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Jan 21, 2022 - 5:11:55 PM
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5 posts since 1/21/2022

Hello everyone! I'm new to the banjo world, my wife bought me my banjo for my birthday last year as I've wanted to learn to play forever. The biggest mental and partially physical roadblock I'm running into is I am missing my thumb and the first knuckle up of my middle finger. Any advice on how to overwork my other three fingers to get it to work efficiently? I appreciate any and all advice. Thank you!

Jan 21, 2022 - 5:23:08 PM
Players Union Member



6281 posts since 8/19/2012

Which hand? I had about 1/2" of my left middle finger cut off in a shop accident a few years ago.

Jan 21, 2022 - 5:26:27 PM

5 posts since 1/21/2022

It would be on my fret hand, my left hand. Lost it in a fireworks accident when I was 16, about 6 years ago.

Jan 21, 2022 - 5:48:23 PM
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Bill Rogers (Moderator)


25896 posts since 6/25/2005

Search for and watch videos of Barry Abernathy, banjo player with Appalachian Road Show. That will show you one approach t a similar but different situation; you’ll work out your own. Remember to focus on what you can do, and don't worry about what you can't. You'll find your way if you keep after it. 

Edited by - Bill Rogers on 01/21/2022 17:50:03

Jan 21, 2022 - 5:49:49 PM
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5 posts since 1/21/2022

I have watched Mr. Abernathy play and it is so impressive. I just need to pick it up and play and not let it hold me back.

Jan 21, 2022 - 8:36:51 PM
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237 posts since 9/3/2018

You'll do fine. But not at first.
You didn't say if you've ever played a fretted instrument or not. I'll assume... not? Here's what may be good for you to know: Even if you had all 5 digits, when you start trying to make that hand do stuff it's not used to, it will be confused, it will revolt.
I am 3 years in and I remember vividly what it felt like to be brand new. My left hand was very very stupid. So, there is the risk that you'll experience the usual newbie left hand stupidity, and feel like it's because you are missing some fingers.  No doubt you've got it harder, yes, but, just know, in the beginning those fingers won't do much of anything you tell them. Push through all that and resist blaming the lack of digits. 

Also, old time lends itself to less complicated fretting.  You only need a couple of fingers. At first it will feel awkward trying to get a grip on the neck. Later you'll realize thumbs aren't supposed to be holding up the neck anyway, just providing a stabilizing force on the back of the neck.  

Jan 21, 2022 - 11:57:57 PM

5 posts since 1/21/2022

Thank you for the advice KatB!

Jan 22, 2022 - 4:42:08 AM
Players Union Member

Texasbanjo (Moderator)


27159 posts since 8/3/2003

You can compensate, it just takes trial and error.

My son lost his index finger on his left hand in an industrial accident. I taught him to play guitar and use partial chords and play a simple melody. Took him a while, but he got pretty good at it and so can you.

Good luck and I know you can do it.

Jan 22, 2022 - 5:35:50 AM
Players Union Member



6281 posts since 8/19/2012

If you need some motivation look up Django Reinhardt. He was an internationally famous jazz guitarist and his left hand was badly damaged in a fire. Surgeons wanted to remove 2 of is fingers but he refused. There are many of his recordings on Youtube but here is a link to Wikipedia about him.

Jan 22, 2022 - 6:40:49 AM
Players Union Member



1149 posts since 1/15/2009

A good many clawhammer players never use full chords. In fact, it's entirely possible to play quite competently fretting with just one finger. When appropriate, play your bum-ditty substituting the melody note again for the quick brush stroke followed by your fifth sting. Slides, hammer-ons , pull-offs and even alternate string hammer-ons and pull-offs are all possible. A drop thumb to an open string works too. Two fingers opens up the possibility of partial chords and more drop thumb opportunities.

Lots of good advice and encouragement from all those posting above. You will find what works for you.

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Jan 22, 2022 - 7:11:17 AM

322 posts since 11/9/2021

In plain language "You Can Do IT !"

Jan 22, 2022 - 11:35:41 AM

350 posts since 4/10/2018

I moved away from being a long term guitarist to the banjo due to arthritis, carpal tunnel, and dupuytrin’s contracture on my left hand and carpal tunnel and arthritis on my right. I am recovering from carpal tunnel surgery on both hands and dupuytin’s shots on my left. The banjo is much more forgiving than the guitar. Old time music can be played without barre chords and with just two finger chords plus single string work. You can put light strings on it and have low action as well. I think the trick you will need to figure out is how to balance the banjo on your lap since your thumb is missing. I needed to use a strap and balance the banjo between my thighs like a Cellist! You might consider working with a teacher at first who can give you some coaching with your particular situation. Good luck!

Jan 22, 2022 - 6:43:26 PM

143 posts since 1/2/2019

So it sounds like you still have your index and ring finger? Many lead guitarists just use index and ring for solos. You should be able to play just fine on the banjo with only those two fingers. You may have use more slides, hammerons and pulloffs. Eventually you will find your own "style" of playing. As far as no thumb, would resting the neck on your palm work? Tommi Iommi of Black Sabbath, on his last day of work, before leaving to do the band full time had an accident at work and lost part of his left index finger. He had a specially made thimble to wear and plays his solos just fine. Also, as mentioned above Django. He played with only two fingers. He is still considered one of the best jazz guitarists today. It will be a bit more challenging but it sounds like you have the desire so you will figure out a way to do it.

