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Chapter I - How To Learn Clawhammer Banjo

Posted by oldwoodchuckb on Tuesday, October 29, 2013

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Clawhammer Banjo





How To Learn Clawhammer Banjo















    Yes folks, this is the long awaited...


    You never heard of it? - okay...


     This is the surprise prequel to the 2nd edition of the book formally known as Rocket Science Banjo, Racket Sackbutt Bunco, or Rectory Sconces Banquo. Words to that general effect, at least. At one time I called this section Preflight and at another time it was Open Me First. Not that any of the previous titles matter, because very little was ever published – including most of those titles.


You will however, find dotted throughout this section, chapters, chunks of chapters and general “stuff” that still resides in Rogeury Séance Blanco, The bits and bobs being re-distributed here may be lightly edited, heavily altered, or just lifted whole from the older ebook. This is because the entire text and much of the tablature in Rectory Sconces Boggo is currently undergoing a massive organization. This is not a re-organization as nothing was ever organized in the first place. Chapters were mostly published in the order of their writing, which was in turn, dictated by what I was thinking about at the time, which was rarely (if ever) the best order for student consumption.


At any rate, expect that some articles will, for a time, appear in more than one location. Just assume everything you read here has an animated “Under Construction” GIF attached. I might even add one if I ever finish the book.






Yes the title does look a bit “off”.  Shouldn't it be How to PLAY Clawhammer Banjo?

No, it should not. This part is not a banjo manual. This is actually a book about Learning the banjo. The section on PLAYING Clawhammer Banjo still resides in the now famous Rockem Sockem Bogarts ebook, which is still available for free (without cost, cookies, or the giving up of personal information), at:

Press the ROCKET SCIENCE BANJO - DOWNLOAD button and get your copy now.


But please, please, don't start using it quite yet.


First read ALL of  this book - How To Learn Clawhammer Banjo, which is a series of essays about how to study clawhammer banjo and in fact most any style of banjo, and in fact, how to study most string band instruments, and actually...  Ahh, you get the drift. This little ebook is a reasonably quick read and will save you hundreds of hours in the long run. Some of the material found here would even serve you well in post-graduate studies at Mr. Peabody's Music School in Baltimore, Berklee in Boston, Oxford in… er… Oxford, or Chalkey's Billiards Parlour in beautiful downtown Durham.


You don't necessarily have to use all the tips and study techniques found in these pages, but a good read through of this book (or several runs through it – perhaps even once every few months) will help you learn new ways to learn! Most importantly you can learn new ways to remember and memorize tunes, arrange tunes and discover new tunes. Some of these tricks you will use immediately, while others only become obvious once you have been at this banjo learning for a while.


Nothing in this or any other book can actually teach you banjo. You have to learn it on your own. This is simply some suggestions and techniques that I hope will save you a lot of time and make the process of learning faster, easier, more sensible, and, perhaps even more fun. The banjo, like every other musical instrument is not really a destination. It is a journey, (Que the new age bagpipes and corn fed violas playing “The Flowers Of The Forest)

Yes my brethren, the banjo is indeed a journey. A journey of self discovery, and self exploration (just watch it when you explore yourself, people). Furthermore it is a life journey, an adventure beyond time, space and dementia, tempered with occasional stalls, back-tracks, and some extremely high levels of frustration. Banjo Is Life – Life Is Banjo – Is Life Banjo?  – Is Banjo Life? – Banjo Life Is. 

What is the sound of one hand clapping?

Sadly, many a banjo player knows the answer to that riddle all too well.


You may not realize it now, but you will in fact, be studying the banjo for as long as you play the banjo and perhaps as long as you live. Nothing is ever complete. Even when the day comes that your job and family demand all your attention, the day you stick your banjo in the closet to child-proof the playroom (formerly the music room), you are still studying. Your banjo might stay in the closet for 20 years, but your studies will actually continue.  You are still studying the banjo whenever you find yourself frailing your steering wheel on the daily drive to work, or when you listen to a tune and your left fingers depress and lift, as muscles accurately remember the fretting order. Even if you entirely bug out on the banjo and trade it for a tailgate slide tram-bone, at some level your mind is still mulling over banjo tunes. Someday, you just might take up the fretless!


Like so many other long journeys, your banjo adventure will sometimes seem to move in fits and starts, or go into retrograde motion like Mars and Jupiter, but in fact, your relationship with the banjo is always in motion. Take the time to read this entire pre-flight manual so the various concepts you find can be percolating through your brain right from the beginning of the trip. Remember that old software customer support phrase, RTFM? ---- Read the Farthing Manual!



Folks, this is the FM!









Is RSB the only book you will need?


Absolutely not!


