The Left Hand of Darkness


This another post about learning to play the Banjo. I'm working through my book, and it has some recommendations with respect to fretting. For those who don't do stringed instruments, fretting is a term of art referring to the work your left hand does on the neck of your instrument. You see, the neck of the instrument has a finger board with periodic little metal bars, or frets. By holding the string down behind the fret, you cause the string to produce a different note when picked, since the string is effectively shorter. The act of pushing down strings to produce different notes is called fretting. However, strings on stringed instruments are strung very tight. You have to push down pretty hard to get the right sound when fretting. Too soft, and the string doesn't touch the desired fret and your finger just serves to prevent the string from vibrating, so instead of a note you get a plunk.

Hence the book's recommendation: develop calluses on your left hand fingertips. This makes sense. For one, calluses are insensitve and tough, so they allow you to play for longer periods (pre-calluses, left-hand fingertip pain can be quite an annoyance, since you're pretty much constantly digging tightly-strung wires into your fingertips). Further, hard calluses make fretting easier. You don't have to push as hard to get the string down when you're pushing with a hard surface as you do with a soft one.

So the book gives tips for developing calluses. For one, it recommends dipping your fingers in rubbing alcohol before and after you play. This helps in the long run by making your fingertips dry, and therefore more amenable to developing calluses, and helps for the practice session because it's slightly easier to fret with dry fingers.

It also recommends doing everything you can to keep your left hand dry. "Water is the enemy of calluses." Their recommendations include not washing the left hand and wearing a glove while in the shower. I imagine you'd want to also get used to keeping your left hand in your pocket, as after a couple of weeks of this it seems doubtful you'd want to show it in public. But man, would you have well-developed calluses.


1. Ew.

2. What are the strings on a banjo made of?

3. I'm really pretty amazed by this. In my several attempts to learn to play guitar, I've found that I quickly develop some pretty heinous calluses even with normal hygiene. I can't help wondering if your book has some kind of hidden agenda, some other real reason for wanting its readers to have unwashed left hands. The several meanings of the word "sinister" come to mind as possibly relevant here.

Banjo strings are mostly made of steel. That is, the banjo has a somewhat odd string configuration. From right to left, the strings are tuned D-B-G-Low D-High G. So it starts high-ish, goes down, down, way down, then way up. The first four strings are strung up the whole length of the neck, and the low D, being the same length as the high D, needs to be way thicker. Hence, it's made from Nickel where the others are steel. The High G is strung up two-thirds of the way up the neck, and the tuner sticks out the side of the neck.

And, intriguing though the notion of vast international conspiracies to create an army of amateur banjo players with filthy left hands is, I think they have a point with it. The advice they give is mostly for people who have a tough time developing calluses naturally, either because they don't practice frequently enough or because their skins are callus-resistant. Sadly, I think I fall into the latter category. I've been working at it for months with nothing to show for it. I get the same thing with my feet; no matter how long or far I walk, I never get calluses, and I walk all the time. I have rubbing alcohol handy, so I've started a dipping regimen. Hopefully it won't have to go any further than that.

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This page contains a single entry by Zach published on September 11, 2005 1:10 PM.

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