When most people think of the banjo, they tend to think of Bluegrass, Earl Scruggs, and the 3-finger style. You'd be forgiven for not knowing banjo could be anything else given their dominance in mainstream culture. In the movies, and in popular folk outfits like the Flecktones, or Mumford and Sons, 3-finger style has reigned supreme since Scruggs pioneered it in the mid-1940s.
Far older, though now overshadowed by its upstart younger sibling, clawhammer banjo remains an alternative option for those seeking a gentler, more melodic sound.
Simply put: clawhammer describes a method of playing where the strings are struck using the back of your index or middle finger nail, then alternately plucked with your thumb. This is in comparison to 3-finger style, where the strings are all plucked individually by the thumb, index, and middle fingers. The term ‘clawhammer' refers both to the shape of your hand as you play (claw-like), and the way that you strike the strings (by hammering them).
Clawhammer banjo is most closely associated with ‘old-time' tunes and traditional American music, although the style can be applied equally to contemporary genres and songs. It is typically played on open-back banjos, which emphasize its mellow tone and are in keeping with the instruments used by its creators.
So who invented it, and where did it come from? To answer those questions we must look back to the earliest roots of American history, and in particular, the slave trade.
There are reports as early as 1620 of banjo-esque instruments being played by the inhabitants of West Africa. These featured drums fashioned with animal skin over the hard shell of the gourd fruit, with a stick neck attached at one end, and strings looped over the top to produce various tunings.
During the 1600s and 1700s, the trans-Atlantic slave trade came into full force. First in the Caribbean, then as more and more of the Americas were colonized, black slaves brought these instruments with them to the plantations and mills where they were made to work. Slaves played these instruments almost universally in the clawhammer style, although at the time it was more commonly referred to as stroke style, framming or frailing.
By the 1800s, banjos had assumed their familiar 5-string form; complete with tuning pegs, but all entirely fretless. They were still associated first and foremost with their African heritage and their popularity among slave musicians. Clawhammer banjo of the period was often played as a rhythmic accompaniment to the melodic lead of a fiddler, producing the early dance tunes which we now know as old-time standards.
White performers such as Joel Walker Sweeney and Daniel D. Emmett would later learn the clawhammer style from these slave musicians. They went on to use it in the popular minstrel shows which toured the country during this time and taught it to their contemporaries, who spread both the instrument and style further across the nation.
All clawhammer banjo playing is based on one very simple pattern; the ‘bum-ditty', named as such because the three syllables correspond to the three distinct movements you make when performing it. These movements can be broken down as follows:
In terms of musical notation, a bum ditty pattern consists of one whole note and two half notes. This can be built upon with a technique known as double-thumbing, where the fifth string is plucked a second time between the ‘Bum' and ‘Di', creating a ‘bump-a-ditty' pattern. The bump-a-ditty pattern is comprised of four half notes.
Clawhammer banjo players didn't just pick these patterns because they liked the sound. They have been born out of necessity, as practical solutions to the limitations imposed by the style. Each movement within the pattern sets up the playing hand to be in the right position to make the next. This economy of movement is what allows clawhammer players to achieve speed and maintain rock-solid rhythm, despite the style's relative unnaturalness.
Advanced techniques such as dropped thumb, syncopated skips, and up-strumming can be used to spice up clawhammer style. However, at its core, it never deviates from the essentials of the bum-ditty pattern.
Compared to the fast-paced picking of 3-finger style, clawhammer banjo is a lot more laid-back. It conjures images of late evenings sat out on the porch, rather than the barnstorming dances of bluegrass. That's not to say that clawhammer banjoists can't play fast, nor that 3-finger players necessarily have to. It's just that each style shines in separate playing situations.
For instance, clawhammer banjo is often a lot more melodic than 3-finger style. The rhythmic pattern places limitations on how many notes you can play, and when. This means clawhammer players tend to stick closer to the essential melody notes of the tune being performed. By comparison, bluegrass players generally seek to produce a ‘wall of sound', where the gaps between melody notes are filled in with extras from the chord tone.
The ability to play individual notes and strum - a technique not easily achievable by 3-finger players - also makes clawhammer banjo an incredibly versatile style. It can carry the melody by picking out single notes, and strum chords to emphasize the rhythm of a song, allowing it to lead or support other musicians as required. Singing along to clawhammer is also more effective for this reason, as you can distinguish easily between instrumental and vocal parts of a song.
Clawhammer banjo translates well on other instruments too. Both guitar and ukulele can be played in clawhammer style, producing a unique sound which is well suited to those old-time, folk, and country songs.
If you have a banjo to hand and an hour to spare, check out Barry Hunn's step-by-step guide on the clawhammer method. It's a great place to start your clawhammer journey; from the most basic hand movements and positions, all the way up to fiddly fretting techniques, and your first clawhammer tune!
If you're brand new to banjo, take a look at some of our tips for the aspiring player, which can help you decide exactly what kind of instrument is right for you.
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