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Learning to play the banjo--on a fretless

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Sep 16, 2020 - 11:07:55 AM
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jdl57

USA

10 posts since 8/31/2020

About a week ago, I walked into The Denver Folklore Center having never held a banjo before. I have been playing the guitar for 55 years now. I "played" all of the open back banjos they had, ranging from the Deering Goodtime to the Vega and Ome Wizard. The last one I played, mostly out of curiosity, was a Pisgah Possum fretless. The rest were banjos, more alike than you might expect (the Goodtime was especially impressive considering the price), but the fretless was fun. I have been playing for a whole week now, and so far, this is what I have discovered:

It's easier to find the correct notes than I thought it would be. I credit Tom Collins' videos for this. Perhaps it's 50+ years of muscle memory, but once you move your hand up 1/2 fret, the notes come naturally. This includes up to the 12th fret--if there was a 12th fret.

Cords are slightly more difficult, but not impossible. Bar cords, however, are unsatisfying. I get more plinks than notes. This may change as time goes by. It also means that changing key while in the middle of a song is effectively impossible. On the same note, I have noticed by watching fretless banjo videos, mostly Rhiannon Giddens, That most players are fretting only a few notes, and doing that repetitively, with lots of slides, mostly in the first position. I don't want to be restricted to that, we'll see what happens.

You can't tune by ear. I have spent my life tuning by comparing the 5th fretted note to the adjacent string. Not now.

You can use a capo. I have a Daves "Ultimate" guitar capo, which results in a pretty clear tone. I wasn't expecting this to work. For the fifth string, I bought a Strum Hollow capo. I actually bought this capo before buying the banjo. You can also change key by sliding the bridge up and down the head.

Frailing/clawhammer is more difficult than you might think. This is going to take some practice.

It sounds like a banjo. No frets, nylon strings, and a wooden tone ring. While it doesn't have the clear, sharp tone of a fretted steel string banjo, it would not be mistaken for anything but a banjo. I like the softer tone, a reason for buying it.

The modifications have already been set into motion. I've ordered a Menzies/Balch goat skin head, a few two footed 1800's style bridges, and an ebony tailpiece. These things are unnecessary, but what the heck.

I posted this because I could not find any of this information while shopping. The fretless is apparently a tiny niche among banjos. One of the guys in the shop even commented on buying a fretless as a first banjo. I wasn't sure if he thought I was brave or an idiot. I'm still not sure. The salesman I was working with told me that Pisgah tried to talk them out of ordering a fretless, as they sell so few. He said they try to keep one in stock all of the time.

Sep 16, 2020 - 1:59:53 PM
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Bill H

USA

1364 posts since 11/7/2010

The fretless banjo is not typically played for chordal accompaniment as you noted, but in old time style play where many different tunings are used to support melody there are often partial chords used. One or two finger positions that come up in tune after tune. 

Edited by - Bill H on 09/16/2020 14:01:31

Sep 16, 2020 - 2:07:05 PM

cevant

USA

37 posts since 2/5/2020

Cool. I also played guitar for 50 plus year before getting into clawhammer, and now I am having a fretless built by Steve over at Stonebanjo. I have never even touched a fretless, but I don't think it'll be too tough, and good to hear that you are having some success with the transition.

Sep 16, 2020 - 3:14:33 PM

2656 posts since 4/19/2008

you might like this one, listen to Pete play it on Youtube

banjohangout.org/tab/browse.as...l&v=20520

Sep 16, 2020 - 5:09:25 PM

997 posts since 1/9/2012

Maybe learn to tune using harmonics.

I can't recall barre chords on banjo. I've played (albeit not particularly well) for well over 50 years and guitar a bit longer). Yes, I barre and use my thumb on guitar, but I find four fingers are usually more than enough.

Sep 16, 2020 - 6:14:21 PM

jdl57

USA

10 posts since 8/31/2020

Harmonics work for the fourth and third strings only. Four fingers across the neck works for a fretted instrument, not so much for fretless. Any deviation from the correct position on the fingerboard and you are flat or sharp. It’s very difficult to do no matter how many fingers you use. It’s easiest with two.

Sep 18, 2020 - 1:30:32 AM
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4885 posts since 5/14/2007

Concerning chords and tone: You will find that clawhammer banjo players generally don't base their arrangements around chords to the same degree guitar players do. Big fat three or four string chords aren't part of most players' styles. I will sometimes do a two-string barré, but more often I'll use two fingers side-by-side.

If you want to brighten the tone a little, use the edge of your fingernail near the fingertip to press the string against the fingerboard. The nail is hard enough to give a sound close to that of a fret. I go back and forth between the nail and the fleshy tip, depending on the sound I want. People who play metal-stringed fretless banjos (traditional mountain banjos especially) do this all the time. They rarely finger chords.

Try not to fall into the trap of thinking the banjo is a guitar with a few differences. It isn't. It is a different beast altogether, and a lovely one.

Sep 18, 2020 - 10:38:37 AM

jdl57

USA

10 posts since 8/31/2020

I will have to admit, that my playing so far is very guitar centric, especially my right hand. I can do rolls, which I have tried with picks, but my nails work much better on nylon. Clawhammer is awkward. I'm still working on it. I know the nail trick, it works great for single notes. I have also found two fingers to work much better than trying a one finger barre, but if you want to anything with the rest of your fingers it is more difficult. My barres are getting better. There is no sustain, not surprising, you need frets for that but they are starting to sound like chords. A barred D at the fifth position is much easier to play than a D at second.

