In this week's post I thought I'd give a few thoughts on fretless playing. It should be noted up front that while I love listening to fretless banjos, especially those of the deeply-plunky variety (e.g. Light and Hitch & the Flat Iron Stringband....), I consider myself merely a fretless hobbiest, and would likely never be comfortable going to a festival with only a fretless in tow. However, everyone's got room for more than one banjo in their world and I do have a couch-plunking fretless that I spend a lot of time with. Still, what follows is best characterized as an outsider's perspective on a couple of considerations about fretless playing:
1) Where do your fingers go?
Yes, I specifically mean the fingers of your left hand. The best way to figure this i out is by trial and error - therefore I wouldn't grab a fretless until you've sharpened your ear with frets for a few years; if your banjo rarely sounds out of tune and you rarely have to tweak the tuning between songs.....well, you've either got a magic banjo the likes of which I've never seen, or (more likely) your ear may not be quite "there" yet. However, if you consider yourself a tuning-tweaking fanatic, you're ready to dig the notes out of the void that is a de-fretted fingerboard. Option two is to "fake it till you make it" by getting a flush-fret banjo (one that has faux fret marks for guidance); absolutely no shame in this approach.
What I really wanted to point out here is the following, however: finger placement on a fretless necessarily differs from finger placement on a fretted banjo. This is for a very simple reason: on a fretted banjo, you place your fingers behind the frets (i.e. toward the headstock), while on a fretless banjo, you place your fingers where the frets would be; therefore you end up playing just a bit up the neck from where you would play. This is illustrated in Figure 1:
Figure 1 - Left hand finger positioning on a fretted (left) and fretless (right) banjo fingerboard on banjos with the same scale length.
I = index finger; M = middle finger; R = ring finger; P = pinky finger.
To me, the new role of "being" the frets, can affect scale-length considerations when buying a fretless, especially if you dutifully adhere to hand positions as I do (here). If you look at Figure 1, you'll notice that I've placed "fingers" right behind frets on the fretted neck. While this is the ideal position for buzz-free playing (as long as you don't push down too hard, which can make your notes go a bit sharp) you do have a bit of leeway here. For instance, using the same hand position, you could place your index finger right behind the 2nd fret, and your pinky finger right in front of the 4th fret as follows:
Figure 2 - How frets allow you to "shorten your reach." Using the finger positions on the left (with your index finger just behind the 2nd fret and your pinky just in front of the 4th fret), you can reach frets 2-5 with a shorter distance between each finger than normally necessary (optimal finger position is shown on the right).
While the fingering shown in Figure 2 may be a bit sloppy, that probably wouldn't matter in faster playing, and you've effectively shortened the reach your left hand has to cover between the 2nd and 5th frets. As you can imagine, this approach is not applicable on a fretless if you're interested in playing in tune; you always have to stretch that pinky out to get the right notes. Tiny changes in scale length can therefore make a huge difference in just how much stretching you have to do in fretless playing; I prefer slightly shorter scale lengths in a fretless banjo (24-25") than I do for a a fretted banjo. If you'd like to guess a scale length for a fretless, you can try playing by placing your fingers on top of the frets of your fretted banjo; you may find that your current scale length feels like a bit of a stretch. If so, try capo-ing until its comfortable; whatever scale length you end up feeling comfortable with is close to optimal for your hands in fretless playing.
2) Nylon/nylgut or steel strings?
