Mike Moxcey ©2005

The Basic Frail Stroke

This is written with tab for the 5-string banjo in G-tuning. If you're tuned some other way or are using some other instrument (this works very well on ukuleles and fairly well on guitars), then just pay attention to the words and actions and ignore the tablature.

The basic frail stroke sounds like a "boom shaka".

What you do is brush down across one or more strings with a fingernail for the "sha-" part

and then pluck the fifth string with the thumb for the "-ka" sound.

But it's a little trickier than that. Not much, just a bit.

You don't actually pluck the fifth string with your thumb. The thumb is merely cocked and rests on the string at the end of the brush. Then you twist your wrist the other way to pluck the string.


The whole hand moves.

Cocking the Thumb—The Shaka Part

To get ready for frailing, pretend you've got water on your fingers and you want to shake it off.

The action is all in the wrist. The fingers and thumb don't do very much at all.

  1. Put your left hand up like you're hitch hiking: thumb kind of perpendicular to the palm and all the fingers curled in a little bit.
  2. Drop your hand across the strings, strumming them with the fingernail of the Index or Middle finger. Your hand will kind of twist the thumb in toward the strings.
  3. Stop with your thumb resting on the fifth string, maybe a little behind it.
  4. Twist your wrist the other way to pull the thumb away from the banjo, but bear down with the thumb just a little to get a nice pluck.

Practice that over and over until the brush and the thumb pluck sound distinct from each other.

The major problem many people have at this stage is that they strum down across all the strings and then just trail the thumb after. They don't put the wrist-twist in at all.

Another problem many folks have is that they move their thumb as if they were finger-picking or thumb-wrestling with someone. Everything is in the wrist. The fingers and thumbs stay cocked in the hitchhiking position.

Here is the basic Shaka in tab:         

The first note is the brush on the 1st string and the 2nd note is the thumb uncocking itself from the 5th string.
The brush can be across more than one string in which case it might look like one of these:

A Full Frail—Boom Shaka

Now that you've gotten the basic brush stroke down, the "shaka" part, you just need to add the melody note. That's easy. Keep your hand in the hitchhiking position and just brush down but only hit one string with the nail of your Index finger.

To begin, aim for the string lowest to the ground, the 1st string.

After you hit that one string, raise your hand and do the brush stroke.

You should have a "boom shaka" sound. Each down stroke of the hand takes as long as any other down stroke, but some of them sound one note (boom), and some will sound two (shaka).

Here is what it looks like in tab.
The first example is where the “brush” is just across one string, in the second it is a brush across three strings:

Practice the boom-shaka over and over.

Once you get a sound you like, try hitting other strings for the initial "boom" note.

About the only problem here is people forget how to do the brush stroke correctly and just strum down across all the strings or try plucking with the thumb. Some folks even try plucking down (or out) with the finger.


It's all in the wrist.

Which Finger Should I Use?

I've seen different people use different fingers. Most people use the Index or Middle finger, but you can use the Ring finger. Some people even alternate, using the Index or Middle for the lead (boom) note and a different finger for the strum of the "shaka" part.

My recommendation is to use the finger(s) with the strongest nail. You'll get the best sound and your finger will last longer.

The nail will still wear out if you play for hours on steel strings.

You can put nylon strings on the banjo. It's quieter which is bad at jam sessions but good at home.

You can use nail hardeners or even have false nails put on. Most professionals do this. It gives a lot of punch to the sound although it doesn't seem very manly.

You can use fingerpicks. Some people really like them although some old-timers say it ain't natural. I don't use fingerpicks because I never got used to them although I might put some effort into it if I played a lot more. It took quite a while for me to get used to bluegrass style fingerpicks (where you pick up with the fingers) so I imagine if you have thin fingernails or would just like to try picks, doing it early in the game before you establish habits would be a good idea.

The Basic Frail Modifying the Boom-Shaka LeftHand Special Effects Playing with Special Effects
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