How to Play Clawhammer Banjo: Everything You Need to Know to Play Banjo

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You’re just thinking about learning to play the banjo, but your imagination is already painting pictures of the way it would look. But on the other hand, you begin to doubt that something will work and put the dream on hold.

In banjo playing, the main thing is to know where to start. In this article, I’ve compiled some basic information about the “symbol of American music” and answered the exciting issue of how to play a clawhammer banjo. This article will help you gain some basic knowledge to apply in practice.

Guide on a Clawhammer Banjo

Before you start playing this amazing musical instrument:

  1. Explore the history of the banjo to get a better understanding of the subject.
  2. What types of banjo playing are there?
  3. What is a banjo clawhammer?
  4. Techniques for playing the clawhammer banjo.
  5. How do I learn to play the banjo?
  6. Is it difficult to learn to play this musical instrument?

Clawhammer banjo yourself

How the Banjo Became a Symbol of American Culture

Folk art best reflects a country’s culture. For example, country music is characteristic of America. Over several centuries, it has absorbed something of the local, African-American and immigrant styles. The banjo sound cannot be confused with any other musical instrument. You can still hear his upbeat music if you visit some American restaurants. Musicians use it as a solo instrument and an accompaniment adding color to any tune.

The banjo is a classic that never goes out of style. The music has retained its traditional rhythm, which is sometimes supplemented by new elements. Listening to this musical instrument is like taking a trip back in time. I invite you to take a short excursion through the musical instrument’s history and where the famous clawhammer banjo comes from.

History of the banjo’s origins

The banjo’s history goes back to the 1620s when West Africans made its prototype. The African people made such a musical instrument from the shell of a dried gourd by putting the skin of an animal on it. Instead of a modern vulture, the neck was a simple stick and semblance of strings.

The slave trade became widespread in the 17th century. The enslaved from West Africa were shipped in increasing numbers, first to the Caribbean and then to North America. The Africans brought with them a musical instrument. The laborers never parted with their banjos and played them everywhere, even on the plantations.

The first 5-string banjo appeared in the early 19th century. But everyone still perceived it as an instrument of African heritage. It was used to play light dance tunes. The banjo playing was also an accompaniment to the fiddle player’s part.

Clawhammer banjo yourself

With time, the musical instrument has become of interest to Americans. Musician Joel Sweeney learned to play from enslaved Africans, and he was one of the first to popularize banjo playing by performing it on stage.

Then the banjo only evolved. Musicians tried to bring something of their own and added new styles to the classic motif. The instrument itself also changed over time. Its distinctive shape and resonant melody remain unchanged, which still excites the listeners’ hearts to this day.

While in the United States the banjo is a popular musical instrument that everyone can play, in the homeland of the banjo, only a select few are allowed to play it.

What Is a Clawhammer Banjo?

In simple terms, the clawhammer banjo is a style of playing dating back to the origins of world music history. Enslaved West Africans used this technique. There are several versions of the origin of the term “clawhammer.” According to the first version, in the typical banjo playing position, the thumb looks like the claw of a top hammer. The second version says that the movement down the strings resembles a hammer-like movement.

A simple association best explains the term. The hand striking the strings as you play is like a claw, and the fingers strike the strings like a hammer.

Clawhammer is unlike anything else in American music. The style is laid-back, evoking associations with summertime romantic evenings when you meet up with your friends to chat. And the music in the background discreetly invites you to dance.

Other types of banjo playing

You are already familiar with the traditional style of playing the clawhammer. Let’s take a look at other types of banjo playing.

  • Bluegrass. It also goes by the name of the 3-fingered style. It comes from the American musician Earl Scruggs. He popularised his style of music in a 3-fingered manner. He performed the technique with his thumb, index finger, and middle finger. Such music sounds faster and more expressive.
  • Irish folk. It originated in Ireland. A 4-string banjo with a short fingerboard and 17 frets is typical of this style. Unlike bluegrass, where you hit the strings with your fingers, the Irish style uses a plectrum.
  • Dixieland jazz style. The technique is also performed using a plectrum on a 4-string banjo. The pick is held between the thumb and forefinger.

