Clawhammer Q & A
Don't forget to download "Clawhammer Illuminations": Five high-profile progressive clawhammer artists answering all sorts of questions concerning their music, banjos, technique and playing styles...
I recently made contact with Ray and was able to thank him (finally!) for his help in setting a teenage kid on the path that would become such a large part of his life...
If you are thinking of playing in a bluegrass band or joining in a regular bluegrass jam, then it's a "no brainer"; learn the three finger approach.
If you envision yourself using the instrument to backup your voice in a solo setting, play "old time" string band music, perform with a fiddler, accompany group singing, or just play at home by yourself, then go with the clawhammer style.
Above all else, decide what "turns you on" about the banjo. If it's Scruggs, Fleck, Furtado... learn bluegrass style. If you find yourself loving folk singers, string bands, or contemporary singers like Gillian Welch... learn to frail!
Don't let someone else make the decision for you. Follow your heart!
Even if you are taking the banjo into uncharted territory, you should still listen to the pioneers who have come before you. Doc Watson learned from the pioneers of "old time" music at the same time that he was pushing the boundaries that helped elevate flat-pick guitar from a rhythm instrument to an important lead instrument. Doc was my greatest musical influence and it was his ability to tackle new music without ever losing touch with tradition that impressed me so much.
I also feel it important that you should never be content just listening to your musical heroes; listen to the music that inspired your heroes in the first place!
Be adventurous and explore new genres but never lose touch with tradition...
I find that Double C tuning works well for instrumentals but I usually use Open C tuning for vocals or when I'm in a situation that requires me to use a lot of chordal style backups.
A harmonica may seem like a very simple instrument, but if you want to eventually play like Howard Levy (Flecktones) it suddenly becomes one of the hardest of instruments to master.
Clawhammer may seem easier at first than bluegrass banjo, but if you ever want to join successfully in a bluegrass or jazz jam, you'll probably have to work harder than your three-finger counterparts. Michael J. Miles is the only clawhammer banjoist I've yet heard who can hold their own on stage jamming with Bela Fleck. Does that make clawhammer harder than three finger style banjo? I don't think so. I just think clawhammer is where bluegrass style was thirty years ago; waiting for another "Bela" to show us the way.
You can devote your entire life trying to master an instrument and still be just scratching the surface of it's potential...
All use the same right hand technique but often mean different things to different players. I've heard folks refer to the simple bum-ditty pattern as both "clawhammer" and "frailing". I've also heard folks modify both terms when using a lot of drop-thumbing: clawhammer becomes "melodic clawhammer" and frailing became "drop-thumb frailing".
It would be nice to see precise descriptive terms enter into our vocabulary but I believe that "clawhammer" has been associated with the entire down-picking style of play for so long that to use this term (clawhammer) to distinguish "drop thumb" playing from simple "frailing" is probably futile. I use both terms interchangeably and I don't see much point in trying to tie either one to a specific right hand technique.
"Drop-thumb" may actually be a better choice of words than "Clawhammer" when trying to clarify right hand technique. Instead of saying "he frails but doesn't play clawhammer", I think it would be more clearly understood to simply say "he doesn't drop-thumb".
When I hear someone say they are a "melodic clawhammer" player (which I've been guilty of doing), what does this really mean? Does it mean they never play a brush? Seldom play a brush? Occasionally slip in a melodic phrase? I don't think so; they use a combination of all techniques.
Does a "Round Peak" player limit themselves by never allowing themselves to explore all the various techniques available outside of their chosen style of play? For their sake I certainly hope not.
No matter what term you use to describe your style of play, it's still just "down-picking"...
The beauty of clawhammer is in it's economy of motion. At the same time the index (or middle) finger strikes a string, the thumb comes to rest against another string. Then as the hand moves away from the banjo, the thumb sounds the string it was resting against. Two notes created by two motions of the right hand, one as the hand moves into the strings and the other as the hand moves away from the strings.
If you are "flicking" with your index finger, you probably aren't catching the thumb on a string at the same time the index strikes it's string. This means the thumb and index are moving in and out of the strings as separate motions. Four motions instead of two; in and out with the index and then in and out with the thumb.
Until you get the thumb to come into a string at the same moment that the index strikes it's string, you will probably be limiting yourself to half your potential speed! You will also be introducing tension into your right hand which is never a good idea...
