Forum - Banjo Ben Clark

Hand tension/No Hand Tension/Somewhere in between

Hey All,

Hear a lot about hand tension. I will admit I am often guilty of hand tension creeping in. But here is my question: Should there be some level of tension for accuracy purposes?

The reason I ask is I feel I am at my best when I have tension between totally relaxed and super tense. That middle of the road place seems to be my best performance issue. Too relaxed and I feel I have fly away fingers.

Now I know some will say (and maybe rightly so) you just need to train more and build muscle memory for that relaxed state of playing. Is it really that simple? Should there be a tiny bit of tension there to keep me accurately playing? Could it be that the tension is there because I have not committed the right hand rolls to memory well enough?

This might be a rather tired old subject but figured I’d ask and see what kind of responses I got.

Great question, but the answer is so hard to quantify. If your terms are the same as my terms, then I agree with you, yes. I think that muscle pain and weariness after playing for a while is a fair gauge of tension present.

Right, I know when its too much. I pick the strings really hard and my plant finger feels like it will burst through the head. But too loose and I’m all over the place.

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My early studied guitar training was in classical guitar (my bachelors degree). It was my experience that your hand(s) should be as relaxed as possible all the time. To be clear, you must have some tension in your right hand (if you flat pick a guitar or any other instrument) just to hold the pick, but all of your other fingers that are not being used in the production of notes at any given moment should be as relaxed as possible.

As an example, when I was learning Requerdos de la Alhambras, it took months to be able to get the tremolo in my right hand smooth, even and relaxed, and my hand often was sore after extended practices. After another month or so of rehearsal on the same tune, I was able to completely relax my right hand and get a monumentally smooth, even stroke. In addition, my hand never seemed to tire, but instead felt looser and and faster the longer I played.

I think you are right on the money here. I’ve been lucky enough to spend enough time on a few different techniques and tunes to get them to the point of effortlessness. And each time I was able to play without any physical effort but instead was able to focus completely on the musicality of the piece.

There is one caveat though, if you stop practicing on those pieces or techniques, you can and will often lose the ability (over time) to be completely relaxed with those abilities.

Thanks very much for this explanation. As Ben pointed out tension can be hard to understand person to person. Perhaps I do not know the songs as well as I should. And perhaps I am being too hard on myself expecting great results too fast if someone of your profession can admit it takes a large amount of time.

Most folks have much more talent than I, so it takes me a huge amount of dedicated time to get something under my fingers. And then it takes another huge amount of dedicated time to be relaxed with it. Come up with a practice regimen that allows you to continue to move forward and also enjoy your instrument. Constant work on your instrument can start to feel like work and less like “playing”. :wink:


I like what I heard Jens Kruger say ----The banjo should be like a toy.

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Meaning? Lol

I interpret it to mean… playing with joy. Once the effort creates frustration… best to take a break… even as that can be a challenge when you WANT to play that practiced passage clean… or getting that melodic run down…

Sometimes, as I think back on my struggles, I can see HUMOR in my feeble efforts! Seems comical that it feels soooo important at the end of a long practice session!

For what? :joy:

To suggest that if I can play it clean, then NEXT TIME, it will be permanently under my fingers! HA! I KNOW BETTER! :joy::joy::joy:

Many return sessions result in marginal setbacks anyway!

I am beginning to see that having a healthy and light-hearted approach without silly self-pressure will take us further- and faster… so long as we PRACTICE… and PRACTICE AGAIN.

This IS a journey, right folks?


Couldn’t have said it better myself…this is a huge step toward the relaxation needed to play an instrument well.


Thank you Dave. I will tell you it means more coming from a “seasoned” performer.

I want to keep Banjo FUN - because it is such powerful and joyful stress-reliever for me.

May it always be so.

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I think as someone else said, none of us are probably going to become the next Earl Scruggs so best to enjoy it as we go. No pressure.

I do find that as I practice a piece the worse it gets. I know say, “Little Maggie” by heart but the more I play it the worse it gets and the worse it gets the more I try to correct and the more I try to correct worse it gets.

I have found that I do better if I practice for a few minutes and then take a break. Walk away and come back 10 minutes later.

Above all I’m glad so many of you experience the same issues. At times I’m like, “Am I the dumbest human that has ever been?”

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You can count me in on that. You are NOT alone. For me… it is the challenge and also just the sheer AMAZING SOUND that I enjoy when I hear Ben.

What is really cool is when I can - on occasion - actually step back and realize that one of those rare moments when “IT HAPPENS” - a clean run - and my Banjo can almost sound like it is coming to life.

Those truly MUSUCAL moments are far too rare - but oh so sweet.

I think to myself, “What a Wonderf…” - er… I mean… “Did that sound really happen from ME?”

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The other night I tuned up and started Ballad of Jed Clampett and when I hit that low D string and started kick off I thought that sounds just like Earls banjo when he played it. Kind of a twang. Made me feel proud. Lol

I think you’ll find that as you get more time playing under your belt that those “I’m getting it” moments will happen a bit more often, and last a little longer.

I’ve been lucky enough to be involved when everyone in our band played “above their ability” for a whole set…cant begin to tell you how magical that was… It’s only happened like 2-3 times over 40 years though…Darn!


I have experiences myself occasionally… Not with Bluegrass but playing rock (Electric Guitar) Or at solo Ensamble festival… Or while jamming improvisation

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