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-- Back to Table of Contents - Strategies for Mastering the Art of Old Time Banjo
Playing the Five String Banjo

The Frailing Strum

Now we are going to discuss the heart and soul of old time banjo: the frailing strum.

You should already be familiar with this technique, but just in case I will kick off this chapter with a brief walkthrough of the basics. For a more thorough lesson on this and other frailing techniques pick up a copy of "The How and the Tao of Old Time Banjo".

The Basic Technique

The frailing strum is a down-picking technique where you play the first four strings of the banjo with the back of your middle fingernail while playing the fifth string with your thumb. This is used to create a quarter note/two eighth note rhythm pattern.

Dear Old Dad demonstratesproper picking posture You can teach yourself the proper picking hand posture for this by following a series of simple steps.

Hold your banjo in your lap with the pot flat against your stomach Use a strap to support your banjo neck. 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.

Hold out your picking hand and make a fist. Now stick out your index finger and thumb. The middle finger should be slightly extended and your ring and little fingers should lightly touch your palm.

Put your thumb on the banjo head so that you are just a little bit shy of touching the rim with the tip of your thumb. The pad of your thumb should be against the fifth string. Rest your middle fingernail on the first string.

With your thumb remaining on the fifth string roll your arm so that you raise your middle finger off the first string. Then drop that middle fingernail down to strike the first string. The movement here is from your arm. Your wrist should not be moving.

After you strike the first string roll your arm back so that your middle finger is directly above the third or fourth string. Now strum down across the strings. Once again, the motion is coming from your arm. Keep your thumb in place.

After you extend your hand for the strum you will notice 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 to its place on the fifth string in a continuous motion.

frailing strum diagram

The most important factor in this technique is that your forearm is controlling most of the motion. You should not move your picking finger. There is hardly any wrist motion.

When you strike the first string your fingernail should be coming down on the string like a piano hammer. You are not picking across the string, you are striking down on it.

When you play the strum do not open up your hand or flick your fingers. The only thing you have to do is roll your forearm so that you drive your fingernail across the strings. Because we are using the thumb as a sort of pivot point the strum will not be directly across the strings but rather at a slight downward angle.

It sometimes helps to maintain the rhythm of the strum if you give each part a label. Let's call the pick "bump", the strum "dit" and the thumb rolling off the fifth string "ty".

Now tap out the rhythm of the strum with your foot:

  • On the "bump" tap your foot.
  • Bring your foot back up.
  • As you tap your foot again do your strum for the "dit".
  • As your foot is coming back up roll your thumb off of the fifth string for the "ty".


In music everything from the notes you play to the rests where you don't play anything has a time value attached to it. That time value is defined as rhythm. Without rhythm the notes would have no context and everything would just come out like noise.

We break music up into measures with a specific number of beats. A beat is the term we use to describe the pulse of the music. The number of beats in a measure is dictated by the time signature.

The time signature tells us how many beats are played in a measure or group of measures. A time signature like 4/4 indicates that we will play four beats to a measure (4/) and that each beat will have the value of a quarter note (/4).

If the time signature was 3/4 it would indicate three beats to a measure (3/) and that each beat will have the value of a quarter note (/4).

6/8 indicates that each measure will have six beats (6/) and that each beat will have the value of an eighth note (/8).

whole note A whole note is just that, a note that is counted for the whole value of the measure.

half note A half note has one half the time value of a whole note.

quarter note A quarter note has one half the time value of a half note.

eighth note An eighth note has one half the time value of a quarter note.

When you were tapping your foot and strumming the "bump dit-ty" rhythm you were playing one half of a measure in 4/4 time. To complete a measure in 4/4 time we would have to play two consecutive "bump dit-ty" strums.

bump dit-ty in notation

Another way to count the "bump dit-ty" is "one two and". Playing a full measure in this fashion would result in the count "one two and three four and". Because the eighth note is only half of a beat we count on the downbeat (when you tap your foot) and say "and" on the upbeat (when your foot comes up).

