Speed up your Left Hand-for Banjo

In this post, I cover a few tips to accelerate your left-hand technique.
I recently posted this teaching video on youtube; it details an exercise I have my beginners do, I call it “jumping the gun.” You basically tell your brain to get there before it needs to, anticipation if you will. You use the open strings to allow you to get there faster. The very act of anticipation and putting your mind on your future location will speed up your left-hand reaction time.  Using a forward roll 2 521521, I have them often go one more note into the next measure 2 521521 5 (and then practicing rocketing into the next note with their left-hand without actually playing it).
Check out the video on beginner banjo left-hand technique if you haven’t already done so for specifics:


Here are a few other tips:

1)How far do your fingers come off of the strings after they play a note? The further they come off of the strings, the further you have to bring them back down to play the note; this slows you down. You need to use something very basic, for example, two repeated notes on the same string.  Play them slow and pay strict attention to how much your fingers release. Keep doing it until your fingers stop releasing so far past the plane of the fingerboard.  The faster you wish to play the more critical this conscious practice comes into play.

2)How hard are you gripping the neck? Do you find yourself squeezing the neck tight? This is not what you are looking for. The more pressure you apply, the more you have to release the pressure before you make a movement.  Therefore, excessive pressure slows you down.  A light touch is extremely important when making large shifts. Only apply as much pressure as needed to make a CLEAR sound come out of the strings. Try this-Put your finger on top of the string; don’t press in. Hit the string with your right hand; it will make a thud sound, then, gently increase the pressure slightly until you hear a clear sound come out of the note. That is ALL the pressure you need. No more.  Another side effect of too much pressure are intonation issues, even on a fretted instrument. Video Demonstration here:


3)Where is your thumb? While there are many great musicians whose thumb flop over the top of the fingerboard who play wonderful, I think starting with the best technique possible makes it all easier for you in the long run. If your thumb is way over the top of the fingerboard at say the second fret, when you have to run up to the 9th, your thumb will now have to move back to the back of the neck. Otherwise, you will run it right into the fifth string; this is all just unnecessary movement. In addition, you will find as you move up to the higher frets that your thumb needs to move closer to the center of the neck so you can stretch more. A thumb can lead to a tight hand which isn’t good for flexibility or quickness of movement.

4)There is an imbalance in your fingers somewhere.  By design, some of your fingers are easier to move, especially if you haven’t played music long.  The pinky is usually the most difficult for beginners to use.  This is why I recommend doing exercises with your pinky and using it as much as you can once you get a handle on some basic things. One pattern that is a real workout is to play your middle finger followed by your pinky.  Try going back and forth between the same two fingers on one string, then move it to the next string over.  If you practice this string crossing exercise enough, pretty soon you will notice an increase in speed and dexterity of your pinky.  The appropriate repertoire can also increase your finger independence.  Don’t get stuck always using the same fingers.  Challenge yourself with repertoire requiring stretches or unusual fingerings.  I find that classical music is great for this.

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Happy Learning!

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