Zen in the Five-String Banjo

By The Reverend Pillsbury

Banjo at the Brick Kiln Dock. Crisfield, Maryland. Photo by author.

I drop into the chair in my office designated for practice sessions. There is nothing special about the chair or the corner of the room.

I pick up my banjo. The instrument is heavier than it looks. I had its neck carved from a single billet of maple. The banjo pot has what feels like pounds of nickel-plated brass to tighten its drum head. The extra weight makes the instrument difficult to lift with my arthritic hands. It’s the price of good tone.

Despite the weight of the banjo, I bring myself to proper playing posture. Back straight, banjo centered in my lap, and the fifth string peg close to my left ear.

I hated sitting this way as a student. Over forty years later, it feels like home.

I check the tuning, adjusting as necessary. The list of possible banjo tunings is endless, but not all are what I would call useful. Today, I will go with open G: gDGBD. The lower case indicates the short fifth string.

Now, I’m ready to start making music. I raise my right fist and punch my banjo strings.

At least, that’s how children describe the right-hand technique of frailing. Punching the banjo until music falls out.

In frailing banjo, we strike down on the strings with the middle fingernail of the right hand. We do this by moving the right forearm up and down. My wrist is still. Fingers do not flick.

Single notes and strums are accomplished by dropping the right fist out of the clear blue sky. The middle fingernail strikes a string. The arm brings the hand up again, and another drop to brush the nail across the strings. At the end of the strum, the thumb plucks the fifth string.

There are no upstrokes. There is nothing to help guide said fingernail to the proper string. Your hand falls out of the air like a baloney sandwich dropped from atop a skyscraper. Aim is impractical if not impossible. To paraphrase what Elizabeth Cotten once told me, you must have faith.

The dead drop of the right hand. Limiting the motion downward. It is all counterintuitive. The technique is simple enough to learn within a conversation. It is also complex enough to require a lifetime to attain mastery.

For now, the rhythm I play is simple. Warming up. A single strike followed by a brush and pluck of the fifth string. The pattern is a quarter note and two eighth notes.

As I become acclimated to the rhythm, I sing a song.

The song could be from any genre, tradition, or location. Every song you ever heard uses the same twelve notes. Musicians spice things up with endless rhythms and phrasings.

With that in mind, I belt out whatever pops into my head, adjusting the rhythm of the banjo to suit the song.

If the song is an instrumental, I hum the melody. Every so often I put my harmonica in a rack and play along.

Singing, by the way, is essential to mastering frailing banjo.

The voice creates a melodic sketch. I use that rough outline to play melody, rhythm, harmony, and percussion. Even instrumental solos.

None of this requires memorization. Frailing banjo is entirely improvisational. Like on the show, Whose Line Is It Anyway? Only good.

Heck, the last time I memorized a song, Ronald Reagan was still President.

I pause playing to grab my bottleneck. I slip it onto the little finger of my left hand.

My left hand goes into position at the banjo neck. Then I maneuver my entire left arm from the shoulder to the fingers for the best posture.

The steel strings of my banjo are light, and the action is low. I do not need strength to fret notes and chords.

I position my hand so that I can bring my fingers down on the strings like pistons. Not reaching or stretching. There is no effort. No G.I. Joe Kung Fu Grip.

The slide glides over the strings, making minimum contact. I control the bottleneck with my arm. Moving my little finger for vibrato.

When I am singing, the song is in a key signature. That key has an associated scale. The notes in the scale harmonize with chords. As I sing, I play these chords in what is called a progression.

When I was starting out, this was all confusing. Now, I don’t think about any of it as I work. Practice does not make perfection, but it does generate familiarity.

I am singing and backing up my voice with the rhythm and chord progression. The right and left hands are working independently.

Now, as I play and sing, I begin drawing out the flavor and texture of the song.

Scales and chord progressions are interrelated. I can mix in melody notes by moving a finger.

My right hand maintains a steady rhythm while playing with the phrasing of the song. Rests, moments of silence with a note value, and dotted notes, with an additional half of the original note’s value, make the melody notes stand out.

I do not think about either hand. I do not anticipate the next note or chord in the progression. In fact, at this point in the process, I could be a scarecrow.

Don’t laugh. As empty-headed as a scarecrow is, it still gets the job done.

The only thing I have in mind is the story told by the song.

My right hand will either hit or miss. The less I worry, the greater my accidental accuracy.

The left-hand shares equal freedom.

All this autonomy is fenced in by the rhythm. That stays consistent.

The song lyrics flow with no conscious effort. I know them or I don’t. Worrying won’t change that. Words to a song are poetry. If a word doesn’t come, I replace it with something that rhymes.

If I do not signal my mistakes to the audience, nobody will notice.

As the individual parts of the song come together, my thumb starts to hit the banjo head in rhythm.

Thwacking my thumb on the banjo head is not traditional. I am almost deaf. When I was a beginner, the thumb-thump helped me to maintain rhythm. It was a way to perform in situations where I could not hear myself. Now, it’s part of my sound. Oh, well. That’s how folk music works.

Voice, chord harmony, rhythm, and percussion. Now I add the magic ingredient. Mix in what the old-timers jokingly called banjo noise. Little riffs, licks, slides, and bent strings fill the song out. I take cues from the expression of my voice to raise or lower the volume of my instrument. Moving my right hand closer to or away from the bridge changes the tone of the banjo. I can also alter the tone by allowing my forearm to contact the banjo head.

The voice of a banjo is more dynamic than most folks think. It’s just a matter of putting in hours to develop the touch.

I sing the song.

I play the banjo.

The two separate actions come together. Intertwine. My voice leads the banjo through the song. My banjo supports the voice.

Every so often my foot taps in time, and every so often it doesn’t.

I sometimes watch my left hand at its task, but only as an observer. Any thought I put into the process would spoil the moment. Trying to make it work only stiffens the muscles and locks up the mind.

None of this is special. Treating it as such would only bind me up the same way as applying effort. I am a musician in the process of making music. No different or unique than a fish swimming or a bird in the air. The whole point of practicing for so many years was not to be perfect. It was to attain familiarity with the medium. That comfort allows the freedom I am experiencing right now.

The great thing is, when I pick up my banjo tomorrow, the song will come out differently. Every day brings new surprises and lessons.

The song ends. Time to kick off another song. The process starts all over again.

I hope it never ends.

My dad giving a youngster a banjo lesson on the Crisfield City Dock. Crisfield, Maryland.
My dad giving a banjo lesson on the Crisfield City Dock. Just like he taught me. Crisfield, Maryland.

If you would like to join me in this banjo meditation, this American Zen, my father and I have free resources to help you teach yourself.

Old-Time Banjo with Pat and Patrick

A free eight-part video workshop that will get you playing and singing in no time. You even get to jam with me and my Dear Old Dad.

The How and the Tao of Old-Time Banjo

My first book. Freely available under a Creative Commons license since 2005.

You can find more of our instructional material on YouTube and Patreon.

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