Slide Banjo: An Old Trick, A New Direction

Paul the Beatnik, one of my early musical mentors, was pals with Dave Van Ronk. Because of this, Jelly Roll Morton and blues guitar came up often in our banjo discussions. While Paul taught me Jelly Roll’s Sweet Substitute and some early banjo tunes with a blues flavor, frailing the blues was viewed as an El Dorado.

He felt the same way about frailing bluegrass and rock. My other advisers agreed.

Gus Cannon and Doc Walsh recorded a smattering of slide banjo tracks about a hundred years ago. They both used modified instruments. Gus played lap style and Doc raised the bridge with pennies. Slide banjo was usually as a novelty.

Gus Cannon

My father was a plant manager. When I started messing with slide banjo back in the 80s, he brought the logic of running complex processes profitably into our musical dojo. Modifying the banjo was, in his mind, impractical. If I was going to play slide and other music outside the frailing banjo genre, my technique should be strong enough to make anything work with the instrument in my hands. A slide solo on its own would just be a trick. To do it for real, my dad figured I should be able to play anything with a slide. Go deeper than just knowing a slide lick.

If that seems rigid, be aware that my father is the main reason I can play at all. He was Mickey to my Rocky. I have learning disabilities that made learning the language of music and rhythm almost impossible. I am the musician I am today because my dad was patient enough to coach me through impossible obstacles.

For example, while it is easier to retune from G to C to play some songs, my dad would say, “Nobody wants to sit in an audience and watch you retune.”

Think about that for a second. Being a musician is not about your ego. The job, like it or not, is performing. Entertaining. To accomplish that, you gotta flow, baby. No stopping and starting for the right moment, setting, or tools. Work with what you have because on stage or in a jam it’s FFD (Fight, Fornicate, or Die).

It wasn’t all rules, logic, and FFD. Dad did get me an OMI made dobro banjo to experiment with. It was an instrument apparently built for mimes because it was nearly silent.

The author and his dobro banjo in 1987.

I was so disappointed in the dobro banjo that I traded it for a fiddle. The fiddle was junk, so I gave it to the fiddler in The Sons of the Pioneers, who fixed it up and gave it to the music program for the Marshall, Texas high school.

Ken the fiddler was so happy with the donated instrument that he sent us a handmade pottery Texas iced tea set. He got so excited, in fact, that he forgot to pack anything around the fragile pitcher and cups. By the time it got to Crisfield, it was just a package of shards and pottery dust. It was nice dust, though. Can’t complain. Like I asked dad when the weirdly shifting package arrived at our doorstep, “How many people get broken crap from The Sons of the Pioneers?”

Anyway, when I published The How and the Tao of Folk Guitar, there was a discussion (and I am using that word generously) about slide banjo. I thought back to all the slide guitar players I followed around as a boy, and broke out my bottleneck. That led to my Frailing the Blues DVD.

Now that my hands are basically crippled from arthritis, my father’s advice concerning technique paid off. I have been able to use the slide to work around my new disability.

Playing slide with banjo is not a starting point. Before you even think about putting a slide on your finger, you must master the left and right-hand technique of the craft. Everything after that point should, if you have mastered the basics, reveal itself in your training.

Everything is the result of evolution. Knowledge and technique are cumulative in that understanding and fluency take time.

If you want to play slide, get good without it first.