Thursday, December 11, 2008

Clawhammer! #4

So to bring us up to date, we last left off with the more recent history of clawhammer banjo, & then after being reminded once again that history is a persnickety & inexact science, we left off with a bit more history of same. Today we’ll get into some more nuts & bolts stuff—such things as instructional books & DVDs, & YouTube & tab sites. My disclaimer here is the same as in the first installment of this series: I’m very far from a clawhammer expert—I’m a much better guitar & uke player than a banjoist—& any info I give comes from personal experience as I’ve tried to get the hang of this style in between keeping up my chops on those instruments I sometimes play/teach for legal tender. Still, I’d hope this post might serve as a resource for those looking into the clawhammer/frailing style.

There are a gazillion websites & books describing the infamous “bum ditty” strum, which most
clawhammer banjo teachers describe as the foundation of this style (tho not all: see Dan Levenson, who's mentioned below); & because I’m not out to re-invent the wheel (especially when there are lots of better wheel makers around), I’ll just direct you to the “bum ditty” page on E-Z Folk, where Richard Hefner explains it clearly, & also provides pix & video (this is a case where a picture is worth 1,000 words, a video is worth 10,000, & a real life banjo player is worth about 100,000).

Now should you decide to take up clawhammer banjo, the best piece of advice I could give is: get a good teacher—i.e., do as I say, not as I did (tho I do have the excuse of living in a place where there are no clawhammer banjo teachers within a rad
ius of many miles). Clawhammer right-hand technique isn’t all that hard, but it is quirky, & you can get off to a lot of wrong starts (I speak from experience). In lieu of (or better yet, in addition to) a good teacher, there are tons of clawhammer videos on YouTube. I personally subscribe to Cathy Moore’s Banjo Meets World—same title as her excellent blog— (see the Blogroll below) & Patrick Costello’s Dobro 33H, which has resonator guitar & harmonica videos in addition to the banjo material. Mr Costello’s Tangier Sound site (again on our Blogroll) also has lots of videos. It’s very important to watch the right-hand motion of someone who knows what he/she is doing.

Likewise, there are a number of good instructional DVD
s out there; Dan Levenson has a companion dvd to his Clawhammer from Scratch book (both are Mel Bay products), & I’ve also learned a lot from Ken Perlman’s Clawhammer Style Banjo DVD, from Hal Leonard. There are also DVDs from other well-known players—for instance, Bob Carlin—but I’m not familiar with them.

& there are lots of “how to clawhammer that banjo” type books out there, & all the ones I’ve seen myself have some virtues. Seeger’s venerable How to Play the 5-String Banjo has a good chapter on clawhammer, as does Art Rosenbaum’s old standby, Old-Time Mountain Banjo. The first book I ever looked at was Wayne Erbsen’s Southern
Mountain Banjo. Erbsen is a good writer & a talented musician, & I think his arrangements—even the simple ones—have a good sound. However, he does recommend using both the index & middle finger while playing clawhammer—he isn’t alone in this practice, but it’s not the “usual” right-hand style; & while I stress to my guitar students that fingerstyle playing involves getting their right-hand fingers to work together, there’s a lot to be said banjo-wise for the economic motion of using just one finger & the thumb—the more I’ve worked at clawhammer banjo, the more I’m convinced economy of motion is the key. I’d make the same observation about his Clawhammer Banjo for the Complete Ignoramus, tho again, it’s well written & contains arrangements of great old-time tunes that are easy to play but sound nice.

I’ve learned a lot from Levenson’s Clawhammer Banjo
From Scratch & Ken Perlman’s Clawhammer Style Banjo (the companion to the DVD I mentioned earlier). Perlman has a more conventional approach, starting in open G tuning & building on the bum ditty strum; Levenson’s entire book is in the double C tuning (capoed to double D as it typically would be because of those pesky fiddlers—I’ll get into the tuning question in next week’s final installment) & defers the bum ditty to the end of the book. Each approach has its virtues, & both of these fellows are very good banjoists & teachers.

