Basic Frailing

Introduction
A few years ago I started messing around with the idea of putting together a plain-text introduction to frailing the five string banjo that I could use to answer the almost endless series of, how do I get started? posts on mailing lists and the Usenet.

Finding a way to explain the frailing stroke without pictures or sound files was a fun project to mess around with on rainy afternoons. After a while a couple of drafts started floating around the Internet. I decided that enough was enough and went on to other projects.

But some ideas take on a life of their own. I kept going back to the text file to tweak something. After a friend saw the file and asked if he could use it for an after school project he was involved with I wound up writing The How and the Tao of Old Time Banjo.

The How and the Tao of Old Time Banjo was (and is) a success, But the idea of a free document to introduce people to a way of making music that means a great deal to me wouldn’t get out of my head. So I sat down for one more Sunday afternoon of work and put the following document together.

This is by no means a compete overview of the art and craft of frailing the five string banjo. It’s just enough to get you started. Like any other art form old time banjo can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be. Dear old Dad covers things much more thoroughly in the Old Time Banjo workshop..

What This document covers is picking up a five-string banjo, tuning it up, learning the basic strum and playing a couple of songs. If you want to go beyond that you can pick up a copy of The How and the Tao of Old Time Banjo, or just do what I did and live with the basics for about twenty years.

That’s enough talking. Let’s pick.

Tuning

The first step is getting in tune.

The exercises in this document are played out of G tuning.

When you are tuning your banjo you should know how the strings are numbered. The short string is the fifth string. When you are holding your banjo the fifth string will be on top and the first sting will be closest to the floor.

Your banjo is tuned to an open G chord.

  • The fifth string is tuned to G.
  • The fourth string is tuned to D.
  • The third string is tuned to G.
  • The second string is tuned to B.
  • The first string is tuned to D.

Be sure to have the string ringing when you crank on your tuning pegs. This helps you avoid tightening the string past its breaking point.

To tune your banjo without a tuner just follow these steps:

  • Assume that your first string is at least close to being in tune.
  • Play your second string at the third fret. Tune it up or down so that it matches the sound of the first string played open.
  • Play your third string at the fourth fret. Tune it up or down so that it matches the sound of the second string played open.
  • Play your fourth string at the fifth fret. Tune it up or down so that it matches the sound of the third string played open.
  • The fifth string played open should sound the same as the first string played at the fifth fret.

Basic Frailing

If we were face to face I could show you how to get this down in less than half and hour. But we’re not- and while text is a poor substitute for an in-person workshop this is the Internet and it’s free.

Let’s boogie.

Sit down with your banjo in a straight-backed chair that doesn’t have any arms. (I know, the sofa or the recliner is much more comfortable but for now go along with me on this).

Sit up straight.

I said sit up straight.

I know, it’s our natural inclination to slouch- it’s more comfortable and it looks cooler- but until you can do this in your sleep you want to add a dash of ritual and discipline into your practice time.

So like I said, sit up straight.

Hold your banjo in your lap with the pot (or resonator) is flat against your belly. Not off to the side, not on your knee. I’d also suggest using a strap while you do this so your hands are not

supporting the banjo.

Bring your banjo neck up so that the fifth peg is up by your ear. If you were facing a clock you’d want the neck up by 10 or 11.

With me so far?

For right now you left hand isn’t going to have too much to do. Support your banjo neck if you want, or feed yourself pizza while you practice your frailing stroke with the left. Chords come later, and then your left hand is going to hoping around all over the place. So for right now send that puppy off to Club Med or something.

Let’s put your right hand to work.

Stick your right arm our and make a fist.

Now stick out your index finger and thumb- just like when you were a kid playing cops and robbers you want that sort of ‘gun’ shape. Don’t clench your remaining three fingers to your palm but rather try to relax and keep everything kind of loosey-goosey. Tension just slows things down.

The middle finger should be a hair extended.

