Banjo Playing Styles
There are several playing techniques. I’m learning ‘clawhammer’ (also known as ‘frailing’) which is perhaps the most traditional. Some people regard it as easier to get in to than the other styles.
- Four styles explained – a video recording by Donald Zepp on YouTube.
- Bluegrass / Scruggs/ 3 Finger style – used by the late Earl Scruggs on his tune “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”.
- Bluegrass / Scruggs/ 3 Finger style – used by the late John Hartford, singing his song ‘Gentle On My Mind’. Check out what happens from 1 minute 40 seconds onwards. The player wears steel finger picks and the banjo is fitted with steel strings
- Clawhammer style – used by Cathy Moore to play the traditional tune ‘Julianne Johnson’. Clawhammer style is also known as frailing.
- Clawhammer style – used by Cathy Moore to play two traditional Irish tunes.
- Clawhammer style. Richard Peek discusses the evolution of banjo playing styles, and why he thinks clawhammer style is best, especially for a beginner.
- Classic Style – Rob McKillop, who visited Royal High School in Edinburgh, where I was teaching, in March 2012, playing a ragtime tune, classic style. Classic style is also known as finger style. It is usually played without finger picks and the banjo is fitted with gut or nylon strings.
- Jazz – Cynthia Sayer, one of the foremost exponents of jazz banjo, playing ‘classic style’.
Learning Clawhammer Banjo Style
Here are a few video tutorials that I’ve found useful to get started.
- Dwight Diller interview. At 25.56 minutes in to the recording, Diller demonstrates the rhythm he generates with his right hand. He believes rhythm is the most important element of clawhammer playing.
- Dwight Diller lesson – ‘Just Rhythm’. Another recording demonstrating his use of the right hand.
- Beginner clawhammer, introduction Richard Peek on YouTube.
- Beginner clawhammer, lesson 1 Richard Peek on YouTube.
- Beginner clawhammer, lesson 2 Richard Peek on YouTube.
- Beginner clawhammer, lesson 3 Richard Peek on YouTube.
- Beginner clawhammer, drop thumb Richard Peek on YouTube.
- How to play ‘Old Joe Clark’ Richard Peek on YouTube.
- How to play ‘Shenandoah’ Richard Peek on YouTube. He establishes the melody then embellishes it. If you want to hear a great performance of this song, search YouTube for ‘Paul Robeson Shenandoah’. You’ll also find versions there by Bruce Springsteen and Van Morrison.
The following lessons take you slowly through some old time American tunes.
- Bufallo Gals played by Aubrey Atwater.
- Old Joe Clark played by Aubrey Atwater.
- Cripple Creek played by Aubrey Atwater.
- Cluck Old Hen played by Aubrey Atwater.
Once you feel that you’ve got some basic skills, then you’ll want to add ‘drive’ to your playing:
- Adding ‘drive’ to your playing. Cathy Moore explains how.
The next batch of links aren’t lessons; they’re performances.
- Cumberland Gap – played by Dwight Diller. Diller spends over six minutes repeating the basic tune, but adding variations. Sublime.
- Cumberland Gap – played by Darin Gentry. This rendition rolls along.
- Cumberland Gap – played by Jason Romero. A hypnotic rendition, played finger style (classic style) rather than clawhammer. The tune starts 53 seconds in.
- Gospel Plow – played by Bob Thornburg. A slow, bluesy, powerful clawhammer rendition.
- Rosie – played by the duo, ‘The Lowest Pair’. An example of using a banjo to back up a singer.
Learning via Strumming and Chords
Toneway.com. The toneway site has video recordings providing a structured route to learning to play several instruments from scratch, including banjo. It’s completely free, though you do need to register with the site to progress further than the first series of lessons.
Tuning Your Banjo
Initially, restrict your learning to playing tunes that require your banjo to be tuned to ‘open G':
- D – 1st string
- B – 2nd string
- G – 3rd string (one octave lower than the 5th string)
- D – 4th string (one octave lower and the 1st string)
- G – 5th string (the short string on top when holding the banjo)
Open G is the most common banjo tuning and you’ll find lots of on-line tutorials and tablature for this.
A digital tuning device is a great tool to get your banjo in tune, but if you don’t have one then you could try this on-line tuning tool.
Tablature for Clawhammer Banjo
Many players suggest learning tunes by ear, rather than reading tablature. However, if you want to try tablature, here are three sites to get you started.
- Mike Iverson’s site has easy, intermediate and advanced tablature for clawhammer.
- Banjo Hangout has a clever tablature selector, to allow you to filter for clawhammer for beginners, in open G tuning.
- Ezfolk has a good range of tablature for clawhammer.
Here are some interesting resources.
- ‘Give Me The Banjo’ – an eighty minute TV programme about the history of the banjo. A number of the most influential players over the last one hundred and eighty years are featured.
- George Wunderlich – banjo builder. An eighty-five minute video recorded discussion about nineteenth century banjos. The discussion ranges from manufacturers to construction, playing techniques, minstrel performers and banjo use in the American civil war. Presented by Pat Costello, filmed by Patrick Costello.
- How to make gut strings. Until the twentieth century, all banjos (and guitars) were fitted with strings made from the intestines of animals. This web page explains how gut strings are (still) made.