Whether you are sitting down for a 15 minute or 1-hour banjo practice session, calibrating the picking hand as a warmup will make a big difference (video below)!
What do I mean when I say “calibrating the picking hand”? I first heard that expression from a guitar flat-picker who was a teacher, professional musician, and classically trained guitarist, who can play like the wind (Tyler Grant playing on Fretboard Journal). In a nutshell, the idea is to focus the brain solely, for a few minutes on the picking hand (more specifics on what to do below).
Whether you’re a clawhammer player or a bluegrass player, your picking hand has to do a lot of precise work. When you pick up the banjo and start playing right away, the brain is processing a lot as it tries to get “up to speed.” You might have the banjo neck at a lower angle than you usually play at which changes the relationship of your right hand to the angle of the strings. If you are a bluegrass picker, your anchor might be in a slightly different position. A clawhammer player might be picking the bum ditty, lower on the banjo head than normal. Any of these factors will cause the right hand to struggle and “miss-step.”
This is one reason why some banjo practice sessions feel great as soon as you start playing and others do not. In addition to how you are holding the banjo and the position of your picking hand as it picks, asking the brain to also process the left hand, as well as either, reach into memory to remember the song or read and process tablature at the same time, is a lot of processing at once when the brain is “warming up”, so to speak.
So, starting your banjo practice with a warm-up focused solely on calibrating the picking hand is key.
In my attempt to practice banjo for 365 hours in 2022 (1 hour a day on average) I’ve been using this warmup technique for my banjo practice and it’s really, really great.
Here’s how I calibrate the picking hand for bluegrass:
3-5 minutes to start the practice session.
Start off slowly.
1 roll 10+ times (Alternating Thumb Roll)
Continue practicing different rolls in succession, each for 10+ times (Alternating-Thumb Roll, Forward-Backward Roll, Index-Leading Roll, Foggy Mountain Roll, Middle-Leading Roll).
Jump around to whatever roll you want, changing after every roll (this part is tricky, so go slow – example in the video)
You don’t have to do it this way and you don’t have to use these rolls to warm up, of course. This has worked well for me and within 3-5 minutes, when I jump into a song, I’m feeling great. It sets an excellent mood for the whole session. If the session is going to be shorter I tend to calibrate the picking hand for only 3 minutes and if I’m practicing banjo for an hour I go the full 5 minutes.
(CONTINUE ON TO SEE CLAWHAMMER CALIBRATION BELOW)
For Clawhammer I calibrate the picking hand like this:
Slowly, practice the Bum-Ditty with the index finger hitting only the first string for a full minute (roughly).
Move to the 2nd string for 10+ picks of the Bum-Ditty. Repeat this for the 3rd and 4th strings.
Now strike each string between brush-strokes in the Bum-Ditty, moving up and then back down. (1, brush-stroke, 2 brush-stroke, 3 brush-stroke, 4 brush-stroke, 3 brush-stroke, 2 brush-stroke, 1 brush-stroke, REPEAT.
When feeling calibrated create patterns on-the-fly (1, 1, 3, repeat, 1,1,4 repeat, 3,2,1). Example below.
Again, this approach is arbitrary. It’s just one I like and is working well for me. You can approach it differently. Universally, though, we should all start slow and only start to speed up as the picking hand calibrates and the brain is feeling good about it.
In both videos, you’ll hear me doing this picking hand calibration with the metronome. That will be another post, but it’s a VERY good idea to warm up with a metronome and to use it in your practice consistently. I was talking to John (our teacher) about this and he said “if there’s someone in the jam circle who struggles with rhythm and staying ‘in-time’, most likely it’s going to be the banjo player.” Incorporate a metronome into your practice!
I hope that helps you as much as it is helping me! Thank you again to Tyler Grant for introducing this concept to me and now to you. As a side note: when COVID started I decided I was finally going to properly learn guitar and spent 2020 practicing guitar for an hour a day and much of 2021 in a similar practice regiment – poor banjo lost almost 2 year to the guitar. But no longer! 🙂
(In the example below I’m simply practicing a bum-ditty 5x on each string. Do it however you want. Just start slow and focus on accuracy on each string.)
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Hey Judd, thanks, I’ve incorporated this into my practice routine. Appreciate the suggestion. Keep’ em coming.
Here’s something else I’ve started doing. My left arm will get tired, so I put it behind my back, palm facing away, and raise my hand as high as I can. This relieves the strain on my arm for some reason. While I’m doing that, I practice rolls, trying to go faster and faster. Playing the banjo with one hand behind my back!