Advice on longer neck banjo technique - capo?

Advice on longer neck banjo technique - capo?

Hi all,

I recently upgraded my banjo and bought a longer one - with 19 frets no less. I’m loving being able to use lighter strings, and tone improvement, but left hand-wise, I’m used to playing a short scale (as well as mandolin) and I whilst I can play it just fine enough, it doesn’t feel as relaxed (and I’m always wary of the risk of doing in my wrists and fingers if they are not relaxed when playing). I’ve seen some people down tune and use capo on second, others actually using all four fingers (shocking) - others just seem to play as ‘normal’. I can see I will need to incorporate some new acrobatics with the high B on many tunes regardless, but I wondered what other players were doing with the longer necked banjo, what you tried and failed and what eventually stuck?



Re: Advice on longer neck banjo technique - capo?

"others actually using all four fingers (shocking) "

That’s the best thing to do. I even change my fingering for my 17 fret banjo and I am sometimes not averse to making slight adjustments from the norm on particular tunes on the mandolin too.
With practice, you can "jump" quite easily to the occasional higher note without "stretching" although you may also want to try changing position for some tunes too.

Re: Advice on longer neck banjo technique - capo?

When I saw the title of this post I thought someone had bought an E banjo and was wondering what to do with it now they’d got it. Anyone I’ve seen with one of those usually has a capo on the third fret, turning it back into a G banjo. I occasionally thought of buying one but managed to restrain myself! Pete Seeger, Tommy Makem and Luke Kelly all have been seen with one of those, but I can’t recall ever seeing any of them actually playing it without the capo.
Does it make any discernible difference playing 19 fret neck in comparison to playing 17? Or 21? My current tenor is a 17 fret "The Bridge" model from Clareen. I can play it a bit better than the last one I had but I don’t know if it was 19 or 21 frets. I was rubbish on it, mostly down to holding it badly. A few lessons in Belfast Trad were a great help! One thing I’ve noticed is that since taking banjo more seriously, I now don’t like mandolin at all, finding it just too small. Maybe I’ll have another wee think about Pete Seeger’s extra long neck banjo!

Re: Advice on longer neck banjo technique - capo?

I don’t feel a big difference between 17 and 19 frets. When I get down to mandolins, I over-reach the B all the time, though. There are a couple of things that you can think about.

For starters, part of what makes it feel longer is that it is a bit further away from your body, so you arm is reaching further away, and then it feels more awkward to reach back toward your body for the B. To test out how much that is bothering you vs a shorter scale, try moving the banjo pot off your lap and to the right (assuming you’re right handed), so your left hand is positioned closer to you, like it would be for a mandolin. Then see if it feels much easier to reach the B. If that’s the case, then you can potentially play with the neck at a steeper angle so that your arm isn’t stretching out as far.

Secondly, you should look at your left hand position. Is your hand in a fixed position on the banjo? Are you gripping the neck at all, or is it resting in your palm, or on the ball of the joint of your index finger? If that’s the case, then you’re probably trying to pivot on that part of your hand to reach higher up the neck. I had that problem for years, and it actually took me getting a bone spur on the base knuckle of my index finger to correct my habit. (I actually played in a bicycle glove for the better part of a year, because that bone spur was so painful). What ultimately worked for me was to not hold the banjo so tight. Your left hand shouldn’t need to support the neck at all. If you don’t touch it with your left hand, it should still be sitting in the right position. Then you can place your thumb on the back of the neck (in my case, it’s up toward the top of the neck), and the banjo isn’t touching your palm very much. Then you can pivot your hand on the thumb, to reach higher up the neck, but you haven’t moved your thumb at all, so you haven’t lost your sense of position as you pivot up and back.

To be fair, I have long fingers. But I can actually play a long scale bouzouki using "fiddle fingering" with this hand positioning.

Re: Advice on longer neck banjo technique - capo?

@Reverend: That’s interesting. My tutor in Belfast Trad (Aidan Walsh - great lad!) once said to me "Alex! You’re holding your banjo like a guitar!" And followed up with "That’s not a compliment! Nor is it a good thing!" I’ve been working on improving my grip ever since! Looking forward to lockdown ending so I can get back for more lessons and more craic!

Re: Advice on longer neck banjo technique - capo?

Alex, yeah, but there are as many ways to hold guitars wrong as there are to hold banjos wrong… 😉 I know a couple really good banjo players that actually play with a very classical guitar hold, with the thumb right in the middle of the back of the neck, and the fingers curled in, perpendicular to the neck. But that doesn’t work for me on banjo. My fingers are angled a bit, so that if I stretch my finger out, it reaches up the neck toward the pot, instead of just up toward the G string.

