Steve writes:

I’ve been jamming at festivals for years, on the guitar, that is. I know how to build a solo on the fly. So, when I started the banjo I got kinda good kinda fast. To make a long story short, I have screwed myself up royal! My right hand has become a real mess! I’ve tried to play too fast too soon. Now, like a bad golf swing I’ve got to un-learn my right hand and start over, which is really a shame ’cause I can improvise pretty darn good.

Help me a little: I play slowly not allowing myself to play any faster than good technique will allow. Playing quietly seem to be a good thing too. I still feel very tight and constricted (I’m sure thinking about it too much, making it feel tight). If I let myself “go” I quickly go back into bad technique (thumb out of control, every thumb knuckle moving everywhere, that is) and all hell breaks loose.


You are wise to practice slowly and quietly, working on setting a good habit.

I define good technique as the thumb, (which is the real root of my problem), in the hitchhiker position with as little “swing” as possible, the wrist slightly tilted down, and my hand pretty much parallel to the head. Do you agree with this?

If you mean the thumb is straight, with minimum “travel” distance, yes, that’s a good standard. Also, the hand parallel to the head is one workable position. Different people hold their hands different ways. What you’re looking for is:


Good, consistent sound.

Those can happen with a variety of hand positions, and your job is to find what works for you, that meets those criteria above!

Do you have any exercises for keeping that right hand in control.

Just play really simple stuff, even with NO left hand at all. Then gradually add SIMPLE left hand, allowing you to keep paying attention to how your right hand is doing. Best to work on a measure’s worth of music at a time, not a whole tune. This is to allow maximum attention to the working and sound of your right hand. Taking time to make sure the sound is good and clear and smooth, regardless of how slowly you have to play, is the important step to take.

Once you’ve got a good consistent thing going at slower speed, you’re ready for gradual increments (playing along with a metronome or rhythm machine that can be slowly notched up is very useful here). If you’ve solidified good habits at slower speed, they should survive the raising the speed a bit at a time. Don’t rush that. Make sure you stay in control, or regroup at slower speed.

I need to keep it in control and get it feeling loose at the same time. This is very demoralizing!

Try breathing! As you play it slowly, check out how relaxed you are. If you’re a bit tight, just keep playing while also letting things relax. That should work. Playing easy stuff slowly, while keeping relaxed and breathing gently should make it easier.

Thanks, for the site, while I’m at it. I read your “stage fright” thingy the other day, very helpful.

Good! Good luck on the banjo right hand. It’s worth taking the time to get it right early on. Make every note count, clear and clean, and your music will sound good. Resist the temptation to go barreling ahead and after a while you’ll end up with a good, dependable right hand.

Pete Wernick