In this page we will take you through the basics of playing our 2-string fretless canjo. This canjo guide can be used also to start to learn beginner slide guitar technique on the middle 2 strings of a conventional 6-string instrument. Or a 3-string cigar box guitar – playing on the high-two strings of the instrument, and leaving the low string as bass note.
As the name suggests our instrument does not have metal frets to hold the string against to produce a note, as one would with a typical guitar or ukulele. Instead we change the pitch of a string with an object called a slide – a smooth cylindrical object worn over a finger on the player’s “fretting hand” (whichever feels most comfortable, though most players wear the slide on their ring finger). Some of our instruments come supplied with a courtesy metal Salvage Sounds starter slide. However, you may wish to upgrade to one of our bottleneck glass slides for a smoother, more luxurious sound.
There are a couple of key fundamental points to slide playing we must consider. The first is to learn to apply just the right amount of pressure on the strings with the slide to achieve a great sound. Too loose a contact and the string will rattle and buzz when played with the plucking hand (for the best sound, use a plectrum). Too tight and you can deaden the sound and cause inconsistency in the pitch from stretching the string too much. The second key point to consider is that unlike playing a guitar or ukulele where the string is held down behind the fret, with slide playing the slide must be directly above the fret-position to play a note of that particular pitch. Thus when playing more than one string together, make sure to always hold the slide at a right-angle to the neck so that the slide will be aligned with the fret-positions all the way up the length of it when you play. Otherwise the combination of notes from multiple strings played together may sound out of tune.
Begin practising these fundamentals by playing all the available notes on the canjo neck, starting with playing the strings “open” (slide not touching) and working your way up the neck, keeping the slide in contact with the strings as you move between notes. Play the notes individually, switching from the low string to the high string. Then try playing them together in a 2-note chord (called a “dyad”). It may take a while to get used to the right amount of pressure to apply but eventually you should be able to achieve a consistently bright and clear sound that is pleasing to the ear.
Pro tip: Place the pad of your thumb against the back of the neck to provide support. You should find that you are able to reach a range of notes, using your thumb as an “anchor” to aid a steady hand and smooth action with the correct amount of pressure.
The other great advantage to this exercise is it will also get you used to the true essence of “sliding” – moving between notes to achieve a perfect transition from one pitch to another. Expand the exercise to experiment with different distances of transition between notes. For example, pluck the string with the slide touching above the 3rd fret-position (the one with the first of the helpful “dots” on the side of the neck closest to the tuning pegs). Then with moderate speed (not too fast) move the slide up to the 12th fret-position (the one with the 2 dots together on the side of the neck) and play the string again. Reverse this by playing the string with the slide in the “12th” position, and then sliding down to the 3rd and playing the string again when you reach the destination. Practise this on the individual strings, as well as both strings together.
Pro tip: If you find your playing generates extra unwanted noise from the string (scratching, whistling) or notes sound too “bright” and metallic for your taste, try dampening the string slightly by very lightly touching the string behind the slide with your pointer finger. This will block any secondary frequencies from the length of string between the “nut” of the instrument and the slide, and keep the tone purely to the distance between the slide and the base of the canjo – through which the sound resonates.
If we play a note (or 2 notes together) at a position on the neck, and then quickly “waggle” the slide from side-to-side – a short distance left and right of the fret-position line – we can achieve a wonderful, shimmering sound called “vibrato”. This can be added to your playing for expression. Try this out. It may take a while to build up speed and get used to this (consistency and rhythm of the “waggle” is more important), but in time you should find this makes anything you play on the instrument sound great. It really does only take a small, subtle range of movement to achieve the effect.
Playing the blues
You should be sounding pretty good by now, so let’s move on to some simple slide “riffs” – little tricks and moves to add to our repertoire of techniques. (If you need an explanation for the diagrams below, refer to our strumstick guide and that should help)
Pluck the thinnest, higher-pitched string (furthest from you as you look down, known as the “top string”). Then place the slide just behind the 3rd fret-mark (around level with 1st white fret dot on the face of the neck), and immediately pluck the string again and slide up a short way to the 3rd fret-marker. Take the slide off the string and pluck it a third time. Leave a slight pause, and then repeat the pattern.
The first half of this riff is the same as Riff 1. Rather than repeat the initial phrase, pluck the top string open, and step up with the slide to the 4th position via the 2nd and 3rd to a count of “1, 2, 3, 4” plucking each note in turn.
Plucking both strings together at the 5th fret-mark, slide down to the 3rd and play the strings again, before then moving the slide back up to the 5th position and playing the strings once more. As with the previous riffs, leave a slight pause before repeating the phrase – but this time sliding down to the 3rd fret-mark again and playing the strings in place of the pause (“rest”)
Exactly the same as Riff 1, except in place of the rests on the final beat of the bar, play both strings open to fill the sound.