I use a slightly unorthodox approach (although I have encountered others who also use this method). I tend to use the middle to strike the first string and index for strings two, three and four. Very comfortable and distributes wear evenly between the two nails. This isn't "set in stone" as I often use the middle on the inner strings for variety...
For those of you who quickly wear out nails, analyze your right hand technique and make sure you are striking the strings squarely with your nail and not playing too hard. Try backing off on the volume a bit when you aren't soloing and you may suddenly find yourself able to hear the other instruments while saving wear on your nails.
To prevent broken nails, keep them filed down to the point where they barely clear the tip of the finger. Also use gloves (I prefer mechanic's gloves) while working.
To stop unnecessary nail wear in situations where more volume is required, I often use .018 gauge metal dunlop finger picks worn "backwards". I shorten the blade of these picks and reshape them to the contours of my natural nails. The metal picks take some getting used to, but they protect your nails in situations where you find yourself playing loud and hard.
I play with a "straight" thumb and have no problem with the volume of my drop-thumbed notes. In fact, my "straight" thumb position helps me avoid overpowering the melody notes with my thumb, a problem with some clawhammer banjoists.
1) Place the ring finger of your left hand on fret 4 of the third string, apply pressure with the thumb (which should be opposite the middle finger).
2) Keeping the pressure on the ring finger, drop your index into a barre position on fret 2. Notice that your index has now rolled slightly onto it's side; this is important as proper barre technique can not be achieved with a "flat" finger. Make sure the thumb has not shifted from it's position opposite the middle finger.
3) Remove your ring finger making sure that the thumb and index remain in their relative positions.
4) Apply pressure with your thumb toward the pot (body) of the banjo while pushing with your index finger toward the peg-head.
5) Wiggle the unused fingers (middle, ring & pinky) to make sure they are relaxed and ready to be used if needed.
If you follow these instructions, you should no longer be "squeezing" the neck and should now be using leverage (your thumb is the fulcrum) to hold down the barre. The other fingers of the left hand should now be free to access additional notes as needed!
This approach will feel uncomfortable at first but will become less so as you develop strength in the new muscles you're using in the left hand. Good barre technique is essential if you want to develop the ability to play effectively up the neck.
Quote: "Mike -- Thanks for that tip! I have NEVER been able to execute a clean barre. Your technique had me up and running in thirty seconds."
I recently tried acrylics again and found they were too noisy (for lack of a better term) as they created an unpleasant, brittle sound when used on slower tunes. The exception was on my banjos strung with nylon strings as the acrylic nails sounded great when used on them.
Compared to clawhammer picks (thimbles), I find that the sound of the salon nails is very similar to the metal picks I have in my collection. I've now gone back to using my natural nails and if I need some extra volume, I always have these picks to fall back on.
I've covered this in another Q & A question, but I've found that if I use nail files (not clippers) and keep my nails just slightly longer than my finger tips, I don't have problems wearing down and breaking nails.
For most players, there are four points of contact between the body and the banjo: two where the banjo rests on the legs, one where it rests against the stomach, and the last where the forearm rest against the arm rest (or rim). The last one is the most critical. Make sure you keep enough pressure against the armrest to keep the banjo neck supported without the help of the left hand. Work to find that "sweet spot" where the forearm is balanced in such a way as to allow it to rock back and forth and yet still allow enough pressure to hold up the neck while playing. I usually make my new students remove their left hand from the neck two or three times while playing a piece to make sure the neck stays in place.
I like to think of the "pull" as a "pluck" and have my students visualize it this way when learning this technique.
An excellent exercise is to practice pull-offs and hammer-ons from a "dead" string (one that hasn't been struck with the right hand). When you can get a clear sound from a dead string, you should no long have problems getting your pulls and hammers to ring out clearly.
I would think it would depend on the taste of the player and whether or not it interferes with other important playing techniques. Personally, I have gotten tired of some of newer bands where "clucking" seems to the only thing I hear coming from the banjo player. This is just my own personal taste as many find this appealing (and it seems to have attracted more players to the style, which is definitely a good thing!).
I've helped some of my students explore the "bib cluck", but once they start using it, some of them seem to have a hard time turning it off! These same students also find it gets in the way when they tackle more technically challenging pieces. This may be why many melodic oriented players stay clear of this technique (including me).
