Mike writes:

I stopped playing for quite a while, & now that I’m trying to get back into my music I’m having trouble with my middle finger only. When I was younger & playing before I stopped, I could play pretty well (not bragging), but I could play well enough that I had plenty of confidence in my playing. I have plenty of control with my thumb & index but that middle one is driving me nuts. Any advice?

Dear Mike,

Very sorry to hear that you are having this problem! My first thought:

Let your ring finger off the head if that’s comfortable. It may free up the middle for better motion. Some books/teachers recommend against this, but a great many respected pro’s do it. I say, do whatever works.

It’s always good to keep shifting things around, trying different positioning, until you hit something that works (sounds good and is comfortable). Then just stick with that.

I suggest you take some time to play something relatively easy, very slowly and accurately, and keep a close watch on that middle finger. As soon as it misbehaves, repeat what you were playing when it did that. Keep the pace slow, so you can focus on just what is happening. Then repeat that phrase while concentrating hard on keeping your middle finger in line. If it stays in line, go a little faster. When it misbehaves, repeat what you did before. That method could conceivably fix the problem in time. In any case, it will give you a better view of it. Does it only happen on certain types of rolls, is it better for some kinds of playing, etc. Knowing when the problem occurs can be a very helpful step, and then you practice keeping the control as you slowly work on the problem area.

At my banjo camps I can take a look at someone’s hands as they play and make better suggestions than I can in an email. Or if you know of a good banjo teacher, you might ask for a short consultation about this problem.

If it just won’t go away, perhaps it’s a physiological problem where a nerve is not firing right. There you would have to go and get diagnosed by a specialist.

Last ditch alternatives: Try leaving your middle finger out of the picture and pick with your ring finger instead. Some people who have been forced to do that due to serious injuries etc. have overcome the handicap that way, and can play quite well. Another alternative: 2-finger picking, which can sound great and pretty similar to Scruggs-style if done well. Then there’s clawhammer and other banjo styles.

But hopefully one of the earlier-mentioned methods will work. If you try them, let me know how it went.

Best of luck!

Pete Wernick