Even though I would like to say that RSB is indeed all you could need besides a banjo, it is in reality, not even a complete manual. I do not cover a lot of the basic material you will need (I don't have chapters on reading tab, counting rhythm etc.). What's more, I don't have any intention of adding this stuff in the future. There are very good manuals that cover the basics and I really don't have the time or inclination to re-write them. Therefore:


If you are a complete beginner, with no musical training, or at least none on fretted instruments, you are going to need a lot more help than you will find in my ebook, I suggest you read this book and then all of RSB through, while you start working on the Basic Stroke (See the Video of Lesson 1). You can do this while you are waiting for one or more of these the excellent printed books mentioned below to arrive in the mail. Please do not read RSB while you are driving to or from a music store.  It is hard to concentrate on it in traffic.




Ken Perlman's “Clawhammer Style Banjo” is a complete course in banjo playing. It covers the entire field, from how to hold the instrument up to playing the kind of tunes we used to call “fingerbusters.”  Ken has an organizational ability matched by few other teachers. His lessons are completely progressive. Most of my writing about learning the banjo started as a supplement to Ken's masterful work.


Pete Seeger's “How To Play The 5 String Banjo” is more like “Notes from the Underground” by the man who first brought the 5 string into the light for so many of us. While Pete does not spend a lot of time on clawhammer specifically, he has all the other playing techniques you can use to contrast with, and enhance your clawing.  You will find the basics of song accompaniment, choosing and forming chords, using the left hand fingers to sound notes, how tunings work, and all sorts of great banjo knowledge tossed in for good measure. As the Peanuts cartoon (also in the book) says “Every child should be issued a banjo at birth”. To which I will add: There should also be a copy of Pete's book in the case.



If you can currently play guitar or mandolin, or bluegrass banjo. in fact, if you have a general knowledge of fretted instruments add this book to the stack:

Dan Levenson's “Clawhammer Banjo From Scratch”. A lot of complete beginners have learned banjo using only this book and if you are using a copy now, continue with it. My lessons will work well with Dan's book too. Perhaps they will even work better with Dan's book. Dan has some very specific ideas about how he teaches and starts students with the Double C tuning. I prefer starting from the G tuning and then getting into using more than one tuning very soon. Dan's lessons are, however, as good as you will find anywhere on earth. His tabs are very playable, and I've yet to meet anyone who came away from one of his workshops or banjo camps less than satisfied. I still think Ken's book has the better overall approach and seriously recommend you pick up a copy soon. Again, also add Pete Seeger's book – it really is the fount of all ­­­­­banjo knowledge.


In fact, if you can, buy all three of these books and read them cover to cover, (along with RSB) without a banjo in your hand. Obviously you can't read the tabs without a banjo, but you can read about the songs, tunes, techniques and people who created modern banjo. The text in a banjo book is as important as the music. Let me repeat that in a more memorable way:::::::::


The text in a banjo book is as important as the music.


That's right. There is as much in the words as in the music. It is like George Gershwin and his lovely brother Ira or Richard Rodgers and Arthur Hammerstein or Meredith Wilson and.... er.... Meredith Wilson. Some people do both.


Read everything else you can find on the banjo too, but don't instantly believe everything you read especially on the www. There is always something new on the web, and most of it is complete nonsense. Be skeptical about teachers who promise too much to be true. Be particularly shy of teachers who advertise on TV, or books that claim you'll be playing like a “pro” in a couple weeks, and websites with a quick fix to all your banjo problems. Avoid any banjo teacher in a black leather hat. There are shysters everywhere including in the music teaching business. There are also a lot of delusional teachers around too, who don’t realize the harm they do. Some of these losers even have a big following.

Watch out particularly for any teacher who tells you to avoid ALL other banjo teachers, They are out to prove something and they are perfectly willing to waste your time or even destroy your interest, for the sake of convincing themselves they are “right”. I will say that most banjo teachers are in it because they sincerely want to help you become the best banjo player you can be, but sometimes that is not the case. It's a big tough world of frauds, loonies and other dangers. Be careful out there.


There are also websites with much to offer the student banjoist, and you will find them on my links page at:

Add all the URLs to your “favourites” and check back from time to time to see if I've added new ones. The www tends to be an ever shifting bit of landscape and you never know what amazing goodies you'll find – out dere.







In a word, Yes.

But you don't necessarily have to take lessons from a “professional banjo teacher” (Is that and oxymoron, or what?). See the advice under “Can't find a teacher?” below. Nor are you required to take weekly lessons, or even regularly scheduled lessons. If you already play a fretted instrument, especially banjo, you might need only a brief demonstration by a good clawer you meet at a concert, or a festival. The claw stroke seems extremely unnatural to anyone who finger picks, but once you actually 'get it' – you've 'got it', and it might not take much at all in the way of lessons to get it. Got it?



The Victorians invented weekly music lessons, and the format has become a socially ingrained tradition in America. The original idea was to add structure to a child's life and keep his mind actively involved in his instrumental practice – learning music was only the secondary benefit.  With lessons spaced closer together than a full week the child might become bored and even positively hostile to the very idea of going. More than a week apart, and the kid just might forget everything in the time between lessons. In many ways the actual instrument was less important than the discipline of completing each of the tasks involved. Individual music lessons tend to be considerably more structured than the school classroom – as they should be. I've been in some “highly structured” classroom situations, where student behavior is the real subject of the class. These classes are usually about as much fun as living in an occupied country.