Jan 22, 2022 - 11:28:10 PM

5 posts since 1/21/2022

I actually tried a thimble with like t shirt over it and it was too bulky. But I’m getting a lot of good advice! I will be trying all suggestions!

Jan 23, 2022 - 12:21 AM



4137 posts since 2/20/2016

Three things that will help:

1. Find someone who knows how to set up the banjo to play with fairly low "action" [as we call it] to compensate for your lack of a thumb.

2.  Play with a shoulder strap even when you're sitting down.  It will make it easier for you to stabilize the instrument so you can get some leverage with your left hand and get by without the thumb. 

3. If you can find a seasoned teacher who has experience with helping people with hand problems find techniques that work with their conditions, it will help.

Perhaps my biggest challenge as a teacher was when I was asked to teach a 16 year old woman with severe cerebral palsy to play violin. After two weeks, we determined that she was not going to be able to hold the instrument on her shoulder or draw a bow, so I immediately switched her over to guitar. It took some dedication and persistence on her part; and some patience and creativity on my part, but she learned to strum and chord well enough to enjoy the instrument and accompany herself when she wants to sing. She will be able to play for the rest of her life.

Physically, it is possible to play a banjo without a left thumb, and there have been several quite proficient guitarists who were missing a finger or two. It may take some patience, but you will be able to play if you work at it.

And yes, Django takes away all of our excuses.

And if you're married and are learning the banjo, it won't hurt for you to stick a sock under the banjo head to bring the sound level down, at least while you're getting started.  And that advice is for everybody.  The banjo is not a quiet instrument, and too much racket can make your mate nervous . . .

Edited by - rcc56 on 01/23/2022 00:34:36

Jan 27, 2022 - 4:35:49 AM
Players Union Member



15424 posts since 8/30/2006

I have a question: At which joint did you lose your thumb, first or second?

I lost mine at the first joint, now I play with a stump. Sure I had to modify my chord shapes. I play 6 and 12-string also

For the middle finger, I suggest there will be something of a cap on that stump that can get calloused and help you once you get past the "fire drills," that's where your body goes looking for lost stuff that has already moved on, but left the phone lines connected.

I had a fire drill in a fine seafood restaurant in San Francisco while trying to eat an oyster, the oyster was launched into the air and landed on another table close by. It's hard to get lost in that situation. I was friendly, humiliated, but heck. "I believe that belongs to me."

So, I'm sorry for the trauma, it looks like you are working through it. Sometimes it takes trauma for the real serious people like yourself to come forward and play for others who have no hands. It's a heck of a ride, tighten your seatbelt and say goodbye to your friends on shore.


Feb 3, 2022 - 8:36:22 AM



4 posts since 2/1/2022

Originally posted by banjopicker21

Hello everyone! I'm new to the banjo world, my wife bought me my banjo for my birthday last year as I've wanted to learn to play forever. The biggest mental and partially physical roadblock I'm running into is I am missing my thumb and the first knuckle up of my middle finger. Any advice on how to overwork my other three fingers to get it to work efficiently? I appreciate any and all advice. Thank you!

I'm in a similar though not quite so drastic situation.  I'm from the rust belt and spent several decades bouncing from one factory job to another as businesses got off-shored.  I managed to get into something better before losing any important bits but have to deal with the long term effects of multiple repetitive motion injuries.  I'm on the high side of sixty now and the last instrument I played on a regular basis was a violin.  That was back in middle school, half a century ago, with kid nimble fingers.  I wasn't very good.

The biggest problem I've hit so far is trying to learn so many things at once.  When you dissect it, all the things that have to happen to correctly play a single note makes a pretty tall stack.  Then you add timing and playing a series of notes in sequence.  It doesn't help that most teachers have been playing long enough they no longer have a real grasp of the problems they had just starting out.  Did you ever try to show a kid how to tie shoelaces?  Then run into that awkward moment where you slow it down enough for him to understand what you're doing, only to discover you can't do it either if you stop to think about it?

They all say, "find a way to comfortably hold the instrument", as if that should take about a minute and a half.  It took me a couple weeks to stop feeling like a bachelor who had just been handed a new born baby.  The most important thing is setting aside a block of time to practice, every...  single... day..., preferably somewhere with a minimum of interruptions and distractions.  Another thing that helped me is something I picked up learning how to stick weld.  When trying to learn something that requires fine motor skills and eye hand coordination, do everything you can to pare it down to learning the least number of movements at the same time.  When I figured out which finger of my pick hand I was going to plant, and where, I slapped a small square of electrical tape on the head.  Yes, eventually I'll be working up and down the strings to get different sound.  For now, having a tactile landmark for consistent hand position is an enormous help.  Also get a shoulder strap if you don't have one already.  It's as much a part of the instrument as the chin rest on a violin.

How wide is the neck?  I have an older banjo that measures 1 1/8 at the nut, 7/8 across the first four strings.  It feels like I'm trying to do brain surgery wearing gloves.  I can maybe get an extra 1/64 between strings with a different nut.  Changing the neck isn't in my budget any time soon.  Also, the banjo itself is an Epiphone.  It seems to be well built out of good materials but is definitely a "no frills" entry level instrument.  It would make more sense to trade up when I get that far than to customize a low end banjo.  Hope you can filter something useful out of my rambling.  Keep us informed about how it goes for you.

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