Thumb Picks for Banjo

I’m sure every banjo player has changed to a different thumb pick more than a few times. I am constantly dissatisfied with mine, but not willing to make the change to a different one. I’ve finally taken the plunge and changed the shape of my pick by cutting it down and sanding it.

In my quest for the perfect pick I tried Dunlop, National and Golden Gate to name a few, but not one of them had all of the elements I wanted in a pick. I like the bright sound of the Dunlop picks including Dookies, shell or the white thumb picks. The National mediums fit my thumb just right, which outweighs the brighter tone of the Dunlops. The National is also a little shorter which helps me not hit the head of the banjo.

The reason for not modifying the pick is simple: I wanted to be able to have a perfect pick available at any time and not have to worry about shaping it just right. I thought I could adapt to a pick, but in reality it is probably smarter to just cut it down a bit and accept the fact that I

am going to have to custom shape every pick I use.

When I started playing the banjo I tried to customize a thumb pick, but
I really didn’t know what I needed. The new shape just didn’t make a big difference for me, so I went back to the standard picks. Now that I have learned to pick much more cleanly and consistently, the change to a better shape has made a big difference. I can hit the inside strings with more of the pick surface which gives me a better tone, and the pick just feels more comfortable.

Earl Scruggs cuts down his pick and shapes them, so I guess modifying a pick from its factory designed perfection is not a crime. How can one pick design be perfect for every person? It can’t. I am lucky, the Nationals that I like are almost perfect, I just needed to round off the tip a bit.

So, go ahead take a chance – try a new pick or, … wait …., go crazy and re-shape your picks.

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The Lost and Found – Sawmill Road

Listening to an all Bluegrass channel on the radio exposes you to a lot of different styles of bluegrass, a band that I always enjoy hearing is The Lost and Found. What a great sound, and what a tight band; these guys play with passion and definitely have a unique style.

Founding member and mandolin player, Dempsey Young plays with such conviction and clarity that you just HAVE to stop and listen. His mandolin tone just jumps out at you, it is so rich sounding. Unfortunately Dempsey passed away a few years ago at the age of 52; what a loss to the bluegrass world. Although the mandolin takes front and centre, I can’t get the banjo out of my thoughts – it is so solid.

One of the songs that I really like is “Sawmill Road”, it’s a mixture of an old time sound with a definite modern edge. One of the highlights is the mandolin solo, WOW; the banjo licks are really catchy too, and in C tuning, to top it off. Have a listen to this song, I know you will appreciate something about it; maybe the vocals, the lyrics, the bass, who knows, but I’m sure you will be impressed.

The banjo player on more info

this cut is Lynwood Lunsford, who handled banjo duties in The Lost and Found for five years. Lunsford also has his own group; Lynwood Lunsford and the Misty Valley Boys. Jimmy Martin employed Lunsford as his banjo player in 1990 and 1991, a job that Lynwood Lunsford coveted for a long time.

Here’s a couple of links to find out more about The Lost and Found:

MySpace Site

The Official Site
If you would like to purchase some of the band’s music or some Jimmy Martin just click on the links below:

January Rain CD

Classic Bluegrass

Jimmy Martin CDs

Give the Lost and Found a listen and it wouldn’t hurt to listen to Jimmy Martin and The Sunny Mountain Boys either. For that matter, listen to as much banjo music as you can – it’ll inspire you to play better.

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Banjo Practice Tips – Learn the Banjo Faster

Everyone wants to learn faster, but most people who buy banjos don’t get very far with them. This is because learning the banjo takes concentration and hard work and that just doesn’t sound very fun. If you accept the fact that you are going to have to put in an effort, you can move on and start really learning. If you start each practice session thinking you will never be able to play,or just thinking about other things during your practice times, you will not get much out of it.

My goals as a banjo player are simple – to become more proficient, so I can express myself more easily with the banjo. I want to explore all the possibilities that I can with this instrument, not just Dueling Banjos, Foggy Mountain Breakdown, Man of Constant Sorrow and The Ballad of Jed Clampett (although these songs have been played to death, I am still inspired by them to this day). There is a lot to learn, so you have to make the most of your time.

The only way to get better on an instrument is to practice, and to really get the most out of the banjo, you need to learn a lot, which means finding time to practice. Time is one of the key ingredients to get better – you have to reprogram your brain to play the banjo – you won’t just know how to play automatically. Repetition over a long period of time is how you do this – this is also known as practice.