Look at your hand. You’ve got your thumb up, your index finger straight out, your middle finger loosely curled and the last two fingers lightly touching your palm.

I know- it looks kind of goofy.

You should see yourself with that banjo.

Now that you’ve got your hand into a rough frailing shape that that whole arraignment of fingers down to your banjo.

Put your thumb on your banjo head so that you are just a little but shy of touching the rim with the tip of your thumb. The pad of your thumb should be against the fifth string. (And this is where text kind of sucks for this- if you were here you’d see a sort of greasy spot where my thumb has been hitting over the years. And no, I’m not that much of a slob it happens to just about everybody’s banjo at some point)

Now rest your middle fingernail on the first string.

Allrighty. We’re almost there.

Take a look at your hand and where it’s at on the banjo. You’ll see that you can just raise it up a hair and drop that middle fingernail down to strike the first string. Do that.

Don’t flail around or open and close your hand or flick your fingers. Just use your thumb as a sort of pivot point to rear back (you won’t have to go very far) and swing in down to strike the string with your nail. Let the string pop off of the fingernail. Try it hard. Try it light. Try it in between and try it just right.

(Sorry had a Suess moment there. Shouldn’t happen anywhere . . .arrgh)

Once you get comfortable with the idea of just dropping your hand down to strike the first string try the same thing on your second, third and fourth. To hit those inside strings – well, look at your hand again. Your thumb is lying on the fifth string. If you close that webbing between your index finger and thumb you should see that you can swing you hand so that it’s over the string you want to hit.

We’re not talking big motion here. It’s just a hair this way and a hair that way. Don’t bee all stiff and rigid. Relax. Mess with it a while. You’ll drive everybody in the house nuts, but that’s why you wanted to play the banjo, right?

After the strike the next step is the strum.

Hit a string. Any string.

After you do that close the webbing between your thumb and index finger so that you hand comes back over the strings and your middle fingernail is over the third or fourth string.

While all of this is happening your thumb is staying in place.

Once you’ve reared back enough (and what that is is up to you but three strings is a safe bet) strike down across the strings with your middle fingernail.

So it’s pick, rear back, strum.

Do that a few times. Get used to it. Keep the thumb in place. As you pick and as you strum it’s a good idea to keep a sort of straight wrist. Your forearm is doing all of the work here using your thumb as a pivot point.

After you extend your hand for the strum you’ll see that your thumb is putting pressure on the fifth string. Roll your thumb off of the fifth string, bring it up to your hand and then drop it back in place on the fifth string. It’s sort of a rolling motion.

Once your thumb drops back (and you might get a nifty THUMP here and you might not- either way is cool) your hand swings your middle fingernail down (remember- there isn’t any finger motion here- it’s all in the forearm) on a a string (your choice) and the process starts over again.

Pick- Strum- Thumb.

Bump Dit- Ty.

A quarter note and two eighth notes.

In TAB it’s like this:

D---0-0-----------0-0-----|
B-----0-------------0-----|
G-----0-------------0-----|
D-----0-------------0-----|
G-------0-------------0---|

Reading TAB

TAB is a teaching tool. If you look at the snippet of tab above you’ll see the five strings of your banjo with the D or first-string on top and fifth or the short string on the bottom.

The numbers on the tab tell you what string to hit and on which fret to- you guessed it- fret the string.

The lines going down through the TAB are used to mark out measures .

A measure is a term used to describe how the rhythm of a song is laid out. The examples in this workshops are all in 4/4 time. 4/4 time is a rhythmic pattern where you are playing four beats to a measure. Without going into a lot of music theory (this is covered extensively in The how and the Tao of Old Time banjo ) you can think of 4/4 time as two bump dit-ty strums for each measure.

The example above is the basic strum in open G so all you have is zeros because there isn’t any fretting going on. For the same measure in C you’d get this:

D---2-2---2-2---|-|
B-----1-----1---|-|
G-----0-----0---|-|
D-----2-----2---|-|
G-------0-----0-|-|

Nothing to it, right?

