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 Playing Advice: Clawhammer and Old-Time Styles
 ARCHIVED TOPIC: ch versus bluegrass banjo

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mjbrennan - Posted - 09/02/2019:  11:38:24

Is it much easier to play CH on a CH banjo than on an ordinary Bluegrass one?
Thank you for your opinions in advance.
Best wishes to all,

Emiel - Posted - 09/02/2019:  12:08:49

I think: no. I don't need different setups for clawhammer and three-finger picking.

Video (I play CH on a so-called bluegrass banjo):

AndyW - Posted - 09/02/2019:  12:15:34

I find an open back much easier. That's because the pot can be balanced on the rh thigh instead of in the lap. This makes things much easier on the left arm by bringing it closer into the body allowing more of a lower 'guitar position' for the neck.

A resonator 'can' be played on the thigh, but they are generally too heavy to be comfortable there, and the resonator also lifts the pot uncomfortably high when on the thigh.

gbisignani - Posted - 09/02/2019:  12:15:36

I tried to answer this question for myself the other day. I played a couple of tunes clawhammer style on a bluegrass banjo. Also a RK (Elite 85) and personally I think I sounded awful. But I do also believe that with time I would sound better and better and it probably wouldn't make any, or little, difference, what style banjo I was playing after a while.

RioStat - Posted - 09/02/2019:  14:09:26

Ralph Stanley had no problem making CH sound good on his Bluegrass banjos.....

m06 - Posted - 09/02/2019:  15:34:08

Go listen to Wade Ward.

Then you will understand how the whole hardware basis of your question disappears. OT is a sense not hardware. smiley

Edited by - m06 on 09/02/2019 15:37:32

Bill Rogers - Posted - 09/02/2019:  16:12:41

There's no good general answer. Depends on the player. Clawhammer has always been played on resonator banjos as well as openbacks.

AndrewD - Posted - 09/02/2019:  16:58:09

What's a CH banjo ? There's a continuum of banjos from simple plain wood hoops with open backs and skin heads to heavy tonerings, tight plastic heads and resonators. Clawhammer can be played on any of them. Bluegrass is a bit more prescriptive - If it's not at the heavy, tight, resonated end of the spectrum (preferably with "Gibson" on its headstock or in its genes) then it's wrong. Clawhammer, as others have said, is a style of playing, not a style of banjo. If you find playing with a resonator in your lap uncomfortable (I don't) then play standing up (I often do).

BrooksMT - Posted - 09/02/2019:  21:44:10

I play claw with my Stelling Bellflower. I took the resonator off to reduce volume (of sound). The metal rim dug into my thighs, so I got a piece of hotwater pipe foam insulation to wrap around the rim, and it feels fine now. I put nonskid tape on the foam to keep it from slipping off my thighs.

As far as tone goes, I like the clearness of tone from the Stelling. All in all, I find bluegrass banjo works just fine for clawhammer. The Stelling is a heavy banjo, even w/o the resonator, and that is really the only downside, compared to an open back banjo, for me.

Banjo setup has a huge effect on tone, either good or bad. There are lots of threads on BHO describing setup tips and tricks, which I learned from.

Hope this helps.

jcavan55 - Posted - 09/03/2019:  06:11:54

Easier is a subjective term. So I don't know what easier really means. The sound is of course different from one banjo to the next, resonator aside.

Interesting thought though.

Northlyn - Posted - 09/03/2019:  06:23:37

Please get yourself a good quality, pleasant sounding BG banjo and a CH banjo. Play them both. Play both styles. :)

Edited by - Northlyn on 09/03/2019 06:24:07

OldPappy - Posted - 09/03/2019:  06:37:07

You can certainly play "Clawhammer" on a Mastertone or any of other similar banjos.

The question was which was easier.

That depends on the style of "Clawhammer" being played, and since that name is applied nowadays to many different forms of down picking it can be a bit confusing.

I build banjos that are specifically designed for the style of Clawhammer I play, which is mostly regional to central West Virginia. The style was called "Thumping", "Rapping" and several other things before the modern name of "Clawhammer" was applied.

