As we moved into the twentieth century, the five string banjo's popularity began to diminish until it seemed to only appear in a supportive role supplying rhythmic accompaniment to the fiddle or voice in the old-time folk music of the south east. It wasn't until the release of the LP Melodic Clawhammer Banjo back in the 1970s that the way was paved for subsequent progressive minded banjoists to once again put the banjo front and center (where I believe it belongs).
Quite possibly the most influential artist to appear on this very important album was Ken Perlman. In the 30 years since the release of this record, Ken has worked tirelessly promoting melodic clawhammer banjo technique through his recordings, books, workshops, and live appearances.
Although know primarily as an outstanding arranger of American and Celtic fiddle tunes, Ken also likes to take on more challenging pieces. Here's a clip of a classic ragtime piece Ken recorded on his Clawhammer Banjo and Fingerstyle Guitar Solos album (which can be purchased on his website):
Note the extensive uses of syncopation, something that isn't easy to execute cleanly using clawhammer technique. Ken uses a number of advanced techniques to achieve this; arpeggiated strikes, skips followed by drop thumbs, fretting the 5th string, as well as an elaborate system of fingering shapes inspired by "melodic" style bluegrass banjo players such as Bill Keith and Bobby Thompson.
As I mentioned before, Ken excels in adapting Celtic tunes for the banjo. In the following video, Ken plays a very nice arrangement of a Northumbrian fiddle tune called "Nancy". Following this, Perlman launches into an original tune called "Road to Mexico" that bridges the gap between folk, bluegrass and "new acoustic" music; a perfect song to showcase the progressive side of Ken's playing. In this video (ironically) Ken mentions clawhammer banjo in it's "natural role as the lead instrument" which ties right into my vision to "once again put the banjo front and center"; I had not viewed this video before writing those words...
Ken's books, records and DVD should be considered essential reading for any banjoist, and especially for those interested in exploring the progressive side of the instrument. You can find tabs to all the songs on this page within the covers of two of Ken's books:
"Beaumont Rag" and "Road To Mexico" are found in Everything You Wanted To Know About Clawhammer Banjo.
"Nancy" and "A Farewell To Whiskey" are tabbed out in Ken's Melodic Clawhammer Banjo.
You can find a link to his website on the right side of this page.
Speaking of books, I'd like to end off by playing a song found in my favorite of Ken's books, Melodic Clawhammer Banjo, which I highly recommend. "A Farewell To Whiskey" is a beautiful tune written by Scottish fiddler Niel Gow a little over two hundred years ago.
Note: In this video, I mistakenly refer to the piece as being "Irish", but it definitely hales from Scotland.
- Mike Iverson
P.S. My favorite feature in this "Progressive Clawhammer" section, and the one that I feel is the most important, is a survey that I had each of the featured artists fill out. It contains all sorts of information about banjo styles, technique, instrument setup, and anything else I could think of that might be of interest to banjoists. Here's a link to the questionnaire:
Clawhammer Illuminations: insightful answers to banjo related questions provided by Perlman, Johnson, Balch, Miles, and Iverson.