  As a motivated adult, or motivated near adult, you really shouldn't need this artificial structure. You should have enough attention span to do your daily practice and to figure out how much time you have to spend on “formal” exercises, on learning tunes, and just on having some fun. You will have to figure out where your weaknesses outweigh your strengths and assign yourself more work on those areas. You are in charge of your schedule and you will have to decide when voluntary studies can and should be sacrificed for more pressing and important activities – like the playoffs. You can make excuses to a teacher – or even to yourself, but be aware that you are ultimately responsible for how well you do with the banjo. Owning the book, or DVD will not suffice. One way or the other, you are the only one that can do the work.


Which is not to say you should or should not take weekly lessons. I always enjoyed teaching weeklies and felt that in general they made the fastest progress of my students. You can however, find many other ways to acquire the banjo skills you want, and most teachers will find ways to accommodate you. Bi-weekly, Monthly, As Needed (although never as a “drop in”). I've had student's take more than one lesson a week too. Once a student is at a certain stage, some lesson clusters can be the ticket to cover a great deal of material, quickly. Like over the summer before you head off to college.


Can't find a teacher nearby? Don't like the stale beer and cigarette-butt odor of the guy who claims to teach every instrument known to man from his “studio” in the garage, next to the oil stain on the floor? Prefer not to buy any more useless stuff from the guy at the local music store, who spends more time selling you sheet music then he does reviewing the music he sold you last week, or the week before? I know that good teachers can be hard to find, but they are out there somewhere, and in the meantime you can learn a lot from non-teachers.


Most banjo players are willing to show a beginner a new trick or special fretting. Since they are not officially “teachers” some will accept pay, while others will not. Whatever the case -- Always make the offer. A man's time is worth something. Don't take advantage of his generosity unless he turns your money down flat. If someone is helping your playing immensely and won't take any payment, look for other ways to re-pay him. Perhaps you have a skill or two that he can use. Can you make him a new bookshelf, get his '72 Volkswagen running again, tutor his kid in Astro-Physics? The two of you might even become friends. 


And then there are teachers who are unaware they have a student.


One of my favourite Casey Stengal-isms was “You can see a lot just by looking.” Watch performers closely, record any tv appearances by clawhammer banjo players and watch these recordings repeatedly. Put your favourite banjo music on one of those iPod thingies (My wife's has one made by Sony – the brand doesn't matter) and keep it with you at all times. Watch youtube (skip the cute cats for a while, though). While the picture quality leaves much to be desired you can puzzle out a lot of a player's moves over time.


You can also find unknowing helpers at local venues where Old Time Music is played – folk style coffeehouses (Lena's in Saratoga Springs, NY lives on, and there are others here there and everywhere), Check for local contra or square dances that are accompanied by Old Time music, You pay the normal entrance fee and simply watch the band instead of the dancers. Or perhaps get involved in dance too. Look for public Old Time Jams (See the chapter below on Jammin'). Usually if a jam is advertised, it means you are invited to participate (within the group's guidelines). You can watch or join in – or do both at the same time. It is fun and you don't have to know much anything to attend. Just be the quiet guy who shows up every time and keeps his eyes and ears open.


You should check out local appearances by traveling Clawhammer banjo players, either individuals or as members of organized string bands. There are always going to be local players in the audience and it can be worth striking up a conversation. I hesitate to recommend trying to get lessons from a road musician, as they might have a rather busy schedule, but in the folk (and especially Old Time) fields, people tend to know each other. My wife and I were watching a friend from out of town play at a local venue when a kid came over and asked if I could teach him how to do that (he pointed, indicating my friend, who was kicking out the boards with an Uncle Dave Macon tune). I said I could help him acquire the banjo techniques, but the rest was up to him. He took lessons for a year. Last time I saw him he still couldn't rap out rhythms on the head and clog dancing while seated in a chair - but he was having fun.


If after checking out all the possibilities above you still can't find anyone – put up a notice at a local music store, or on The Banjo Hangout's Old Time & Clawhammer Banjo forum

Check out any local internet forums. Put up posters at local colleges, Even Craigslist – with the proper precautions. If necessary put a classified ad in one of those the local weeklies or even a daily newspaper – whatever it takes to find people.


One of the best places to find Old Time Music people is at an Old Time jam. See the chapter We Jammin. Which is also part of this series.

1 comment on “Chapter I - How To Learn Clawhammer Banjo”

muzzlehatch Says:
Friday, November 1, 2013 @4:47:13 PM

"What is the sound of one hand clapping?

Sadly, many a banjo player knows the answer to that riddle all too well."

That made me laugh out loud.

Yeah, I know the sound of one hand clapping. Early on, taking tessons, I went to one and could not get hardly a single note out of my banjo. IMHO the sound of one hand clapping is very similar to the sound of one fingernail hitting a string head on and bouncing off.

Did I feel stupid!

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