Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

It sounds like a first great line to a nonsense verse, but it's actually a problem I'm not yet able to shake. In this case, a video would probably provide the best demonstration, but since I don't have way to record myself yet I'll try old style text.

When I play with the flesh of my index finger (or all out finger style) the banjo sounds great. In the 2 weeks or so I've had it I've learned about 5 songs to a point where I think they sound decent (not perfect, by any means, but decent).

So here's the problem: when I try to play stroke style a la Briggs or Rice, with the fingers rolled up so the index finger points at the ball of the thumb, I get a pretty annoying clicking or clucking sound from the index fingernail. I've tried adjusting my hand to different positions, but it doesn't disappear. Only the level of attack seems to affect it. I'm guessing some degree of clicking is normal, but this sounds like a chicken beak being flicked and it seems louder and more distracting than it should. I haven't heard anything like I'm hearing in any stroke style video I've yet seen (and I've seen a lot).

I can also play a sort of modified stroke style just using the flesh side of my index finger, but it doesn't feel like the real thing somehow. In the end, does it even matter? I'd like to play authentic stroke style, but I also dig finger style. I'd prefer to play both if possible.


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Need the video.

Might be a candidate for a thimble.

Try different attacks...grip the thumb on the finger for a Hammer Stroke...see if it goes away. If you can do it with a Hammer, you can develop the finger by itself.

Check and see if you are striking down toward the head...you might be "flicking out" a bit.

It might similar to the sound of the Dunlop purple "Stiffie" picks on a guitar...


You said your level of attack seems to affect it, and you can play sort of modified stroke style just using the flesh side of your index finger. This is normal. In another few weeks you'll be hitting the strings in stroke style with more finesse, more confidence and strength. Banjoists naturally and intentionally adjust the angle of the index, like you're doing, to get the best sound. Most of the time the cluck sound is a result of hitting the string straight on, hard, and slow. It's an intentional effect with clawhammer players. I think 5 songs in 2 weeks is too much. Take a week off from learning new ones, and play the ones you know, hitting the strings quicker, lighter, and at different angles, very subtle different angles. Most of the time you won't get the desired result during your practice, but you'll notice a cleaner sound the NEXT practice. That's just the way it works. I didn't make the banjo laws though, I've been playing since I was 17, I'm 53 and STILL looking for what Ry Cooder calls THE BIG NOTE.

Ed..More ideas....Watch the videos on this site closely. For instance, compare Carl, Tim, and Paul. Carl's right hand is like a cobra striking..bang, bang, bang. Tim has different ways of using his first digit, three ways that I can see, rigid sometimes, sometimes he supports it with his thumb, and sometimes he flicks a note. Paul's right hand hardly moves, his thumb moves like a finger and he's a clean player. But most interestingly, these three guys do not look at their right hand. Whether staring at the moon, or reading music, they do not look down. They are in tune with their tone. Ears, not eyes. Try that, remember, everyone has their own style within this style and it's important to HEAR what you're playing. Force yourself to look away. Again, I'm not a Banjo doctor, I only play one on TV.

Oh yea...nylguts, right?

Nope, I'm using real guts.

Thanks for the suggestions... I'll just keep at it, try the hammer stroke and see what happens... and I'll keep watching videos... I'm sure I'll find my stroke mojo soon...

Bingo Tim.

As a banjo maker, I know most guys are using Nylguts. My shortest scale lengths are 26.5 because if they're any shorter, Nylguts get flabby and are more likely to sound percussive, and in general - be weird. Gut doesn't. You know that yodel-y kinda flat sounding fiddle tone? Low tuned. Electric guitars do it too. The rubber bandy bwoingy sounding Les Paul versus the longer scale stinging twangy Fender. If you ARE playing on guts, then I'm full of it. But hang in there. These things work themselves out (If you're aware of them).

I clicked a lot with nyguts.

Oh yea...nails-file 'em down as far as they go.

Hmmm... maybe my talons need a shaving...

I should also add that I really appreciate the advice!!

OK, let's look at a few acoustic issues.


1.  How close are you playing to the bridge?  The closer you play to the bridge, the more likely that the higher pitched sound of you striking the string will be amplified by the instrument.


2.  What are you using for the bridge?  A harder wood will transmit higher pitched noise and effects.


3.  Where is the bridge placed?  You may be able to improve on the issue by moving the bridge around a little on the head.


I think everbody's a little different on this sort of thing.  For instance I play with my middle finger as do many players, just because it's more comfortable for me that way.  My playing hand looks like the depiction in the William Sidney Mount painting with my index finger pointing out ahead of the others.  I keep my nails real long because I have good hard nails and I get more volume with them than I do with a thimble.  If I want a clucking sound I just have my index finger touch my middle finger when I make the strike and have the contact with the index finger stop on the string to deaden the sound.  I agree that the angle of attack probably is the smoking gun here.  Just keep trying to get the clear tone and eventually it will become automatic.  The other thing that will happen is that it will take much less muscular tension to produce a louder tone.  Like other stringed instruments, a relaxed hand produces grace and fluidity in resultant output.  Unfortunately, the only way to achieve this result is to play a lot.  But if you enjoy playing it shouldn't be a problem.

I love this site...if everybody had the same tip...it would be boring.


I also strike the strings like Rob- finger projecting out.  In one of the books, I forget which one, they suggest holding a pen knife in the closed fingers to start.


But if you truly want the authentic strong tone of the pre-modern-old-time era, you'll need a thimble. And you are in luck!  I just got setup to sell them again.


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