Clawhammer Banjo: Right-Hand Basics - dummies

By Bill Evans

Clawhammer banjo combines melody and rhythm in a way that makes people want to get up and dance. This playing style sounds unlike anything else in American music! The exact origin of the word clawhammer is unknown. However, the term seems to describe the desired shape of the right-hand thumb when playing this technique — mimicking the “claw” of the top part of a standard nail hammer (hence clawhammer).

Other musicians relate the term to the hammer-like downward movement that’s used to strike the strings. Many West African–type banjos have been played in similar ways for centuries, but the specific rhythms, techniques, and sounds of clawhammer banjo were developed in the southern United States from the mid-19th to the early-20th centuries. When you play clawhammer banjo, you’re connecting to a very deep current of musical world history!

A West African banjo (called an ekonting) (a) and a late 19th century American banjo (b).

Good right-hand technique is the most important aspect of clawhammer playing. Finding a comfortable and stable right-hand position to enable your fingers and thumb to do their work is the first step toward this goal. Follow this step-by-step guide to finding a position that works for you:

  1. With your palm and wrist parallel to the banjo head, grab the top of the 5th string with your right-hand thumb over the banjo head, not too far from where the neck joins the banjo pot.

  2. While still holding the thumb against the 5th string, bring your right-hand fingers into your hand and make a fist; relax the fingers just a bit, keeping them flexed at such an angle that the fingernails are parallel to the banjo head and the fingers are no more than one or two inches above the strings.

    Your hand should now look like the hand in this Figure a.


  3. Play the 3rd string by moving down and across it with your right-hand index finger, moving the hand from the wrist (see Figure b).

    Strike the string with enough downward force so that your index finger comes to rest against the 2nd string (as shown in Figure c). Some players also use their forearm in addition to their wrist to get a more forceful hand motion. Note that the right-hand thumb stays in contact with the 5th string throughout this exercise.

Your fingers should maintain the same position as your hand moves down to allow the index finger to strike the string — don’t let the fingers flip out as they meet the strings. The fingers need to stay fairly stiff so that the index finger can provide resistance against the string, but you don’t want to be too tense.

Likewise, keep the wrist unlocked but not actually loose. The more you practice, the more you can get the hang of playing clawhammer style with the “loose stiffness” that you need to get a good sound.