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Right hand technique

In an interview for Mandolin World News Vol 2 # 2 in 1977 Jethro Burns talked about meeting the Russian mandolin maestro Dave Apollon. Jethro said, "He asked which hand is more important in playing. I said the right hand, reason being if your right hand don't hit the right string your left hand don't matter."

Jethro related that his answer met with Apollon's approval. If two such great artists agreed on this subject I guess the rest of us had better take notice.

The bluegrass mandolinist needs to be able to play loud and fast! Even with a top-quality instrument there will be a problem with volume in a band. Personally I try to get as far as possible from the banjo player to have a better chance of being able to hear what I'm doing. On mike you should be OK providing the sound man does a good job and the monitors are well set up. However, in a practice or jam session, or round a single mike, it may be a different story.

One of the big attractions of bluegrass music for most of us, if we are honest, is the speed at which it is played. "Wish I could play that fast!" we all think, the first time we hear Raw Hide. Even the slow numbers, for a mandolin player, usually involve some power tremolo of at least 10 notes per second.

It follows from all this that the key to volume and speed is the right hand. Unfortunately the importance of this is often overlooked by the beginner, and it can cause problems even for quite advanced players.

Mandolin players share an interest in this subject with other flatpick (plectrum) style instrumentalists, most obviously guitarists. A look around the guitar world shows a huge range of right hand styles, with the greatest range of approaches used by players of electric instruments. I don't want to sound too dismissive, but these guys (and gals) often use light gauge strings, and have only to turn the knob to get more volume. Additionally their styles don't always involve a lot of fast down-up picking. Hence right hand technique may not limit their playing critically



Holding the pick

The broad consensus amongst bluegrass guitar and mandolin players is that for maximum power the pick should be gripped between the thumb and the upper surface of the first finger, with the first finger curled. The rest of the fingers may also be curled, so the hand adopts the form of a loose fist (Bill Monroe, Frank Wakefield, Red Rector) or they may be somewhat extended (Sam Bush, Ronnie McCoury, Ricky Skaggs). The loose fist grip is clearly described and pictured in the Jack Tottle Bluegrass Mandolin manual published by Oak/Music Sales. The curled first finger is important, and gives the wrist a more relaxed and powerful action - the loose wrist advocated by so many musicians. The pictures at Jim Moss's site of Frank Wakefield and Jeff Smith in action illustrate this power grip perfectly. Dan Beimborn also has some good pictures and explains the grip very clearly.

This pick grip is used by the vast majority of bluegrass mandolin and guitar players. Unfortunately it can be difficult for some beginners to master - I think a lot depends on your individual hand anatomy. As Jack Tottle explains, it is important not to grip the pick too tightly, especially in the early stages of learning. Experience will teach you how hard you have to tighten your grip and bear down on the pick to play a powerful lead line. Tremolo, double stops and chords will require a looser grip. For most beginners there is a particular problem when changing from rhythm to lead, which also usually involves repositioning the hand on the instrument. However, with practice you will automatically be making subtle changes in your grip, without thinking about it, as you work through a number.

A very small minority of professional players use a different pick grip which I call the pencil grip. The crucial difference here is that the first finger is kept pretty much straight. Andy Townend used this grip, with the addition of the second finger alongside the first to support the pick underneath. He reckoned that he had adopted this grip as a child - he first started playing the mandolin at the age of 10 - because his hand was still not fully developed and he was unable to play the orthodox way. For him the pencil grip worked, and it would obviously be incorrect to say that a player of Andy's calibre was using the 'wrong' grip. Two other mandolin players who use the pencil grip are Byron Berline (perhaps better known as a fiddle player) and swing musician Johnny Gimble, also a notable fiddler. For pics of Johnny Gimble's grip, click here and here. The best known example of the 'thumb and two finger' pencil grip is that of guitarist Dan Crary. Among bluegrass mandolin players the only others I can think of who use a version of the pencil grip are Jimmy Gaudreau and Jesse McReynolds. Jesse holds the pick between his thumb and extended (not curled) forefinger.

Clearly in the case of these world-class musicians their unorthodox pick grip works for them. My own belief is that this is because their individual joint structure and musculature make it possible, whereas for most people this would not be the case. In describing Jesse McReynolds' cross-picking action, Andy Statman explains that "the sweep of Jesse's thumb and index finger alone allows him to pick fluidly from string to string", but he also makes it clear that Jesse is a highly individual musician whom others will find difficulty in imitating exactly.

I don't think any professional bluegrass musician would recommend you to use the pencil grip, indeed most are opposed to it. Try the following experiment. Hold your fingers in the orthodox loose fist, with curled index finger, and hold your elbow at your side so it won't move. Then, without moving your lower arm, move your hand up and down so that it articulates at the wrist. Don't worry about speed, but note that the hand has quite a free down-up movement without the lower arm moving at all. Then do the same test, but hold out the thumb and first and second fingers straight, in the pencil grip position. Notice how your wrist is now locked in a stiffer configuration with more restricted and less powerful down-up articulation. If you play with this grip you will find that in practice the down-up movement that you achieve is more likely to come from twisting the lower arm. You will probably be playing with a stiff wrist and putting more strain on the elbow, which is always a bad sign.

Becky Smith, a fine mandolin player and teacher, gives the following advice. "What I tell my students (and demonstrate) is that if you hold the pick with your first finger and thumb straightened out, it automatically, physically, changes the dynamics of the hand all the way up through the wrist and forearm. For most folks, that is a stiffening tension. So, I try to get beginners to use the curled first finger platform to help avoid tension from the start."

Nearly all the classic bluegrass mandolin players have used a free right hand, adopting the power grip and not bracing their hand against the top of the mandolin in any way. Quite a number brush their fingers against the body of the mandolin, the pick guard or the base of the neck, but this is as a positioning guide rather than a physical bracing. Usually the palm or heel of the hand loosely touches the strings behind the bridge (except when playing backup chords) but it is not pressed down hard. Mike Stangeland has put a detailed survey of the right hand positions of many 'name' players, at the Comando website. This should be compulsory reading. You should also scrutinise all pictures of professional players in action - that's why the instruction manuals are full of these pics - as well as watching these guys like a hawk in live performances!

Becky Smith sums it up like this. "The main concern is being able to play with a relaxed style. If you study the right hand technique of all the great players of any style, no matter how the pick is held, it is relaxed. You simply cannot play the mandolin with speed and fluidity, for any length of time, without being relaxed.

"The other thing I stress, is that your right hand pick grip is not set in stone! There is nothing wrong with altering your pick grip, and angle of the pick to the strings, during playing. Most great players do that too.

"Many folks have trouble making a fluid transition from their comfortable rhythm right hand and lead work. I get students practicing that right away by playing a couple of measures of rhythm and then switching to lead, and then back to rhythm going back and forth. Therefore, whatever pick grip one uses, one figures out how to deal with that dynamically. Sometimes you just do whatever it takes to execute a difficult passage of notes. Of course, it all boils down to the sound that you get. If there is something amiss with that, you need to address the right and left hand coordination and fix it." You can read more of Becky Smith's very helpful advice on playing the mandolin on her CoMando Guest Of the Week page.

The most obvious exception to the rule of the free right hand is Jesse McReynolds. Actually Jesse says that he does use a free right-hand for regular down-up picking, of which he does rather a lot, and very exciting it is too. However, when it comes to cross-picking he adopts a very specialised and unorthodox right hand position which is associated with the particular requirements of precisely picking a right-hand roll. In the now out-of-print instruction manual, Jesse McReynolds, Mandolin in the Oak Bluegrass Masters series, Andy Statman recommends the following hand position for cross-picking:

"Anchor the palm of your hand on the bridge. Press down just hard enough so that your wrist can hardly move. Don't press too hard though! Now securely lean both your pinky and third finger in front of the bridge. With your hand firmly braced and your wrist fairly rigid you'll find that your thumb and index finger have to do the picking."

What is obvious is that cross-picking is a specialism that is not recommended for beginners. As an amateur, I have never got into crosspicking because I find the right hand technique very demanding and I've never had the time (and perhaps the motivation) to work on it. But everyone I know who can crosspick at any speed on the mandolin uses some form of hand bracing, sometimes putting down one or more fingers on the pickguard in the same way that banjo players brace their right hand on the head of the instrument.

What this does not mean, however, is that you should brace your hand for ordinary down-up bluegrass playing. It will inevitably restrict your wrist action, just as the pencil grip does, and you will probably find yourself straining at the elbow to get speed and power.


Tremolo

The tremolo is a key feature of bluegrass mandolin playing, both on the slow tunes and to create excitement in the medium-paced and faster numbers. For most players the loose wrist is the key to a good tremolo. CoMando has a very useful discussion page on tremolo playing.

As an amateur musician I know I have many faults, weaknesses and no-go areas in my playing, but people do tell me that I have a good tremolo. I see a lot of people straining hard to do a tremolo with a stiff wrist, pumping from the elbow or with the right hand braced against the pickguard or the top of the mandolin. It may work for some, but I wouldn't recommend it.

I also think it can help to hold the mandolin at an angle to the body in the horizontal plane. Don't hold the mandolin against your front but angle it forward about 40-45 degrees, so the neck is pointing out in front of you. This way your right elbow is closer to your side, and there is less strain on the elbow and shoulder joints. The wrist can just move up and down in its own arc. See the picture of Our Leader on the left. Sorry about the poor graphics, but it's the only shot I could find which shows this position clearly. It reminds me of the classic method of learning to cast a fly with a trout rod - pin the elbow of your coat to your side so the elbow doesn't move!

