go into here, but it all comes down to basics: You've got to drill in the fundamentals, day after day, practice after practice, honing your skills and getting them down pat before you can hold your own or "call your shots" (as Ruth's legend has it) in the Big Leagues. Being a banjo player is always about being a valuable team player. A sloppy banjo player is the ruination of a steady bluegrass band. Drill, drill, drill!

Happy pickin,

Tom Hanway

Please visit me on MySpace for iTunes and Mel Bay stores.

Please see my homepage for more links and digital stores via Universal.

Nobody has all the tunes, but everybody has a piece of the tradition.

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 10/16/2009 07:00:00

Oct 24, 2009 - 11:06:13 AM



298 posts since 9/6/2009

Originally posted by peghead59

Thanks guys. That has been real helpful. It all makes sense so far.

I,m a new player and experience that problem as well, particularly on a longer playing session. I feel it at the base of my thumb on my fretting hand at the hand joint, and I know it is tension. I like the suggestion to play a little softer. I use light strings and that helps a lot on the fretting.

Good Pickin'
Bob Cunningham

Nov 6, 2009 - 8:06:55 AM

5 posts since 4/20/2009

This is great advice!! Tension is a picker's number one enemy, (besides and unwillingness to change or learn new things) I have found that I will stop breathing, holding my breath, or change my hand position, then when I make a concious effort to remedy that, then next thing you know I notice I am gritting my teeth, or some other such foolishness.

Nov 22, 2009 - 12:35:02 PM



1002 posts since 1/31/2004

A wonderful and essential topic with lots of great input already provided. Let me try to add a few practical, easy to understand tips that might also be of help:

I think that a lot of issues relaxed to tension can be largely solved by isolating the right hand movement by taking as much of the right arm out of the equation as possible and consciously transferring as much of the picking energy as you can to your fingers. This can be achieved for some players by relaxing completely the shoulder and elbow (note the difference in posture as you relax - when your awareness is drawn to such things, it's amazing the things you can observe). Note how the elbow comes into the body, closer to the banjo, etc.

As you pick a string slowly, imagine the movement coming from the first joint of the thumb, index and middle fingers (the joint closest to the rest of the hand). The forearm, elbow and upper arm aren't actively involved much at all - the work is being done by your fingers (okay, muscles are indeed moving in the forearm but you're MENTALLY originating the act of picking from the joints of the fingers, not powering through via the arm).

If you relax your shoulder and elbow, this should create an arched right hand wrist, if your right hand is positioned in a bluegrass lead position relatively close to the bridge. The wrist arch will help isolate the movement within the hand and help to remove arm tension (as the arm isn't actively involved in the act of picking).

In this day and age, lots of great players are using many different right hand approaches and what I'm proposing gives you more of the right hand approach used by players such as Earl Scruggs, J. D. Crowe and Sonny Osborne. Others have come up with different solutions that work well for them. Relaxation is definitely related to right hand technique and if you haven't looked at these elements in detail, it's a worthwhile exercise to undertake.

All the best,

Bill Evans

Dec 23, 2009 - 7:02 PM

154 posts since 2/25/2008

I'm also a novice that doesn't not much about anything. I noticed my muscle tension and it does slow me down. However, when I'm paying attention to this particular problem, and then concentrate on relaxing my muscle, it does work and I pick a lot faster. If you think of yourself picking fast and graciously, with your picking fingers making smooth movements like you're some kind of hot shot on that banjo you're picking, it works! At least it works for me. Of course, I tend to forget and lose my concentration, then the muscle tension returns. But I reckon that the brain is where the secret is

I use an unorthodox technique that I came up with on my own, that might sound a little weird, but it sure makes me pick smoother and faster. I place just a little tiny, almost microscopical drop of motor oil on my finger picks, and lubricate them. I started with regular grease (vegetable oil), but the motor oil is better. It might sound like I'm an idiot that doesn't know what he's doing, but it's been working for me, so I reckon it's all good. Just gotta make sure to clean them strings when you're done picking. You drop just a bit, like hot butter on a piece of bread and it that smoothness will last for days, depending on how many hours you pick everyday.

I used the above method not to improve muscle tension, which is unrelated, but to pick a little faster. My strings would get "dry" and feel scratchy sometimes, and it felt like they were literally "getting a grip" of my finger picks, slowing me down. That's when I came up with the greasing thing. The expression "faster than greased lightening" mighta had something to do with it. Anyways, that's my contribution to this thread, hopefully, I didn't sound stupid or nothing.

Jan 8, 2010 - 11:31:08 AM

9 posts since 12/30/2009

That's common to all instruments. I had a drummer friend that was having that problem and his teacher reminded him 'you don't play drums with you hands...' Kind of neat advice, right?