I do use other percussive effects instead of the cluck. I tend to "thump" my thumb forcefully against the head when I want a drum effect. If I'm looking for a "cluck" sound, I sometimes mute the strings with my left hand. I don't really have the option of using the "big cluck" which requires you to sacrifice a nail (usually the index), which is something that I'm not willing to do.
By the way, I like the term "big cluck". It distinguishes this technique, which uses a secondary right hand finger with a short nail, from the normally clucking sound you get while playing over the fingerboard.
So in answer to your question, I don't do the "big cluck" but have been know to throw in the occasional "small cluck"...
In my opinion, any unnecessary additions to tab notation actually makes it harder to read. I've borrowed the notation for slurs (hammers and pulls) and glissandos (slides) from classical notation and so rarely have to put any type of symbol (h,p,sl) under the tablature stave.
If you use the symbols that classical guitarists have developed over the last hundred years or so, you can avoid redundant markings. I do use the occasional symbol to help clarify certain phrases (brush skips, alternate string pulls, etc) but the use of any unnecessary symbols just gives your brain more to process and therefore slows you down.
I've noticed that hammers and pulls (slurs) and slides (glissandos) are both usually written as slurs in modern tablature. I can't understand why more contemporary banjo arrangers don't use the glissando symbol (dash) to notate slides. It would eliminate the need for all of the unnecessary symbols (h, p, and sl) and make the tabs easier to sight read.
It would be a great thing if we could standardize tablature notation; but don't hold your breath...
- When you encounter a long stretch, try arching the wrist of the left hand by pushing it away from you. As you do this, let your thumb drop down the back of the neck a little toward the floor.
- Make sure that the thumb is placed opposite to your middle and ring fingers. If you keep your thumb opposite the index finger (usually lying on it's side) you won't be able to make long stretches.
- Make sure that you are not supporting the neck with your left hand. There should be a little space between your left palm and the lower (treble) side of the neck. You'd be surprised at how many players try to hold up the neck with their hand. Don't join them as it will compromise your left hand technique.
When you write tab with the notes superimposed on the line, it sometimes becomes difficult to tell the difference between certain fret numbers (such as 3, 8, and 5). It's also hard to write the symbol for slides (glissandos) which is a dash instead of an arc; the dash blends in with the staff line and so becomes invisible.
As far back as I can remember, banjo tabs have been written using both methods. I believe Pete Seeger's How To Play The Five String Banjo was the first modern banjo method published and it used the "above the line" approach. The first book I recall as being specifically written for clawhammer banjo was John Burke's Old Time Fiddle Tunes For Banjo, and the notes were written "on the line". From that point on the banjo camp was pretty well split as to the preferred method until the advent of tab writing software, most of which doesn't give the user the option of writing tab above the line; a gross disservice to those of us who arrange tablature.
I looked through my collection of banjo books and found the following titles where the tab notation is written above the line:
General Banjo Methods:
- How To Play The Five String Banjo by Pete Seeger
- The Banjo Newsletter (all issues before the invention of tab specific software)
- Melodic Clawhammer Banjo by Ken Perlman
- Teach Yourself To Play Clawhammer Banjo by Michael Miles
- New England & Irish Fiddle Tunes For Clawhammer Banjo by Ken Perlman
- Mel Bay's Complete Clawhammer Banjo Book by Lisa Schmitz and Alec Slater
Three Finger Titles:
- Earl Scruggs And The Five String Banjo by Earl Scruggs
- Banjo Song Book by Tony Trischka
- 3 Finger Pickin' Banjo Song Book by Mike Bailey
- Teach Yourself Bluegrass Banjo by Tony Trischka
- Back Porch Melodic Banjo by Maynard and Sara Johnson
- Bluegrass Banjo by Peter Wernick
- Melodic Banjo by Tony Trischka
- Masters Of The Five String Banjo by Tony Trischka and Peter Wernick
- Poor Richard's Almanac, Banjo Sandwich, & The Banjo Kid Pick's Again (tab books from various albums) by Alan Munde
Judging from "pro vs con" emails I've received on this subject, those who have taken the time to become acclimatized to my system not only have no trouble reading it, they tend to prefer it.
- Clawhammer seems to "read" better when you group the notes in twos.
- Bluegrass banjo "reads" easier in groups of four.
It all has to do with the right hand technique of each style. The ideal in clawhammer involves moving the right hand into the strings on the first eighth note and away from the strings on the second. This is the basic movement that makes frailing so unique. Two note groupings show this more effectively than groupings of four.
I use "G" and "Open C" much more than the other four tunings. Interestingly enough, I probably use Open C Tuning (gCGCE) as much as G Tuning. This may be due to the fact that I'm a baritone and sing a lot of songs in "C" and "D". Open C Tuning works much better (at least for me) when playing a chordal style backup behind my voice than does "Double C".
The relative pitch between strings 1, 2 and 3 in Open C are the same as strings 2, 3 and 4 in G tuning. In layman's terms this means you can take the chords in G tuning and move the fingerings one string toward the treble side to help figure out the same relative chords (i.e. I, IV & V chords) in Open C.
When I'm gigging I always keep two banjos on stage with me, one for G tunings and another for C tunings. Open C is the tuning I most frequently use when singing in "C" and "D".
The only disadvantage of working regularly in Open C is that the first string is tuned up a whole step to "E". This can lead to a lot of broken strings. I've gotten around this by setting up my "C" banjo with a lighter first string (.0095) and a heavier forth string (.024).
If your interested, you can download chord charts for six common tunings from the instruction section of my clawhammer tab page (including Open C). You might also look through my tabs for examples of how I play chordal backups in various tunings.
- They are much harder to adjust. To get the string action adjusted to play equally well at all capo positions, you sometimes have to make compromises. It took a lot of experimenting with the neck angle, truss rod, head tension and bridge height on my Deering to get it set up to where I liked it.
- Long-necked banjos are hard on you physically. The only reason to buy a long-neck is it's ability to play in the lower keys of E and F. For those of us who have baritone voices this can very useful, but when played without a capo (the only real reason to purchase a long-neck) it's really hard on the muscles of the shoulder and neck. To get an idea of what this is like, take your standard banjo and touch the tuning peg of the second string with you middle finger, hold your hand there for a few minutes and you'll get an idea of how well your body will handle the open position on a long-neck! Better yet, borrow a long-neck from another musician for a day or two and only play without the capo!
If you truly have a use for the extra frets, by all means buy one; I know I'd be lost without mine. Just don't be one of those players who owns a long-neck but never plays it without a capo; don't miss out on the unique tonal qualities of those first three frets!
I believe that clawhammer technique is especially well suited for jigs. The basic clawhammer technique for 6/8 time has you striking the string with the back of the fingernail on beats 1 and 3, 4 and 6. This naturally accents those beats which SHOULD be accented when playing jigs. If you would like a closer look at my approach to jigs, then check out my "Playing in 6/8 time" worksheet in the instruction section of my clawhammer tab page.
Not only is clawhammer not "ill-suited" for jigs, it's actually one of the best instrumental styles for playing them correctly!
4/4 and "cut time"(2/2) are written the same way (four quarter notes or eight eighth notes per measure) but are felt differently. In 4/4 you tap your foot four times per measure (four beats per measure). In "cut time" you tap your foot twice per measure (two beats per measure).
Although they are written out identically there should be a difference in the way 4/4 and 2/2 (cut time) are played. In 4/4 time, the musician should "feel" (accent) each of the beats (1, 2, 3, & 4) in the measure. In 2/2 the player should only "feel" (accent) beats 1 & 3.
This being said, almost no banjo player would actually play an up-tempo tune written in 4/4 without "feeling" it as 2/2. Try tapping your foot four times per measure on an up-tempo tune and you'll see what I mean!
Now we'll look at 4/4 and 2/4 time:
From a theory standpoint, there should be little or no difference in sound between 4/4 and 2/4 time (other than tempo) but there is a difference in how they are written.
The reason for using one or the other is a just a notation choice which, hopefully, makes it easier for the player to read (8 sixteenth notes per measure for 2/4 as opposed to 8 eighth notes for 4/4). Most players find it easier to read a measure made up of quarter and eighth notes (4/4 or 2/2 time) as opposed to eighth and sixteenth notes (2/4 time).
Hope this isn't too confusing...
Most tabs are written out to be played in "cut" time (2/2). It's read the same as 4/4 but with only two foot taps per measure!
1) Hum (or sing) a harmony to what you perceive to be the important melody notes in the "first banjo" part. Don't try to harmonize with every single note, just the ones you feel are important for carrying the melody.
2) Create your new "second banjo" part by building a new solo around the harmony notes you've just hummed! Keep the chord progression to the piece in mind when adding in "bump-ditties" and other embellishments…
There are also on-line sources of information. One of the best is probably any one of a number of articles penned by Tony Thomas. A good example is this fine piece he wrote for the African American Registry: The Banjo’s African American Heritage
I'd also highly recommend anyone with even a passing interest in the banjo watch "The Librarian And The Banjo". This great documentary can be found on activist/filmmaker Jim Carrier's website.
If you'd like some information on a traditional African instrument that is played using clawhammer technique, then check out the Akonting in this article: The Banjo's Roots Reconsidered
I recently found another site (hosted by Duke University) that is devoted to banjo history: Banjology
- Be careful not to play over other's solos or vocals.
- Listen carefully to the jam and try to match the volume and "feel" of the song (no "bum-ditties" on soft ballads!).
- Remember this is a bluegrass jam and not an old-timey jam; wait your turn to solo.
- Take the time to work up some bluegrass standards to go along with your fiddle/banjo tunes!
- Adapt your playing style so as to not take over the roll of other bluegrass instruments. For instance, don't take the off beat "chops" away from the mandolin players by accenting your brushes (maybe emphasize the "on" beats instead of the "off" beats).
In a recent on-line discussion, a frailer brought up the fact that he couldn't play faster than 150 bpm (beats per minute) and mentioned that most bluegrass tunes seemed to be well over 200 bpm.
It turns out that the vast majority of bluegrass tunes have been recorded well under the 150 bpm that was discussed. Even the very fast stuff usually clocks out at between 150 to 160 bpm.
Here's some examples that I found in my music collection:
- Doc Watson recorded "Black Mtn Rag" at 135 bpm.
- The Seldom Scene played "Hello Mary Lou" at 140 bpm
- Tony Rice cooked along on "John Hardy" at 145 bpm
- Sam Bush played "Big Mon" on his "Ice Caps" CD is around 155 bpm.
- "Shuckin' the Corn" from the "Deliverance" album was played around 155 bpm.
There are of course exceptions:
- Stuart Duncan's version of the "Lee highway Blues" was recorded at 165 bpm.
- Jerry Douglas's version of "Shenandoah Breakdown" is somewhere around 168 bpm.
- Raymond Fairchild's version of "Kicking Mule" (very fast) is recorded at 176 bpm.
- Mark O'Connor's blazing "Pick It Apart" found on his Nashville Cats album clocks in around 185 bpm as does Rick Skaggs version of "Pig in a Pen" from the Ancient Tones album.
I couldn't find any recorded bluegrass songs over the 200 bpm mark mentioned in the discussion.
John Baldry has a website that lists examples of bluegrass songs with the exact metronome times.
Here's a excerpt from his site:
Classification of metronome speeds
In bluegrass music the following broad categories apply to tunes with 2 beats to the bar:
Slow : Under 100
Very fast: 160-172
Warp speed: 172-184
A beginning player will probably find difficulty with anything beyond the slow category. Elementary players can go up to about 120 bpm. An intermediate level player will be improving his/her speed up to the 138 mark or beyond. An advanced player should be OK with pretty fast speeds. The warp speeds of over 172 bpm are usually only achieved by professional players, particularly when they have been playing for some time and are really warmed up.
I particularly liked John's "warp speed" categorization; very descriptive of the over 170 bpm mark.
I've played bluegrass banjo and mandolin in a band that played many of the major festivals in the intermountain west (including the Telluride Bluegrass Festival). My top speed playing 3 finger style is 176 bpm and I'm a fairly fast bluegrass banjo player. I can play simple clawhammer tunes around 184 bpm, which is faster than I can play easy tunes in the 3 finger style; so much for stereotypes.
I believe that professional level clawhammer banjo players can keep up with any of their bluegrass counterparts. In twenty five years of participation in bluegrass jams, I've never once encountered a tune where I couldn't keep up. The whole idea of "limitations" is unhealthy and will only hold us back!