One thing about the TAB used for this document: I used CSS to set the tab in a mono-spaced font. Without the CSS the TAB might be hard to read. You may want to copy this document and view it in a simple word processing program like Notepad with the font set to Courier-.)

I’m not a huge fan of TAB , but in a text setting it’s the only option. I’ll stick a few tunes at the end of this, but PLEASE keep in mind that this is a folk style and as such only really works when you play the song as YOU think it should sound, not how it’s written down!

Important:

A lot of the nitty gritty details of the stroke change from person to person. Our bodies all work in unique ways. I’ve got a buddy who adds this freaky little wrist flip after each downstroke. He can play very well so I figure there’s no real point in asking him about it. It works for him, what I do works for me.

You can use the index fingernail, and a lot of folks find it easier in the beginning (shoot I’ve been playing long enough that I can get pretty much the same sound with my pinky) but from what I’ve seen you can get a cleaner, and in some cases faster, attack with your middle fingernail. Try it for a while.

Another thing to keep in mind is that for the basic explanation of the frailing stroke I told you to keep your index finger straight out. I do this for the simple reason that it helps to keep that finger out of the way when you are just starting out. Once you get used to the motion your index finger will curl or straighten on it’s own (it really will) so don’t fret about it.

There’s also been a lot of debate about bending/not bending the thumb. The stroke described here works- the tip of the thumb playing the fifth technique works for others. Your best bet is to pick one now and stick to it. 99% of the problems most folks have with old time banjo is changing techniques and tunings over and over again.

Pick one, do it until the action becomes almost unconscious and worry about the unimportant stuff when you can play the banjo.

Chords

Let’s get a couple of chords down so we can get you playing a couple of tunes.

Creating a chord diagram is kind of tricky in plain text- so I just set up a tab for the first five frets on your banjo neck The numbers on the staff show you where to put your fingers to make the chord, and the recommended finger to use.

You already know one chord- open G- so there is no need for a G chord diagram.

C chord:
 D-------|--3---|-------|------|-----|
 B----1--|------|-------|------|-----|
 G-------|------|-------|------|-----|
 D-------|--2---|-------|------|-----|
 g-----------------------------|-----|
F chord:
 D-------|------|---3---|------|-----|
 B----1--|------|-------|------|-----|
 G-------|--2---|-------|------|-----|
 D-------|------|---3---|------|-----|
 g-----------------------------|-----|
D7 chord:
 D-------|------|-------|------|-----|
 B----1--|------|-------|------|-----|
 G-------|--2---|-------|------|-----|
 D-------|------|-------|------|-----|
 g-----------------------------|-----|

When you are making your chords keep in mind that you don’t have to press too hard. A lighter touch will also help you in the speed department down the road.

For hand position, draw an imaginary line down the back of your banjo neck and keep the ball of your thumb right about there. You’ll want to get a nice arch to your fingers so that you don’t hit two strings at the same time.

If your hand hurts stop. Walk away for an hour and come back.

There’s a lot more to chording- but this isn’t the time or place to cover that.

Mess with your chords. Try to get them sounding nice and clean.

Playing A Tune

Now, let’s play a tune.

Boil Them Cabbage Down is a neat old tune you can play using your C, F and open G chords. The song follows your basic strum all the way through. It’s a LOT easier to get if you sing while you play.

