By Wayne Erbsen
One of my struggling banjo students recently wrote me and asked if his fat fingers are to blame for muting the adjacent strings when he played. He even went so far as to send me a photo of his fingers to prove his point. A lot of people have given me the finger, but he was the first one to email it! First, I assured him that the size of his fingers seemed pretty normal, and I wouldn’t point the finger of blame on them. Instead, I suggested the way he uses his fingers many be the culprit.
When playing any stringed instrument, it’s important to use good left hand technique. You should strive to fret the strings with the very tips of your fingers, and you should position your left hand so your fingers are coming almost straight down on the strings, not leaning over.
It doesn’t matter if your instrument of choice is a banjo, a mandolin or a guitar; the same general rules apply. Position your left thumb roughly in the middle of the back of the neck directly behind where you plan to fret the strings. You’ve then got to bend your wrist forward. Let me explain what I mean by “forward.” With your left hand directly in front of you, bend your wrist as if you were trying to take off a wrist watch or bracelet from your left hand using the fingers of your left hand. You should bend your wrist this same way when you’re playing your instrument.
If your thumb is in the back of the neck, and your wrist is bent, then all you need to do is remember to use the very tips of your fingers. If you follow these simple suggestions, you won’t be singing the “Fat Finger Blues.”
Since a photograph is worth a thousand words (and my cheerful editor has asked me to not use too many words), these photos nicely illustrate correct hand positions. This bottom photograph is of my friend, Tom Mindte. Tom’s a big fellow, and his fingers are enormous, bless his heart. I certainly haven’t heard him singing the “Fat Finger Blues,” because his fingers perfectly fly all over his instrument, and he’s one of the very best mandolin players I know.