Advice on Banjo Triplets

Advice on Banjo Triplets

Having recently aquired a tenor banjo, I’ve been trying to insert triplets with limited success (of course). I realize that this is certainly not the easiest of skills to acquire and that there can be no substitute for endless hours of practice… still, I wonder if anyone who’s been down this road previously has a bit of advice that they wished they knew when they started.

Thanks for any input!


Posted by .

Re: Advice on Banjo Triplets

I don’t know anything about banjo but I’ll give you a tip about rhythm and strumming. I would suggest you buy a bodhran and tipper. The triplet motion is exactly the same. And it is very easy to learn and practice on a drum. (for what it’s worth).

Re: Advice on Banjo Triplets

I don’t play the banjo but I play lead guitar in a band. Is the problem actually physically playing the triplets, or is it where to use them? Or both of those, where slipping in a triplet disrupts your playing - losing the rhythm?

At the end of the day, your muscles need to be able to play a triplet without you thinking about what you’re doing, so endless hours of practice is a big part of it. Well, not "endless"! Record some of your practice and listen to it. That’s a way of improving any aspect of your playing on any instrument, I reckon.


Ha! Mr. Ruff!!

You just got in there before me! Funny you should mention the bodhr

Re: Advice on Banjo Triplets

I played mandolin before tenor banjo but was very poor at triplets. When I started on tenor banjo, my shortcomings were even more obvious and I was forced to make an effort. I found that working on tunes where there were triplets already there as part of the tune i.e hornpipes, some jigs helped a lot. I then started to add them here and there where I felt it was appropriate. There’s no hard and fast rules here and a lot of the time it depends on upon personal taste. I would listen to as many good tenor banjo/mandolin players as you can e.g Gerry O’Connor, Mick Moloney etc just to get the feel of the tunes.

And yes, practise as much as you can on this technique while you are learning new tunes. It’s better than revisiting old ground as I had to to do, although I’ve probably got the hang of things now.

Look out for a tune by Jennifer and Hazel Wrigley "Mick’s knitted triplets" whom they dedicated to their friend Mick who was having the same problem as yourself.


Re: Advice on Banjo Triplets

In haste:

The key issue here is consistent picking patterns. In Irtrad in duple meters (2-notes/beat: reels, especially) this is easy: a simple down-up alternating pattern:


We want to try to maintain downstrokes on accented beats: this preserves the dance feel of the melodies.

Triple subdivisions are more difficult, because strict alternate icking yields:


This is very effective, for example, in bluegrass guitar ("cross-picking"), but it tends to smooth out the accents too much to preserve a good jig or slip-jig feel. So instead we need to use


Yes, this necessitates "wasted effort" (as there are 2 downstrokes in a row), but the improved feel is worth it.

As far as triplets go, essentially the same principles hold: we want to maintain consistent picking patterns which also maintain effective accents. So in a reel, for example, the triplet would work like this:



It’s analogous to what happens with polkas, as well: the majority of rhythmic values in a polka will be 8th-notes, which can easily be picked

D-U-D-U etc

But every so often there will be a flurry of 16ths, which we need to accommodate:


We do this because we want to maintain that beat accent (STRONG-weak) even within a single pair of 16ths.

Second consideration:

Pick angle: many bebop players hold the pick at a slight angle. That is, instead of the flat of the pick coming down flat against the string (that is, the surface of the pick in the same plane as the string), these players will twist the hand position slightly downward, so that the front edge of the pick "slices down" through the string on a downbeat, and the rear edge of the pick "slices back up" through the string on an upbeat.

This lets the tip of the pick "ride over" the string, rather than requiring that the entire width of the pick move the entire string out of the way. It’s a smoother, more facile sound which results in greater flexibility and dynamic control and less pick noise.

Such a hand position necessitates that the triplet motion come from the wrist: not from either the fingers or from the forearm. This in turn requires a relaxed, well-trained wrist, with a lot of precision so that you don’t tighten up trying to achieve precision you don’t quite have.

Pick density:

There’s an equation in plucked strings: rigidity in the pick balances/counter-balances tension in the string. In other words, a very heavy-gauge string doesn’t have much give: you tend to need a lighter-gauge pick so as to achieve a little bit of physical flexibility. Tenor banjo tends to use comparatively light-gauge strings: ergo pick gauge can be a little heavier.

If you’re having trouble getting triplets, try the pick direction, picking angle, and/or pick density described above.

Coincidentally, I’ve got an article on playing Irish tenor banjo going up on Mel Bay’s "banjosessions" site in a few days; check there for more detail.

chris smith

Re: Advice on Banjo Triplets

I’d suggest that you also examine your posture while playing. If you’re slouched over the banjo you’ll get unnecessary tension in your arms and wrist that’ll make triplets more difficult and give you a less steady grip on the pick.

Re: Advice on Banjo Triplets

Schy, at the risk of offering advice from the depths of ineptitude…. When I’m not fiddling or whistling, I noodle around on mandolin, and the triplets have given me fits. It’s doubly (triply? :o) frustrating because I can throw bowed triplets on fiddle just fine.

What’s starting to work for me is keeping the wrist completely free of tension, as opposed to the "lock the muscles" approach. This mimics what happens on fiddle, but if anything, the motion is even smaller with a pick (I did not think it would be possible to go smaller than what I already do for bowed triplets, but there it is).

At this point, I’m resigned to keeping the tempo slow to moderate just to keep the triplets clean and well timed. From 20 years on fiddle, I’m convinced that this is more important than just tossing them in rough and sloppy, but at session speed. So I plunk away at tunes like Last Night’s Fun and Silver Spear, and the Road to Lisdoonvarna as a reel, triplets firing at every opportunity. It’s slowly coming round. At the rate I’m going, it feels like about 6 months (or 600 hours, whichever comes first) of serious woodshedding should produce nice, crisp triplets.