Because other people generally don't play a certain way, doesn't mean I can't try it. I wonder how many people told Bela Fleck (no, I am not comparing myself to him) he could not play any jazz besides Dixieland. One of the things that turned me off about banjo, is that every time I heard banjo music, it was Scruggs style bluegrass or Dixieland style strumming. I though it was a limited instrument. Bela Fleck has proved it is not limited at all. As a matter of fact, I find Flecks playing to be very much like that of a talented guitarist. I have been tending towards folk style, Pete Seeger perhaps. I'm putting out some pretty good music considering I have only been playing for a week. The guitar player in me will never go away.

Sep 18, 2020 - 10:46:35 AM

jdl57

USA

10 posts since 8/31/2020

One more thing I have noticed. When playing the fretless, I don't look at my left hand. It doesn't do any good anyway.

Sep 18, 2020 - 10:48:48 AM

tohorse

USA

96 posts since 1/31/2014

Have you tried melodic style, I may have it spelled wrong but give it a try , I don't play well but you can prob get this very well

Sep 18, 2020 - 10:57:57 AM

575 posts since 8/14/2018

quote:
Originally posted by jdl57

The fretless is apparently a tiny niche among banjos.


That's true now, though the banjo was originally a fretless instrument, and played in a downpicking style. But by the end of the 19th century, fretted banjos were pretty standard and fretless was fading out. They continue to be used, since they do provide a kind of playing experience, as you've found, that can't quite be duplicated on a fretted instrument.

Sep 18, 2020 - 11:28:08 AM
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1255 posts since 2/9/2007

I can do a full barre on a fretless-- IF it's got gut/nylon strings. I guess it's possible on steel strings, but I can't make it sound good enough to bother with (and my action is VERY low).

I can see guitar experience as somewhat complicating the task of beginning on a fretless. You're conditioned to think of chord changes and positions, and the real traditional banjo styles which grew on fretless instruments come out of a very different (W.African) musical mindset. You got the tuning of your open strings, a limited number of stopped notes (sometimes only one or two, and seldom more than one stopped at a time), and a basic picking pattern. You build riffs out of that, phrases out of the riffs, music out of the phrases.... the melody and harmony we tend to think of as central wind up being almost accidental byproducts of a style of expression which works more like a drummer's.

Sep 18, 2020 - 11:46:59 AM

jdl57

USA

10 posts since 8/31/2020

@Dan Gellert I have been playing daily and my barres have become much better. I do have nylon strings, I think Pisgah uses Nylgut. You are correct in the observation that my playing has been done around a chord pattern, but when playing in an open G, with a few stopped notes, that is exactly what you are doing. I have watched as many YouTube fretless videos I can find, and I cannot think of one where they slide up past the tuning peg. I don't know about their banjos, but mine has a scoop that starts at the phantom 17th fret. The higher you go the less clear the tone, but you can play up there. I intend to.

Sep 18, 2020 - 2:29:33 PM

5861 posts since 3/11/2006

Minstrel players did all sorts of complex stuff on period fretless banjos.
There is/are some minstrel sites around. If interested, you may want to
contact Tim Twiss who is a member here. Tim has dedicated himself to
early banjo music and could point you in some interesting directions. Also
Bobby Flesher, another BHO member is also a fount of information.  See:

http://drhorsehair.com/

Even if you're not interested in playing minstrel/stroke style,  there's lot's of good info there that every banjo player should be acquainted with.

Sep 18, 2020 - 4:43:32 PM

jdl57

USA

10 posts since 8/31/2020

@R. D. Lunceford

I'm not sure if I'm tagging correctly, I hope it goes through. Thanks for the links. I'm more of a minstrel player than I thought. In any case, it looks like I won't be playing for a while, as I was just playing and broke a string. I already have two sets on the way but the chance of finding a nylon banjo string locally is probably pretty slim.

Sep 18, 2020 - 9:39:33 PM

6 posts since 9/26/2019

Welcome to the wonderful world of Aquila strings.

Sep 20, 2020 - 8:11:57 AM

1255 posts since 2/9/2007

quote:
Originally posted by jdl57

@R. D. Lunceford

I'm not sure if I'm tagging correctly, I hope it goes through. Thanks for the links. I'm more of a minstrel player than I thought. In any case, it looks like I won't be playing for a while, as I was just playing and broke a string. I already have two sets on the way but the chance of finding a nylon banjo string locally is probably pretty slim.


nylon monofilament fishing line of roughly the same diameter will work quite tolerably well.   fluorocarbon leader is even better--  in some ways I actually prefer that over nylgut.

Edited by - Dan Gellert on 09/20/2020 08:12:36

Sep 20, 2020 - 12:19:15 PM

5861 posts since 3/11/2006

Classical guitar strings may be an option and hopefully available at a music store near you.

Sep 20, 2020 - 12:40:38 PM

jdl57

USA

10 posts since 8/31/2020

I do have classical guitar strings, I'll have to check the E string gauge. I like the fishing line suggestion, but all of my monofiliment is 4 pound test. According to the post office tracking, if that can be trusted, I should have two new sets of strings tomorrow, along with my two footed bridges. Meanwhile, and I shouldn't admit this, I have an old resonator guitar that I converted into a pseudo banjo by removing the A string, replacing it with a wire string, and tuning it to open G. I actually did this before buying my banjo, and now that I have the fifth string capo, the fifth string is up an octave.

The banjo was made in April, I assume they are the original strings. Can I expect to replace strings that often? I did read somewhere three months is a good interval. I've played this thing everyday since I bought it, and I am actually going through withdrawal having it sidelined. I didn't realize it would be so much fun to play.

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