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Clawhammer Core Repertoire Series, Episode 5: Cluck Ol' Hen

Posted by Josh Turknett on Saturday, January 18, 2014

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Clawhammer Core Repertoire Series, Episode 5

Cluck Ol' Hen


If you'd like a free, downloadable ebook of lessons 1 thru 7 (over 50 pages of content), just click here.

Don't panic, but we're 5 lessons into this and haven't even covered a single chicken tune.

Before we're all asked to relinquish our old-timey membership cards posthaste, let's remedy this situation. So in this installment, we’ll head straight to the top of the pecking order for this month’s ode to the flightless feathered fowl: Cluck Ol' Hen.

Not only are we plucking our first chicken tune this go round, but we also happen to be venturing into our first “modal” tune. Now, although a very select few individuals have returned from the darkest recesses of musical theorization and unlocked the true meaning of “modal”, for our purposes all you really must know is that they sound kind of ancient and spooky, and you sometimes will tune your 2nd string up a half tone to play them.

Cluck Ol Hen is most commonly presented in the key of A. Were we going to use a modal tuning for it, we’d tune our banjos to aEADE (aka standard G tuning with the 2nd string up a half tone to C and capoed at the second fret). As it turns out, we won’t be using the modal tuning here. Though it can provide a nice added bit of spooky atmosphere when you’re playing your banjo solo, the truth is nobody can hear enough of that atmosphere when you’re playing in a jam to appreciate it, including you. I also find that, when trying to adapt my playing to that of others, it’s much easier to use a standard tuning. So we’ll save the modal tuned version for the solo stuff.

Step 1: Know Thy Melody

Now we need to find what makes this hen cluck. To get a good notion of her skeleton, let’s listen to a few versions from our friends over at the fiddle hangout (as much as they’d rather not admit it, even fiddlers enjoy a good chicken tune from time to time):

Version 1

Version 2

Version 3 


Version 4


Step 2: Find the Melody Notes

Now that we’ve got a firm handle on this chicken’s bones, we’ll find em on our banjo:


and here’s what that looks like in tab:


Well of course it's simple. It's a chicken tune, not Rachmaninoff's Concerto Number 3!

Step 3: Add some clawhammery stuff

Now it’s time to make our hen walk. As per the usual protocol, we’ll play all the notes that occur on the downbeat as on the “bum” stroke, and then add a “ditty stroke” after each. In tab, it looks like this (chords listed above each measure).


And it sounds like this:

Clawing the bird.mp3

If we pair that up with a fiddle version of the tune, we find that we’ve already got a version of this tune that  plays nicely with others.

Add the fiddle.mp3

Step 4: Decorate your bird

Now, every hen likes to feel fancy sometimes. At least, I imagine this to be true. At any rate, if you’d like to shine her up a bit, feel free to do whatever it takes to suit your whims. If you’ve got a particular fiddle version you like, try to adapt your own arrangement to it. Or go ahead and see if you can get all the melody notes in. Here’s my fancier bird:

Pretty bird.mp3

Here’s what she looks like in tab:

You’ll notice there are a few instances in my arrangement where I’m bending, or choking (you could say I choked my chicken, but let’s keep it clean please) the notes, indicated by the ½ sign in the tab. I think it adds a nice effect for this particular tune, and it also provides an outlet for any juvenile punning tendencies.

And here it is played alongside the fiddle:

full cluck.mp3

Step 5: Practice smart

As with all the tunes in the old-time top 20, backup tracks are available over at So head on over and make this bird dance!


10 comments on “Clawhammer Core Repertoire Series, Episode 5: Cluck Ol' Hen”

Vidshooter Says:
Monday, January 20, 2014 @6:14:14 PM

Thanks for a very well put together lesson.
Know Thy Melody should be the Eleventh Commandment.

OldDocB Says:
Monday, January 20, 2014 @7:07:29 PM

as a beginner, I would like to ask what the "X" means in tab

Josh Turknett Says:
Monday, January 20, 2014 @7:22:07 PM

Good question - the x's indicate a "skip note". In these instances I'm keeping the clawhammer motion going with my picking hand (to help maintain a steady rhythm), but I'm not actually striking the string where the x is indicated. It's a technique that's most often used to add syncopation (shifting a melody note off the beat) to a tune. Hopefully if you listen to the accompanying sound file, you'll get a sense for the effect it creates.

OldDocB Says:
Tuesday, January 21, 2014 @10:19:54 AM

Thank you banjoholic. I will have to listen really hard now to see if I can pick that up.

mutantmoose Says:
Thursday, January 23, 2014 @1:28:53 PM

Thanks for this - I'm not sure how to bookmark/like/subscribe to this to link to my home page, but I'm loving the lessons!

Jacobite Says:
Friday, January 31, 2014 @2:08:54 AM

Could you maybe include a link on each lesson page to the other lessons, to make them easier to find/get to?

Thanks a bunch for the lessons. Every bit I can get helps. I'm trying to get beyond doing the bump ditty over chords, and this is a helpful step up. Not that I don't know a couple melodies (Oh Susanna, Camptown Races, Shady Grove), but I need more practice with a variety of simple tunes.

Josh Turknett Says:
Friday, January 31, 2014 @4:56:22 AM

Good idea, James - I linked the title ("Clawhammer Core Repertoire Series) to the blog page that lists all the lessons (you can also find it by clicking on the "blog" button over my profile). Thanks!

Jacobite Says:
Friday, January 31, 2014 @4:15:58 PM

That works. Thanks Josh.

Jacobite Says:
Friday, January 31, 2014 @4:56:47 PM

PS. I like the way you refer to the basic "essence" of this tune as the "bones." I know you were making reference to a chicken's bones, but in Irish traditional storytelling the basic story is often referred to as the "bones." I am sure they likely applied that to the basic melody of tunes, too.

In the time when all tradition was oral, musicians and story tellers had to memorize a vast numer of tunes and stories, and though it's a fact that "pre-literate" folks had better memories (they had to), they also had tricks, one of ehich was to remember just the bones of the story or tune and embellish as they played or told it. That way they could more easily remember the sometimes hundreds of tunes or stories in their repertoire.

Thats also why there are hundreds or thousands of variations of traditional tunes and stories. In fact, a musician or storyteller pretty much never played a tune, or told a story, the same way twice.

Anyway, no doubt that is common in many traditions, but your use of that term made me think about the Irish use of the same term.

Josh Turknett Says:
Saturday, February 1, 2014 @5:52:38 AM

That's a really cool observation, Jacobite, and could be fodder for a very interesting discussion.

I think that, while our nearly limitless access to information these days is on the whole a great thing, in the case of music it may sometimes stifle progress. Being able to distinguish the bones from the embellishments, or the forest from the trees, is such a valuable skill in playing music. Yet, because we no longer have to rely on our noggins to remember music, we have the luxury of trying to learn any tune along with all the bells and whistles (usually by an advanced player), since we can almost always listen to it as much as we want. So we're not forced to develop the knack for finding the bones as we would've in the old days (and it leads to folks trying to tackle arrangements they may not be ready for). Anyhow, it's a really interesting topic. Thanks for bringing it up!

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