And I’d hazard a hunch that they’re easier on banjo because you’re only hitting a single string, rather than a double course as on mandolin or bouzouki.

Posted .

Re: Advice on Banjo Triplets

Um. I’m sure you already know this universal tip, but just in case: play the tune slowly…slower…no, slower than that. Play the whole tune no faster than you can actually get the triplet out properly. Then speed up — but only by a notch. When you can get the triplet bang on every single time at that speed, take it up another notch. Do that until you can do it every single time — go no faster on anything in the tune than you can do the triplet.

You’ll soon have the triplet, if only out of self-defense from the boredom… ;)


Re: Advice on Banjo Triplets

As a fiddler learning the banjo, here’s a few thoughts :

My troubles have been twofold : The plectrum is slipping out of my fingers (I start sweating…..) fairly soon after I start a tune. Because of this, and lack of practice, my triplets are dubious at best.

However a pal of mine is now in Boston, where he is buying me "Gorilla Snot" (, a substance that I hope will cure the slipping of the pick.

Finally, a piece of advice I recieved from a brilliant banjo-player here in Oslo: If you can do triplets both ways (DUD and UDU), you are really on your way to banjoness……


Re: Advice on Banjo Triplets

Schy …

Keep an eye on the mandolincafe discussion site … specifically the "Paging Dan Beimborn" thread. I’ve asked Dan to resurrect a post he made a while back which demonstrated his pick-grip technqiue which I’ve since used to good advantage …

All the best!

Re: Advice on Banjo Triplets

Schy …

Dan has come up trumps.

Check out his reply to my "Paging Dan Beimborn" in the "Celtic, etc." section of the above message board.


Re: Advice on Banjo Triplets

Wow, great advice all…

Does anyone have any thoughts on a preferable right hand position? I’ve been putting it pretty firmly (but loosely!) on the head in an attempt to stablize the hand for the triplets. How about string type (wound or otherwise)?

Thanks one and all… I’m off to the woodshed (after I earn my daily wage). See you in a couple years…


Posted by .

Right hand advice


I am amazed at the generosity and excellence of the advice given above: not that this is rare on (far from it), but rather that this is a thread about banjo stuff!

I have posted a link here that will discuss R hand technique in far greater detail than one would have thought was possible. The guitarist is the amazing Tuck Andress who put out a phenomenal solo jazz guitar album on Windham Hill ages ago called "Reckless Precision". Anyhow, he is also a teacher and has a lot of info here:

Dr. Smith’s tip above about the slight pick angle is a big part of the mystery. See the article above for longer discussion. The difference in tone when you can do this is noticeably better, in my opinion.

For what it’s worth, this is how I hold my pick: btw the index finger and thumb only with the pick held by the flat pad of the thumb under the nail and with the side of the pad of the index finger beside the nail. The first knuckle of the index finger is slightly bent, but still pointing down, not towards the wrist. I float the wrist above the bridge (no contact at all) and have the wrist arched so that it is completely loose and free to cross the strings. I found that picking with the wrist on the bridge kept the wrist parallel to the body of the zook/banjo and limited movement. It also added tension and hurt the elbow and shoulder. Upon closer examinitation, the crooked wrist also allows the pick to hit the strings at a slight angle, giving that great attack that ITrad banjo players long for. This is the most workable solution I can use to date, as the "Benson" approach that Tuck espouses has been a train wreck for me so far.

All that being said, this only works when I’m relaxed and not thinking about it. Soon as the brain gets involved, forget it. I’m sure that book Wil recommended a while back talks about this, buit I haven’t found a copy yet. Dan B’s method doesn’t work for me, but if you check out his album "Shatter the Calm", you can hear that it definitely works for him!

Triplets only started to work for me when I did what Zina recommends: slow, slower, slowest until it works, then work slowly up to tempo. I had one reel that I ground relentlessly until it started to work. Now I don’t play that tune anymore!


Re: Advice on Banjo Triplets

I’m trying to get my fretted triplets up to scratch at the moment. Slowing down the tune is helping a lot, even if it’s a pain to play the tunes that slow again( i thought i was past that!). Slowing down the tune is the only way i find to get the triplets in. Also keeping my wrist as loose as possible is important,- i tend to get too rigid and uptight. The effort is well worth it as the tunes with the triplets played well are far better sounding than those without.
I agree with Will that triplets on the mandolin are harder than on the banjo. In fact i find the mandolin more difficult instrument, is it because it’s harder to get a decent sound from? I not sure, anyone else find the same problem?

Re: Advice on Banjo Triplets


Try hitting only the top string of each pair for your triplets on the mando. This is the advice I got from Dan Biermborn and it has helped a lot. At first I thought "Yeah right - who could hit a target that small with any consistency?" With a bit of practice the accuracy came and the speed increased too. Something about the pick travelling less distance in each direction.

It was only after sorting this mystery out that I was able to consistently hit a triplet on the G string. This was a personal triumph for me and I now have a tasty version of "Lads of Laois" in my repertoire to show for my troubles. Once you get this down, the same function on the banjo gets remarkably easier.

I’m working on fretted triplets now too. I’m tormenting "My Love is in America" while aspiring to emulate Mick Moloney’s version that whirls in my head at the same time. Good luck.


Re: Advice on Banjo Triplets

How’s it going 15 years later? I’m at that stage myself now, I know I shouldn’t force them, so now I’m going to slow everything down and try to get it right. Cheers.