Son House

Frailing is an old technique that can bring something new to your guitar playing regardless of the style of music you perform. It involves striking the strings with the nails of the picking hand, in down strokes. Playing a full chord by frailing is almost as easy — and similar in movement — to shooing a fly with your hand.

Frailing developed as a banjo technique, but as many of the country blues and Appalachian six-stringers recorded in the 1920s and ’30s knew, it can quickly and effectively be applied to guitar. Essentially, frailing is the concept of playing chords and individual strings with down strokes using the fingernail and fingernails to attack the strings. Although it’s part of the five-string banjo’s African tradition, the method appears in many American guitar recordings spanning the previous century, from Son House’s resonator beating “Death Letter,” first recorded in 1930, to contemporary tracks by Otis Taylor and Derek Trucks.

To get the popping, aggressive sound that frailing produces; you must strike the strings with the tips and shells of the fingernails. House’s “Death Letter,” in particular his 1965 recording for Columbia Records, provides a good blueprint of how percussive and searing chords and single notes can be with frailing. House also uses different degrees of downward force, from gentle to slashing, to make certain tones pop out, with and without his slide.

Let’s look at chords first. Even if you’re normally a plectrum user, you’ll find full-chord frailing easy. And if you palm your pick to frail occasionally it will add contrast to your arrangements.

In standard tuning, hold any barre chord. In open tuning, any fretted position will do. Frailing works best for barre chords and open-tuning chords, since it’s not terribly precise. When you’ve got a chord form nailed down, hold your picking hand loosely curled and use your wrist to propel your finger nails into the lower root note string of that chord, which will be the closest to the top of the guitar’s neck. Don’t be precise. Frailing is not about precision. It is about sound and attitude. It’s about getting gnarly, so be loose enough to let the other strings below the low root note in on the action.

Practice hitting just the three lowest strings and then dig into all six – or five if you’re using a tuning like open G — as you unfurl your fingers to strike chords. Note the difference in dynamics as you practice hitting soft and hard, and the potential for making a chord sound staccato and abrupt or to take advantage of the sweeping sound of the nails rippling over the strings. You can also hit a chord and quickly bring your wrist to bear on the strings above the bridge, choking the chord off to build tension.

Adapting frailing to single-note playing is also quite easy. Put your thumb and index finger together. Then think of the nail of your index finger as a pick that can only be used for down strokes. And use the nail, with the thumb still supporting it for reinforcement, to play any single-note scale, melody or pattern that you favor. There’s a lot more power behind striking the strings with the nail of your forefinger reinforced by your thumb than you could ever hope to generate with a pick. The result is an aggressive, sharply defined sound with a percussive edge. Once the touch of using this method of single note playing become familiar it’s easy to get overtones and other interesting effects. It’s akin to using a pick, but letting the meat of your finger connect with the strings as well, ala the late Roy Buchanan or Billy Gibbons teasing so-called “squealers” out of Miss Pearly Gates.

Frailing — just one of the many insights that can be gained from studying the past and applying its lessons to the present and future.