Just take some deep breaths, shake your hands out a bit, maybe walk around and keep at it. Muscle tension for musicians almost always comes from brain tension! That is, we are always the most physically relaxed with the things that we have already mastered. I'll bet that you don't feel the same in your hands with the stuff that you already have 'under your belt'....

Hope that helps

Jan 17, 2010 - 1:37:13 AM



160 posts since 7/11/2008

One thing I have found since starting this thread is this;

If I spend some of my practice time doing some pretty difficult (for me) chord changes that I'm not used to, after time they become natural and that helps me to relax a bit more. When I go back to playing the tunes I know, I'm not thinking all the time about that difficult little chord change that's coming up, so I tend to play a bit more relaxed. Doesn't work all the time, but at least it's an improvement.

This thread has brought together some great ideas.

Jan 24, 2010 - 1:21:51 PM
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48 posts since 9/25/2008

RE: "The forearm, elbow and upper arm aren't actively involved much at all - the work is being done by your fingers (okay, muscles are indeed moving in the forearm but you're MENTALLY originating the act of picking from the joints of the fingers, not powering through via the arm)."

...sorry; but, being a physician of sorts, I felt the need to comment about this. The muscles that flex and extend ALL the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th fingers originate at the elbow. Therefore, saying that the elbow is not involved in picking is a mostly untrue statement - with the exception of the thumb. Just wanted to set the record straight.


Feb 9, 2010 - 10:47:14 PM



6780 posts since 2/9/2010

Great work everyone. Thanks for all the advice. I'm new to this forum but I fight this demon every week at our open jam in Vancouver. Sometimes my right thumb begins to feel shaky. Sometimes my wrist seems to droop toward the head. Sometimes my jaw feels tight. Playing at the jams is making me an adrenalin junkie. Good thing we only do it once a week.

Feb 27, 2010 - 12:04:18 PM



11 posts since 4/19/2008

As a convinced pantheist and to give this topic some dimension I will point out that the principles presented here can to some degree apply to the physical / psychological nature of musicianship
Art is quite another matter : Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner were I their own ways morally dubios, Paganini haunted and considered closely related to the devil, Picasso a sexmaniac, Dali a pervert- Art needs friction and tension -- and the church has never promoted free spirits
even Michelangelo was "chained ".
Yes I expect to be moderated therefore I am closing my account by free will it is to much to see a respected player highjacking a topic to become his church Amen

Feb 27, 2010 - 4:57:34 PM

20 posts since 1/13/2010

Awesome Post Ron.

Edited by - bnjo5 on 02/27/2010 16:59:29

Mar 31, 2010 - 4:47:59 PM

4 posts since 12/12/2009

Very good forum. The only thing I can play up to speed is the Cripple Creek from the old Scruggs book (at least the first part); my fingers just seem to know where to go. I do know that any thought at all seems to slow things up or muddle them. Especially a thought like "Got to play faster"; also unfortunately a thought like "stop thinking".

So, as you all have said, relax, play it real slow and perfect and the speed will come.

Even John Hartford in his DVD notes that playing some things up to speed he "cheats" by leaving some notes out and focusing on the melody notes.


Mar 31, 2010 - 5:06:19 PM

4 posts since 12/12/2009

Another thought: I believe that Ear Scruggs suggests maximum use of the thumb; and I do find that I can generally "double thumb" a piece a lot faster.


Apr 8, 2010 - 3:18:33 PM

134 posts since 11/26/2008

Originally posted by breezygirlnd

The only time I have heard of that happening is due to lack of oxygen.... due to either not breathing or hyperventalating... I catch myself holding my breath some times under stress... not sure if that has anything to do with your freinds prob... just mentioning it... :-)


Hey Amy,

As I understand it, hyperventilating has more to do with lowering the bloods carbon dioxide (by "blowing off too much CO2" with the excess ventilation, than it has to do with oxygen. This is why we have people who are hyperventilating breathe into a paper bag. They will rebreathe some of the CO2, and this will increase the level in the bloodstream, and relieve the symptoms. But, you are right, in that hyperventilating can lead to cramping in the hands, as well as making the cycle of being nervous worse. Many people do not even realize they are hyperventilating.


Edited by - Horseshoot on 04/09/2010 08:30:46

May 6, 2010 - 1:05:28 PM



160 posts since 7/11/2008

After starting this thread I have put a lot of practice in to relaxing. I have made great progress. I am relaxing far easier and this leads to me picking much faster and more fluidly.

However. I have recently started to learn back up. This obviously means learning more chords and progressions. Straight away I have noticed that I am completely tensed up again and having to cut a practice session short because of pains in my wrist and shoulder. So for me I guess, the tension comes through trying to perfect a new technique too quickly and I should slow down and concentrate on accuracy slowly. Using a metronome at a really slow speed helps with this.

