How to Play Banjo Up the Neck, Cumberland Gap
Question Hi Ross, I have a question about playing the Cumberland Gap up the neck break. I'm having trouble with the pinky finger hitting the 11th fret, 2nd string right. Is there a pearl of wisdom for this? Or........
Anyhow, it sounds like KA KA when I do it!
BTW I LOVE the backup tapes! Very cool!
Answer from Ross Nickerson
One pearl of wisdom I normally suggest when helping students work through this common problem is to simply suggest that they start by leaving it out. Next option working up to it may be playing the 10th fret second string with the pinky, instead of an 11, the next slightly more difficult option is fretting the 11th fret with the pinky but not attempting to choke or bend the 2nd string until they are comfortable and have accomplished reaching out the 11th fret cleanly.
All of these options teach the student to get the flow of the lick and helps them feel the rhythm of the roll and the more important essence of the lick, which is to drive it. When Earl plays this break, it's not the 11th fret 2nd string with the pinky that catches the listener, it's that freight train of a right hand plowing through the roll in time, with a catchy rhythm. Seriously, when the right hand picking roll is executed properly, simply the 2nd string 8th fret sounds good and not that much different than inserting the Bb note on the 11th fret, 2nd string. The 11th fret is less important in the overall scheme of things. , specially if it sounds like KAKA, (been hanging around with the kids eh??)
The next step would be for me to give the student a left hand exercise to learn to stretch the pinky and strengthen it. Then, after they have learned to pick the lick properly with the simplified left hand positions, and have sufficiently developed their pinky coordination, then we can revisit the lick and put them both together. Resist the temptation of fudging over and over that lick, likely missing the roll and the pinky bend struggling to reach out there, that's painful on a lot of levels.
Again, this is an extremely common challenge, this Cumberland Gap break is very often introduced as the first up the neck Scruggs Style solo a student learns. In my experience most every student, if not all, I've worked with have had varying degrees of difficulty with the pinky finger bend on the 11th fret, 2nd string.
Another option I offer sometimes, and it works good too, is play the 11th fret, 2nd string choke licks occasionally, or to get started with them by fretting the 11th fret, 2nd string with the ring finger, and the 9th fret, 1st string with the index. Fingering it that way can get you a lot of leverage on that bend. You can fit position switch in easier by playing a 1/4 note just previous to it to give you time to move your hand. It's not cheating, especially if you can bend strongly and get leverage with the ring finger, if it sounds better, that's ok, right?? You'll likely use both methods as you progress, I do.
A Few More Tips
Don't hurt the pinky by overdoing it either, I've done that before, its not worth it, you'll get it eventually, ......stretch! and be patient!
This lick is a lot easier with a capo on, using a capo at the 2nd fret may be another good way of working up to it.
Don't sweat it if it isn't coming yet, you can live without it or work around it!
Thanks, I hope that is helpful to you, that advice can apply to a lot of trouble spots. Take care to continue to focus on picking these licks and songs strong and steady. If a left hand move is hurting the flow of your performance of the song, it may be best to simplify the left hand and get the tune driving. Then, separately, exercise and develop left hand ability by exercises that stretch fingers and make them cooperate better. This will put you in a better position to hit the lick or phrase later, and when you do, the rhythm and timing will be there waiting for you.
Cumberland Gap is one of the songs on my Rhythm and Backup play along CDs . Read more about them at this link.