But this is traditional music, and you’re free to find what works for you (and doesn’t cause any pain or repetitive stress injury). And it was really the injury that made me rethink my grip — the fact that it’s easier to play up the neck is just a bonus of having a grip that doesn’t injure me!

Re: Advice on longer neck banjo technique - capo?

I could play mandolin before I tried to play tenor banjo. After several attempts to retain mandolin fingering, I opted for using different fingering with banjo. I decided it was important to be able keep my fingers relaxed.

Noticing other banjo players, I have seen some use three not four fingers and play very fast by shifting up and down a couple of frets to hit higher notes.

I’ve found that I can mostly keep my left hand in one position. It’s mainly high B’s that are tricky. For phrases with these notes in I’ve generally found it easier to work out fingering in a higher position. Only snag is when I forget I haven’t figured it out and jump into some tunes on banjo that I can play ok on mandolin only to find myself forced into an unrehearsed jump at the critical note

We are all different shapes and sizes and don’t all bend the same way - so I would say: no rules just find what is comfortable

Re: Advice on longer neck banjo technique - capo?

^ What Reverend said is really helpful.

FWIW I’ve found that after I adopted more rigid fingering patterns that my motor memory could rely on, I wasn’t getting stuck in those finger traps where my pinky was unavailable or difficult to maneuver to the high B note at the crucial moment, it became fluid and easy. Then I practiced those tunes first.

Re: Advice on longer neck banjo technique - capo?

I once met a tenor banjo player (female, with normal lady-sized hands) that played a plectrum banjo - i.e. a 4-string banjo with the scale length of a 5-string (22-fret neck?). She had bought it in ignorance when she was first learning, and acquired the necessary technique to play it, only discovering years later that what she was playing was not technically a tenor banjo (although it was tuned GDAE). I did not pay specific attention to her technique at the time but her playing sounded and looked as flowing and relaxed as anyone’s.

Re: Advice on longer neck banjo technique - capo?

Really interesting reading…. I started to learn banjo about 20 years ago and was put off for all the reasons you guys have covered here. Tempted to get one and start learning again now, so thanks.

Re: Advice on longer neck banjo technique - capo?

Brilliant advice thank you. Reverend I already play with banjo on my right leg, but holding lighter and getting more of a pivot with my thumb is making it easier on that high B (as well as the 1st fret notes like F). Will need a lot of practice but I can see the potential there. Other than that it seems like its just becoming easier, still keeping my original fingering, thankfully my fingers seem to be long enough, and tilting the hand a bit further has done the trick for relaxed purposes.

I do know that its not the number of frets but rather the length, in my case my short scale is 16.5cm from high B to nut, and 19.5cm for the 19 fret, which is the difference from me holding f# and reaching the B and not. I’m now trying to practice playing the G with my first finger on tunes where I can, but when theres a jump from f# to high B or vice versa, I’m guessing it will just be practice getting the shift partly done with a pivot.

Re: Advice on longer neck banjo technique - capo?

I really wish I could come to better grips with my banjo, but the small scale of my fiddle and mandolin have me a little too spoiled I think.

Re: Advice on longer neck banjo technique - capo?

I used a 22 Fret Plectrum Banjo my entire performance career, for two reasons, one being the very large hand problem (size 11 gloves are a tight fit on my meathooks), and two, being what I could easily find and afford when we first started out. Usually, Plectrum is tuned C3, G3, B3, D4, but replacing and recutting the nut, I changed that to standard Tenor of C, G, D, A. We only used banjo on a few tunes, mainly as a support/style instrument. The couple of tunes we performed as a lead, I capoed up a fifth, to achieve the traditional Irish tuning of G,D,A, E, which only allowed 17 Fret scale patterning. This was, the only negative mark I would say for using a longer than traditionally accepted 17 or 19 Fret Banjo. I agree with Reverend, that the bad habit of holding the banjo like a guitar is very easy to fall into, and a difficult habit to break. It’s one I’ve struggled not to do for 40 years.

Re: Advice on longer neck banjo technique - capo?

Chuck Cochrane: "…standard Tenor of C, G, D, A. … I capoed up a fifth, to achieve the traditional Irish tuning of G,D,A, E,"

So, did you have it in cello tuning (an octave below viola/standard tenor banjo) to capo it up to Irish tenor tuning, or did you capo it up to fiddle/mandolin tuning?

