Learning the 5-string banjo pt 5: My picking right hand

Banjo picks

Banjo picks


I have long promised a post on my experience with picks and what I am doing, or not doing, to improve my right hand technique.

My banjo came with three standard picks. Two silver nickel picks made by Dunlop and one standard (giant) plastic thumb pick. There is an awful lot of information on picks and picking and so any beginner is sure to be a bit confused if they are seeking advice. I just want to outline my experience here in case it helps or provides comparison for others.

Basically I hated the picks. I followed Janet Davis’s good advice on wearing them, shaping them to your finger and moulding them until they felt comfortable but these things that looked like a torturer’s accessories were just not sitting well with me. I had figured out the art of anchoring a finger to the drum head to at least get the right position but my lack of sensitivity when plucking drove me mad. I hit the head, two strings at once, missed strings and lost good position as my right hand tensed up really quickly.

The good folks at Banjo Hang Out came to my rescue again when I looked up how other people solved the problem of getting used to picks. I learnt a lot about materials and gauges or thickness of the metal finger picks. My set were medium gauge (0.025) and were theoretically adjustable. Janet Davis has a good overview of picks on her site and if you’re in the US you can buy from her online store. I learnt that beginners often get on better with thinner picks, that picks can come in different sizes and women with smaller fingers often prefer to get a small size, and that silver nickel and the alternative, brass, produce different tones. One excellent piece of advice was to try out several sets as they’re not too expensive until you find a set that works. Also, to not give up on picks so easily (although one person advised heading over go the clawhammer family and abandon picking altogether–I of course want to do both). Read the discussion in the Beginners’ Bluegrass Forum on BHO.

After reading up more on different makes of picks, from pricey ones that have special patents attached to them to ones that produce a range of sizes I decided to go for the following and headed over to the website of Eagle Music whose fast and reasonable mail order service is a real asset for banjo players in the UK:

A pair of small size brass split band ProPik finger picks
An adjustable ProPik thumb pick
A pair of adjustable silver nickel 0.013 Dunlop finger picks–the thinnest they make
A standard Dunlop plastic thumb pick

I started off playing with the small brass picks. I got on well with these as they fitted neatly and their split bands made them a comfortable wear. However after a few weeks of practising I noticed that the brass surface slid off the strings as they got shinier through wear, or it could have just been my imagination or bad technique. Whatever it was I was finding them less satisfactory after this time and so changed over to my ultra thin Dunlops. I was much braver with adjusting these and have done so several times, just with my hands. I have since found these much more agreeable, which is just as well, as during my recent house move I lost one of my brass picks! I think my fingers have generally got used to wearing picks, thanks to the comfort of the brass ProPiks habituating me to them.

I haven’t settled on a favourite thumb pick and use both interchangeably at the moment.

So, am I now a champion picker? No, of course not. I still hit the head and the occasional duff string. However my right hand dexterity is improving with each practice. But my thumb remains the main problem. I seem unable to consistently strike the string in a clean downwards motion at right-angles to the string. Consequently, particularly when trying to pick up speed, I often hit the head of the banjo with its point. Returning to the BHO forums a brilliant suggestion was made. Why not try and stick a pad of sticky labels or post-it notes where my thumb goes and keep reducing its thickness until I have trained my hand and thumb to stop hitting the head and strike the string properly. I am about to try this, having just found a small pad that might work.

Other than that I have had a big break in practice owing to moving and I am slowly persevering with, perfecting and speeding up Cripple Creek, including its melodic version which I love most, and learning Blackberry Blossom and Cumberland Gap as I delve into the new world of proper endings. I have also pre-emptively bought a copy of Wayne Erbsen’s Clawhammer for the Complete Ignoramus…

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