The only limitations are the ones the ones we place on ourselves...
Jack Thorp published the first collection of cowboy songs after traveling throughout the west in the 1890s with his trusty S.S. Stewart banjo.
I have run across many banjos dating from the 1800's here in Utah. I've a 1894 banjeaurine that was apparently brought into Montana by a Methodist preacher shortly after it was built. One of my old students had a fretless banjo with inlaid wood frets set in flush with the fingerboard. It was built in San Francisco in the mid to late 1800s; a fine instrument that played great when set up with nylon strings.
My gut feeling (pun intended) is that the banjo was not uncommon amongst the early cowboys. Of course that all changed when Hollywood created the myth of the singing cowboy and his guitar...
When you download the circle of fifths from the instruction section of my tab page, make sure you also download the handout dealing with chord relationships; it will make the use of the circle much clearer.
So I guess the answer to your question is that you may have to learn a little theory but not much!
That being said, if you DO take the time to learn some basic theory you can then apply any technique or musical phrase you happen to like to a variety of different musical situations.
A seventh chord is just a four note chord. They call them seventh chords because the new note is the seventh note in the scale. For instance a "Cmaj7" chord would be made from the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 7th tones of the scale. (C, E, G, B).
To confuse you more, a "C7" chord is what they call a dominant seventh chord which uses a different "C" scale (C dominant scale: C, D, E, F, G, A, Bb) but is still built from the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 7th tones of that scale.
Now to make things simple again...
When you encounter a seventh chord (or a ninth, eleventh, or thirteenth chord), you can just use the three note major or minor form of the chord. This means that if you run into a C7, Cmaj7, C9, Cmaj9, C11, etc., you can simply play a C chord. If you have a Cm7, Cm9, etc., you can play a Cm chord.
I hope this helps!
Always keep a capo on the forth or fifth fret of the banjo. This effectively shortens the neck to a manageable length for a child. It also helps to have them wear a strap (even while sitting) and adjust it to help support the banjo neck.
Start them off with the basic strum (bum-ditty) and find some songs that they can sing using this pattern. Make sure the songs are ones they like!
Once the basic strum becomes second nature, it's easy to introduce the child to some simple solo pieces; just make sure they can "bump-ditty" without having to think about what their right hand is doing!
Traditionally, clawhammer banjo was used in many different contexts and we should strive to carry on in the spirit of that tradition.
Use it for accompanying your voice or a group "sing-in". Use it as a lead instrument in bluegrass, country or rock bands. Use it as a featured lead instrument that is more than capable of holding it's own against the guitar, fiddle or mandolin. And, of course, use it in a traditional string band setting.
Don't limit yourself by thinking that there is one superior (or authentic) approach to the instrument because this just isn't the case…
The reason for memorization is to learn the technique as played by the artist/arranger. Once you have learned the techniques and insights offered by the tab, then you can rearrange the piece and make it your own. It took me decades to develop and fully understand the techniques I regularly use while playing; my students understand and are comfortable with the same techniques after a few months. The difference is having a coach (me) and the techniques laid out in an organized and easily understood manner (tabs).
You can stumble around for years and try to discover the full spectrum of clawhammer banjo technique on your own or you can utilize the wealth of materials available to the modern clawhammer student and speed up the whole process through the use of tabs.
This being said, it's equally important to be developing your arranging skills at the same time. A total dependence on either tab or "ear" is not a good thing, you want a combination of both approaches.
Use tabs to learn brush skips, alternate attiring hammers and pulls, 6/8 time, as well as other "advanced" techniques. After you have mastered the technique lessons found in the tab, then make the song your own by rearranging it to suit your own taste and style of play. Eventually you'll no longer need tabs arranged by others and will develop the ability to improvise your solos (arranging on the fly) when needed.
I use tabs to teach technique but my ultimate goal as a teacher is to help my students reach that point where they can effectively arrange tunes for themselves.
Let your mood determine the length of your practice session. If you aren't "feeling it", then cut it short; you don't want the time spent with your banjo to feel like work. Other times you will not want to put your banjo down and might spend hours playing. My philosophy is to play everyday, but make sure that you always relax and enjoy the time you spend playing. Practice should never feel like something you have to check off your "to do" list for the day...