Exploring Multiple Banjo Styles

by Joe Zeke

I enjoy playing bluegrass and other music in both Scruggs style and clawhammer. But is that for everyone? Is it better to stick with one picking style until that is mastered before moving into another, or better not to try another style at all?

Of course, that depends first of all on where your interests lie. If you’re very happy playing straight ahead bluegrass or old time clawhammer, then why change? On the other hand, if you’re like me and everything you hear on the banjo from Earl to Bela to Abigail Washburn gets your creative juices flowing, then that’s a good indication you might want to try as much as you can on the five-string.

How about your skill level; are you comfortable playing the banjo or do you tense up and hands cramp, especially when playing those closed-position chords? As a banjo instructor in Scruggs and clawhammer styles, I’ve taught many an older adult who spent years torturing their hands working in machine shops and on ranches and farms. Getting their fingers and hands to move the way they wanted was difficult, to say the least.

I first took up the banjo in the 1960s. Dave Guard’s masterful frailing (another term for clawhammer) and three finger folk banjo styles with the Kingston Trio mesmerized me until I found myself buying every Kingston Trio album and songbook I could afford, learning the chords from the pictures that were printed above the lyrics, and trying to figure out whatever it was I thought he was doing. Back then, of course, there was no internet, no YouTube with instructors to demonstrate and even slow down what pickers were doing; all we had were our ears and LPs. Looking back, I have to say that was a good thing; through it all I developed my own style that fit Kingston Trio songs and later, worked well with bluegrass and Newgrass.

(For those who still have LPs and a turntable, you can play a 33 1/3 LP at 16 RPM and it will slow the music down exactly an octave…no retuning necessary, and a lot easier to learn by ear that way.)

One other point: there is more to the banjo than Scruggs and clawhammer. Another old time sound is called two-finger, played with the thumb and index finger of the right hand.

One other is called Classic Banjo. Plucked with bare fingers on a nylon string banjo, this style dates back to around the turn of the 20th Century, and involves playing syncopated and rag time pieces like those of Scott Joplin. Back then, if you were having a soiree, you weren’t doing it right unless you had a Classic Banjo duet with the banjo playing lead accompanied by a pianist, both clad in evening attire. A group called Black Tie Banjo offers a few CDs in this style available on Amazon.

Click here for more information on learning different banjo styles

And if you’d like to give clawhammer banjo a try, click here!

So, all that being said, if you have the desire and the ability, go for it! Just remember: Be patient…and have fun!


Kristin Scott Benson chooses the Deering Golden Series banjos
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