With the slide touching the strings at around the 3rd or 5th position, play the strings and quickly slide up to the 7th fret marker. Play the strings a second time while still at the 7th and briefly “hold” the chord. Then play once at the 6th, followed by twice at the 5th (again – briefly holding the second of these). Finish with a short slide up to the 3rd fret-mark (similar to the where we have played short slides up to the 3rd in previous riffs, but using both strings)
Start by playing both strings open. Then rest the slide at around the 2nd position, pluck the “bottom string” (thickest, lower-pitched string nearest you) and quickly slide up to the 4th fret-mark, before then playing the top string this time. Repeat this pattern of playing the strings one after the other at the 3rd and 2nd fret marks. Finish by playing both strings open again, followed by both strings together at the 5th position, before then sliding up to the 7th and playing the strings there too. This move is called “the turnaround” in blues music. The final slide up to the 7th position gives the listener a sense of anticipation that more is to follow…
Now put these all together, and you have the famous “12-Bar Blues” sequence (in the key of G minor) – which can be repeated and varied over-and-over. The video clip below shows one of our 2-string Canjos playing a slow version of the blues where variations of these sorts of techniques are used.
The great thing about the blues is that it sounds great and is fun to play at any speed. Once you have mastered it at a slow-and-steady tempo, you can gradually build up the speed, and add embellishment to your playing. This second clip shows the blues being played on a slide canjo more quickly. It is only a 1-string canjo, and is of a different key to the instrument we supply as standard, but this still gives a good idea as to what can be achieved musically with such a seemingly basic device.
Super simple basic blues
If you found the above a little overwhelming or difficult to follow, that is understandable if you are coming from the perspective of a complete beginner to stringed instruments. Don’t worry, we will get you playing the blues in the next few minutes, trust us! All you need for this version is to be able to count in time to “4” and to be able to locate the 5th and 7th fret positions (the ones with the 2nd and 3rd dots on the side of the neck to the right of where the tuning pegs are). The rest of it is played with the slide not even touching the strings, doing nothing at all (save for hovering around either the 5th or 7th marks ready to be lowered and form the next upcoming notes). Again, try this slowly at first and then build up speed as confidence grows.
So, for the following, simply strum the strings in time with your rhythmic counting – one stroke per number “1” to “4”. The first number given above the count is the position of the slide on the neck. Remember that “0” means “open” – the strings played with no slide contact. In brackets we have placed the chord which we will explain why in a moment but you can ignore for now and just concentrate on the number:
1 2 3 4 | 1 2 3 4 | 1 2 3 4 | 1 2 3 4
1 2 3 4 | 1 2 3 4
1 2 3 4 | 1 2 3 4
1 2 3 4
1 2 3 4
1 2 3 4
1 2 3 4
(Go back to the top and repeat)
Each of the “1 2 3 4” sections is called a bar. If you count these blocks within the above, you will see there are 12 of them, hence the “12-Bar Blues”. This pattern can be played over-and-over to your heart’s content. When you do finally want to bring it to a close, just play one big “open” (0) strum at the end after the final bar. The beauty of the sequence denoted above is you can perform as a backing accompaniment to another person playing a more complex variation such as previously described, or both playing this version together for a larger sound. Similarly you can use this information to have your very own “Blues Jam” with any friend(s) or family member(s) who already know how to play the G, C and D chords – or can improvise in the key of G – on a guitar, piano, ukulele, harmonica… even a Salvage Sounds pencil case strumstick perhaps. (As this instrument is designed so that every note plays in the key of G, and as our guide shows, the chords G, C and D can easily be formed also)
Of course, your canjo playing does not have to be limited only to the blues. You have all notes in the chromatic scale available to you on this instrument, and with 2-strings (tuned D and G) we can play simple chords that are compatible with any major or minor key (the musical term is “indeterminate”). Below is a quick table showing the neck positions of chords commonly used in songs so that you can provide accompaniment on your new, unique instrument!
|Chord (major or minor)
|Fret position on neck
|("Open", no slide on strings)
|(1st side-dot from the head)
|(2nd side-dot from the head)
|(3rd side-dot from the head)
|(4th side-dot from the head)
Pro-tip: Our canjos are designed to have very stable tuning. Ideally you should not have to re-tune your instrument. However, if you do ever need to re-tune the instrument or replace a string, be sure to first loosen the screw at the back of the peg-head a little. You will likely still find the peg very tight and difficult to move (that is the secret to keeping it in tune so well, and why we don’t recommend adjustment!)
The best way of adjusting by hand is to hold the canjo upright and side-on, firmly gripping the neck beneath the instrument’s “nut” near the headstock. Then turn, gripping the pegs between the thumb and the middle joint of your pointer finger on your stronger hand. To avoid the string slipping out of tune again, it is always wise to tune “up” to the pitch you want, which therefore may involve first loosening the string by tuning down to begin with. Assuming you are holding your canjo in this advised position, the lower peg (for the D string) needs to be turned clockwise to tune-up. The upper peg (the G) needs to be turned counter-clockwise the other way to raise the pitch.
The small electronic “clip-on” tuners typically used with ukuleles work very well clipped onto the top of the canjo’s head, turning the screen so that it faces you while you are tuning side-on. When you are happy with the pitch of your strings, be sure to gently retighten the screws at the rear of the pegs, while trying to firmly hold them in position to limit the turning motion of the screw from placing your instrument back out of tune.
Those without a tuner to hand can use “harmonic beating” to both check and adjust the canjo’s consonance. Please get in touch with us for an explanation if required.