As a banjo teacher with years of experience helping beginning banjo students find their sea legs as bluegrass players, one issue that always seems to crop up is the age-old problem of getting your picks to stop scraping against the drum head while playing. And, as with pretty much every other issue a banjo student might encounter, there’s more than one solution.
Let’s start with the thumbpick. For starters, you might want to find a music store that allows you to try on an assortment of sizes/brands of thumbpicks and test them out on a banjo. This isn’t always easy, as a lot of music stores (specifically the big chains) sell their thumbpicks in sealed plastic bags, making it impossible for you to try them on before purchasing. Still, there are a few stores that sell these picks individuallly and will almost always let you try them on before money changes hands.
I know a lot of people, students and pros alike, who’ve dealt with the issue of the scraping thumbpick by filing down the pick so that it isn’t quite as long. I’ve never had to resort to this, but the few pickers I know who have seem to feel this remedy is one that works.
From my experience, however, the easiest fix to this problem is simply altering the position of your picking hand. If your palm is touching the banjo’s bridge, your fingers will be brushing against the banjo head with virtually every pluck. This is remedied by making sure your palm is a good distance away from the banjo’s bridge and strings when in playing position. (As a sidebar, it’s important to note that the palm should never, under any circumstance, make contact with the banjo’s bridge.) We achieve this “healthy distance” between the palm and bridge/strings by keeping our pinky and/or ring finger (which we use as our anchor on the drum head) as straight as possible.
With regards to the picks on the index and middle fingers, the preceding remedy also applies. Additionally, you’ll want to make sure the tips of the picks don’t extend too far beyond your fingertips. Be careful, though – you don’t want the tips of the picks to be flush with your fingertips or else you’ll be plucking the strings with the fleshy pads of your fingers. I wear my finger picks with the tips extending about a quarter centimeter beyond my fingertips – which is actually pretty darn close to the tips of my fingers. You’ll also want to make sure to bend the tip of each pick slightly so that they conform with the rounded edge of your fingertip.
And there you have it. Hopefully, with these tips (and a little practice) you’ll be picking your 5-string “scrape-free” in no time!