What Is Clawhammer Banjo? - dummies

By Bill Evans

Old-time banjo is the fastest growing banjo style on the planet for lots of good reasons. The basic techniques are easy and fun to learn, and it’s a great way to play the banjo while singing.

In old-time music, which usually combines the sound of the banjo with the fiddle, guitar, and mandolin, everyone often plays melodies at the same time, and this allows players of different experience levels to sound great together. Once you master a few old-time moves, you’ll soon be able to experience a profound, life-altering experience: the outrageous joy of playing music with others. It’s better than moonshine!

Old-time banjo refers to several different ways of playing; three of the most important old-time approaches are clawhammer, Pete Seeger-style, and fingerpicking. As a new banjo player, you can move beyond the clawhammer basics to play jam session favorites that add new right- and left-hand techniques to your banjo picking toolbox.

Along the way, you can mix and match in new ways many familiar techniques and discover the most widely used old-time banjo tunings. It’s a good idea to review the songs and techniques you already know before starting down this old-time banjo road.

Some banjo players call it clawhammer while others call it frailing. Out in the country, this banjo style has also been called rapping, beating, thumping, whomping, and my own personal favorite, knockdown banjo. With names like these, it’s no wonder that hordes of rock and punk musicians are taking up the instrument!

Whatever you like to call it, these colorful labels draw attention to the most important characteristic of clawhammer banjo: the right-hand fingers moving down across the strings. It’s this driving, percussive sound that is the essence of the clawhammer style. From the moment you hear it, you want to get up and dance!

If you’re brand new to clawhammer playing, it’s best to get acquainted with the essential elements of this style. Make sure you find a comfortable right-hand playing position, and review the basic playing techniques that come in handy for the more challenging tunes you will tackle.