Mostly I play a double thumb rhythm, and we need more thumb room over the head than is found on most commercially made banjos. We don't "pluck the 5th string as in some styles, instead the string is hooked on the meat of the thumb when the hand comes down and sounded when the hand is lifted.

My banjos have close action over the board, which usually has a slight radius (20") to facilitate better pull offs. The board is wider (1 3/8" at nut), the bridge is wider, and the plane of the board is about 1/4" higher than the head to allow for that added thumb room.

The banjo Dwight Diller played for the first 25 years of his career has about 5/8" room between the stings and head and this makes hooking that 5th string very easy.

AndyW - Posted - 09/03/2019:  07:58:29

I also find room for the thumb important. I have found a 3/4 inch bridge improves things for me, even on a scooped banjo as it gives clearance over the tension hoop which is my natural thumb position.

Lew H - Posted - 09/03/2019:  08:50:54

Makes no differences whatever. You just need to adjust how you hold the banjo, your arm, etc. to adapt to either resonator or openback.

MacCruiskeen - Posted - 09/03/2019:  09:03:10

Some players also like the scooped fretboard to make it easier to play over the neck, and also a shorter scale, which makes it a little easier to tune up without breaking your strings. But these things are conveniences and not necessities. As others have noted, folks have played all kinds of styles on all kinds of banjos. It comes down to the kind of sound you want to have.

Edited by - MacCruiskeen on 09/03/2019 09:04:13

banjo bill-e - Posted - 09/03/2019:  09:09:42

Michael the question that comes to my mind is "why"?  Why choose to play clawhammer on a resonator banjo? Now if you own a resonator banjo and want to try some clawhammer then of course, use what you have. And if you want to play both styles on one banjo then the generally preferred tone for the Bluegrass world will dictate that you have a resonator with a tight head, and most likely will want a very low action, so again, play that resonator. The Old Time world is much more open to varying sounds! And if you like that bright, clear, tight-head sound heard from Ralph Stanley or Wade Ward, then once again you have a great reason to choose a resonator banjo.

But if Clawhammer is your direction then you will find that you do not have to subject yourself to the weight and bulk and general discomfort of a resonator banjo, and you may possibly find that the tone which you would prefer to hear from your banjo is found with an open back banjo and a setup for clawhammer. In other words, resonator if you have to, but I think that you will be much happier if you don't have to!

Edited by - banjo bill-e on 09/03/2019 09:10:22

Bill Rogers - Posted - 09/03/2019:  10:28:02

Many old-time players played multiple styles—meaning old-time fingerpicking as well as clawhammer. So a thunky openback might not be their preference.

OldPappy - Posted - 09/03/2019:  15:36:40

A "thunky" open back banjo wouldn't be my first choice either.

Having a resonator or not has very little to do with that.

Don Huber - Posted - 09/05/2019:  11:57:50

It's so sad that we keep having these threads introduced about what constitutes a "clawhammer banjo".

Please!!! This is no longer 1975 when the urban, I dare say Northern Old Time(OT) revival decided to adopt an ignorant "us vs. them" binary approach to OT banjo playing. We have been through this nonsense for far too long. The problem, from my point of view, had it's origins from what I like to call an "OT banjo inferiority complex" vis a vis BG(Bluegrass). The persecuted minority, like many in our society, decided to establish their own rigid subculture to "identify" as OT. I could make some parallels to contemporary societal woes, but the Mods would correctly shut me down.

This was further exacerbated by ClawClone Camps, Clawhammer banjo cruises, Folk Schools and the like to further the narrow scope for curious beginners. Happily, the tide has turned over the past couple of decades as many of the replies above bear witness to.

I'm truly pleased to see an excellent banjo player with a broad plat form, Clifton Hicks, throwing knockout punches left and right on the subject. Mr. Hicks has simplified the issue to simply state OT banjo is Traditional Banjo.