Re: Advice on longer neck banjo technique - capo?

After reading through them all I’m not sure how much of this discussion ended up actually addressing the original question but it does shed considerable light on just some of the arcane minutiae that banjo players often think about and discuss endlessly…when their significant others are out of ear shot. (Lets not even bring up bridge types and materials, pot sizes and types of heads shall we? It’s the trouble you inevitably get when you choose to play the only instrument made up of several dozen random and interchangeable surplus garden tractor parts.)

For my money and experience playing not just the tenor banjo but the 5 string, the mando banjo, uke banjo, mandolin, tenor guitar and 6 string guitar—all in "folk music" (that is, non-paper trained) contexts for 5 decades I second everything The Reverend and Gravelwalks suggested.

"Find hand positions that are comfortable for your particular hands and that do not lead to stress injuries."

I’m not the least bit sure what "rubbish" hand positions might be in the context of folk music…unless they hurt a lot and you can’t hit the notes you want consistently. That seems a less than helpful value judgment of the sort I’ve heard from classically trained musicians working with young children in school orchestras. While I respect such serious, dedicated players I’m not sure how helpful or encouraging such comments may be for the average amateur playing for pleasure. I know such things drive a lot of children out of orchestra class. Certainly study what other players have found to work. Emulate what works for you. Don’t be afraid to leave the rest behind.

Whatever one can do to manipulate scale lengths is worth tinkering about with as well I’d say. Doing that with a capo and experimental tunings is—if nothing else—likely to be a great musical learning experience. Not to mention saving one the cost of investing in a lot of instruments of different scale lengths.

Possibly the single most helpful thing I see here was Gravelwalks suggestion about rigid fingering patterns. On specific tunes where there may be important but very tricky or fast or unusual bits I have found this absolutely the only remedy for staying relaxed and stress free about fingerings. I play a handful of tunes where—when practicing them by myself—I may play a single 8 note passage 2 dozen times in order to re-cement a particular fingering in muscle memory.

This last is also best done out of earshot of any significant others in your life.

Re: Advice on longer neck banjo technique - capo?

Another thing that crossed my mind was that if I’m really struggling to nail that high B on a tune, I can always find a more convenient way to play the tune that mitigates the difficulty posed by the distance between two notes. That’s part of tinkering, part of learning the instrument. Fiddle around with it. It’s your instrument. If you can’t play it one way, do it another way that you can.

This doesn’t mean to give up trying to play anything that gets to the 7th fret. But here are some examples of what I mean by ‘mitigating the difficulty.’

- Dont keep your hand locked in a rigid position, or think it must remain in that position. Being relaxed comes inherently with time and advancing skill, but it is also something you can be cognizant of. There’s no pressure in learning music. You do it because you like it, because it stirs you. I’ve noticed some players I have taught tend to develop a death grip on the neck, as if their left hand is holding on for dear life. It doesn’t look like fun! Basically, put the hand where it can stay comfortable without cramping, and get ready to slide it up the neck if you have to. The more relaxed you are — mind, motor memory, attitude, posture — the easier it will be. If anything’s true in life, it is that we quickly remember how to do all the things that feel good.

- Omit the note completely. Easier with some tunes than others — occasionally, all the magic of a particular passage absolutely must include that note — James Hill, Ed Reavy, looking at you. But sometimes you can tinker with it to circumnavigate the obstacle.

Part B, first bar of "Connaughtman’s Rambles," for instance:
|fbb faa| is giving you bad dreams, you can always try |f2 b faa| which still includes the high note. This gives you a split second’s breather to unplant your hand and hit the 7th-fret b note, getting the index finger back in time to hit the 2nd-fret f# that comes after. Alternately, you might even play |f3 faa| to cut out the high note, but retain the rhythm, and not clash with what others are playing, because again, all you have done is removed a note. In addition to helping you steal a fraction of a second to make a difficult passage reachable, you’ll also find that turning an eighth note into a dotted quaver will also add rhythmic variation and character to the tunes you play.

- Try playing the note in another octave. Instead of playing the 7th-fret b, play the 2nd-fret B. This will not work as well with some tunes as it will with others, but you’ll surprised when it does.

More about the bit in "Connaughtman’s Rambles": On the Seasion, have a look at the variations that ceolachan posted, compared to the more standard edition of the tune. He puts a lot of creative rhythmic character into the tunes by varying the times of certain notes as I described, and puts a lot of character in general into the tunes he has posted. Those could help you develop ideas toward what I am talking about.