(Above photo courtesy of Rhiannon Giddens)
If you’re somewhat new to banjo, one thing you may have noticed is how many different types of banjos are actually out there. Banjos with resonators, open-back banjos, 4-string banjos, banjos with ridiculously long necks (known as plectrum banjos). You may have also noticed another type of banjo – one with a particularly odd feature that sets it apart from all other banjos. No, not a banjo uke (which is actually a ukulele with the body of a banjo)…
…It’s a fretless banjo. (And, just in case you were wondering, frets are the metal strips inserted into the fingerboard of a stringed instrument.)
This distinctive, somewhat rarer member of the banjo family is actually a throwback to the banjos of the early 19th century, a time when the instrument was a staple among African American slaves in the antebellum South. The great news is that the fretless banjo has been making a comeback over the last decade, with artists like Rhiannon Giddens and Adam Hurt helping to re-establish the instrument as a driving force in old-time music.
So why play a fretless banjo? Well, if you’re a clawhammer player and yearn for that authentic 19th century banjo sound, it’s something you might want to consider.
Fretless banjos are typically played with nylon strings. Unlike metal strings, nylon strings have almost no sustain. This gives the fretless banjo a warmer, earthier tone than a banjo with metal strings.
Coming from a fretted banjo, one might initially feel a little more constrained on a fretless – all the landmarks that we’ve come to rely on when playing a fretted banjo are gone. According to fretless banjo picker Tom Collins, “You really hurt yourself if you look at that fretboard and try to imagine frets. You have to trust your own physiology, and the good design of the banjo and take a leap of faith.”
Unlike fretted banjos, fretless banjos enable the picker to alter the pitch of a given note with the slightest twist of their fingertip. Many times this can be inadvertent, making the note sharper or flatter than the one you’ve intended. You’ll make it easier on yourself, though, if you don’t focus too much on that but just try to get as close to the note as possible. That’s the fun of playing fretless banjo – the notes that you’re making with your left hand will always sound a little weird. It’s what gives the fretless banjo its distinctive old-timey sound.
Just remember – on a fretless banjo, slides on the fingerboard are far more prevalent than on a fretted banjo. Just listen to a song played on a fretless banjo – you’ll notice slides EVERYWHERE! I like to think of slides as the fretless banjo’s secret weapon. They’re the dominant force that gives the instrument its power, vibrancy, and most of all (if you’ll pardon the expression) its “pizzazz”.