Personally, my favorite banjo for OT fingerstyle playing(yes, with or without picks) is an open back Martin Vega with a brass hoop, ca. 1970 and my favorite drop thumb banjo is a 1927 RB-1 resonator banjo with a flathead tone ring. I say drop thumb because the term "clawhammer" (CH) was never used here in MO until the Saint Louis revivalists decided everybody should play like Kyle Creed because that was what was on the County Lps they regarded as gospel, despite the fact that fingerstyle was more common in traditional OT banjo here in MO.

Anyway, I'll wrap this tirade up by mentioning what a supreme court justice said about obscene material back in the '70s: "I cannot define it, but I know it when I see it." Same for OT or traditional banjo picking: I know it when I hear it.

Paul R - Posted - 09/05/2019:  21:19:56

I've played CH on a "Bluegrass" banjo for years - only recently setting it aside for a recently acquired Jake Neufeld open back. The resonator banjo was set up for CH with a looser head, wider string spacing at the bridge, and stuffing, and sounds fine despite the fact that it's a top tension arch top. The extra benefit, as I've said whenever this issue comes up, is that the resonator keeps all those fiddly bits (bracket hooks, shoes, and nuts) from digging into the lap/legs. Sure. it's heavier, but that's not much of an issue when I'm sitting.

I much preferred the resonator banjo to the 1915 Orpheum (which I traded for the Neufeld). It just sounded better.

The Clawhammer/Old Time Police must realize, by now, that the bylaws about types of banjos have been amended, and, for the most part, will leave you alone. Resonator banjos are now permitted for clawhammer - and other Old Time styles. In fact, playing a resonator banjo for these styles has a bit of a "cool" factor.

As for Bluegrassers accepting open-backs, well ...

Bart Veerman - Posted - 09/05/2019:  21:38:59

Not any easier, not any harder and there's no need to even modify your BG banjo.

You can merrily disregard things like fyberskin heads, no-knot tailpieces, bridges taller than 3/4 inch, scooped necks, pot stuffings high [string] action and still have all the clawhammer fun you want.

Banjoing, no matter how you do it, it's all about having fun - go have some already smiley


OldPappy - Posted - 09/06/2019:  06:21:33

"You can merrily disregard things like fyberskin heads, no-knot tailpieces, bridges taller than 3/4 inch, scooped necks, pot stuffings high [string] action and still have all the clawhammer fun you want."

I totally agree with this list of things to disregard, and will add to it the "loose head" mentioned above. I especially hate to hear of these folks who jack the action up by stuffing a too tall bridge under the strings. Yes, that method will get more room over the head, but it also makes the action over the fretboard too high which causes notes to pull sharp, and ruins intonation. A banjo can be set up to have more room over the head without ruining the action over the board.

Somewhere in that so-called revival an idea, apparently born of complete ignorance, crept in that suggests one needs a dull sounding banjo for playing OT styles. I think it comes from folks listening to very old recordings of old timers playing banjos and deciding they needed to sound like that.

Whatever the source, that idea is very persistent, and has created a big market for dull sounding banjos, which several builders, not me, are happy to take advantage of.

Doesn't matter to these folks that the dull plunky sound they hear is caused by 1) Limitations of the recording equipment used all those years ago, and 2) Many of those old timers simply played the only banjo they had which was very often the cheapest one listed in the Montgomery Ward or Sears and Roebuck catalogs. The players who could afford a better banjo, bought a better banjo. Take Wade Ward, or Grandpa Jones for example, and several others who played a better banjo that was anything but dull sounding. Grandpa Jones sure did not advocate a loose a head when he said "tighten it until it breaks then back off 1/4 turn".

If anyone out there has a banjo that rings out too much for them, forget stuffing it, loosening the head, or putting on one of those thick Fiberskyn things, I have an old Kay in my shop that sounds dull enough for anyone and will gladly trade for on that sounds like a banjo should.

Actually, I am not serious about such a trade, I wouldn't take advantage of anyone that way, but the last time I said that on the forum within minutes I got PMs from two people wanting that old piece of junk Kay, and I like Fiberskyn heads, I hang them on my blueberry bushes to keep the deer away.

Edited by - OldPappy on 09/06/2019 06:23:05

rudy - Posted - 09/06/2019:  06:23:43

It's always interesting to read a topic like this.  It brings out the full range of posters with strong opinions both ways, everything from the self-professed "tirade" to the "why can't we all just get along?" play-anything-you-wish types.

The OP's  "Is it much easier to play CH on a CH banjo than on an ordinary Bluegrass one?" does invite interpretation as to how to answer that question, but as pointed out, there's no one single answer.  All anyone can do is offer their personal viewpoint and ultimately the OP will decide based on their level of interest and if they want to pursue alternative banjo designs, as well as factoring in how much to spend on the new hobby.

Like Andy who posted above, I build instruments so it's a low cost  investment for me to experiment.  As far as which is "easier" goes, I find that I prefer the intimacy of a shorter scale 11" head size open back.  I design my banjos with my preferred string clearance over the head, scoop, wider nut width, tunneled fifth string, and hooks that tuck in close to the rim for comfort.

Given that I've gravitated over a period of several years with my preferences I find a standard resonator banjo does not provide me with that same level of intimacy with the instrument that I get from cradling one of my open backs.

Nothing really to add except, as they say in net-speak, YMMV.  wink


Don Borchelt - Posted - 09/06/2019:  16:34:21

Don Huber wrote: "This is no longer 1975 when the urban, I dare say Northern Old Time(OT) revival decided to adopt an ignorant "us vs. them" binary approach to OT banjo playing."

Personally, I found this sentiment deeply offensive when I first heard Clifton Hicks state it on Facebook awhile ago, and I haven't changed my mind about it. I'll grant that there has long been a Round Peak bias among a lot of old time banjo players, but I found them pretty much on both sides of the Mason Dixon line over the years. If it wasn't for northerners like Alan Jabbour, Mike Seeger and Ray Alden driving around with their instruments and tape recorders preserving so many of the aging old-time players at a time when most southern musicians were either plugged in or playing bluegrass, much of our old time heritage would have been lost. Huber, you can go ahead and insult the northern revival pickers if you want to, but don't try and claim the moral authority to call someone else ignorant.

Edited by - Don Borchelt on 09/06/2019 16:38:03

Paul R - Posted - 09/07/2019:  08:26:02


Originally posted by OldPappy

"You can merrily disregard things like fyberskin heads, no-knot tailpieces, bridges taller than 3/4 inch, scooped necks, pot stuffings high [string] action and still have all the clawhammer fun you want."

I totally agree with this list of things to disregard, and will add to it the "loose head" mentioned above. ...

Somewhere in that so-called revival an idea, apparently born of complete ignorance, crept in that suggests one needs a dull sounding banjo for playing OT styles.  ...

My stuffed banjos ring quite nicely and aren't dull at all. If I hadn't loosened the head on my resonator banjo and added stuffing, it would sound like a TTC subway train on a tight curve. If people want dull, bright, warm, crashy, or whatever sound, that's their prerogative.

Don Huber - Posted - 09/07/2019:  16:36:12

I stand corrected, @Don Borchelt. My apologies.

I've merely noticed there was a mind numbing group think among the banjo crowd up in the big city near me. Also, your intricate OT fingerstyle playing has always been a tremendous breath of fresh air as I watched and listened to your arrangements. You are not typical of what I was constantly hearing and seeing when I first began playing.

And I remember a couple of years ago that you were quite upset about not placing well in a contest here at BHO. You even considered leaving the group! I certainly wondered if the judges felt your finger picking style playing on a resonator banjo wasn't "Old Timey" enough.

As far as Mike Seeger, Alden, Jabbour, etc. are concerned, they were not typical of most urban OT players of the revival. They sought out the rural elders and learned directly at their feet, not from a few Lps on the County label. They also sought out Library of Congress field recordings and early 78s. To me, that was a big difference between them and the majority in the urban revival.

