Sam G. writes:

When I pick at medium speed I can pick cleanly, evenly, and can accentuate any note I wish. But when I am going at fast speed, 140 BPM or more, I can’t hardly hear my middle finger picking and I seem to be tensed up a lot more, resulting in less smoothness. I also lose volume at some point by going faster. Any suggestions?

Dear Sam,

My general approach is, when you determine the dividing line between what you can do well and what you become clumsy with, assume there’s a need for muscle training for the problem finger. Once the essence of the problem is clear (middle finger loses strength when going fast), you need to work the responsible muscle, regularly, like building biceps at the gym.

You might start by hitting just the first string with the middle finger repeatedly, at a fairly fast, but comfortable clip. Make sure it always sounds good, and just keep doing it till the muscle fatigues. That shows you gave it a good workout, and it likely resulted in a strengthening of the muscle. In time, the strengthening will show. You might vary the exercise by doing just a simple roll at 130 for a while (no left hand to distract), and make sure every note sounds good and strong, then inch the metronome up to 140 and beyond if possible. A minute or two of that, done regularly (2-3 times per practice session would be quite helpful) and you should start seeing results.

The watchword throughout the above is: Make sure you are always sounding good and playing in time. If you don’t sound good, slow down until you are sounding good. In sum: “Play as slow as you need to to sound perfect. Increase speed as you’re able. Be patient.”

I have a bad habit of allowing my thumb to “pop” up away from the head as much as 2-3 inches away from it, especially noticeable if I am picking the index finger immediately following the thumb. It is not as likely if I am picking the middle finger next. I have tried various hand positioning with no help, I have also asked several other people what to do and no-one has had any suggestions. I find this hinders my smoothness at faster speeds as well as creates a swiping motion at the string instead of a short stroke which would be normal. This causes me to strike the wrong string at times or sometimes to hit 2 strings at once unintentionally.

With a problem like you’ve described, again, I try to focus on the essence of the problem, and construct an exercise dealing specifically, and only, with re-establishing a “correct” habit. As in the other answer: Play as slowly as you need to to play perfectly, and watch your thumb carefully while you go TITITITITI. Don’t let yourself do it wrong. Make sure every note sounds good. As you get used to that, “raise the bar” by adding speed, or doing it as part of a roll. Do not start playing a piece or doing licks. That would distract too much while you’re trying to establish a new habit. Over a number of practice sessions, stay steadfast, literally watching your right hand as you do very easy moves, gradually increasing the speed or difficulty of the moves. If you revert to your bad habit, “lower the bar” by doing something easier/slower so that you “always play correctly”. Again, play “as slow as you need to to play correctly”. In time, you’ll be able to add more and more different moves/speed/distractions, and retain your good new habit.

As with the other problem you asked about, changing a long-term habit requires persistence and patience. It is not the most fun part of practicing, and certainly not the reason you took up banjo. As you slave away at creating the good new habits, go ahead and give yourself a break once in a while and just have some fun with the instrument, then after a while, get back to work. The method I’ve suggested definitely works, but it does take some discipline over a period of time. So hang in there!

Good luck, Sam. Let me know how it goes.

Pete Wernick