What Is the “Basic Clawhammer Stroke”?

The basis of the clawhammer banjo is simple rhythmic motions. In the music world, it is called “Bum-Di-Tty”.

When playing the clawhammer rhythm, the thumb of the right hand is always over the fifth string. With the fingernail of your index or middle finger, you strike the other strings so that the characteristic rhythm emerges.

Africans have invented this technique for a reason. This hand position allows the performer to start and end the movement smoothly, so the rhythm of the music is preserved. Nowadays, the technique сlawhammer can be diluted with other motions to add a little spice to classical banjo music. But in any case, the basic foundation is retained.

Clawhammer banjo itself

The Basic Clawhammer Stroke in Three Actions of the Right Hand

The characteristic clawhammer rhythm is played with the fingers of the right hand, striking down the strings. Let’s look at the correct sequence for the right rhythmic sound.

1. Strike

The first strike should be done with the thumb or index finger, as you prefer. The thumb is on the fifth string. The blow strikes with your fingernail, but you can use a special pad on your finger for convenience. The first movement aims to play one clean note.

2. Strum

With the finger you used for the first stroke, slide it across all the strings. After this, you return the thumb to the fifth string.

3. Fifth string

The final movement is raising the fifth string with the thumb.

These are simple movements, but they will take some practice before you manage to play a clean sound the first time.

The Basic Clawhammer Strums

The clawhammer’s basic technique is to position your hand in a claw shape near the strings. Your thumb is on the 5th string. The tips of your thumb and index fingers tend towards each other. The fingernails of the thumb and middle fingers strike the strings, with the thumb remaining in the same position.

When you strike the first beat on the high strings, then the second again on the high ones, and finish with an accent on the low string, you get the classical clawhammer sound “Bum-Dit-Ty”.

Clawhammer banjo by yourself

How hard is it to learn to play the banjo?

The most popular myth about this musical instrument is that the banjo is complicated to play. There are different types of banjos and various styles of playing. But it’s easier for a beginner to learn to play the banjo than the guitar. Because the strings of this musical instrument are thinner than those of a guitar. That’s why it takes less effort for you to play a simple chord.

If you have to choose between different musical instruments, the 5-string banjo is ideal to start. If you master a basic style like the clawhammer, later on, you can master the more virtuoso techniques with ease.

FAQ About the Clawhammer Style of Play

All newcomers are interested in more or less the same questions and answers to the most common ones we publish for you in this section.

How long do I need to study clawhammer banjo?

It depends on your skills and how much time you can devote to training. For people of average musical ability and limited time to practice, it can take up to 2 years to learn. Banjo instructors say it takes 2,000 hours of practice to become a banjo player.

Do clawhammer banjo is hard to play?

It depends on whether you have played the guitar or are a beginner. The clawhammer technique’s main task is to learn to keep your hand in the correct position. Both beginners and experienced guitarists will need time to learn this skill.

Can I play a clawhammer style on ukulele or guitar?

Using the clawhammer technique is possible on both the guitar and the ukulele. When comparing these 2 instruments, the ukulele has a more melodic sound, and that is because the fifth string on the guitar is the bass string, not the highest one like on a banjo or ukulele.

You Can Start Playing the Banjo

How to play a banjo? It’s not as complicated as you think. The main thing is to get started and practice every day. You already know the types of banjo playing techniques. Just find the one you like the most, choose a favorite song and focus only on it. After some time of diligent and regular practice, you’ll be confidently playing your first tune.

Share your impressions of the clawhammer style in the comments. What other styles do you prefer?

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About the author

Country Music Singer, Tayo Reed, grow up listening to Country Music as a child in sweet home, "Alabama". "I am authentically a true country girl at heart. I have only desired to sing one style of music. I have never wavered, in spite of disappointments, delays, rejections, and detours."

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