We’ve looked at ways in which our left-hand movements can be made more economical—now what about the right hand? A compact right hand technique is essential for the bluegrass banjo player; watch videos of Earl Scruggs and you’ll see that even on the fastest tunes, the fingers of his right hand barely appear to be moving. This is because he had mastered the art of moving his fingers as much as necessary, but not ONE BIT more.
While it may seem like an obvious statement to make, the only time any sound is produced on your banjo is when your picks are in contact with the strings. Three inches to the sides of your strings, or three inches above them, are places where nothing happens and where your fingers have no business being. Experiment just a little and see how little of a “running start” is really needed to get all the volume you need when picking a string; strive to make your finger’s attack on the string less like swatting at a fly and more like pulling a trigger. While you’re at it, take a look at how much of your picks are contacting the strings; ease of playing and quality of tone are both improved by using just the tips of your picks.
I can tell by glancing at a student’s banjo if he is not being as precise and economical with his thumb as he should be; there will be a telltale black mark on the banjo head where the student’s thumb pick hits it every time he plays the fifth string. The thumping noise caused by the pick on the head can be distracting, but what worries me more is what it says about the compactness of the student’s right-hand technique.
Concentrate on letting no more than a quarter of an inch of your thumb pick contact the fifth string. This may take some concentrated effort until it becomes a habit or second-nature. Give yourself a couple of weeks, at the very least, to perfect it. Slow down the tempo and focus on accuracy. If you’re thumping the head with your thumb pick now, that noise will disappear. Your playing will be better, and more enjoyable, for it.