Banjo Technique, Right Hand Technique

Thinking back to the days when I was beginning my clawhammer journey, I remember picking up a copy of Ken Perlman’s “Everything You Wanted to Know About Clawhammer Banjo” at my local library. That night, I began working through the book starting from page one. Things seemed to be going smoothly for the next three weeks – that is, until I got to the section on drop-thumb. Suddenly I hit a wall. After having gotten this far with nary a hitch, why was this technique proving so confounding, so impossible to execute? I struggled with it over the course of the next few weeks, attempting a few songs that featured this new maneuver. When I didn’t see any improvement, I wrote out some simple drop-thumb exercises, which then became the sole focus of my practice sessions for the next few days. But the technique was still proving tricky for me. Ultimately, I started avoiding any songs where drop-thumb was featured. I would routinely remove any drop-thumb from a tune I was learning and replace it with a phrase that approximated the melody of the drop-thumbed phrase. After a year or so of this, I took a second stab at drop-thumb. In time, with a new outlook on the technique and some dedicated, persistent practice, it became less troublesome for me and, gradually, I was able to conquer it. 

Surprisingly, I’ve discovered I wasn’t alone in my drop-thumb avoidance. I’ve encountered many students who had the same experience. The guitarist Doc Watson once said that when he was a kid learning banjo, he found drop-thumb so difficult that he gave up on it entirely. And this from someone who played banjo professionally!

Looking back on my early attempts at drop-thumb, I can now see the source of my difficulty. And it may come as a surprise that it has nothing to do with physical ability or dexterity. It has to do with the way one THINKS about drop-thumb.

For starters, the term “drop-thumb” is misleading. It mistakenly implies that the thumb, independent of the hand, “drops” or toggles down from its perch on the fifth string to pluck a string underneath the fifth. And while it does indeed pluck a string underneath the fifth, the particular way it gets there is what we need to understand in order to master this technique.

Like many students, when I first began working with drop-thumb my focus wasn’t so much on my thumb but on my index finger. After all, the picking hand’s index finger (or middle, if that’s your preferred digit) does most of the plucking in any clawhammer work not involving drop-thumb.

If, however, we shift our focus to our thumb, we may see a change in our drop-thumb-ing…
As we begin our execution of this maneuver, it’s important that we direct our attention to the thumb. The thumb should act as the navigator, the driving force propelling your hand down to the strings underneath the fifth. Think of the maneuver as an energetic throw of your thumb down to one of the lower strings. Visualize the thumb leading the hand, not the other way around. Just be sure, in completing this motion, that the thumb makes contact with its intended string at the same time the index makes contact with its string. Simply put, the thumb needs to make contact with its string at the same time the index plucks its string (the note immediately preceding the drop-thumb).

With this new perspective on drop-thumb (plus some good old-fashioned practice) I predict you’ll start to see some improvement in your picking in no time!Happy picking!

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