Wise hand use for the banjo, getting in touch with your body.
9-25-02, modified from 9-11-02 - I've just seen the article by Jack Hatfield in the Banjo Newsletter (September 2002) about fretting hand usage. I believe he has missed the mark again as last month with his directions. It is the due to difference between teaching a fixed procedure and teaching the system.... Procedure is tied to physical entities, in this case (and likely last month) it is probably Jack's hands. His directions may work for his hands, yet they don't work for a lot of very normal people, including me. I have effortless and fluid technique, understand what the aim is and what I am doing, yet I sure cannot play at all using what he calls the *proper thumb angle* or anything near it. I violate some of his other "must's" too. My music sounds OK.
What I would offer for the present is if you can't physically play in the "proper" thumb angle and left hand position of Photo 1 & 2 on p. 36, all is not lost. If your fingers will not reach that way and especially your thumb bend backward that way (mine does not), it is OK. There are other solutions you can take a part in working out which will accomplish the aims of unencumbered and effortless fretting. What works to produce clean notes with least effort is far superior to the concept of "proper" anything.
His advice about not supporting the neck with your left hand or gripping the neck like a bat with your palm on the neck as in Photo 3 is very real, because it limits free motion. A bedrock premise of fretting hand usage for the 5 string banjo is that the banjo is a very linear instrument, and the fretting hand needs to be very free to move up and down the neck. This is in direct contrast to say the the guitar, which has 2 octaves across the neck from the nut on up, and is much more lateral. The plectrum banjo players demonstrate this linearity effectively. Specifically, is is deconstructive to think of an *anchor* position, especially with respect to say slides. If you slide even one fret your whole hand and arm as well as your wrist (which can the flavor of the slide, with rushing or delay) are to be involved, all the way from your back and including what the cellists call the wing bone...the big one at the top of your back. I don't have the correct name at hand. You are really changing *home* position from which one finger per fret is oriented when you slide. "Anchor" is again a deadly word in the pursuit of effortlessness.
There are other things I find in the article on first reading I don't agree with for very logical and/or body oriented reasons. Dang. I really don't want to seem like a sniper with my crosshairs on JH. It is just that learning wise individual body oriented use is so much more effective than a rigid procedure in something like this, where the hardware (people's bodies) is not fixed as it were. PC procedures don't work on a Mac. They are both computers with graphical interface: similar, but different. And then there is Linux.......
6-10-03 - If you are a subscriber to Banjo Newsletter, you may have seen the article by Jack Hatfield on pp. 28-30 of the August 2002 issue concerning picking hand use. While most of Jack's writings are good, and some of his ideas clever (like the notched picks in this article), he has been known to miss the mark. Photo 3 in particular on p. 30 is an example of this, it is a very unwise way to hold you hand, and very common error in beginners.
Having a relaxed picking hand is essential to fluid playing. In most people's hands, the usage shown in Photo 3 sets up an intrinsic tension in the middle finger. Holding you hand this way and picking is like tying a boat firmly to the dock, and then trying to sail away. I don't expect you to believe me outright, rather go to my Gestalt Banjo excerpt on hand position, read the discussion and try out the test on your own hand. If you are like the vast majority of people you will physically feel what I mean in your hand and lower forearm. Then you will understand why I show the extended fingers anchor position as in Photo 3 as *not this* in my book, and can choose how you'd like to proceed.
*Anchor* is a very loaded word, too, a better if more cumbersome phrase is balance and locate, or just locate. Anchor implies a rigid, locked down placement, and a tightened hand. This does not work very well. The words we use imply a lot more than the surface meaning, and care is wise in choosing them. See Section 4 of Gestalt Banjo if you have it for a discussion of this.
It is implied that Photo 4 shows how Earl Scruggs balances and locates his picking hand. I have confirmed that he still locates his hand in a very similar way to the way it is shown in the c. 1968 picture on p. 29 of the Scruggs book. This is very different from laying the fingers back against the head as in Figure 4. You can also see this in the pictures on his web site, www.earlscruggs.com
6-10-03 - I've just uploaded the revised essay on Hand Position from the new (9th printing) of the book to the site and the new appendix that goes with it. I've treated how the unwise usage of Photo 3 comes about and examine the ramifications further than in the earlier printings (where I feel there was more than enough there in the discussion now to get the message across). Test your own hand, feel what is happening, then you can make result oriented choices.
This problem is important, and is one of the reasons many banjo players never learn to play smoothly and/or quit. I encourage you talk about this with other players and BNL subscribers you meet who may not be on the Internet. I feel we are all in this together. They can view this page free of charge at a public library, and can print it out free or for a small fee. The webpage can also be found by putting my name or Gestalt Banjo into the search engines like Google if they don't have the URL. They don't have to buy the book.
The paragraphs on this page were originally "new" items on Paul's home page. He felt the matter was so important after he had written several notes that he decided to make a separate page just for this information.
Paul wrote a bit more than is here. I have found a reference to 2002 and am looking through older files to see if I can find it. I will either add it here or in the "new" page.
Last Updated 09 Oct 2003 by PJH
Edited 03 Jul 2007 by WF