Thoughts On How I Play The Guitar and Banjo

Last Saturday night, Jeni and I played in San Antonio, Florida, at a house concert series called the Garage Mahal. The hosts, Rochelle and Norman, were just the greatest. Rochelle is a yoga instructor and told me a story about a woman who did not hear so well. At the end of her yoga session the woman said she enjoyed it when Rochelle said, “I must say” when in fact she was saying namaste. We had a good laugh about that. And Norman is a hiker who is going to attempt for his second time to do a through hike of the Appalachian Trail starting this fall. He told me that a “through hike” is when you hike the entire trail within a year after your start date. Go Norman!

The concert went well and I met two delightful folks during the break, Ernie and Bonnie. Bonnie had seen us before and it was Ernie’s first time to a J and B concert. We spoke during the break and Ernie commented about my right hand playing technique. He said, “I noticed that you play with your thumb and middle finger while your index finger is bent over a bit.” And he asked me about how all of that happened. Lots of folks over the years have asked me that question, and I felt like my answer to Ernie and Bonnie was my best explanation so far. It went something like this:

The first song I learned on the guitar was “Ode To Billie Joe” by Bobbie Gentry. My guitar teacher, Ronnie Cook, from Bill’s Music House in Catonsville, Maryland, taught it to me in the key of E. Bobbie Gentry plays a dominant ninth chord on the intro but I’m not sure how she played it whether with a pick or her fingers. I learned it by playing a right-hand technique with a flat pick only. That would have been in 1967 when I was thirteen.

Then in 1975, I heard Willie Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain.” After an independent study of Willie’s guitar playing style, I learned about the pick and two-finger right-hand technique. That’s where you play with a flat pick by holding it with your thumb and index finger, primarily doing downstrokes, and playing upstrokes with your middle and ring fingers. The pick plays single note bass notes – walk-up and walk-down melodic lines – while the two fingers play two other strings that are usually two notes that are part of the chord. You can also play three-note or triad chords by playing the lowest note of the chord with a downstroke with the pick, and the middle and highest notes of the chord with your two fingers. It’s also a way to play a fast melodic single note line by alternating between the pick doing downstrokes and the two fingers doing upstrokes.

And then in 1983 I was introduced to the music of Dire Straits. The guitarist, Mark Knopfler, played with a thumb and two finger method by using only the skin of his fingers on the strings, rather than striking the strings with a pick. When you watch Knopfler play, he is usually playing with the thumb, index, and middle fingers, while his ring and little fingers are anchored on the top of the guitar. I learned some of his songs and really liked playing without a pick.

I started to practice with thumb and fingers only and no pick. However, the music I was playing still asked for some pick playing. So I would be playing a song using a pick only attack, but then wanted to do some thumb and finger playing within the context of the same song. So, I would play some of the song with the pick, and then slip the pick into my bent index finger, actually folded over, and hold the pick, while I would play a thumb and middle finger skin only part. Sometimes the ring finger would also strike the strings depending on the line or part.

For most of my finger style playing, I play with my thumb and middle finger, and strike the strings with skin and no nail. I like the tone with the skin playing. I’ll use this method on guitar and banjo.

And now when I practice, which I try to do at least an hour and a half everyday, I mix up the right hand technique with pick, pick and two fingers, and thumb and two fingers.

At the end of the concert Bonnie and Ernie thanked Jeni and me for coming to the Garage Mahal, and then presented us with some honey. What a sweet ending!


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