I'll leave the issue of Mr. Hicks be. Again, I do apologize for painting with such a broad brush. But I do feel that many members of the OT revival, that is those who didn't see, or would not validate the incredible variety of OT banjo stylings, to an extent, did a disservice to OT banjo picking. And I celebrate the fact that people now, finally, recognize styles other than RP CH, such as your own, as part of the broad and diverse spectrum of OT banjo picking. It did take a while.

paco0909 - Posted - 09/07/2019:  17:53:50

Glad to see us all getting along! When I — folky revival guy that I am — was first introduced to the banjo it was via the 1963 and 1964 Newport Folk Festival with a whole host of pickers from all over the South and North. And Ireland. Pete Seeger and Mike Seeger promoted the banjo bigtime, but Dock Boggs, Frank Proffit, Hobart Smith, the Stanley Brothers, Bill Monroe were there along with the Clancey Brothers and Tommy Makem. And lots of folkies. In the 70‘s I remember Art Rosenbaum in particular promoting a variety of picking styles. Personally, I never had the time and finances to go and find the Masters seeing as I spent a few years in the US Army with a tour in Viet Nam followed by raising a family etc. Luckily for me I ran into some revivalists in Vermont and then in Virginia who taught me a few things. I never really heard Round Peak until the 2000‘s. I just heard Banjo! I suppose Grandpa Jones, Stringbean, and Roy Clark got me started first! The Banjo was music but really fun!

Helix1 - Posted - 09/07/2019:  18:37:38

I see that a certain 9 yr old Scruggs played his big brother’s banjo and scuffed it up by sitting on the ground

Everybody played what they had = hide head, dowel stick, open back, strap rims

Charlie Poole, the same

As a solo or ensemble, I frail during verses and 3-finger on choruses and solos


mjbrennan - Posted - 09/12/2019:  15:18:40

Some terrific ideas and opinions expressed above. You guys sure know what you are talking about.
Thank you for your help.
Happy pickin',

AndrewD - Posted - 09/14/2019:  05:16:36

We're not helped by this forum being called "Clawhammer and Old-Time Styles". Even "Clawhammer and Other Old-Time Styles" would be better. Or why not just "Old-Time 5 string styles" ?. I'm not even a fan of the term Old-Time (and I cringe when I see it spelled Old Tyme). So my vote (assuming we're in a discussion which may end in a consensus that is acted on) is for "Traditional 5 string styles". We know it's still going to predominantly clawhammer. But at least the 2 finger, 3 finger and up pickers among us wouldn't be made to feel like poor relations.

Lew H - Posted - 09/14/2019:  05:52:38

Bluegrass has variants too: Scruggs style, single-string, etc. Those who pay attention distinguish between Scruggs and J.D. Crow styles, although I don't notice much difference. Then there's the jam grass, newgrass, and that Mark Johnson hybrid clawgrass (which is clawhammer!).

banjo bill-e - Posted - 09/14/2019:  08:33:59

AndrewD posted---" I'm not even a fan of the term Old-Time (and I cringe when I see it spelled Old Tyme)--"

Agreed. Old Tyme to me sounds like the men in straw hats and striped shirts strumming plectrums at Shakey's Pizza parlor (a distant American memory, Andrew). I have come to calling what I do "folk style banjo". But the reason why this is a persistent question for all of us is because the overwhelming public perception of "banjo" is Bluegrass Banjo and we feel the need to explain ourselves and are at a loss for effective terminology.

Lew H - Posted - 09/14/2019:  11:02:08

My parents had 78 RPM records from the 20s and 30s that branded the music as "olde tyme." The recording industry was promoting nostalgia even back then.

In my previous comment, I was trying to say that while we are talking now about variations of style and technique within (pick a name here!) bluegrass too has variants. Which BG variant are we distinguishing ourselves from?

I prefer to think of clawhammer and 2-finger and 3-finger as techniques. We can use any of them to play Appalachian fiddle tunes, blues, jugband, rock, etc melodies.

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