Another book that’s well worth a look is Patrick Costello’s The How & Tao of Old-Time Banjo. For one thing, this book is more aimed at folks who both sing & play, with lots of good info on back-up playing; also, any book that talks about using a bottleneck slide on a banjo is ok by me. Another thing to like: Costello’s book spends s
ome time on banjo playing beyond the strict confines of “old-time,” (i.e., fiddle tunes)—tho there’s certainly plenty of material about old-time tunes. Costello also has a good practical exercise for beginners to develop the right-hand technique of the notorious bum ditty strum. That book’s available direct from the author at the Tangier Sound blog.

There are plenty of clawhammer tab sites on the web
—practically all of these tunes are public domain, & whether that’s a cause or a coincidence, the quality of banjo tab out there is pretty high in comparison with a lot of the guitar tab floating around. A Google search on “clawhammer tab” will take you to a lot of places; Mike Iverson's Blue Sage Band site is particularly comprehensive & well-done, but there are plenty of good ones. Having recently read Cathy Moore’s observations on tab (which you also can read here), however, I’d have to agree with her that tablature can hold a person back as much (or more) as spurring him/her forward—Ms Moore makes the observation that “you can get stuck playing the tune the way you learned it from the tab. You haven’t really developed your ear; you’ve just memorized specific motions. This can make it hard for you to adapt to what others are playing or to make the tune your own.” I do believe that—at least when you’re at the point of wanting to play with others &/or perform—you play tunes best by finding your own way into them, & listening to what you’re playing. Ms Moore does observe (& I'd agree) that tab can be a good way to learn techniques & to learn how to make arrangements (by comparing different versions of a tabbed song).

Another observation on tab comes from well-known contemporary clawhammer player Dwight Diller (see pic below); Mr Diller gives an important notice at the top of this tab page; he states, “I wanted to let it be known that I generally have observed students u
sing tablature to emphasize the wrong thing which ultimately destroys their music. Contrary to 'expert' opinion, the music is not about notes, drop thumbs, pulloffs, hammers-onses, more tunes, etc. Listen to the old people, and you will start to catch on to what the music is about: Rhythm—the thing that is impossible to teach…. I am not against tab, but I am against anything that stands in the way of a person developing their own personal music.”

& that’s a good way to sign off on this post.


  1. A couple of things about "The How and the Tao of Old Time Banjo": The book is freely available under a Creative Commons license, it was never intended for publication (it started out as a free handout for an after school banjo club) and I didn't go deep into fiddle tunes simply because nobody was really doing that when I was learning my craft.


  2. Hi Patrick:

    Thanks for mentioning that-- I've actually read it on E-Z Folk. Still, it's a really good book-- well-written & entertaining-- & one that would be worth having in a form other than pixels. What you say about the fiddle tunes is interesting; I do think that what you did include makes your book unique among the frailing books I've seen.

    Hope you're doing ok.

  3. I have been around banjos one way or another since I took my first bluegrass lesson in 1978 - and in those thirty years I have watched banjo history reshaped into something I hardly recognize anymore.

    It's like poetry. Poetry is something that could and should be accessible to everybody, but the general public has allowed themselves to be bamboozled into thinking that they have to avoid it. We are told that we are not smart enough or sensitive enough or educated enough - pretty much everything that Woody Guthrie said was happening to music.

    The same thing is happening to the banjo. We have taken the instrument - and the music - from the people and allowed an elite group to dictate what can and should be played.

  4. The same thing has also happened to a great degree with jazz-- it's been made into an academic discipline & taken out of the bars & dancehalls, etc. On the one hand, I like the fact that the jazzers are getting credit for what they did-- on the other, I think that kind of slant ends up potentially killing the music. With the banjo & old-time music, you run into the danger of making things too rigid & stifling in an effort to "preserve" some tradition; Cathy Moore had a good post about this recently on her Banjo Meets World blog. I appreciate your calling me on it to some extent last week, pointing out how I'd overlooked Grandpa Jones & Stringbean. My poor old father would have been appalled.



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