Watch the Frailing online guitar lesson by Tony McManus from The Celtic Journeyman
Let’s talk about one other right hand technique that I use on guitar even though it originated elsewhere. This is pinched from Appalachian banjo- so it’s great to have some North American input into my interpretation of Celtic guitar.
I learned this technique from Martin Simpson- good friend and phenomenal guitar player and very generous with his knowledge. I opened a show for Martin 23 years ago in England and I was in awe of his dexterity and the emotion of his music and we became friends instantly and remain so.
He uses this technique so beautifully and I instantly wanted to know what was going on. There was this “thwack” in the middle of what he was playing and I wondered what was going on there. It’s a tricky thing to teach because it’s basically hidden. What is going on is THAT! So what is going on?
There’s your hand and there’s the finger involved- it’s your middle finger, your strongest digit. It starts nestled into the fleshy part of your hand, it fires out, hits the string and goes back. I have an image teaching this technique- you’ve all seen nature documentaries where you have a lizard sitting on a tree branch and there’s an insect inches away and the tongue shoots out and the insect is gone.That’s kind of what goes on with this- your finger fires out, hits the string and it’s not the tip of the nail, it’s the middle part and the tension of the string will get your finger out of the way. You don’t want to leave it there because you’ll kill the note.
When I practice this I combine it with hammer ons and pull offs and just play invented scales. Again, what you’re doing is imparting a huge amount of energy to the string and then you use the fact that your guitar will sustain to propel the music. So that’s frailing as I learned it from Mr Simpson.
Now, when I learn any technique I have to do it my own way. So as well as frailing with the middle finger, what happens when you frail with your third? Now, when you go back to the origins of this the old banjo player used all the fingers. Very often the instruments are tuned low and often fretless. If you’re not familiar with old time banjo playing I would recommend diving into it. The basic movement is thumb and nails. Then Martin narrowed that focus from 4 fingers to 1. Then I thought, what if I use my third finger. The third is a little bit weaker however it’s closer to the bridge so if you’re looking for that percussive thwack it doesn’t need to be as strong. And sometimes you don’t want it to be as strong as you can possibly do it- you want it to be musical. The third finger can be quite subtle. I can be quiet- you can even use it in the middle of a ballad just to articulate one note.
To recap: the second finger can be as loud as you like and it’ll just punch out certain notes. The third finger can be a little bit more subtle. And as with all of these techniques they are to be used in context, in combination with hammer ons and pull offs, as always use the sustain of the guitar to propel the music.
So that’s frailing with second and third fingers.