You may have noticed that many people, even those who play steel strings on fretted banjo, prefer nylon/nylgut strings for fretless playing. There are a couple stated reasons for this. First off, some will point out that steel strings damage a wooden fingerboard over time, which may be true. This may explain some of the reasoning behind brass fingerboard overlays on fretless banjos (though they're also fun for sliding around the fingerboard). However, the biggest reason for my nylon/nlygut string preference on fretless is this: its just really hard to push plain steel strings down hard enough to make good contact with the fingerboard. More on this below:
When you're pressing down strings on a fretted banjo, you only have to press hard enough to get the string to touch the fret; for the most part, this isn't a big deal (in fact banjo players typically have a lot easier time of this than guitarists or mandolin players). The solid contact between the string and the fret provides a solid node to create the standing wave of string vibration (Physics!!) that is necessary for a crisp note (i.e. a non-warbly, non-muted note like one created on a fretted banjo). On a fretless banjo, a crisp note can only be created by pressing the strings all the way to the fingerboard, providing a hard surface against which to make a node in the absence of frets. This is typically not an issue for wound steel strings, which are nice and fat, making them pretty easy to press against the fingerboard. Thinner, unwound strings (particularly the 1st and 2nd strings) tend to get lost in the pad of my finger rather than laying flush against the fingerboard. Here's a bit of an illustration:
Figure 3 - Pressing strings to the fingerboard on a fretless banjo. Left - illustration showing a finger pressing a thick (either wound-steel or nylon/nylgut) all the way to the fretboard; though the string digs into the pad of the finger a bit, it still makes contact with the fingerboard. Right - similar illustration with a thinner string; notice that the string is not quite making contact with the fingerboard though the pad of the finger is touching the fingerboard.
Due to the mechanisms cartoonishly outlined above, I really can't get crisp notes out of 1st or 2nd steel strings of a fretless banjo without applying crazy amounts of pressure. My "fretted" notes on these strings therefore end up sounding muted in comparison to open strings or notes on the wound strings. In my experience, brass fingerboard overlays do not solve this problem. Lowering the nut (and therefore string action near the nut) can help a bit, but this solution ends up feeling a bit strange to me and I still have to apply more-than-normal pressure to get crisp notes (basically, the extra effort is to get the string out of my finger pad). Some people manage to play steel strung fretless without issue. Presumably they either: 1) don't mind the muted notes, 2) push really really hard with their left hand, 3) have bonier fingers than I do, 4) press with the fingertips rather than pads, or 5) grow out the nails on their left hand to provide a hard surface for the strings to push against. I've read about option #5 on banjo hangout; with all the fussing I do about my single right hand banjo nail, I find this last solution especially unappealing....
As hinted at above, I solve my muted note problem by using nylon/nylgut strings on fretless banjos. Since the strings are both fatter and stretchier than plain steel strings they don't get lost in the pad of my finger like steel strings do. I've noticed that many other people employ this option as well, and many of the fretless banjos that show up at Elderly arrive with nylon/nylgut strings in place. Out of the two options (nylon or nylgut), I guess I prefer the latter, though I haven't experimented that much to be honest; as an aside I've never tried real gut strings though I'm sure that there are some purists out there who swear by them. I do like that many nylgut sets come with unwound 4th strings - theres just something kind of fun about sliding around on a big fat string and its nice to have a 4th string that isn't tonally distinct from the rest of the set. My only caution (especially if you try out the "red" nylguts) is to bring strings up to tension very slowly (like over a matter of days); stretching them too quickly inevitably results in breakage.
3) When/how to slide?
Slides are what make playing fretless fun! So, when/how do you do them? Well, I've instinctually fallen into the following pattern: I only into quarter notes, and I pretty much always start my slides from a 1/2 step below the note. The slide effectively turns the quarter note into two 8th notes, the first of which is occupied by the slide. To demonstrate what I'm talking about, lets take the opening phrase of Spotted pony, which I've previously dissected ad nauseam (here).
Figure 4 - The A part Walkup to "Spotted Pony" with ghost notes as filler. Tab is meant to be played in double D tuning (aDADE).
Note that the hand position for the above tab is that shown in Figures 1 and 2. On a fretless banjo, we can spice up the A part walkup to "Spotted Pony" shown in Figure 4 by "sliding in" to the 2nd note of the phrase like this:
Figure 5 - The A part Walkup to "Spotted Pony" with an added slide.
