How to Play a Clawhammer Classic on the Banjo - dummies

By Bill Evans

When you feel it’s time to use your new techniques to enhance your clawhammer banjo sound, attempt some favorite melodies that everyone will want to play with you at your next old-time jam session.

Some old time banjo songs to try

You can get moving with a double-thumbing workout with “Old Joe Clark” before retuning your banjo to C tuning to play the Scotch-Irish classic “Soldier’s Joy.” You can then retune once again to capture the high, lonesome sounds of “Cluck Old Hen” and finish up with the mysterious, deep, mountain tune “Last Chance.”

Old-time banjo players pride themselves on coming up with their own versions of their favorite songs, using their ear to guide their fingers to the notes they want to play. Don’t expect this kind of virtuosity right off the bat in your own playing.

Musicians discover their own style by listening to many different players and blending the best of the sounds and techniques that they enjoy in others’ playing. Memorizing someone else’s versions of these songs is fine, but feel free to discover your own ways of playing all old-time songs. It’s the old-time way!

Check out video clips at Banjo For Dummies to observe each song being played slowly. You can also download sound files online to take with you wherever you and your banjo may roam.

Playing “Old Joe Clark”

You can apply both the 1st-string pull-off and double-thumbing techniques to a tune that gets played just about every time old-time musicians get together. As you can see here, “Old Joe Clark” begins with an ascending 1st-string melody line that gives way to a growly, low second section that features everyone’s favorite — an F chord!

If you’re unfamiliar with the basic clawhammer technique that’s used in this second section of the tune, brush up on a tutorial in right-hand basics. You will need to know how to execute left-hand slides (marked with an s in tablature) and pull-offs (marked with a p).

“Old Joe Clark,” using double thumbing and 1st-string pull-off techniques.
“Old Joe Clark,” using double thumbing and 1st-string pull-off techniques.

The double-thumbing technique is the perfect way to capture the climbing melody of the first section of “Old Joe Clark.” Be sure you’re comfortable playing the double-thumbing right-hand exercise before adding the 1st-string fretted notes you find in the first part of this arrangement.

The second part of “Old Joe Clark” adds 1st-string pull-offs to the basic clawhammer pattern. When you put together these new techniques for the first time in a song, always begin by playing each new phrase slowly, concentrating on the rhythm in the right hand.

Don’t worry about playing faster until you’re completely comfortable with these new combinations at a slow tempo, and don’t forget to listen to the audio track “Old Joe Clark” Using Double-Thumbing and 1st-string Pull-off Techniques and take a look at the video clip Clawhammer Banjo: “Old Joe Clark” .