Clawhammer banjo is often called a variety of terms. Here are a few synonyms:
- Down picking
- Stroke-style (pre-cursor to old time banjo methods)
Clawhammer Banjo Technique
Regardless of what it’s called, one thing remains- the fingers travel down into the strings versus up like in three-finger style. Please check out my article comparing clawhammer vs. three finger style if you haven’t already done so.
What does each of the fingers do in clawhammer banjo?
The thumb strikes the 5th, 4th, 3rd, and sometimes the 2nd string in drop thumb passages with a downward stroke. Depending on the player, some limit the thumb to the 5th and 4th string, seldom using the drop thumb technique.
Another characteristic I’ve noticed is a great number of clawhammer banjo players rest their thumb on the fifth string, even when it isn’t playing a note. In other words, as the other finger strikes, the thumb then comes to rest on the fifth string afterwards.
The index (or middle) finger strikes all of the strings but the 5th string using the back of the fingernail. Most people use the index; however, some use the middle finger. It is important to have just the right fingernail length, otherwise you’ll get a clicking or scraping sound.
It’s called clawhammer banjo because the hand can take on an almost claw-like shape when striking downwards in this motion.
The main pattern of clawhammer banjo is called the Bum-ditty. This is done via a
1…….. 2 and
You have a strum (beat one) followed by a quick strum (beat two) and a 5th string (and).
Here is a video showing the technique:
Some Characteristics of Clawhammer Banjo
- Very rhythmic
- Doesn’t normally try to play every note of a fiddle tune
- Increased use of slides, pull-offs, and alternate string pull-offs
- Greater use of alternate tunings like sawmill (modal), dropped D, and sometimes tuning all of the strings up rather than using a capo.
Many times clawhammer banjo focuses more on the rhythmic drive than it does trying to play every single melody note of a tune.
Clawhammer banjo uses more tunings than three-finger style banjo. Some common ones include sawmill or modal tuning (gDGCD), double C (gCGCD), and D-tuning (ADGAD). Clawhammer banjo players are also less apt to use a capo than bluegrass players. One technique common to clawhammer you don’t see much elsewhere are alternate string pull-offs. I highly recommend checking out Dan Gellert’s playing to hear these more.
Origins of Clawhammer Banjo
Clawhammer predates three-finger style or up-picking. An earlier style of clawhammer was called stroke style. This was a fancy style used in the minstrel banjo days during the civil war. It’s believed the roots of the clawhammer style goes back to Africa and was brought to America via the slave trade. The early slaves played in the down picking style; it was later adapted and used by white-Americans in old-time music. One can find old paintings of slaves playing gourd banjos in the clawhammer-style.
Some Clawhammer Players To Listen To
There are lots of clawhammer banjo players you should check out. Here are a few:
- Frank George
- Tommy Jarrell
- Dan Gellert
- Cathy Fink
- Uncle Dave Macon
- Ken Perlman (melodic clawhammer banjo)
- Frank Lee
- Adam Hurt
If you already play clawhammer and are looking for a good NEXT STEP songbook, consider my Beginner Clawhammer Banjo Songbook over on Etsy. If you need more advanced arrangements, go on over to my TAB store here.
If you’d like online clawhammer lessons, I teach and I’ll refer you this page for more information.
Please consider signing up for my BANJO JOURNEY newsletter. I’ll let you know when I post new articles, new products, and send out free tips occasionally.