When playing this phrase, reach back with your index to get the note on the 1st fret, then slide up to the second fret; no need to rush...it should take approximately 1/2 a beat to slide up to the 2nd fret. By playing this way, you end up "sliding in" to the correct hand position, which is handy : ) By sticking in 1/2 step slides, you also often end up hitting notes outside of the key a tune is in (like the D# in Figure 5). This definitely adds some flavor to a tune. While Figure 5 shows the addition of a flattened 2nd, its really fun to add flattened 3rds and 7ths in to a standard major/ionian tune for a bluesy feel (click here for my post on modes if you don't know what I'm talking about...).
In my opinion, this is a tasteful way to put slides into tunes without too much effort. However, this is obviously not the only way to slide around on a fretless - for example: you could slide down into notes; furthermore, slides could span a whole step or more, and last for a full beat or longer. Once you've started sliding around on a fretless, you may even be tempted to slide about on your fretted banjo as well : )
Hope that was interesting to someone other than myself : ) If you don't already have a fretless, you may consider adding one to your arsenal! I thought I'd end this post with a tune; here's me playing the 3 part G tune "Josio" on my nylgut strung fretless:
"Josio" played on a fretless banjo tuned in gDGDE (or maybe a relative tuning a few steps down).
Thanks for reading - see you next week!
For this week's blog I thought I'd talk about a right hand rhythmic technique that I've been doing for a while: its something I'm calling "The Big Brush" (...for lack of a better name). I don't remember consciously learning or applying this technique, it just kind of showed up in my playing more and more over the years.
What is the Big Brush
The Big Brush is likely easiest to define by comparison to the bum ditty rhythm:
Figure 1 - 4 measures of standard bum ditty on open strings (I've assumed that you're in double D tuning so that the 4th string is your "root note").
In regards to the pasta sauce that spilled on beat 1: I thought about rewriting the tab before scanning...but I just found it funnier to leave it on there : )
Many players (myself included) initially learned to play clawhammer by fitting simple melodies around the bum ditty rhythm; I'm guessing Figure 1 did not blow your mind : ). For good measure let's hear it:
Example 1 - Me playing the bum ditty rhythm (Figure 1) in double D tuning on my Buckeye.
Ignoring the 5th string pulls, the bum ditty essentially mimics the "boom chick" of a guitarist, with a root note played on the 1st and 3rd beats of a measure, and brushes played on the 2nd and 4th beats. The "Big Brush" that I've been referring to essentially slows down this pattern without slowing down your right hand. Check out Figure 2:
Figure 2 - "The Big Brush;" once again, this tab is meant to be played in double D tuning.
Here's audio of the above example:
Example 2 - Me playing "the Big Brush" (Figure 2) on my Buckeye.
As you can see/hear above, the Big Brush involves playing root notes on the 1st beat of each measure and doing brushes on the 3rd beat of each measure; beats 2 and 4 are left empty through the magic of "ghost notes" (more on ghost notes about halfway down the page here). I call this move "the Big Brush" because I usually put a lot of emphasis on the brushes here (much more emphasis than I put on brushes during standard "bum ditty" playing).
Once again, the object here is to cut the rhythmic feel of a tune in half while keeping your right hand moving as if you were playing standard "bum ditty banjo." The pattern of the thumb string pulls serves to maintain a connection to the tune's normal speed.
How/when do you use Big Brushes?
I find Big Brushes especially useful for slow tunes and as a back up to singing; I'll spare you my singing (you're welcome) and give you an example of how Big Brushes work in my go-to slow tune, "Coleman's March." Figure 3 is a simplified melody for the A part of "Coleman's March" without any filler (bum-ditty, Big Brush, or otherwise):
Figure 3 - The A part of "Coleman's March" without any filler.
Here's some audio:
Example 3 - A filler-free version of the A part of "Coleman's March" (Figure 3)
Looking at Figure 3, measures 1, 2, 4, and 8, are mostly empty (I thought about putting a bunch of rests in as filler....but I didn't). As clawhammer players, we'd like to keep our right hands moving and fill in these blanks with rhythm. Just for fun, here's an "extreme double thumbing" example of how to fill in these blanks (reminiscent of my "Yew Piney Mountain" post here):
Figure 4 - The A part of "Coleman's March" with constant ghost note/double thumbing as rhythmic filler. Melody part (from Figure 3) highlighted.
