What Is Clawhammer Banjo?

Clawhammer is a term that is often mentioned in the world of banjo, although many beginners and individuals new to the instrument may need more experience with it. The good news is that answering the question “what is clawhammer banjo?” is simple. Read this article for more information!

What is a clawhammer banjo?

Most people associate the banjo with Bluegrass, Earl Scruggs, and the three-finger technique. Far older but now overshadowed by its younger sister, clawhammer banjo remains a choice for those wanting a softer, more melodic sound.

Clawhammer is a technique in which the strings are hammered with the back of your index or middle fingernail and then plucked with your thumb. This is in contrast to the 3-finger method, in which the thumb plucks the strings, index, and middle fingers separately. The word ‘clawhammer’ refers to both the form of your hand when playing (claw-like) and how you hit the strings (by hammering them).

Although clawhammer banjo is closely linked with ‘old-time’ melodies and traditional American music, the technique may also be adapted to modern genres and compositions. It is usually performed on open-back banjos, which enhance the mellow tone and are similar to the instruments used by its inventors.

Origin of clawhammer banjo

image: pexels.com

There are tales of banjo-like instruments played by West Africans as early as 1620. These included drums of animal skin stretched over the hard shell of a gourd fruit, with a stick neck connected at one end and strings wrapped over the top to generate varied tunings.

The trans-Atlantic slave trade reached its peak in the 1600s and 1700s. These tools were carried by Black enslaved people to the plantations and mills where they were forced to work, first in the Caribbean and then when more of the Americas were colonized. 

Enslaved people nearly usually played these instruments in the clawhammer manner, which was also known as stroke style, framing, or frailing during the period.

By the 1800s, banjos had evolved into their iconic 5-string configuration, complete with tuning pegs but completely fretless. They were still most closely identified with their African background and appeal among slave musicians. Clawhammer banjo was often used as a rhythmic accompaniment to a fiddler’s melodic lead, generating early dance melodies that are now known as old-time classics.

These slave musicians taught white artists like Joel Walker Sweeney and Daniel D. Emmett the clawhammer method. They later used it in popular minstrel performances that toured the country then, and they taught it to their contemporaries, who further popularized the instrument and technique throughout the country.

The melody of clawhammer banjo

All clawhammer banjo playing is based on a single, basic pattern known as the ‘bum-ditty,’ so called because the three syllables correlate to the three unique motions you make when executing it. These motions are classified as follows:

  • ‘Bum’: hit any of the first four strings on the banjo with your index or middle finger’s nail. Allow this note to ring for one full count.

  • ‘Di-‘: run your index, middle, and ring fingers’ nails over the strings. Allow your thumb to rest on the fifth string while you do this.

  • ‘-Tty’: use your thumb to pull off the fifth string. Your striking finger is ready to pound the next string and continue this rhythm.

Is it possible to play clawhammer on any banjo?

Amazon.com: Jameson Guitars Left Handed 6-String Left Handed Banjo Guitar  with Closed Back Resonator and 24 Brackets : Musical Instruments

image: amazon.com

Clawhammer can be played on any 5-string banjo! Because it’s a strumming technique, it doesn’t matter whether you use a resonator or an open back. Most people used to believe that clawhammer could only be performed on open-backed banjos; however, this is fiction.

Although resonator banjos were not created until much later, they are still often utilized with a clawhammer. In reality, many of the finest clawhammer banjoists, like Wade Ward, Ralph Stanley, J.D Wilkes, Mike Seegar, and String Bean, all used resonator banjos to perform clawhammer.

Is it difficult to play clawhammer banjo?

Amazon.com: Ibanez B200 5 String Banjo w/Basswood Rim : Musical Instruments

image: amazon.com

Most people believe that clawhammer banjo is simpler to learn than Scruggs style. You have the fundamental stroke with clawhammer banjo, and once you learn it, you can play anything.

With its many rolls and picking patterns, Scruggs’s style is more complex! Both approaches have benefits, but we suggest starting with a clawhammer for most individuals.


What is the difference between clawhammer banjo and bluegrass banjo?

Bluegrass banjo, unlike clawhammer, does not use strumming at all. Instead, fingerpicks are used on the thumb, index, and middle fingers, and the strings are plucked in the same way a classical guitarist would pluck guitar strings. Earl Scruggs is widely regarded as the father of this style of banjo playing.

Is it necessary to have nails to play clawhammer banjo?

The strings will be struck with either your right hand’s index or middle finger (for right-handed players). The majority of clawhammer banjo players use the fingernail. To aid in playing, some people grow their fingernails longer. Other fragile people benefit from a stick-on artificial fingernail.

Is clawhammer more difficult than bluegrass?

Clawhammer-type banjo has always been regarded to be simpler to learn than bluegrass Scruggs-style banjo. That’s because once you’ve mastered the fundamental clawhammer stroke, everything else falls into place naturally.

Does clawhammer make use of picks?

The Sound Test is a success. A clawhammer banjo pick is similar to a standard fingerpick in that it fits over your striking finger. The main distinction is that they sit the other way, covering your nail rather than your fingers.

Final words

Hopefully, with the information the article has provided, you will know: What is clawhammer banjo? And you also know other basic information about clawhammer. Hopefully, this article will be useful to you, and I hope you will choose the best clawhammer banjo!

Author: Geraldine Ben

Do you have any idea about what are some popular musical instruments? What about your favorite band? Do you know anything about any particular bands or musicians? There are so many musical instruments available for sale that it would be challenging and time-consuming for customers to compare many items among them and choose the best. I am Ben - a lover of all things musical. I synthesize the best instruments to help anyone with their equipment needs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *