Speed Picking - Analyzed

The physics behind speed picking.
Now when I was asked to attempt the World Record, I didn’t sit down and devize any kind of plan, or analyze anything. No, I went to the bedroom and picked for a few hours, and found I could match the current record of 210 bpm (beats per minute).
It was actually after I broke the record that I fully analyzed the technique I used to achieve that goal.
I realized my picking technique had changed quite a bit, almost a natural adaptation had occurred. Funny thing is, I hated the technique I was now using, as it went against everything I had practiced to have good technique. My right hand was low to the banjo head, it was scrunched, curled almost into a ball. my pinky and ring support finger were bent under themselves.....ugh! and the ‘bridge’ in my wrist had gone. But, it was all these changes that allowed me to play fast enough to break the record, smash it in fact if I may be so presumptuous?
For those who are not familiar with the whole World record thing, Todd Taylor set it, playing ‘Duelin’ Banjos’ at 210 bpm (beats per minute). Using the techniques I will explain below, I broke it and set it at 260 bpm.

So, how did I do it? what were the changes that occurred in my picking technique?

I guess you could say it’s all about physics. Now don’t panic, you don’t need to know anything about physics or science or be a researcher of aerospace technology to understand what I’m saying here.


If you use a long handled hammer, you can produce more force at the striking point, but, it takes a longer swing. A short handled hammer, produces less force but is a shorter swing. We’re not looking for tremendous force to strike a string, no, we need a short handled hammer to strike quickly with a short swing. Or, in this case, we need a shorter finger, or a way of simulating shorter fingers.         

Watch the video to see what happened to my technique and how I believed it helped me achieve the record breaking speed.

The next thing I did, which I did analyze and work on, was how to play the melody in the most efficient way. In the build up of the tune Duelin’ Banjos, there’s a lot of single string picking, and single string is generally not conducive to speed picking.
Don Reno, Eddie Adcock and even myself have done some cool stuff on single string technique but at the speed I was aiming for, it simply wasn’t going to work in my opinion.
So, I had to find ways to play the melody while keeping the right hand ‘rolling’ spreading the notes across the fingers, and not single string style.
If you take a look at the tablature, you’ll see what I did. It’s quite a stretch from 4th string/9th fret and 3rd string/5th fret, so again I had to change technique and approach, left hand this time. I set myself several stretching exercises I believed would help and began working on my left hand technique and positioning in order to be able to play what you see in the tablature.

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My picks were polished, to eliminate drag, strings were a heavier gauge to eliminate 'slap' and to be more responsive. A heavier gauge string feels more taught when tuned, and so has less bend when struck, making my picking more efficient and therefore quicker. The tailpiece was adjusted to apply slightly more downward pressure on the strings (something I had learned during practice was that, when 'digging in' for speed, the bridge would sometimes move.
My banjo is a built to my specification, and uses mandolin fretwire, the playing area of the neck is a light shellac coating, so the neck is 'fast'.

Obviously it all worked out for me, but the point is; If you’re struggling to play a certain chord, riff, tune, passage......try adapting your technique. Change the way you place your hand, maybe change the angle at which you hold the instrument, or even just change your attitude to ‘I can’.
Good luck.

Johnny Butten