If alternatively you have the mandolin parallel to your front it means that the upper arm has to project out from the shoulder, and the elbow is bent into a tenser position - not so good for relaxation. Having lessons in the Alexander technique is putting me on to this stuff. I'm currently giving a lot of thought and practice to body posture including hand and arm positions. Scales (pardon the pun) are falling from my eyes. For more on Alexander technique click for an introduction for musicians and for a case study.


What kind of pick?

Most bluegrass players favour a heavy or extra-heavy pick, of 1.0 to 1.5 mm thickness, as it can be played hard to provide extra volume (and probably improved tone). This type of pick is used in conjunction with quite heavy strings e.g. D'Addario J-74 or even J-75. However, a beginner will probably feel happier with a medium pick and slightly lighter strings. Remember that any change in the angle of the pick to the strings is achieved by relaxing or tightening your grip while playing, not by gripping tight and forcing the pick to bend. When you find you are playing hard and still seem to be fighting against the pick to get extra sound it is probably time to move up to something heavier. However, some notable players use quite light picks: the classic example was Jethro Burns. Simon Mayor and Jimmy Gaudreau use a medium pick to stunning effect.

Material and shape of pick are very much an individual choice. One of the more inexpensive pleasures of being a musician is going round the music shops and discovering new picks. If you don't like a newly acquired pick, it hasn't cost you much, and it's always worth experimenting. I've sometimes come back to a new pick months or years later. Actually the top players don't seem too fussed about the specific make of pick that they use, although I'm told on good authority that Bill Monroe regularly used the heavy Gibson black picks in the standard teardrop shape. (Those were the old Gibson picks that just had 'Gibson' on them. The newer ones say 'Gibson USA': they are made of a different material and their thickness has been regraded, with the addition of an extra-heavy gauge.)

There are two separate qualities of any pick that are important:
  • Its attack on the strings and the resultant sound created
  • The ease with which the pick can be gripped
A case in point is the Delrin pick (e.g. the Dunlop Delrin 500 series). Delrin is a highly slick material which slips off the strings very easily and I'm convinced gives you that little bit of extra speed. However, for the same reason it can at first seem a slippery creature to grip, and it is a bit more difficult to control. I've used this pick a lot for about 8 years, 0.96 mm and 1.14 mm, standard teardrop shape. However, I also use other picks of approximately 1 mm thickness, heavy rather than extra-heavy, e.g. the regular Fender brown picks. I pick with the shoulder of the pick rather than the point.

Don't believe anyone who says, "I've found the perfect pick!" It may be perfect - for the time being - for the person who recommends it, and by all means try the pick for yourself, but don't expect it necessarily to suit you as well. Popular makes include Clayton, Fender, Dunlop and the heavy modified three-point Dawg picks endorsed by David Grisman. There is a huge catalog of picks at Elderly Instruments. Keep an open mind and experiment. You should be aware that some players use the point, others the shoulder of a teardrop-shaped pick. It is possible to adapt the shape and dimensions of your pick - see for example Mike Stangeland's method of thinning down and refinishing the Golden Gate pick. There's also an informative page by Ken Torke on pick materials and reshaping.


Finally ...

Controlling the pick with the right hand is at the core of successful mandolin playing. I can't emphasise enough the importance of the power grip, and this comes from my own experience as an amateur. I started off playing with the pencil grip, as I just could not get anywhere with the loose fist/curled forefinger - I couldn't seem to be able to control the pick on the upstroke. However, I found that the power of my playing was limited, particularly in the tremolo department. It eventually took me six months to overcome my bad habit and adopt the loose fist power grip. I recognised that I was compelled to do this if I wanted to improve my playing any further. I've since discovered that Roland White made a similar change to his right hand. Joe Val told me years ago that he had the same problem, and that Frank Wakefield had told him that it would take about a month to change over. In my case it took six months, but it was a quantum leap which was well worth the effort.

Wherever there are mandolin players, right hand technique will be a common interest. Have a look through the discussion on tremolo at the CoMando site for more tips on use of the right hand. Mike Marshall also says something about his own approach, towards the end of the extensive article about him at Mandolin Magazine. Red Rector used to relate how Bill Monroe set him right on the importance of playing with a loose wrist. And Red went on to develop what was probably the most flexible, fastest and most powerful wrist in the business.

I'll leave the last word on the subject to Frank Wakefield. In the August 1986 issue of the magazine Inside Bluegrass, published by the Minnesota Bluegrass and Old Time Music Association, Frank stated, "By keeping your wrist flexible you'll be able to play a long time and play real fast without your hand or wrist or right arm getting tired. Also the sound will be cleaner and the tone fuller if you use a flexible wrist. Even if you have already been playing a while and you've been using a stiff right arm you can change over, and if you really want to get to be as good a mandolin player as you can, you need to change over, because you will definitely be limited if you use a stiff right arm...... Now if you're just starting to play you have an advantage, it won't take you any time to adjust since you don't know no different nohow."



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