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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 current banjo is built to my specification, (see below for full specification) and uses mandolin fretwire, as it is low profile and I believe gives better intonation. The playing area of the neck is a light shellac coating, so the neck is 'fast'.  For the speed attempt I used a Kel Kroydon KK10.

The other aspect is thinking ahead. If you're thinking about your picking as you pick, you're already too late. Thinking ahead only becomes possible as you become more familiar with the instrument and with the techniques, so beginners, don't worry too much about this. 
You're not thinking several notes ahead, maybe not even one note ahead. It's more like, chasing down every beat, just to be on the beat. Simply put, it's about timing.

A buddhist friend of mine would tell me "it's about living in the 'now'.
I would say, "yes, but by the time you pronounce the 'w' of 'now', the 'n' has gone, it's in the past.

So it's like saying the word 'now', but as you poise your mouth to say the 'n', think about the ending, the 'w'. That's the subtle difference that enabled me to stay on the beat at that speed.

One final detail. If you watch the video, you will notice my head is turned to my right.
My left ear is stronger than my right ear, it feels 'sharper' enabling me to respond quicker to what I was listening to (the bleepy metronome). Try plugging your ears and playing along with a tune. Certain frequencies get lost or are slightly muted and this can cause slight delays in timing. I couldn't afford any delays anywhere, so I used my left ear.
Also,  turning my head to the right, caused a slight twist in the body, which in turn caused the right shoulder to 'pull back', the right arm thereby clamping the banjo against my torso, resulting in no movement of the instrument. All energy and effort had to be delivered to the fingers only, and accuracy was paramount. Any movement of the instrument would have been detrimental to all those things.......this is also why I chose to sit.

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

Banjo specification.
Since the world record, I had a banjo custom made. It's a culmination of my playing experiences on various banjos and my experimentation with some off the shelf parts and stuff I have made.
Back in my teenage days, I experimented a lot. I made banjo bridges from perspex, glass, steel, aluminium, even clay. I used draughtsman media as a banjo head (very tricky to put on). Then there were various materials used for the tailpiece, and tone ring set ups, ranging from tube on the rim, suspended tube (brass, steel, copper) even an old brass bell suspended in the middle of the 'tone chamber' by a web of thread.
I've made the nut, out of brass, carbon steel, bone, tusk, glass, hardwood, and fibreglass.

Anyway, my current banjo.....
Rim is by Jimmy Cox. it's a 3 ply, maple/mahogany/maple, with a walnut cap. I specified the mahogany centre ply because I wanted a warmer sound than a stock 3 ply maple rim.
All pot hardware is nickel plated brass and was  supplied by Jimmy.
The tone ting is 1952 Gibson.
I use a Elite Fiberskyn banjo head. I like the warmer tone. I have tried the Remo version but it's way too heavy and dulls the tone in my opinion.


The neck, is traditional in looks, beautifully crafted by Sullivan banjos. Fingerboard is standard Gibson Granada width, with Hearts and flowers inlay, but depth from fingerboard to back of neck is just 16mm (5/8 inch) at the first fret and 18.2mm (11/16 inch) at 12 fret.
Mandolin fretwire, bone nut, 2 way adjustable truss rod.


Tuners are 4 x Keith 'D-tuners' and geared 5th.

Bridge, currently is a Shubb compensated (staggered look) but in the very near future I will be installing a 'Moon bridge'.

Tailpiece, original Kerschner plectrum banjo, converted to 5 string.

Resonator, built and supplied by Sullivan banjos.


I do my own set up.

Modifications since build:

Fitted Schatten banjo pick up (I've been an endorsee of the brand for around 15 years)
Neck has been broken twice. Once on a flight to Prague, Czech republic, and one time in the studio. 

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