Banjo Exercises and Workout / Left Hand or Fretting Hand Exercises and Scales

Hello aspiring banjo pickers!

I’m starting a series of teaching articles to help banjo students improve their overall skills by getting a “Banjo Workout”. When learning the banjo it’s only natural to want to learn songs and seek tangible results right away by playing a song. However in my workshops it’s been my observation that students are burning a lot of practice time by only sight-reading tablature and not achieving the results they desire. If we can take a step back and see the big picture it should be obvious that if we spend more of our practice time building the skills needed to play songs and improve our overall capabilities, completed songs, jamming and real results should fall right into place.

In this first installment. I’m going to give you a picking exercise with a few different aspects of picking to work on.

Exercises to Improve Picking Control

It’s important to understand that “banjo rolls” or picking patterns are not based on the strings played but the pattern of the fingers used. To help you learn to use these picking patterns on any combination of strings I am purposely not providing the strings to play with tablature, but only the pattern of the fingers used, for instance T I M T M I T M.  When learning rolls from tablature its easy to get attached to the strings you FIRST learned the patterns on. In the real world the Scruggs Style, the patterns used are consistent, but the strings played in these patterns change and change a lot. As you likely know one of the tricks to playing the banjo is to be able to switch freely between “rolls” or picking patterns. Equally important is the ability to switch the strings freely that you pick within these patterns. This is so you can easily coordinate adjusting the strings played in order to execute the melody or produce other desired sounds.

Lets’s practice the following 5 aspects of banjo picking

1. The first exercise is for practicing switching between strings but sticking to the picking pattern used. 
Using this forward roll picking pattern only.
T M T I M T I M and counted 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +
Mix up which string you play, but stick to the pattern. Basically you will be alternating or “mixing up” which string the thumb and index hits. The middle can stay constant on the first string for now. The thumb can play either the 5th, 4th, 3rd or 2nd. The index can alternate between the 2nd and 3rd strings, You can also occasionally hit a 4th string with the index if the previous thumb stroke was a 5th string. Pick a combo and stick to it for at least 5 to 10 reps or as long as it takes to get the muscle memory needed before mixing it up, eventually the plan is to be able to switch freely between them.

2. Now alternate accenting a different finger in the roll each time.
When accenting, hit the accented note at least 25 to 30% harder and if you can, lay off a bit on the others.

When practicing  this, do at least 5 to 10 reps before changing to a different finger accented. Practicing and learning the technique of accenting notes is critical in banjo playing if you want to play the melody.

3. Omit one of the fingers and play the previous note as a 1/4 note. 
Here is an example,  T   T I M T I M, the first thumb stroke played as 1/4 note, counted 1   2 + 3 + 4 +   Another example could be T M T I M T I.. , the last index stroke hold as a 1/4 note. counted 1 + 2 + 3 + 4     Challenge yourself with this on other rolls too. In this forward roll the two examples I gave were the ones most used but in other rolls there is more room to mix in 1/4 notes. If you can learn to use 1/4 notes anywhere in a roll it will greatly improve your ability to play a melody. Playing a melody note as a 1/4 note is an instant and effective way of bringing out the melody clearly in any song. If you listen to Scruggs you will hear his consistent and effective use of the 1/4 note.

4. Now practice playing the roll starting on the index finger.
Starting the roll with the thumb and using the thumb to play the melody is more consistent with proper Scruggs Style technique. However, often this roll comes up when the last 1/8 note of the previous measure was a thumb stroke which would cause you to play two consecutive 1/8 notes with the same finger.  If that is the case you would start the roll with the index, so best to get some practice at it and practice emphasizing the index stroke too.

5. Now try playing the pattern over and over trying to increase your speed.
Go for it and see how fast you can go. Things will likely get sloppy but try to push through and smooth it out. At some point if you have not spent much time trying to pick faster you are going to have to try. It’s not always pretty but this is a good environment to practice it in. Stick to the same strings in the pattern for a bunch of reps and then switch up the strings you hit in this pattern for more reps.  TO BE EXTREMELY CLEAR: I am not encouraging you to play sloppy or suggest that when you are trying to execute a song beginning to end properly that you should practice playing faster and faster, or speed up. But in my humble opinion, focused practice on building speed in the picking hand has to happen at some point. My clear suggestion is that when exercising your right hand, devote some practice time on doing reps to gain more speed and control with your picking.

Here are a couple more Scruggs style picking patterns “rolls” to try these practice techniques on. If you need more just copy down the one measure patterns used in the songs you play either from the tab or memory and learn to mix up the strings played within the pattern.

Backward Roll

Foggy Mtn Breakdown Roll (which is also a forward roll)

I have more free banjo instruction articles on the page
Free Banjo Instruction Articles by Ross Nickerson

thanks again, Ross

Learn to play based on the chords to the song

Practice Playing Along

Improve Speed on the Banjo

More Free Instruction Articles by Ross Nickerson