Frailing banjo is a musical discipline based in rhythm.
The right hand strikes down on one or more strings for a quarter note.
The strike, when possible, should be accomplished with the middle fingernail.
The motion of the strike comes from the forearm.
Your forearm should make minimal contact and pressure on the rim.
The thumb plucks the fifth string as either a rhythmic device to halve struck quarter notes into eighth notes or as the occasional single quarter note.
The rotating motion of the thumb plucking the fifth string also creates the opportunity to hit or brush the banjo head. This effect can be useful in some situations and overbearing in others. Control comes with practice.
While drop-thumb is a valid and sometimes useful technique, it should never be deployed at the expense of rhythmic drive.
Embellishments must flow naturally.
A desire to impress others will only make you self-conscious. Put the song and the audience above your ego.
Posture and fretting technique are essential skills that must be practiced with good form from the start. Your fingers should come straight down on fretted notes like a piston. Do not reach across the fretboard. Do not apply pressure with the thumb.
If it feels like the frailing rhythm and chord changes are impossible, give it a few days. You will feel better. Then give it a few more days, and you will be pulling your hair out again. There is no destination. There is no trophy or Standard Rich & Famous Contract at the other end of the rainbow. Growth comes from training, and that growth always leads to the discovery that you need more training. I have been pursuing this craft for most of my life. I find myself challenged and learning, sometimes the hard way, every day.
Practice does not make perfect. Practice makes familiar. Perfection is an illusion. Familiarity leads to fluency – the key to expressing yourself through your art.
Any idiot can rent Carnegie Hall. An accomplished frailer can make any venue or moment seem grand.
Musical literacy matters. To play with others, to express yourself, and as a representative of your discipline, you must be fluent in the language of music. The better you understand, the better you will be understood.
Teaching others is both vital to the longevity of our discipline and your own understanding of the craft. Once you can explain the art clearly to a child, free from jargon and presented in a way that both empowers and inspires, you will have attained mastery.
When playing, there should never be a Lady or the Tiger scenario when it comes to choosing between rhythm and melody. With practice, frailing allows the two to coexist as equals.
The rest is a moment of silence with a note value. Any part of the frailing motion can be played as a rest, as long the hand stays in motion to avoid falling out of rhythm.
A dotted note increases the duration by half of its original value. There is great power in this, so it bears thought and practice.
Banjos are loud. Learning to control the volume of your instrument through technique rather than mechanical means is essential.
Where you strike the string will have as much impact in the resulting volume and tone as how hard you hit. Do not lock your hand in one position. Use the entire string if necessary.
Initially, you should play simple rhythms while you sing. This serves as training in maintaining rhythm and chord progressions while training your ear. Your goal should be to sing and play without falling out of rhythm or timing to change chords. Failure to work on this will make future attempts at playing melody futile.
When learning songs from banjo tab, be aware this is a singular arrangement in an improvisational medium. It’s the equivalent of trying to match two Robin Williams stand-up comedy performances. He never did the same thing twice, and neither do frailing banjo players.
You cannot play from memory. Music is a flowing medium. You must accommodate yourself to it, like a leaf on a stream. Learn to maintain rhythm and composure through mistakes. Do not allow your egoist desire for perfection ruin the moment. Let go. Be free. If you are in rhythm, there are no mistakes, only opportunities.
Early fretless banjos led to a myriad of ways to tune the instrument. Be fearless in your explorations, but always be aware of the need for practicality and fluency. You can’t tune the banjo all over again for every song. You also cannot reasonably expect a jam or performance to stop for you to turn tuning pegs every time a key change comes along. Master one tuning, then use insights from that to guide your explorations.
Learn all aspects related to repair and maintenance of your instrument. Find old-timers to teach you skills like fashioning nuts from soup bones, installing skin heads, or even the old trick of making new heads from discarded drafting Mylar. Stuff breaks, sometimes onstage, be prepared for yourself and others.
Frailing is more than the banjo. Look for ways to carry what you understand of the banjo to other instruments and disciplines. Learn to use your voice so that you can entertain or comfort even without your instrument.
Fame comes from self-promotion, and true artists rarely have the funds for a publicist. Nothing onstage is real. Most of what you will read about or hear whispered about artists is just marketing. The masters are off on their own. Do not be a fan, be an artist. Go find the real teachers at jam sessions, bus terminals, and around campfires. This is what I did, and where you are likely to still find me.