Zen in the Five-String Banjo or, What the uniquely American art of frailing banjo taught me about music, life, and love.

My next book, 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.

The first draft got knocked out quickly. Almost overnight. Rather than simply tossing the document into the currents of the Internet, I decided to finish the work properly.

The attached PDF file is a rough draft of the first few chapters, with changes and additional content. I still have to add images, chord diagrams, and some sort of layout for the finished work. Expect typos, and for the pages to get a bit of work before we publish. This is intended simply to give you a peek into a book as it is written and to give you the opportunity to share some feedback.

Seriously, feedback would be appreciated. Writing is still a fairly new skill for me. Please don’t hesitate to thrash my grammar or even the work itself. Just be sure to share insight into how you would address the issue. Ball-busting is fine, as long as it’s an educational wedgie.

You are welcome to share the file. I would love feedback from people not interested in banjo stuff. Maybe I can convert them.

I will continue uploading updated drafts for our Patreon sponsors and YouTube members. Your support will help me finish this, and the next project!

Essential Movies for Musicians: Frank (2014)

There are movies about musicians, there are movies about music, and then there is Frank (2014).

Frank wears a giant papier mâché head 24/7. He also is the musical and spiritual leader of a band called The Soronprfbs.

The main storyline revolves around Jon Burroughs, an aspirational songwriter. Jon joins The Soronprfbs at a crime scene. Their current keyboard player as just attempted to drown himself in the ocean.

At his first appearance with The Soronprfbs, everything goes wrong. In the brief and chaotic moment the band comes together, Jon’s desire for both fame and the secret to Franks’s seemingly boundless creativity consume him. Jon goes off with the band, and bonds with the mysterious masked Frank.

While it is a weird, occasionally profane, and violent film, Frank (2014) is not a comedy. It is also not a biopic of Frank Sidebottom.

Frank (2014) is about art, the creative mind, and a few other things.

Throughout the film, Jon tries in vain to not only to decipher why Frank wears a giant head, but how he can seemingly pull lyrics and melodies from thin air. Along the way, Jon uploads clandestine videos of The Soronprfbs’ unique practice sessions to YouTube.

Frank (2014) gave me more than a few being seen moments. I have been a bit of both Jon and Frank in my career. The questing pilgrim trying to earn a living through his craft and the mysterious artist who just wants to be invisible.

The cast is perfect. The offbeat script suits the strangeness of the tale perfectly. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays the theremin. The music is surreal but shockingly good and played by the cast.

I love this movie.

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.