Let’s take a look at the TAB file:

Boil Them cabbage Down

C             F             C             G
D---2-2---2-2---|-3-3---3-3---|-2-2---2-2---|-0-0---0-0---|
B-----1-----1---|---1-----1---|---1-----1---|---0-----0---|
G-----0-----0---|---2-----2---|---0-----0---|---0-----0---|
D-----2-----2---|---3-----3---|---2-----2---|---0-----0---|
G-------0-----0-|-----0-----0-|-----0-----0-|-----0-----0-|
C             F             C     G       C
D---2-2---2-2---|-3-3---3-3---|-2-2---0-0---|---2-----2---|-|
B-----1-----1---|---1-----1---|---1-----0---|-1-1---1-1---|-|
G-----0-----0---|---2-----2---|---0-----0---|---0-----0---|-|
D-----2-----2---|---3-----3---|---2-----0---|---2-----2---|-|
G-------0-----0-|-----0-----0-|-----0-----0-|-----0-----0-|-|

The TAB is telling you to:

  • Play two bump dit-ty strums starting on the first string holding a C Chord.
  • Play two bump dit-ty strums starting on the first string holding an F Chord.
  • Play two bump dit-ty strums starting on the first string holding a C Chord.
  • Play two bump dit-ty strums starting on the first string holding a G Chord.
  • Play two bump dit-ty strums starting on the first string holding a C Chord.
  • Play two bump dit-ty strums starting on the first string holding an F Chord.
  • Play one bump dit-ty strum starting on the first string holding a C Chord.
  • Play one bump dit-ty strum starting on the first string holding a G Chord.
  • Play two bump dit-ty strums starting on the second string holding a C Chord.

That’s not too hard to do. Getting the rhythm smooth might be tricky at first but there isn’t all that much going on with this song. The tricky part comes when you start to sing along.

Playing and singing is a great thing to do because it makes even the most simple banjo tune sound pretty impressive. It can fell a little awkward at first- but that has more to do with being embarrassed about singing in public than anything going on with the banjo. My advice here is to just ask yourself something like, if I can’t stand having people look at me, why the hell am I playing the banjo? and then throw back your head and sing your heart out.

In order to play and sing Boil Them Cabbage Down you will want to break the lyrics up to fit the measures of the tune. That’s pretty hard to lay out in HTML without flooding the code with non-breaking-space symbols so we’re going to do this without using TAB .

I can hear you asking yourself, Without the TAB ? Surely, you must be joking.

No I’m not, and don’t call me Shirley.

Let’s take a look at the lyrics for Boil Them Cabbage Down .

Went up on a mountain to give my horn a blow
Thought I hear my true love say, “Yonder comes my beau!”

Now let’s break up the lyrics into measures.

Went up on a | mountain | to give my horn a | blow

Thought I heard my | true love say | yonder – comes my | beau!

So as you are playing your two bump dit-ty strums for the first measure you sing, Went up on a and sing, mountain as you are going into the F chord.

Take another look at the tab and see if you can work out the rest of the tune on your own.

Boil Them cabbage Down

C             F             C             G
D---2-2---2-2---|-3-3---3-3---|-2-2---2-2---|-0-0---0-0---|
B-----1-----1---|---1-----1---|---1-----1---|---0-----0---|
G-----0-----0---|---2-----2---|---0-----0---|---0-----0---|
D-----2-----2---|---3-----3---|---2-----2---|---0-----0---|
G-------0-----0-|-----0-----0-|-----0-----0-|-----0-----0-|
C             F             C     G       C
D---2-2---2-2---|-3-3---3-3---|-2-2---0-0---|---2-----2---|-|
B-----1-----1---|---1-----1---|---1-----0---|-1-1---1-1---|-|
G-----0-----0---|---2-----2---|---0-----0---|---0-----0---|-|
D-----2-----2---|---3-----3---|---2-----0---|---2-----2---|-|
G-------0-----0-|-----0-----0-|-----0-----0-|-----0-----0-|-|

Lyrics:

Went up on the mountain
Just to give my horn a blow.
Thought I heard my true love say,
Yonder comes my beau.

CHORUS:
Boil them cabbage down, down.
Turn them hoecakes down, down.
The only song that I can sing
Is boil them cabbage down.

Possum in a ‘simmon tree,
Raccoon on the ground.
Raccoon says, you son-of-a-gun,
Throw some ‘simmons down.

