Playing the Five String Banjo: Frailing Strum, Basic Technique

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 walk-through 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”.