Understanding Frailing Banjo

Going over my notes for my book in progress, it hit me that nobody has really broken down the craft of frailing banjo in terms of the skills required and a general order of progression.

There are not just talking points pulled out of the air. I was pushed, sometimes against my will, to learn these things. I have epilepsy. Getting onstage scared the crap out of me. Learning to sing with my hearing loss was brutally hard. None of this was easy for me. I did the work because it was required to play like the musicians who mentored me.

  • Posture, form, and setup
  • Right-hand basic skills
  • Left-hand basic skills
  • Rhythm
  • Naturalizing the left and right hand
  • Song structure
  • Basic teaching skills
  • Playing and singing
  • Basic showmanship
  • Backup
  • Jamming
  • Taking breaks at jams
  • Calling out chord progressions at jams
  • Basic songwriting
  • Basic musical literacy (keys, chord progressions, scales, and transposing)
  • Starting a jam
  • Working with lyrics
  • Understanding the fretboard
  • Basic repairs
  • Festival, theater, and broadcast work onstage and backstage
  • Basic public speaking, writing, and presentation skills
  • Instrument design
  • Improvising

This is not a checklist. If you approach it that way, you will not learn anything.

Mastering any one of these points can take months to years. Blending them into something that reflects your personality and gives voice to your emotions takes a lifetime. Forty years in and I’m still working on it. If some points seem unrelated to the banjo, like public speaking or working onstage and backstage, try thinking a bit deeper. All of this, even instrument design, flows together for a greater understanding of the craft.

When Tunes Sound The Same

A melody is simply an arrangement of notes, and there are only twelve of those to go around. Without harmony, some creative ornamentation, good tone, and technical skill, all you have is single notes floating up like fart bubbles in the bathtub.

Wait. That isn’t fair to bathtub farts.

If everything sounds the same, it’s the musician and not the music.

This begs the question, why do so many of my contemporaries not only sound alike, but also play from what seems to be the same list of tunes?

Back in the 70s and 80s, every jam we went to exposed us to new music. Most of the players I learned from were trying to take frailing into bluegrass, blues, and country. Paul the Beatnik used to frail the banjo alongside Dave Van Ronk. Rodger Sprung pushed me hard, and I mean hard, to, in his words, “Think like a musician instead of a banjo player.”

The current old-time banjo scene has nothing to do with the traditions I grew up in. It’s the fantasy football of folk music. I cannot tell you how awful it was to visit Old Fiddler’s Picnic in the early 2000s only to find most of the jam sessions were suddenly limited to a pre-chosen list of tunes. Not only that, but these morons also demanded that we retune for specific songs.

I guess in ten years, they will move the jam into the outhouse, so they can tell everybody how to pee.

Take it from somebody with a lifetime of experience and roots in the craft far deeper than I have ever let on: conformity in true folk music happens about as often as straight lines in nature. When everybody sounds the same, even in the Internet age, it is a sign that the tradition in question is bullshit.

The problem is banjo tab. Instead of learning the craft, people memorize tunes measure-by-measure like a failing student cramming for a final. As a result, they are incapable of not only improvising, but dynamics.

I don’t think in measures, and neither did my teachers. The stress was always on basic musicianship, but in a flowing, highly intuitive and internalized fashion.

For example, to learn the concept, I did work out a few scales formally. Thereafter, I was expected to search for the patterns. First within the chord shape and then beyond that to simply picking a fret and moving through the whole and half steps by feel while in the middle of a jam. Genres were simply rhythm and lick references. We played everything, improvising as we went along, calling out chords to the beginners, and clowning around. There was never time to remember the notes, tab, or anything else. If we forgot a lyric, just la-la it or make something up.

This is that fluency I spoke of in an earlier post. You can’t fake it, but oh how they try.

Broken Down But Still Running

We were all set for Songs for Sunday today. Unfortunately, my body had other plans. By showtime, I was too arthritic and postictal to be of any use.

For my entire life, in addition to the growing and aging we all experience, I have been adapting to my disabilities. More than once, like my current situation, new issues arise that force me to start all over again.

I am not complaining. While some aspects of my life are difficult, not many people are fortunate to have family and friends as I do.

That said, neuropathy, arthritis, and seizures are kicking my ass. I am always in pain. It keeps me awake until I have a seizure, and that can leave me a mess for days. I can’t walk or drive, leaving me with no way to get away and clear my head. It has been years since I have been to Brick Kiln on my own.

I can usually handle the pain, but seeing me in agony is hard on my folks. It doesn’t help that I can be a hard to be around when things get to a point where I am trying not to scream.

Over the next couple of weeks, Dear Old Dad and I will be working to get me a bit more productive on days when I am able to work. I will also be moving from the acoustic banjo to the electric, as it is easier on my hands.

To the folks asking things like why God would do this and whatnot, do not let your hearts be troubled. I am okay.

While it is a shock to go from being strong as I was to my current weakened state; perhaps I was too strong. Perhaps whatever comes next requires me to think before I throw a punch. I honestly don’t have an answer, but I have faith that this leads to something. So, I’ll keep going.

If you are willing to, please say a prayer for my folks. This can’t be easy on them.

I will get a video up during the week, as my hands allow, and post an update on Songs for Sunday and other projects soon.

God bless,

The New Book—Sneak Preview While In Progress

Zen in the Five-String Banjo or, What the uniquely American art of frailing banjo taught me about music, life, and love is well underway. As the title suggests, this is not your typical how-to book.

If pressed for a back-cover synopsis, I would write something like this:

If Hunter S. Thompson, Alan Watts, Winnie the Pooh, Rocky Balboa, and Charlie Poole were to collaborate on a book teaching the techniques and philosophy of frailing banjo, the resulting tome wouldn’t be half as wild as this.

I am known for celebrating the process over the final product. Rather than treat this admittedly odd work in process like Gollum guarding his Precious, I will be posting drafts as I write, Dear Old Dad edits, and I rewrite. Please, feedback of any kind is welcome.

Please don’t hesitate to share the file. The copyright notice on this draft is a nod to the 2003 draft of The How and the Tao of Old-Time Banjo.

As work continues, things will change. I will continue to post chapters and edits, if you are interested.

Oh, you may notice in this draft that I am reclaiming a teaching technique. Something that I had dropped after twenty-five years of relentless mocking from nitwits. The bump dit-ty is back, baby!

Essential Movies For Musicians: A Face In The Crowd (1957)

Movies about music and musicians are a tricky thing. Not many get it right.

This is understandable. The act of making music is such a mysterious and widely misunderstood discipline in popular culture. When you add in the addictive power of a mass audience and the egoist human foibles that both draw and repel us, it is understandable that we are often misrepresented in film.

A Face In The Crowd (1957) is the story of a singer who goes through a rags-to-riches story straight out of hell. Starting out in a jail cell that dredges up haunting memories of the dreadful Leadbelly newsreel, Andy Griffith plays a drunken lout who just happens to play the guitar, bray like a donkey, sing like a bird, and can weave just enough truth into his lies to become a populist worldwide sensation.

Seeing Griffith play one of the worst human beings to ever grace the screen is a shock. He chews scenery like a lawn mower, over-performs condescendingly to his audience, and transforms from kindly good ‘ole boy to a hateful monster as soon as he thinks the camera is off.

When people ask me why I don’t perform or get more into show-biz, I tell them to watch this movie. While some themes in the film have played out in recent news, almost all the backstage and marketing antics are things Dear Old Dad and I have seen played out, firsthand, in real life.