Gordon from Texas writes:

Pete,

Enjoyed your Note From The Road on the Fall Banjo Retreat, esp your little faceoff with Bill Evans on the one finger/two finger question.

Some of us heard him mention this a couple of years ago at Camp Bluegrass in Levelland TX, leading to recurring, intensely learned local discussions, thusly:

a) those who use one finger are immoral and/or of dubious parentage

b) if God wanted two fingers to be used, he’d have made them of equal length and so forth–

Strictly in the interests of elevating this process, could you kindly mention the best known 5 or 6 players on your lengthy list of one-finger users. All would be appreciated and all for fun.

Regards,

Gordon D.


Dear Gordon,

Here’s an edited excerpt from an article I wrote for

Banjo Newsletter

in 1990:

First, a partial list of banjo players who keep only one finger on the head: Curtis McPeake, Vic Jordan, Raymond McLain, Alan O’Bryant, Roy Clark, Don Parmley, Courtney Johnson, Little Roy Lewis, Marty Cutler, Dave Evans, Marc Pruett, Pat Cloud, Blake Williams, Alison Brown. Interesting note: Doug Dillard rests no fingers on the head (he puts his pinky on the bridge and curls the ring under the hand, resting it on the strings behind the bridge). If strength and accuracy are the goals, these players are hard to beat as role models.

[Note: This information comes from research I did on the Masters of the Five String Banjo book, which unfortunately did not get into the original edition but is in the AcuTab reprinted version now available. Over 40 pro players were surveyed. Of the above-named players, most anchor just the pinky, but some just the ring finger. I assume all this variety is based on the well-known fact that we’re all built (including hands) just a little differently.]

Pat Cloud makes a point of teaching all his students to anchor only the pinky, because the tendons connecting the ring and middle finger keep the middle finger from moving freely when the ring is planted. In my own teaching, I occasionally recommend this advice when a player’s middle finger is picking weakly or awkwardly. Often the results are instantaneously positive.

I think the reason for the popular misconception is that for most players (myself included), anchoring both non-picking fingers is comfortable. We’ve seen Earl and a lot of other players do it, so it qualifies as “normal”. As we all know, however, “normal” is not necessarily the only way to get the job done. Too often “What works for me and a lot of others” translates into “The Only Right Way”. The above list of players, I think, speaks for itself.

It pains me to see aspiring players suffering and feeling anxious needlessly over this misconception. I hear of people taping their hands to the head, tying them together with rubber bands, etc., and I think “What a waste! These people could be practicing actually playing.” I’ve even heard of people giving up the banjo because of their inability to plant both fingers. That really galls me.

At my camps and clinics I regularly get questions from folks very nervous and insecure on this topic because of apparently authoritative advice to the effect that they’d BETTER get their act together and anchor both fingers or they’ll never be able to really play. They are quite relieved to hear my advice, which is:

“Never mind. One finger is enough for stability. Do what’s comfortable and concentrate on sounding good. With enough practice and focus, your hand will find a way.”>>

To me, “you must plant two fingers” has echoes of the old policy of “writing lefty is wrong, and needs to be corrected”. Yes, it’s a minority position, but that doesn’t mean it’s worse. Different bodies are different.

By the way, I have heard Sammy Shelor plants just one finger. You could check that out when you have a chance.

Happy debating!

Pete