The next step is to apply this rhythmic concept to the frailing strum. Because the "bump" is a quarter note and the "dit" and the "ty" are eighth notes the "dit and "ty" must be held for exactly half of the time value of the "bump". This is easier to grasp if you remember to always tap your foot.


In order to illustrate the examples in this chapter I will have to introduce you to something called tablature. Tablature, or 'tab' for short, is just a way of writing the mechanics of a song or lick down.

You have five lines. Each line represents a string on your banjo. The fifth string is at the bottom and the first string is on top. When any string has a zero you play that string open. The numbers on a string tell you what fret to play.

Here is the frailing strum we have been working on in tablature:

bump dit-ty in tab

Practice Patterns

It is going to take you a good bit of time to "get" the technique of the "bump dit-ty" strum. Our old friend and picking buddy Paul Schoenwetter used to say that it takes about five hundred hours to become a solid frailer. Whether those hours take months or years is up to you.

Working on some practice patterns will go a long way towards helping you master this technique. On the next page I have tabbed out a handful of simple variations of the frailing strum for you to add to your practice routine.

Don't blow this off as "too basic". After more than twenty years of picking I still go back and run through these at least once a week to keep my right hand discipline in shape.

Example One:

example one

In this pattern we are playing a frailing strum on each string in succession. Hitting the first string is easy, but hitting the second, third and fourth strings with consistency will require some practice.

One thing that might make it easier is to remember that your wrist isn't moving to hit the inside strings. To find those strings just roll your forearm until the string you want to play is right under your middle fingernail. Remember to keep your thumb on the fifth string. You will notice that the webbing between your thumb and index finger opens and closes as your hand moves over the strings.

Once you get this one down cold try reversing the pattern so that you start on the fourth and end at the first.

Example Two:

example two

This is basically the same idea as the first pattern, but this time we are focusing on alternating from the first to the fourth string.

Spend some time with this one because you will be using this pattern quite a bit later on.

Example Three:

example two

Here we are working on alternating between the inside and outside strings.

Example Four:

example three

This is, without a doubt, the single most important practice run in this chapter. Maybe even in the entire book.

This pattern of alternating from the third to the fourth string is going to wind up being your "fall-back" position for backup techniques later on so spend some quality time working on it now.

Practice these right hand patterns until you can do them almost by reflex before you start experimenting with chords.


The first step to forming cords is to make sure that you are holding your banjo in the manner described at the beginning of this chapter. This isn't just a matter of formality. Keeping the neck with the fifth string peg "in your ear" makes the job easier for both of your hands because the fretboard is easily accessible and the strings are at an angle that makes the frailing strum easier to control.

We will use chord diagrams to illustrate the chord forms. The diagrams show the first four strings of your banjo neck and the first four frets. The strings are numbered 4-3-2-1, left to right, with 1 being your first string. The "0" symbols on top of the diagram tell you to play that string open. The black dots tell you where to put your fingers.

Some standard chord forms for the keys of G and C are diagrammed below.

chord diagrams

Spend some time just changing chords at random while playing the frailing strum. Listen closely to make sure each string is sounding clearly. If a string is muted or buzzing adjust your hand position until all four strings are ringing clearly. The critical thing to practice here is keeping the rhythm steady while changing chords. You may have to start out practicing the two motions individually. You could practice just changing from G to D or C to F over and over again without playing the frailing strum and slowly add in the right hand rhythm.

Once you can make a few chords clearly start experimenting with chord changes. An easy way to get started with this is to come up with some picking patterns like we used in the last section and experiment with changing chords.

This isn't a matter of playing a melody. What we are doing here is training the left and right hands to act independently. The first few times you go to make a chord change you are going to have to stop and think about where your fingers go. The goal here is getting to the point where you think, "make a C chord" and your fingers automatically drop on the proper strings. It's not impossible. It just takes practice.

Let's look at a couple of chord change exercises.

Example One:

ex 1

In this example we are playing a measure of G and a measure of C. Play this over and over again until the chord change can be performed without hesitating.

Example Two:

ex 2

This is basically the same as the first example except that we are changing from G to D7.

