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Attraction to frailing/clawhammer

Posted by Tom Smith on Monday, June 24, 2013

I've been thinking about it lately, and I think I know what initially attracted me to clawhammer style banjo. First was the advent of YouTube. If not for this, I probably wouldn't even know it exists. To this day, I don't know anyone personally who plays or even owns a banjo. My only experience with banjos was a guy who sat in with a few guitar pickin’ friends about 20 years ago, sitting right across from me playing Scruggs style. I liked the music, but it was about three times as loud as I found comfortable.

Anyway, the two videos that made me say “I’ve got to try that” were Johnny Rawls’ “Big Scioti” and Leroy Troy’s “Grandfathers Clock.” I realize now that that Leroy Troy video isn’t clawhammer, and those two videos don’t seem to have a lot in common, but after thinking about it, there is a similarity, at least in my mind. They both look like magic. First, the Johhny Rawls video. Unlike other styles of playing, the activity of the right hand is hidden.  It looked to me like his right hand was just bouncing on the strings, but there were all these melody notes that seemed to be coming from nowhere except that right hand hovering over the strings.

Remember ever seeing an acrobatic / juggling type act where the performer would balance plates on top of sticks, then run around spinning the plates so they would stay balanced on top of the  sticks? That’s what comes to (my) mind when Leroy strums the banjo up the neck. Of course, Leroy does all sorts of acrobatics with the banjo, and that’s amazing, but I’m not talking about that so much as the other techniques he uses. It seems like he’s just moving his hands around the banjo to conjure a tune. He creates the illusion that he could trip over a banjo and it would sound good.



12 comments on “Attraction to frailing/clawhammer”

MrManners Says:
Monday, June 24, 2013 @6:19:13 AM

those very much overzealous loud players screw up a lot,remember the old tv shows with the dog acts ,trained seals etc.that was a nice way .i think it was leroy that modeled himself after Uncle Dave Macon.an original opry entertainer.I think there is one or 2 vids of him around ---Tom

bornold Says:
Monday, June 24, 2013 @7:33:21 AM

The Internet is where I drew my inspiration to play banjo as well.

VancePants Says:
Monday, June 24, 2013 @2:28:51 PM

Interestin' post Tom... and as I wuz readin'... I wuz tryin' to remember what drew me into... the Murky World o' The Claw... after startin' off purty well, self-taught Scruggs-style.
Well... I think it was the more primitive... raw... percussive... and yes intimate nature of clawhammer.
The banjer's open-back... no resonator to come betwixt... nails on steel (or now occasionally nylguts:)... and tappin' or occasionally smackin' calfskin. Yep... just seems more "natural" not to have them pesky picks on my fingers.
Yep... Scruggs-style and straight-up Bluegrass got my attention and drew me to want to take up banjo at the tender age of 60... but OT traditional/Celtic music is what I find the most satisfying to play.
Oh... and you've made some really nice strides with yer mountain fretless, friend.

C Nyal de Kaye Says:
Monday, June 24, 2013 @2:52:51 PM

Thanks for your informative, interesting and well-written post Tom. I enjoyed reading it. I was taught mandolin when I was 15 yo. The teacher accompanied the students (over 30 in the class) on a four string banjo. That was when I first heard a banjo and I really liked listening to it.

When I was in my mid 50's I bought a Bluegrass banjo in Singapore (of all places) and started on Scruggs style, but soon I met up with some Clawhammer-ites and changed to that method. I still enjoy listening to Scruggs type picking but I like the CH much better.

I can't recall how I came across Leroy Troy but he is great fun and I understand that he is a very decent type as well. So that's my confession now added to this list.

rgoad Says:
Monday, June 24, 2013 @3:02:11 PM

I tell you what: that Leroy Troy video is a real lesson on timing. You ought to check out Uncle Dave Macon for similar craziness.

Denton Says:
Monday, June 24, 2013 @8:46:26 PM

Well there's nothing like frailing Ground Hog and floating down the river. My deckhands were calling me Ground Hog this trip lol.

Tom Smith Says:
Tuesday, June 25, 2013 @3:25:57 AM

Tom- I knew about Leroy's connection to Uncle Dave Macon, but it hadn't occured to me that there may be video available. I'll look. Thanks.
Bornold- I read your blog and it seems we're in a similar situation. Thank goodness for the internet. Without it I wouldn't know the difference between a resonator and open back... or a Hang drum or Chapman stick, for that matter. I've seen some things I wish I hadn't, but overall a positive experiance.
Ken- You've reminded me of another positive aspect of clawhammer. It is so tactile and intimate, as you say. I play plectrum style guitar because my right hand gets stiff and swollen when I do much fingerstyle. Frailing eleminates the need for that piece of hardware, and puts you more directly in contact with the instrument. It's a shorter path from the brain/"heart" to the sound produced.
C Nyal de Kaye- Bought your first banjo in Singapore? That is unique. And it looks like we started at about the same age. Leroy is as nice a guy as you've heard.
rgoad- Leroy was asked how long it took to learn those banjo tricks, to which the replied "about three banjers." I don't have any spares, so I don't think I'll be trying that. I've heard that there are some Uncle Dave Macon videos out there, so I'm gonna look.
Denton- You a John Hartford fan?

VancePants Says:
Tuesday, June 25, 2013 @10:03:06 AM

Good response Tom... and just t'wax on a bit... the banjers seem more "organic"... emphasis on the woods... less on finish and bein' "ornate"... and definitely weigh a whole lot less!
I just did a couple o' straight-up BG tunes in my clumsy CH style... and they seemed to go down pretty well... just cuz' ya take off them picks.... don't meant ya can't tackle BG standards.
And finally... it's fun to just finger pick (sands picks) for a softer, folksy sound.
Later Tater... .

JanetB Says:
Tuesday, July 16, 2013 @5:32:45 AM

I watched THE video that led you to clawhammer. I can see how that happened. It's truly an AMAAAAAAZING form of art! One tune at a time....

Tom Smith Says:
Sunday, August 11, 2013 @8:43:30 AM

It is truly an amazing art form. Thinking about this topic reminded me of another video that's sort of in the same class, but with guitar...

"This African woman plays a strangely tuned guitar in a language that we can all understand."
youtube.com/watch?v=I5F59PkcDWM

bd Says:
Sunday, August 11, 2013 @9:38:28 AM

I tried a bit of BG picking and couldn't get my head around it. Then I found out about clawhammer & about the same time heard some Dock Boggs stuff. I thought Dock Boggs was clawhammer at first. Even tried to figure out a song or two while frailing & couldn't figure out why it wasn't sounding right.

Tom Smith Says:
Wednesday, August 14, 2013 @2:03:12 AM

Before I bought the banjo I have now, I had only played in the same room with a banjo once, years ago. I had a not too loud acoustic guitar in a small room sitting across from a resonator banjo played Scruggs style. It didn't take me long to not like that. It was fairly recently that I even became aware of clawhammer style and nylgut strings. I never cared for nylon strings on the guitar, in part because the only time I tried them, it was on a guitar braced for steel strings.

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