By Bill Evans

The two most popular banjo playing styles in the world today are clawhammer (also called frailing) and bluegrass. Each of these styles uses a different right-hand position as well as a different way of striking the strings. Although most players tend to specialize in either one or the other style, you should try both approaches right from the start.

However, before you just jump in and start making a racket, it’s a good idea to take a look at what the right hand does in clawhammer and bluegrass banjo. Get ready to position your picking hand on the banjo and start striking your fingers against the strings just like you will when you really know what you’re doing.

Here’s one of the most important things you’ll learn as a new banjo player: The key to becoming a great banjo player is to get your right hand together. Your right hand (or more accurately, your picking hand for all you left-handed players in the house) conveys your rhythm, expresses your mood, captures your tone, and gives the drive to your playing that makes you and those around you want to move.

These right-hand techniques are unique to the banjo and sound different from what you would hear on instruments like the guitar and mandolin. You’ll notice an immediate difference in your playing after just a few minutes of practice with these patterns.

After you become comfortable with the exercises in this chapter, you can put your new skills to work by playing along with two tunes. You’ll be well on your way to becoming a good banjo player!

Whether it’s clawhammer or bluegrass, playing the banjo makes you part of a living and ever-evolving musical tradition. Each new generation of players, amateur and professional alike, makes its own unique contribution. Now it’s time for you to start making your contribution by getting out your banjo and practicing the right-hand basics of clawhammer and bluegrass banjo.

When you’re talking about the banjo, the terms clawhammer and bluegrass refer to two different ways of striking the strings of your banjo with the right hand. Here are the crucial differences:

  • Clawhammer technique is sometimes called a down-picking approach to banjo playing because the right-hand fingers strike the strings in a downward motion. Clawhammer is the older of these two ways of playing the banjo, with historical roots that can be traced back several centuries to the African ancestry of the banjo.

  • Bluegrass is known as an up-picking approach, because the right-hand index and middle fingers strike the strings in an upward motion, with the right-hand fingers moving in towards the palm of your right hand and the thumb moving in a downward direction. North Carolina banjo player Earl Scruggs is largely responsible for creating the bluegrass banjo style, bringing it to national attention in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Within easy reach of the right-hand thumb, the 5th string is a big part of what makes banjo music sound unique, and both the clawhammer and bluegrass styles focus a lot of attention on this high-pitched string. As you work through this chapter, take note of how the 5th string is used in each style and also how the melody of a song is played, and you’ll be well on your way to understanding what banjo music is all about.