Paul Hawthorne's Web Site
Banjo Psych 103

banjo head, banjo psych logoSimplifying The Task

with guest tutor Bobby Smith

These comments below are strictly my views. I do not have any resources to back them up other than my experience in the years I've been playing. I think what follows is common sense that is often overlooked.

Someone recently asked me my opinion on what he could do to help him get a part of a tune cleaned up. He was having trouble playing it up to speed without being sloppy. I think it's great that he at least recognized that his playing was sloppy. Some people don't, and therefore never take action to change it.

If you think about it, it takes six things to be able to play a banjo:

  1. desire to learn
  2. a banjo
  3. your mind
  4. your left hand
  5. your right hand
  6. practice

For those of you that can get by without the last one...I hate you.

Once you have a banjo, the desire to learn, and the will to practice, the only thing that's left is your mind and your left and right hand. The following things are important to remember when you are practicing and having trouble getting whatever you are picking up to speed.

The reason you are having trouble is either your left/right or both hands are uncomfortable doing it at that speed. The reason for this could be mental, physical or both.

The mental aspect I refer to is a lack of mental awareness of what you are doing, as with learning something new. We all know the more you practice the easier it gets, usually to the point of not having to think about it at all. The physical side is just that, the lack of physical ability. Like the mental part, the more you practice the easier it gets.

In either case, when you try to increase speed on anything that you are uncomfortable with, it increases tension in your hands/fingers and yes, your mind. This increased tension will cause mental stress and/or physical strain. (note: I've always referred to my banjo as a great stress reliever...go figure!)

Stress and strain can cause you to put more energy (playing harder) into it in an attempt to achieve what you are doing. This can cause a snowball affect. The more energy you put into it, the more strain you will have, causing it only to get worse. You should be alert to feel the fatigue in your mind and/or hands, giving you a clue as to were the problem is. If the tension is just in your mind, take a break and go at it later. If it's physical, note which hand is giving you the problem. If your problem is only with one hand and the other is doing just fine, this can still cause a loss of synchronization between the two and cause your playing to become sloppy.

Once you determine where the problem is, slow it down and work on it. Remember, it will get better! When you catch yourself straining, lighten up your touch. You probably have heard it is sometimes easier to play faster with a lighter touch. This is simply because there is less resistance and less strain. Although there are some great players that play really hard, there are also some great ones that play rather light. At that level their playing is fluid and how hard to play is a choice.

So I'm not saying to constantly take the path of least resistance; remember the saying "no pain, no gain". Just slow down and lighten up enough to work out the problem. Utilize all of the great learning aids that are available: super instructors, books, videos, CD's, tabs, and computer programs. But remember, they are just that, learning aids; they are not going to play the banjo for you. That's your job.

Last but not least, if you continue to play fast and sloppy long enough (without taking the time to slow down and correct your mistakes) you will simply become a faster, sloppier picker.


Bobby Smith grew up in Texarkana, Arkansas, is 45 years old and has played off and on for 25 years. Eight of those years were with a group that went by the name "The Pickin' Hicks." This was a four piece group consisting of guitar, upright bass, mandolin and banjo. They played every month from 1980-1986 at the Louisiana Hayride in Bossier City, La. and they won "Group of the Year" three times and "Entertainer of the Year" one time there. They were also fortunate enough to go with the "Louisiana Hayride Road Show" and perform at the 1984 Worlds Fair in New Orleans.

Email to Bobby at .


Last Updated 15 Jul 2006 by PJH

Edited 01 Apr 2007 by WF