I apologize for starting two threads in a row, but once I have an answer to this question I should be set for a while.

What are the best resources for learning how to choose which fingers to use for any given sequence of notes? What advice can you give me for building good habits right from the start?

At the moment, I'm simply trying to alternate in whatever way seems comfortable but I don't feel very confident about my choices.

Thanks in advance for any tips you can share!

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Hi Cynthia,

I am pretty new to playing classic banjo and I struggled a bit with the same question ... so here is my two cents worth. I play a zither banjo so that has some inherent techniques of it's own to do with finger choices on the first and second strings ... but the idea I eventually ended up with was that their didn't seem to be a universal method so it was best to pick a particular tutor book that I felt comfortable with and that matched the style of music I wanted to play - In my case it was the Emile Grimshaw's book- and then learn that system.

For instance, the majority of alternate finger runs between thumb and first finger in Emile's book start with the first finger and he uses the first and second finger on the first string (which suits the zither technique nicely) ... when I was looking at other tutor books I noticed that many started with thumb first and used the first finger and thumb on the first string.

I am still fumbling my way through so I am not sure if this helps at all :)

Cheers,
Philip

No need to apologize for starting threads here! It's not like there are so many conversations going on here that another will cause chaos. Keep em coming !

The best answer I can come up with is "it depends".   What finger I begin with in a phrase depends on what finger I want to end with and on which string and whether the phrase begins on a downbeat or an off beat and on which string I begin the phrase.

Ian (aka The Really Nice Man) has a video presentation on this site for right hand fingering. More than half works for me. I am a multi-instumentalist and am used to beginning a phrase that starts on a downbeat with a down bow on a violin or a downstroke with a plectrum on other instruments  so beginning a phrase that starts on a downbeat with the index finger as sometimes recommended by Ian and  his teachers (and Emile Grimshaw)  feels peculiar and disorienting to me because the index stroke is like an upstroke with a pick or bow.  Some very good classic banjo players do not have that problem. But I feel like I'm playing backwards when I do that.

This is what works for me: For anything shorter than a quarter note I avoid using the same finger (or thumb ) twice in succession.  I play the fifth string with the thumb and nothing else. I do not use the (right) middle finger on the fourth string. It is unusual for me to bring the middle finger to the third string. Thumb and index are my choices for strings 4 and 3. On string 2 anything goes but "it all depends".  I use the middle finger and index on the first string more than I use the thumb. Some phrases are can sound good on the first string Morley -style, alternating thumb and index. For staccato sharp clear playing alternating fingering on the same string works well. For a flowing harp-like effect I find it more effective to get each note on a different string, with each string assigned its own finger.  

I appreciate both of the replies. I feel like I'm reassured and ready to move forward. Worked hard on Kaloola today! All but the last part almost memorized and then the hard work begins, right? :)

Thanks!



Jody Stecher said:

No need to apologize for starting threads here! It's not like there are so many conversations going on here that another will cause chaos. Keep em coming !

The best answer I can come up with is "it depends".   What finger I begin with in a phrase depends on what finger I want to end with and on which string and whether the phrase begins on a downbeat or an off beat and on which string I begin the phrase.

Ian (aka The Really Nice Man) has a video presentation on this site for right hand fingering. More than half works for me. I am a multi-instumentalist and am used to beginning a phrase that starts on a downbeat with a down bow on a violin or a downstroke with a plectrum on other instruments  so beginning a phrase that starts on a downbeat with the index finger as sometimes recommended by Ian and  his teachers (and Emile Grimshaw)  feels peculiar and disorienting to me because the index stroke is like an upstroke with a pick or bow.  Some very good classic banjo players do not have that problem. But I feel like I'm playing backwards when I do that.

This is what works for me: For anything shorter than a quarter note I avoid using the same finger (or thumb ) twice in succession.  I play the fifth string with the thumb and nothing else. I do not use the (right) middle finger on the fourth string. It is unusual for me to bring the middle finger to the third string. Thumb and index are my choices for strings 4 and 3. On string 2 anything goes but "it all depends".  I use the middle finger and index on the first string more than I use the thumb. Some phrases are can sound good on the first string Morley -style, alternating thumb and index. For staccato sharp clear playing alternating fingering on the same string works well. For a flowing harp-like effect I find it more effective to get each note on a different string, with each string assigned its own finger.  

Also a fiddler for many years but doing self taught banjo since last year since covid shut down all the jam sessions. I really like banjo music and its a natural with fiddle. At the start I was learning familiar fiddle tunes and also Irish tunes from the O'Neill's collection and also trying some of the tunes as annotated and arranged by Steve Harrison. They are really well done and appreciated.

Thing is , I play three finger style more or less but have a bad habit of using the same finger successively. Tried slowing down and reworking my technique to avoid this and was checking the blogs to see if this was the right approach. Your post sounds right and I will persevere with what you say. Yeah sometimes the middle finger goes to the third string , all depends on the phrasing and yes, the triplets and repeated notes sound crisper.

The *other* "thing" is: using the same finger successively may be inefficient, ineffective, inappropriate, and inept but it is not insubordinate. In other words, it is not to be avoided because it is "wrong" or because it breaks somebody's  rule. It is simply a case of the limitations of the anatomy of the hand. If one plays at half speed it does not matter at all.  But to get speed with clarity and good timing, changing fingers works better than a second stroke with the same finger.  it's not much different from why walking (alternating legs/feet) is a more effective means of motion than hopping on one foot.

However, *dragging* a finger from a string to an adjacent lower string in one stroke is an old and effective technique. It is a variety of slur. Its counterpart is dropping the thumb from the bass string to the third string in one stroke. Example: Playing a 4 note ascending G major arpeggio (GBDg) on open strings is usually played + . : +  (TIMT).  But suppose we want to include D on the bass string and play DGBDg.  A good old technique for that is to play the low D with the thumb and then let it fall (in the same stroke) to the G (3rd) string and then continue as before,  One way to reverse this (high to low arpeggio of gDGBD) is to play the 5th string with the thumb, then the first string with the middle, then the second string with the index, then drag the index to the third string as a continuation of the stroke on the B string and end with the thumb on the bass string. The way I look at it, this is still alternating fingers.  

I’m a broken record on this but... pick a course of study and work through it.  We all love to just jump in and the correct things later but this is a big mistake.  I know because I largely ignored alternate fingering at first and had to go back.  I wish I did it correctly the first time.

I like “Mel Bay’s Banjo Method” by Frank Bradbury.  Start at the very beginning and don’t skip anything.  Focus on following his RH fingerings.  You may supplement this with any other C notation tutor for added exercises but stick with Bradbury for the full course.  You will only have to do it once.

I love Grimshaw but I think his book would work best with a teacher as it moves too fast.  I also like his “How to Excel” but would recommend focusing on some level appropriate repertoire before spending time on his etudes.

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