Clawhammer Banjo: Right-Hand Basics
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!