May 6, 2010 - 3:23:31 PM

984 posts since 9/18/2009

Sorry to hear this Colin. I have been trying to show a Family Friend some Rolls, he has just got a cheap JO off Ebay. Wow i have never seen tension like this Guy. He has no Musical experience, and he has had 1 lesson. The Teacher told him he should be able to support his Banjo by just holding it on his Lap without the Strap over his Shoulder. The result of this is he has got so much tension in his Body from trying to hold the Banjo, after he has been Picking for a couple of Minutes he has a big Dent on his right inner Forearm. He has been doing this for about a Month practicing holding the Banjo without a Strap. I think if one part of your Body is tense, it spreads. This may sound strange but my Tutor who is brill said "Play it in any position" So i play the Jo totally relaxed lying on my Back, watching Soccer on the Telly, just pickin away relaxed. What i do practice a lot is putting a closed Chord down F, or D shape Vamping a few Bars, then taking my hand off the Neck, shaking my hand, and then puting my Hand back on the Board in the next closed Chord position. This is great practice, but it takes some getting used to. Just Chill out, and relax and it will come good.

May 7, 2010 - 9:32:01 AM



160 posts since 7/11/2008

Thanks Eddie. I have being doing the make and shake chord technique. I find that helps alot. I find I tense up when I'm going from say a barred A at the second to a closed G at the fifth (or third. Depends which way you look at it). I play them OK to start with, but as I'm working through a tune I get tense because I can see the end in sight and I just want to get through it.

May 7, 2010 - 10:04:24 AM

15 posts since 4/18/2010

Hope I'm not repeating, but...
Try stretching for a few minutes before playing. Start with the big muscles -- back, arms, shoulders, etc. -- and then your hands, wrists, and fingers. If your hands are stiff, it helps to massage them under warm water first. If you don't know how to stretch properly, get a yoga book, or take classes.

Jun 14, 2010 - 2:37:05 PM

13420 posts since 3/6/2006

My advice is very complex. Learn to relax when you play-

Jun 18, 2010 - 10:15:56 AM

78 posts since 7/8/2008

I suggest a TENS unit. A small muscle contractor that send small pulses to yours muscles and contracts and relaxes them. This helps me a lot. You can find one online for about 120-150$. They just have two small adhesive pads you can stick anywhere and they really do work. Good luck

Jun 18, 2010 - 11:19:14 AM
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7183 posts since 3/20/2008

Since this thread keeps showing up I have thought more about it. It's easy enough to tell students to relax. I have given out the same advice, because there is truth in it.

But how would you feel if you were crossing Niagara Falls on a high-wire and everyone's advice was "If you don't relax, you'll fall". So very true, but is it helpful?

Maybe a lot of the student's stress is due to the learning approach.

Lesson 1: learn this part, put this finger here and that finger there, learn this roll and that roll and practice the 4 measures till next week
Lesson 2: learn this next 4 measures, and crank it 1000 till next week
Lesson 3--7: you guessed it
Lesson 8: OK now line up all the parts and crank your fingers all about like you were taught and do it 1000 till next week

Now the student has a little $400 frankenstein in his repertoire but it shakes itself apart whenever he tries to speed it up a little bit (theoretical design flaws). The frightful train wreck makes the student tense (natural response).

Everybody tells the poor guy to take yoga lessons so he can learn to relax during disasters. Good stuff to know but it takes a lot of time away from learning the banjo. Everybody is happy, problem solved.

Sometimes the student might feel he's in over his head financially because playing a 4 set weekly gig for $50 requires 60 tunes that cost $400 each to learn ($24K investment).

"When do I break even?", he wonders. It hurts to do the math. All hypothetical, of course. But there there's more to the story than relaxation

Jun 21, 2010 - 6:46:56 PM
Players Union Member

Dwayne Elix


186 posts since 6/1/2010

If you are worried about your volume, stand facing a wall. It will double your volume.

Jul 12, 2010 - 1:53:59 PM

724 posts since 9/1/2008

I don't agree with the play softer thing. That could lead to bad habits and not playing tunes the way they should be played. I have been playing 30 + years and the cramps and stiffness still hits me when I am not warmed up. Warm up and play like you always do, but just be aware of the cramping probs. I do agree with that part. Right hand cramping is somethimes caused by the forearm
musles resting on the arm rest. If your right hand cramps up a lot, try putting some type of cushioning on the arm rest. ( Not a cure-all but it may help) Left hand cramping can be caused by just being tired or not warmed up. I give my students warm-up licks before they start on tunes. There can be lots of other reasons, but if you realize it can happen, it just might be enough to lesson the frequency. The better you get, the faster you can warm up and the less you will cramp.

Aug 29, 2010 - 2:48:32 PM

5138 posts since 12/9/2007

I find a couple beers relaxes me. (hic!)

Sep 14, 2010 - 9:45:46 PM
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151 posts since 10/12/2003

Some of the greats have already added their opinions, but I'll dare to add my own two cents. Practice with the metronome at very slow speeds. If you can't play it slow. You can't play it.

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