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2-finger vs 3-finger for old-time up-picking?

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Aug 19, 2019 - 5:56:04 AM
2 posts since 11/17/2014

I've been starting to learn traditional banjo after about 4 years playing Scruggs-style and am currently working up "Darling Cory."

I've noticed that the up-picking part is almost always played 2-finger. Maybe I'm rationalizing 'cause it's easier for me, but I feel there's a bit more expressive freedom and economy of movement up-picking it with 3 fingers (T-I-M). So, I'm wondering...

  1. Given the exact same notes, does 2-finger result in different tonal qualities than 3-finger, like you hear in thumb vs index lead in bluegrass?
  2. Am I missing out on learning important techniques by incorporating the 3rd finger, or am I opening up more possibilities? Or... both?
  3. Among traditional players, is using a 3rd finger considered "cheating" / "Scruggs without picks", or is it more a case of "whatever works for you?"

Edited by - joshatl on 08/19/2019 06:04:52

Aug 19, 2019 - 9:42:34 AM
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3651 posts since 10/13/2005

With banjo, everything is "whatever works for you." Given your BG background, why not 3 fingers? It won't sound like clawhammer but if it works for you... It all depends on what your goals are and what you want to sound like. I do CH myself but I am currently working on a new folk-style ballad 3 finger, ring finger lead which I am sure other people do but I don't know of them myself and there are no books on this style that I am aware of....but it works for me! I've heard some two finger up picking that sounds like eleventeen fingers pickin'! So play around with it all and figure out what you'd like to sound like. It is banjo, it's all good! banjered

Aug 19, 2019 - 10:24:11 AM
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8819 posts since 2/22/2007
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Josh, I will agree that it seems to make little sense to not use three fingers. But when I listen to what is called "Old Time Two Finger" or "Old Time Three Finger", I always prefer what I hear in the Two Finger Thumb Lead world, and part of what I like is the sparse sound. Seems that if the players is adept at using all those fingers, well, they tend to use them!

But there are exceptions and Don Borchelt plays wonderful old time tunes using 3-finger Bluegrass technique, and does it with picks on a semi-fretless. The result is so good that I am surprised that some others have not taken up this unique style.

Then there is Nick Hornbuckle who went from 3 to 2 finger bluegrass style out of necessity and went on to play some great 2-finger old time using the advanced techniques carried over from his bluegrass skills.

I now wish that I had learned Two Finger Thumb Lead using my middle finger for the upstrokes rather than the more traditional index and bracing with ring and/or pinky, as that leaves a finger available that could come in handy sometimes, and I sometimes can do this but have gotten very used to bracing with my index and it's darn hard to change that now.

So, bring your all of your fingers and all of your skills, but if you want that traditional sound then be careful not to make it too busy and too fast, or else you may as well call it Bluegrass.

Aug 19, 2019 - 8:47:37 PM



2 posts since 11/17/2014

Thank you both for the terrific responses and encouragement!

@banjo bill-e, your comments are especially on the nose and I appreciate the references to folks' styles so I can go give them a listen.

You're right on about not trying to squeeze too many notes in - you gotta let em breathe a little!

I've been pretty careful not to over-embellish, but I'll agree it did seem that even at the same pace with the same dang notes the 2-finger felt a bit crisper. I'm still getting it up to speed so I'll be curious to record both and see.

Primarily I want to be careful not to paint myself into a corner skill-wise for down the road. The suggestion to go with T-M vs T-I is especially interesting and will actually be much easier for me. Anchoring R-P is drilled into my fingers pretty well at this point so that should make for a more natural transition.

Happy picking!

Edited by - joshatl on 08/19/2019 21:03:49

Aug 19, 2019 - 11:58:18 PM
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326 posts since 2/5/2014

After playing Scruggs style for a few years I decided to try out old time 3 finger picking. After I felt comfortable with it, I noticed a funny thing; I had switched to 2 finger playing.

Every time I worked on a tune with the 3 finger pattern, eventually I switched back to the 2 finger pattern. After a while I decided to just practice 2 finger old time music.

Odd, I suppose, but then, I am a banjo player...

Aug 20, 2019 - 9:47:04 AM

331 posts since 1/28/2013

A lot depends on the song. Some songs you just need more drive. 3 finger gives you more drive, whereas 2 finger gives you rhythm when you need it.

Aug 21, 2019 - 5:32:56 AM
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8099 posts since 3/17/2005

I've played I lead 2-finger for 40+ years, but if I was starting over, today, I'd use T,I, and middle. There's nothing you can do with 2 fingers, either T, or I lead, that you can't do with 3-finger. There were, and are a lot of OT pickers who use various 3-finger styles.

Aug 21, 2019 - 5:38:17 AM
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8099 posts since 3/17/2005

Two very different approaches to 3-finger OT are Pete Peterson and Don Borchelt, both of whom are absolutely great musicians.



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