Example 4 - The A part of "Coleman's March" with constant ghost note/double thumbing as rhythmic filler (Figure 4) played on the Buckeye.
That was a bit of an aside; if I were going to do this again, I'd probably put thumb pulls in every possible hole in the melody to give the illusion of constant double thumbing. Anyways, I was supposed to be talking about the bum-ditty/Big Brush distinction, so let's get back on track by checking out Coleman's March with standard "bum ditty" filler:
Figure 5 - The A part of "Coleman's March" with "bum ditties" as rhythmic filler. Melody part (from Figure 3) is again highlighted.
Example 5 - The A part of "Coleman's March" with "bum ditties" as rhythmic filler (Figure 5) played on the Buckeye.
Example 5 sounds okay, but I feel like "bum ditties" stick out a bit against the melody; they just feel a bit formulaic, and perhaps excessively cluttery. Big Brushes to the rescue:
Figure 6 - The A part of "Coleman's March" with Big Brushes as filler.
Example 6 - The A part of "Coleman's March" with Big Brushes as filler (Figure 6) played on the Buckeye.
As I said, Big Brushes kind of naturally sneaked into my playing over the years, but I really do like the sound they provide on tunes like "Coleman's March." As usual, I can't claim to have invented this technique; its entirely possible I picked it up subconsciously from someone else's playing...still, I've definitely incorporated it into my playing style and it would take a lot of work to get it out now.
A final word on where to use Big Brushes: as shown in Figure 3, you need about a full empty measure per Big Brush, which can limit the applicability of this technique. However, I often find room for Big Brushes at the end of phrases (this is true in "Angeline the Baker" for example). Maybe you can find space for Big Brushes in your playing as well : )
I've had a couple weeks to noodle since adding a 6th (bass) string to El Hefe, my Pisgah-esque banjo build (posts on that here), and I thought I'd share what I've found so far in a click-baity "5 things you can do" format (....after all, this is the internet...). Without further ado, here are 5 things you can do with a 6th string banjo:
1) Play more fiddle tunes in their "standard" octave.
Before going further, I have to define what I mean by the "standard" octave. As an example: if you ask a fiddler to play "Cripple Creek" in the standard octave, their melody will start on the imaginary "5th fret" of the high E string of the fiddle. Similarly, a banjo player will start this tune on the 5th fret of the high E string of the banjo, but, due to tuning differences between the two instruments, the note on the banjo will sound 1 octave lower than that of the fiddle; as the banjo melody continues, it will continue to be one octave below the fiddle throughout. To me, this is the natural relationship between the two instruments: when banjos play 1 octave below a fiddle's standard melody, they are therefore playing in what I'm calling the "standard" octave; this is where I would find my default melody for a given fiddle tune, with low and high octave variations coming later. The exact range of the standard octave will, of course, vary by key so I'm going to avoid defining it further : )
However, the range of the 5 string banjo doesn't allow every tune to be played in the standard octave without running out of bass notes. I used the Clyde Davenport tune "5 miles from town" as an example of this a couple weeks back (here) but another example is "Dubuque," a fairly common D tune in these parts. To play the full melody in double D tuning, most 5 string players start on the open 3rd string and quickly run way up the neck, never touching the 4th string for the whole tune; I blame this tune for keeping my 10th fret dust free : ) However, with the addition of an extra bass string, my new 6 string allows me to play "Dubuque" right where it belongs:
"Dubuque" played in the banjo's standard octave on a 6 string banjo. I tried to go for that bouncy Dwight Diller feel....not sure I quite nailed it : )
You don't have to play every tune in the standard octave as I'm choosing to define it, but its certainly nice to have the option.