Someone stole my old coon dog,
Wish they’d bring him back.
He chased the big hogs through the fence
And the little ones through the crack.

Met a possum in the road,
Blind as he could be.
Jumped the fence and whipped my dog
And bristled up at me.

Butterfly he has wings of gold,
Firefly wings of flame.
Bedbug got no wings at all
but he gets there just the same.

After you have spent some time with Boil Them Cabbage Down you can give Cripple Creek a shot.

CRIPPLE CREEK

G           C    G       G          D7   G
D----5-5---5-0-|---2--0-0---|---0-------|-------0---|
B------0-------|-1------0---|-0-0-------|-------0---|
G------0-------|--------0---|---0---2-0-|-----0-0---|
D------0-------|--------0---|---0-------|-0-2---0---|
G--------0-----|----------0-|-----0-----|---------0-|
G           C    G       G          D7   G
D----5-5---5-0-|---2--0-0---|---0-------|-------0---|-|
B------0-------|-1------0---|-0-0-------|-------0---|-|
G------0-------|--------0---|---0---2-0-|-----0-0---|-|
D------0-------|--------0---|---0-------|-0-2---0---|-|
G--------0-----|----------0-|-----0-----|---------0-|-|
(chorus)
    G                                      D   G       
D------0-------|---0---0-0---|---0-------|-------0---|
B----0-0-------|-0-0-----0---|-0-0-------|-------0---|
G------0---2-0-|---0-----0---|---0---2-0-|-----0-0---|
D------0-------|---0-----0---|---0-------|-0-2---0---|
G--------0-----|-----0-----0-|-----0-----|---------0-|
G                                      D   G   
D------0-------|---0---0-0---|---0-------|-------0----|-|
B----0-0-------|-0-0-----0---|-0-0-------|-------0---*|-|
G------0---2-0-|---0-----0---|---0---2-0-|-----0-0---*|-|
D------0-------|---0-----0---|---0-------|-0-2---0----|-|
G--------0-----|-----0-----0-|-----0-----|---------0--|-|

Lyrics

I’ve got a gal at the head of the creek
Going to see her about the middle of the week

chorus going up cripple creek going in a run
Going up cripple creek to have some fun

Girls on cripple creek about half grown
Jump on a boy like a dog on a bone

That’s enough to keep you busy for a little while. As you get more comfortable with the bump dit-ty strum you can check out he other free workshops on the Funkyseagull web site .

Be patient. Don’t rush things. Give yourself time to get used to the basic skills and don’t every be afraid to give your own ideas a shot. It’s your banjo and it’s your music.

Patrick Costello
9/17/03

One thought on “Basic Frailing

  1. Hello Patrick and Dear Old Dad.
    I feel like I know you.

    I am an expat (U.S. Chef) in South Korea who has always loved the banjo (a family joke but never bought one).

    A few months ago a friend/bar owner had a resonator banjo that was very dirty and had been used to pay a bill was offered to me for 130.U.S. so I bought it (he threw in quite a bit of extras, gig bag, new bridge, etc). I cleaned it, replaced the bridge, new strings, etc and started learning bum dity claw hammer on about 60 different online sources. Banjo is not common in South Korea. I searched Seoul (the 5th larges city in the world) on several visits just to buy strings.

    My youtube searches were extensive, and I found a few that were helpful but find myself on yours most and do enjoy your instruction.

    There are so many posts it’s hard for me to organize myself and progress.

    Probably my own frustration now is that I’m at that stage where I can frail, count, hit the stings with pretty good accuracy, make the basic cords with minimal peeking. But I just sound like notes, not music. Rhythm is a struggle.

    I haven’t been able to add singing coordination.

    Anyway, many times I’ve seen you both say to just power on and it will come.

    I will believe you.

    But I thought I’d send you a note from Deajeon, South Korea.

    Matthew

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