Example Three:

ex 3

Changing from a C to an F chord can be tricky because making a full F chord requires using your little finger. This one will require dedicated practice to make the change smoothly.

Example Four:


In this example we are playing half-measures. Measure one goes from G to C. Measure two switches from G to D7.

Example Five:

ex 5

Be sure to add some minor chords into your exercises.

Example Six:

ex 6

In this last example we are changing the chord on each "bump". Experiment with different cord combinations and come up with some of your own exercises. Once you can change chords while keeping a steady rhythm we can take a look at playing a couple of songs.

Playing and Singing

Let's look at what we've done up to this point. We have looked at the basics of the frailing strum, rhythm in 4/4 time, forming chords and changing chords. Up to now we have practiced each of these things individually and blended one or two items together for some exercises. Now we are going to put it all together and add your voice into the mix.

Let's break a song into its basic framework. For our first example we'll look at the old fiddle tune "Cripple Creek".

"Cripple Creek" is a song in 4/4 time. For this example we are going to play it in G.

We are not going to play the melody right now. What we are focusing on here is keeping a steady frailing strum (rhythm) along with the chord progression in order to create a back up for your voice.

Cripple Creek 4/4 Time Key of G

cripple creek tab

All we are doing here is playing a simple frailing strum along with a chord progression while singing the lyrics.

That's easy to say , but in practice this can be a real challenge because your frailing strum, rhythm, chord changes and singing have to be right on the money. There is no time to think about what you are doing or to remember anything.

That's why the basic skills we looked at earlier are so important. If you put the effort into getting the frailing strum down and keeping a steady rhythm through the chord changes you can look at this tab for "Cripple Creek" and start playing and singing without a lot of fuss.

And right about now the odds are pretty good that you are saying to yourself, "But I can't sing!"

Yeah, you can sing. Anybody with a voice can sing. The trick is to relax and actually allow yourself to sing. Most of the problems that people have with singing revolve around the fact that they get so uptight about what people might think that they tense up. Once that happens they can't even play so singing goes out the window.

Just sing. You won't sound like a professional vocalist at first, but that's because you haven't had a lot of time to work with your voice just yet. It's like anything else, the more you do it the better you get at it.

The plus side to singing is that you can't really think and sing at the same time. Singing will force you to start listening and interacting with the flow of the music instead of trying to remember what note to hit. This is the first step to improvising.

Let's look at another tune. "Little Maggie" is a bluegrass and old time favorite that's a lot of fun to play and sing.

Little Maggie 4/4 Time Key of G

little maggie tab

The first time I seen little Maggie She was sitting by the banks of the sea. Had a forty-five strapped 'round her shoulder and a banjo on her knee. Now she's marching to the station with a suitcase in her hand. She's going for to leave me She is bound for some distant land.

Now compare the tab for Little Maggie To Cripple Creek. You will see that we are just playing the same picking pattern to a new chord progression.

Now think about this for a second. We have two completely different songs but when we break them down into a simple back up pattern we find that they share a basic structure. If you pick up a book of folk, bluegrass or old time songs you will find that this approach will work for a pretty wide range of tunes in 4/4 time. All you have to do is play the chord progression along with an appropriate picking pattern and you're good to go. In fact, if all you ever learn is how to change a few chords and play a simple rhythm you can sing thousands of songs.

Understanding this, "seeing" this, is essential if you want to jam, learn songs or improvise. Get a songbook and start experimenting.

I know, I know. Right now you're thinking, "What about the melody?" Well, melody is important, but it's actually the last thing you want to worry about right now.

A lot of people make the mistake of trying to learn songs by memorizing the melody. As we discussed earlier in regards to changing chords you don't have time to stop and remember anything when you are playing a song. Now, if there isn't time to think about how to make a chord then how could there be enough time to remember every note in the entire song?

In the next chapter we are going to explore the building blocks of music and look at ways we can blend them with our basic frailing skills. Until then, spend some time working on the basics. Then kick back and play rhythm while you sing a few tunes.

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