Which Fingers Are Used to Pick Which Strings on a Banjo?

by Lee Johnson Google
Banjos have five strings, with the highest starting partway up the neck of the instrument.

Banjos have five strings, with the highest starting partway up the neck of the instrument.

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Learning which fingers are used to pick which strings on a banjo is important if you wish to learn to execute banjo finger-picking rolls efficiently. The strings on a banjo are tuned (from top to bottom) to G, D, G, B and D, which is referred to as "open G" tuning. Finger-picking is a key part of banjo playing, and most players use the thumb, index and middle fingers to pick the strings.

Thumb

When playing the banjo, the right hand's thumb is used to pick the three lowest-pitched strings -- the ones furthest from the ground -- the G, D and G strings. Depending on the particular roll being played, this can also include the B string; however, the thumb will usually operate one or two of the lowest three strings. The thumb is the only part of the picking hand that will play the low G string. Generally speaking, the thumb can be thought of as playing the bass notes.

Index Finger

The index finger can be used to pick any of the three middle strings on the banjo; the D, G and B strings. Again, the index finger can behave differently depending on the specific roll or picking pattern; it doesn't have to play the notes on all three strings if the thumb doesn't have much to do. The overlapping of the strings operated by the index finger and thumb is typical of the flexibility in which strings these fingers operate. Unless you have a particularly nimble index finger, your thumb can help out by picking the D and G strings on a roll based around the middle strings.

Middle Finger

The simplest role in banjo finger-picking is that of the middle finger, which only operates the high D string, the lowest in position. Anchor this finger in place when you are playing, as it doesn't need to move anywhere during most rolls or picking patterns as it is the only finger that operates this string.

Variations

In most rolls, the thumb will alternate between bass notes either on the G, D, or G strings, and the index and middle fingers will pick notes on the B and D strings on the off-beat. For different types of rolls, the positions can be shifted according to the designated strings for each finger. For example, if a roll contains notes on the G, D, G and D strings, the thumb might pick the notes on the low G and D strings, and the index finger could play the middle G and the middle finger can retain its role on the highest D string. It is important to note, however, that you should alter these guidelines when it is more logical or comfortable to do so.

About the Author

Lee Johnson has written for various publications and websites since 2005. His articles have appeared in "Sandman" magazine, the "Crewe Chronicle" and on the website Beyond Hollywood. He is primarily a music journalist but has written on many subjects. Johnson has a Bachelor of Arts in creative writing from Manchester Metropolitan University.

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