What Is Clawhammer Banjo?

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The banjo is an instrument with both a unique look and an intriguing sound. It also has a unique history as well, with its roots in West African music traditions.

Despite its development over the years, however, the modern 5-string banjo style seems to be the most dominant today thanks to the instrument’s huge presence in bluegrass music. However, there are actually a few different styles you can play on the banjo. The “clawhammer” style banjo is one of the most popular after the bluegrass banjo style.

But what is the clawhammer banjo style and is it worth learning? In this guide, we’ll tell you everything that you need to know about this banjo playing style.

What Is Clawhammer Banjo?

Clawhammer banjo is actually not a type of banjo but rather a style of playing the banjo.

These days, the 5-string bluegrass banjo style (also known as Scruggs Style banjo) popularized by Earl Scruggs is the most common style of playing. However, the clawhammer banjo style predates the bluegrass banjo style and has been around since the 1600s and 1700s. This style of banjo playing is also known as “frailing”.

Clawhammer-style banjo follows a specific pattern that is very rhythmic. It’s sometimes known as the “bum-ditty” rhythm. This is how to do it:

  1. Bum: Using the fingernail on the middle finger or index finger, you’ll pick one of the banjo’s first 4 strings.
  2. Di-: With the middle, index, and ring fingers, you’ll then strum all of the strings.
  3. -Tty: With your thumb, you’ll pick the banjo’s 5th string.
  4. Repeat steps 1-3

While the basic style of clawhammer banjo is pretty easy to grasp. However, it takes some practice before it becomes second nature. You’ll want to read up on it more or get a private lesson to understand it more fully and to learn how to play the variations of the basic pattern.

Bluegrass Banjo Vs Clawhammer Banjo

Playing Banjo

So how is clawhammer banjo different from today’s more popular 5-string banjo style, also known as Scruggs Style banjo? Here’s what you should know.

Clawhammer Style Banjo

Clawhammer is a style that focuses on strumming or “frailing” and is very rhythmic. While it’s possible to play melodies of a song with the style, it’s usually done so while also playing the rhythm as well. This creates a unique sound that can sometimes seem a bit abrasive while also being melodic.

Surprisingly, many consider clawhammer banjo to be a bit more melodic than bluegrass banjo. Clawhammer banjoists will pick out individual notes and may stick closer to the original melody than bluegrass banjo players will.

On the other hand, the clawhammer banjo also works great for accompaniment. This is because it’s possible to focus on strumming rather than on playing individual notes. Clawhammer can provide great rhythm as part of a band or to back up a singer without getting in the way with individual notes.

Bluegrass Style Banjo

When playing a 5-string bluegrass banjo style, players will always be playing individual notes while fingerpicking in the same way that a classical guitarist might be when fingerpicking notes. However, they’ll play many notes quickly and will create a high volume when doing so.

Banjoists can follow melodies on the instrument when playing the 5-string banjo style. However, there will also be many more notes in-between to fill up space. A key feature of the bluegrass banjo is bluegrass “rolls”. In these banjo rolls, the melody will be part of a picking pattern in which many notes are played.

Bluegrass banjo players may venture quite far from the melody of a song when improvising. While the bluegrass banjo can work as an accompaniment to a singer, the individual notes may interfere a bit with the singer. However, this style can work especially well as part of a full bluegrass band.

The bluegrass banjo has a rhythm to it. However, you won’t find any of the rhythmic strums or frailing that you’ll find in the clawhammer-style banjo.

Which Style of Banjo Should I Learn?

The style of banjo that you choose to learn will depend on a few different factors.

Typically, if you’re interested in playing in the bluegrass genre, you’ll want to learn to play a 5-string Scruggs Style banjo style rather than focusing on a clawhammer style banjo. You’ll typically want to learn bluegrass banjo if you plan on playing in country music as well since the genre borrows a lot from bluegrass.

Are you interested in playing old-time music? If so, then you’ll probably want to learn to play clawhammer style instead.

The question gets more complicated, however, if you’re interested in playing other styles of music. If you want to play folk music, rock music, or Dixieland jazz with the banjo, then you may have to venture further out from both of these two main banjo playing styles. You may need to borrow from both styles as you learn the specifics of different genres of music with the banjo.

Which Banjo Style Is Easier to Learn?

Another thing to keep in mind is how easy these banjo styles are to play.

Generally speaking, clawhammer banjo will be much easier to learn for the average player. The simple strumming patterns you’ll need to learn in the clawhammer banjo style are much simpler than the advanced banjo patterns you’ll need to learn with the 5-string banjo.

A lot of bluegrass music is also typically a lot faster than old-time music as well, making bluegrass-style banjo even more difficult to learn.

Unless you’re sure that you want to play bluegrass most of all and aren’t interested in learning other genres, you should probably start with clawhammer banjo. Keep in mind, however, that you can easily learn a bit of both of these banjo styles (and others) as you progress in your skills.

Making the Choice to Learn the Clawhammer Banjo Style

So what is a clawhammer banjo and should you learn to play it? Chances are that you have an answer to your questions now.

The 3-finger Scruggs Style banjo is a great option if you’re dedicated to bluegrass. However, many other newbies will want to start with the clawhammer banjo style and then progress to the 5-string banjo style later on. Be sure to consider all of the information above if you’re wondering whether playing the clawhammer banjo is the right choice for you.

Want to learn more about the banjo? Check out our complete banjo guide to learn more about this unique musical instrument.