2) Join the fiddle in the low octave:
As mentioned in my low octave posts (here and here), I just love it when the fiddle "goes low" in the middle of a jam. In this situation, the banjo can either stay in the standard octave and sound in unison with the fiddle or try and go low as well. If you choose the latter option however, you're likely to find yourself running out of notes in the low octave for most tunes, though there are some filler options (again, here). But, the 6 string lets me play the low octave for most tunes in its entirety. As an example, here's a bit of "Angeline the Baker" in the low octave:
"Angeline the Baker" in the low octave on a 6 string banjo.
Still getting used to the low string...
The sound is obviously a lot like a cello banjo with one notable difference: cello banjos have "low octave" 5th strings as well. However, El Hefe's 5th string (really 6th string) remains in the standard octave. To me, this provides an interesting bit of contrast that you can't get out of a cello banjo.
3) "Complete the melody" on many standard octave tunes
(Kind of related to point 1 but) there are plenty of melodies that banjo players do play in the standard octave without being able to get every note. For many of these tunes, we've all settled on similar "filler" techniques for the phrases that go out of the range of the 5 string banjo. One example of what I'm talking about comes at the beginning of the the 3 part version of "Cumberland Gap" normally played in D. The fiddle starts the A part with a couple pickup notes that a 5 string banjo can't get in the standard octave....though a 6 string banjo has no problem:
2 versions of the A part of "Cumberland Gap."
Left: what 5 string players typically play in the standard octave; note that the banjo just sits on the open 4th string for the first couple beats since the lead in melody notes normally played by a fiddler are out of range. Right: a version of "Cumberland Gap" that uses the low 5th string of a 6 string banjo to play the melody notes that are missing from the version on the left.
Hear the difference?
4) Treat the 5th string like a 5th string : )
The long 5th string on a 6 string banjo, is typically tuned two octaves below the drone string (5th string on a 5 string, 6th string on a 6th string). The long 5th string is therefore interchangeable with the drone string at a moment's notice for a different sound. Here's a drone-string-heavy version of "Old Joe Clark" that drones on the long 5th string for kind of a cool feel:
The A part of "Old Joe Clark" played on the 6 string banjo, droning on the long 5th string (which is tuned 2 octaves below the 5th string of a 5 string banjo).
I don't normally do a lot of "double thumbing" so this short clip took me embarrassingly-long to get right....and I'm still not thrilled with how it came out (*sigh*). Moving on.
5) Put some random low "filler" notes into a tune.
Many tunes have a lot of melodic space to fill, which gives banjo players room to make some creative choices. There are a lot of space-filling techniques available to banjo players (bum-ditty's, double-thumbs, random hammer-ons/pull-offs) - below I pepper some on-beat bass notes into "Coleman's March" using El Hefe's added bass string:
Two versions of the A part of "Coleman's March" with low notes added in as filler. On the left is a standard octave version; on the right is an admittedly "schmaltzy" high octave version, in which the low notes provide even more contrast.
As you can tell, I'm having fun exploring 6 string territory....anyone else ready to buy one of their own yet? : )
If you've been reading this blog in recent weeks, you'll realize I'm on a bit of a "tinkering" kick; About a month ago, I wrote a post about adding a second tone ring to my Buckeye (here) and since then I've been slowly adding a 6th string to my other banjo, "El Hefe" (posts in order: here, here, and here). This week I thought I'd share one of my earliest success stories of instrument tinkering: converting an old classical guitar to a "Cello-banjitar."
What in the world is a Cello banjo?
Several years back Gold Tone introduced the CEB-5 model banjo, which was the first Cello banjo I'd ever heard of. As a recovering cellist, the "Cello Banjo" moniker caught my eye. However I soon realized that the Gold Tone CEB-5 has little to do with an actual cello; its simply a 5-string model tuned an octave below standard tunings (note: Gold Tone does make a 4 string model, the CEB-4, which is tuned like a cello and typically played with a pick). Since I spend a lot of time in the "low end" of my own banjos (here), a banjo that's all low end seemed right up my alley!
To be clear, though Gold Tone has re-popularized the cello banjo in recent years, there are historical roots to this instrument as well. In the late 1800's/early 1900's, banjos came in a variety of intended musical ranges including piccolo banjos (tuned an octave above standard banjos), banjeaurine's (tuned like a standard banjo capoed on the 5th fret), and cello banjos (once again, tuned an octave below standard). Just as today's orchestras contain string instruments of a variety of ranges (i.e. violins, violas, cellos and basses) the aforementioned banjo variants were meant to populate "banjo orchestras," which were actually quite popular in those years. When the popularity of banjo orchestras waned, cello banjos faded into obscurity as well.
How does one make a cello banjitar?
Essentially, one takes 5/6th of a standard set of classical guitar strings and places them in the "wrong" slots on a classical guitar. To explain: standard tuning for a guitar (from low to high with the numbers indicating octaves in relation to middle C, which is "C4") is "[E2][A2][D3][G3][B3][E4]" while a 5-string cello banjo in modal tuning would be tuned "[A3][E2][A2][D3][E3]." These tunings actually have 3 strings in common (those in bold above). In the end, I was able to get every note I need by using the strings that were already on my guitar. However....what about the 5th string? I certainly didn't want to drill a hole/install a tuner on the side of the guitar's neck. I landed on a pretty simple solution: use the current 2nd string as the new 5th string...and have it go all the way to the nut! Finally, we need 5 strings not 6 - one of the string slots would simply remain empty.
Therefore, you can turn a classical guitar into a cello banjitar (in A modal tuning) by swapping strings as follows:
1) put the 2nd string from a classical guitar set in the 5th string slot. Tune this string to A3, which is a full step below where it is normally tuned (B3)
2) put the 6th string from a classical guitar set in the 4th string slot. Tune this string to E2, which is the same note it is tuned to in standard guitar tuning.
3) put the 5th string from a classical guitar set in the 3th string slot. Tune this string to A2, which is the same note it is tuned to in standard guitar tuning.
4) put the 4th string from a classical guitar set in the 2rd string slot. Tune this string to D3, which is the same note it is tuned to in standard guitar tuning.
5) put the 3rd string from a classical guitar set in the 1st string slot. Tune this string to E3, which is 1.5 steps below where it is normally tuned (G3).
6) Leave the 6th string slot empty (you can also throw out the 1st string from your classical guitar set).
Doing this will give you a cello banjitar in low octave A modal tuning, with a 5th string that goes all the way to the nut (and, once again, an empty 6th string slot). I chose A modal tuning for this example because it shares the most notes in common with standard guitar tuning (making the above list simpler). Other standard cello banjo tunings (e.g. aDADE) will work equally well. As I play capo-less and use Old G for G tunes (here), I've never tuned the cello banjitar down to Open G (gDGBD), but you may consider starting with a "high tension" classical guitar set if you're going to spend a lot of time there.
So how does it sound?
In short - surprisingly good! The wood-topped guitar body gives a lot more sustain to the notes than a banjo body would, but this is actually quite pleasant with low notes played on nylon strings. I find that I naturally play a bit slower on the cello banjitar to combat notes bleeding into one another too much. Another tip (which I've also heard for cello banjos) is to play a bit closer to the bridge than you would on standard banjos for a bit more note definition. I've never tried the cello banjo with a fiddler but I bet it would work pretty well. My guess is that it lacks the cut/volume to carry in a larger group or jam however. All right, let's hear it:
The Hobart Smith tune "Last Chance" played on the cello banjitar.
I actually made this recording several years back and its interesting to go back and hear it once more. I probably got a bit overzealous with the "slappy" drop thumb (...I'm not playing bass in a funk band....) but hopefully it will give you an idea of how the thing sounds regardless : ) If you've got a classical guitar lying around I encourage you to make one of these up as well - it'd be pretty neat if there were two of these out there!
I've spent the last week or so getting to know the 6 string banjo: next week I plan on sharing some of my thoughts about what I've learned so far! Until then....
About this blog
I have lots of ideas about banjo playing and music in general - this blog allows me to get them all out of my head and see what you think.