Clawhammer

Clawhammer

Clawhammer and frailing describe a class of fingerpicking techniques used by banjo and, rarely, guitar players. The two terms are mostly used interchangeably, though some players make a distinction.

Clawhammer is a highly rhythmic and common component of American old-time music. The principal difference between clawhammer style and other finger picking styles is the picking direction. Traditional picking styles, including those for folk, bluegrass, and classical guitar, consist of an up-picking motion by the fingers and a down-picking motion by the thumb; this is also the technique used in the Scruggs style for the banjo. Clawhammer picking, by contrast, is primarily a down-picking style. The hand assumes a claw-like shape and the strumming finger is kept fairly stiff, striking the strings by the motion of the hand at the wrist and/or elbow, rather than a flicking motion by the finger. In its most common form on the banjo, only the thumb and middle or index finger are used and the finger always downpicks, hitting the string with the back of the fingernail or a pick.

Modern musicians who have used the clawhammer style of picking include Bob Carlin, Dwight Diller, Eric Clapton, Ken Perlman, Dan Levenson, Brad Leftwich, Mark Johnson, Dick Kimmel, Michael J. Miles, Abigail Washburn and thousands of others. Actor/comedian Steve Martin played clawhammer banjo as part of his stage act in the 1970s. In fact there are probably more clawhammer players today than there ever have been, thanks to exploding population and widespread references in media. Early practitioners include Clarence Ashley, Tommy Jarrell, Kyle Creed, and Wade Ward.

Clawhammer technique

A common characteristic of clawhammer patterns is the thumb does not pick on the downbeat, as one might in typical fingerpicking patterns for guitar. For example, this is a common, basic 2/4 pattern:

  1. Pick a melody note on the downbeat (quarter note)
  2. On the second beat, strum a few strings with your strumming finger (roughly an eighth note)
  3. Immediately following (on the second half of this beat), pick a note with the thumb, usually the shorter fifth string. (roughly an eighth note)

Here, the thumb plays the high drone on the second "and" of "one and two and". This combined with the middle finger strumming provides a characteristic "bum-ditty bum-ditty" banjo sound, whether actually played on a banjo or on a guitar.

Banjo players often also use the left hand, the fingering hand, to pick. Using a motion similar to a pull-off, the left hand picks up at the top of the neck, usually on the second half of the first beat. The result is a change from the "bum-ditty" sound to a "bum-pa-ditty".

Clawhammer vs. frailing

While the terms "clawhammer" and "frailing" can be used interchangeably, other old-time players draw a distinction between the two. On the banjo, frailing most commonly means always picking the drone string, while clawhammer allows the picking of other strings with the thumb, which is also called "drop thumbing". Some players further distinguish between "drop thumb" and "clawhammer", in which the thumb plays rhythm in drop thumb, but melody in clawhammer. There are yet more variations of the distinction between "clawhammer" and "frailing", but they all refer to the same general style of playing. The term "double thumbing" is sometimes used interchangeably with "drop thumbing", though double thumbing refers specifically to striking the fifth string after every beat rather than every other beat, while drop thumbing refers to dropping the thumb from the 5th drone string down to strike a melody note.

Confusing the nomenclature further are the terms that are used for perceived variations on the method. These include "flailing," "knockdown", "banging," "rapping," "beating," and "clubbing." This is reflective of the informality of old-time music in general, as each player develops an idiomatic style.

Some have noted a general tendency towards more traditional and rhythmically-oriented frailing styles in the South, particularly in North Carolina, and a general tendency towards more melodically intricate styles in New England. The clawhammer banjo style of Boston banjo virtuoso Ken Perlman, for example, is highly melodic and uses the thumb extensively to play long single-note lines that use the drone string more for melody notes than for rhythmic accent. However, some clawhammer banjo aficionados (including Perlman) have argued that melodic clawhammer banjo techniques are more traditional and ancient than many advocates of the frailing style suppose.

Clawhammer on guitar

Although both "clawhammer" and "frailing" are primarily used to refer to banjo styles, the terms do appear with reference to guitar. Fingerstyle guitarist Steve Baughman distinguishes between frailing and clawhammer as follows. In frailing, the index fingertip is used for up-picking melody, and the middle fingernail is used for rhythmic downward brushing. In clawhammer, only downstrokes are used, and they are typically played with one fingernail as is the usual technique on the banjo. Players in this down-picking style include Baughman, Jody Stecher, Michael Stadler, and Alec Stone Sweet.

Another usage of "clawhammer" in guitar circles refers to a style in which the pinky finger or the pinky and ring fingers are used to brace the hand and the index finger, middle finger, and thumb are used to pluck the strings. The index and middle fingers are held in a claw shape and they do resemble the two prongs of a claw hammer, but this is an uncommon and arguably incorrect usage of the term "clawhammer". See fingerpicking.

Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits used a variant of the clawhammer technique. In recent years, the clawhammer technique has been applied to playing bass. Examples include Michael Todd, of Coheed and Cambria, and Steve Parker of Elements of Refusal.

Further reading

  • Costello, Patrick, The How and the Tao of Old Time Banjo, Pik-Ware Publishing, 2003 (ISBN 0-9744190-0-1). Instruction in frailing banjo. Available online under a Creative Commons license on several web sites
  • Costello, Patrick, A Book Of Five Strings, Pik-Ware Publishing, 2004 (ISBN 0-9744190-2-8). Advanced frailing banjo tutor. Available online under a Creative Commons license on several web sites

References

External links

Frailing banjo instructional video series on archive.org.

  • Old Time Banjo Two and a half hour video workshop on frailing banjo with Pat & Patrick Costello.
  • ClearHead Donald Zepp's ClearHead (TM) demonstration of basic clawhammer techniques. Includes .wmv video files requiring Windows Media Player.
  • Mike Iverson's Clawhammer Banjo Tabs Popular online collection of clawhammer banjo instruction and tablature with accompanying sound files.
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