Time is necessary to get better, but the amount of time to learn to play can be reduced by using this time wisely. How can you use your time more wisely? – here’s how:

  1. Practice regularly.
  2. Use Method Books, DVDs, or an Instructor if you have access to one.
  3. Focus – concentrate on what you are doing – give it 100%.

Okay, we have some key points about practicing, but let’s dig a little deeper. Regular practice is extremely important – learning needs repetition, you have to repeat the same exercise many times before it becomes natural and comfortable. It takes at least 30 days to change a habit, so to learn something new, you’re going to have to put in some serious effort as often as you can. If you can practice daily that’s great, if not, practice as often as you can. The more often you practice the better you get, it’s that simple.

You often hear people say; “I’m self taught” or ” I taught myself to play”, this may be true, but the majority of banjo players have used some kind of learning method to help them along. A good Banjo method, whether it is an instructor (the best option), a DVD, CD, book, hand written notes from articles or the internet is necessary to keep you moving ahead and learning. This leads us to the next topic: Focus. Here is a link to some books to help you along – Ten Great Books to Learn to Play the Banjo

This one sounds pretty simple: concentrate on what you are doing, but focus is often overlooked. I hear people brag, “I practice six hours a day”. If this practice time is not organized and productive you might be getting less out of six hours than someone practicing for thirty minutes.

Practice time is maximized by concentrating; paying close attention to everything you play will allow you to quit wasting time glossing over problems and give you more time to improve your playing.I have learned a song well enough to play with a group and performed it many times before I stopped and polished it up and fixed the trouble spots. This is where focus and attention to detail come in, the trouble spots are really just the parts of the song you didn’t quite finish learning. If you can zoom in on tricky passages, roll up your sleeves and work hard to get it right, then you can apply this same intensity to all of your practice time. Let’s examine what I do to solve a trouble spot, this will teach you to focus.

I’m sure everyone has a part of a song that just doesn’t quite work, it’s not terrible but it’s not great either. When I look close, I usually find that I’m not really confident in what I am playing. If I am not 100% confident and know exactly what I want to play then I guess it stands to reason that this part of song will be weaker and it will be noticeable. This is the time when focus becomes important, you have to find the problem and answer the question – Why can’t I play this part of the song? A little bit of investigation is in order – find the spot that you don’t like and determine the problem. Isolate the notes and the fingers you are picking with and see what is making you stumble. Sometimes it is using the same finger twice, or an unusual series of notes that you don’t use often, it can be almost anything that is giving you a problem, you just have to find it.

The first thing you have to do is play the passage that is giving you trouble, but don’t rush – articulate each note. This will lead you right to your problem. Now work through it one note at a time. That’s right, play the first note, then play the first and second together, and so on until you are back into some territory that you know. It’s actually very simple; find a problem and solve it, then work it back into the rest of the song, but it takes effort and concentration.

If you can concentrate and really focus on a single measure, you can use this same level of concentration to your advantage when you practice as well. The next time you practice, keep your mind on what you are doing and don’t let yourself gloss over the trouble spots and watch your banjo playing improve by leaps and bounds.


A Great Way to Improve Your Banjo Playing

Using TAB to Learn a Song on the Banjo

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Banjoblogger Spring Break

Sorry about the lack of posts lately, I will be getting back on track this week. With the coming of spring, my focus has shifted to the outdoors and getting my yard cleaned up and ready for summer. I have a large yard ( 3 acres ) and my wife and I are always improving our place, so time can get pretty scarce. The Five String Banjo . . . . . Hmmmmmmm……….

Time crunch or not, I still had some time to play the banjo and I have been working on a few things. I am always trying to improve my playing and this includes my banjo tone as well. The biggest improvements that I have made to my sound have come from changes to my right hand technique. There is no way to overlook the importance of your right hand; how you pick the strings makes a huge difference in the sound of your banjo.

Finger picks and thumb picks can also change your sound too, I have started to bend my finger picks right to the shape of my fingertips. The clarity and strength of each individual note is much better with the picks rounded back against my finger. If you look at the cover of Tony Trischka’s new book, illustrated below, you can see how he bends his picks, that’s what I’m talking about.

Tony Trischka’s - The Complete 5-String Banjo Player

The next thing to discuss is how you pick the strings, the thumb is the most important and the picture on Tony’s book shows a typical position for your thumb. As everybody has a different set of circumstances, you should adjust your position to allow you to pick square to the string. Your thumb pick won’t be straight on to the strings, but angled back to give you some room to get between them. Watch out that you don’t let your thumb fly away, this just means to keep your thumb close to the string you are about to pick. If you let your thumb move too much it is hard to pick cleanly. The last thing to mention about the thumb is dynamics, you need to be able to play the fifth string softly at times, but also be able to snap that string and play hammer ons and pull offs. Keep your picking solid and under control, strive to play your best and you’ll be surprised how good you can be.

There are many different types and gauges of picks. I have tried a lot of different ones, but I keep coming back to a few of my favourites. Dunlop Zookies (with a 20 degree angled tip), Nationals and a few other Dunlops are the thumb picks that work for me. As for the fingers I always return to Dunlop stainless steel (.20 – .25) but Propiks are good too.

Of course, the way you pick the strings is important, but equally important is the size and type of string you use. We’ll talk about strings next time.

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YouTube Classic Banjo Videos

I was hanging around the Banjo Hangout this afternoon and read an interesting post about a video. What would make this video of great interest to banjo players, you ask? Great Banjo players, of course.

Earl Scruggs, J.D. Crowe, Alan Munde, Sonny Osborne, Don Stover, and Bill Emerson and a few more great players all take a turn at Foggy Mountain Breakdown. Wow!!! Usually, I can come up with something to say, but Wow!! does the trick here. This video is a study of different techniques and is really worth watching closely.

Here’s the link: Great Banjo Players!!!

I thought I’d round out this post with a few more YouTube links.

Alan Munde

Del McCoury delivers for

Ralph Stanley – Clinch Mountain Backstep

Take some time and watch these videos, you’ll definitely learn a lot.

The great new Tony Trischka book is available. Click on the image below to BUY it.

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The Black Mountain Rag

A favourite of fiddlers,banjo pickers and guitarists alike, the Black Mountain Rag has certainly stood the test of time. This is one of those songs that just gets stuck in my head. Usually getting something stuck in your head is bad, but this time it is a good thing.

If you want to hear a few versions of this song just check out YouTube and search – Black Mountain Rag. You’ll find a variety of different approaches to this song, and I’m sure one will inspire you. Most of the YouTube videos I found feature the guitar, even though this is actually a fiddle tune.Here are a few versions to get you started.

A little history of this song is in order. The Black Mountain Blues was the original name of this song, and it first appeared as The Black Mountain Rag in the 1947 recording by Curly Fox. This version has gone on to sell over 600,000 copies. The song was originally adapted in the 1940’s from “The Lost Child” by Leslie Keith, who played fiddle for the Stanley Brothers.I’ve also included a version played on the banjo to round things out – I hope you like it, rough edges and all.

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A Great Way to Improve Your Banjo Playing

We are all trying to become better banjo players – right? I know I’m always reaching for that next level. Sometimes though, it seems as if I am stuck and can’t move ahead. When this happens I like to go back to the basics and just play some music and not worry about learning anything specific. Jamming is the best way to challenge yourself and have have some fun at the same time. Don’t worry – this kind of jamming doesn’t mean you have to go out and join a band or anything like that. Grab your iPod or dig through your CDs and presto – you have a band that will put up with you, and let you practice the same song over and over.

Now that you have a band, it’s time to learn to play with this band. If you’ve never played with other musicians before this is a great way to get you feet wet. Pick a song that you know well, and by knowing it well, I mean that you can play it by memory and without mistakes. Get your music player of choice set up and press play; play along with the music and be sure that you are fitting in. If you are having trouble figuring out a part – just back up and try again. That’s the beauty of this band, they will play anywhere, anytime and they don’t get tired. Listen and try to figure out the licks you hear – you’ll discover a lot of things you won’t learn from TAB.

Have fun – I learned to play music with the help of a pile of records and eight track tapes. Spending hours a day playing along with these recordings taught me how to play in a band, and when I got asked to join a band when I was 13, I already had a few years of experience playing “with the beatles”. Give it a try, your timing will be improved and you will learn a few new tricks.

If you are looking for a few good CDs to play with, I recommend trying the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s – Will the Circle be Unbroken series. You’ll get to work with Earl Scruggs, Vassar Clements, Doc Watson, Johnny Cash and Jimmy Martin, to name a few. These three releases are full of classic songs, and have a killer lineup of players to learn from. You can also buy all six Cds in one collection – it takes up a lot less space on the shelf


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