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Clawhammer Banjo in 8 Essential Steps: Lesson One

Posted by Josh Turknett on Friday, June 27, 2014

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Clawhammer Banjo in 8 Essential Steps - A Video Series


Lesson 1: The Basic Motion


If you haven't seen it already, click here for the introductory video to this series. And if you'd like to receive the written supplements to this series as they're published, sign up here.


Without a doubt, the thing that distinguishes clawhammer banjo as a musical style is the motion of the picking hand (which for most folks is going to be the right hand). It's what gives clawhammer banjo its delightful and compelling rhythm, and is what opens the door to musical possibilities on the banjo that would otherwise remain closed.

Yet, in many cases, the clawhammer motion is the very thing that leads to frustration, slow progress, or even outright failure. Not because there's anything particularly hard about it, but rather because folks start out with the wrong impression or idea about what the picking motion should be.

Fortunately, this won't happen to you!

In this first video of the 8 essential steps to clawhammer banjo series, we'll start by reviewing the basic clawhammer motion, and conclude with two exercises for you to practice until the next installment. Get started out right, and you'll end up building a solid foundation that will serve you well throughout your clawhammer journey. 

To download the written supplement for this lesson mentioned in the video, right click here. And to get the Clawhammer FAQ document, right click here

Stay tuned for lesson 2, which will be out July 14. 

17 comments on “Clawhammer Banjo in 8 Essential Steps: Lesson One”

crappiejohn Says:
Monday, June 30, 2014 @11:41:14 AM

You have a smooth and precise way of explaining the technique. I enjoyed it very much.

jmoathout Says:
Monday, June 30, 2014 @2:03:42 PM

Thanks for your contributions to clawhammer. I'd suggest you fade the music pretty quickly in the intro, as it makes your words difficult to distinguish - for me. Thanks again.

crappiejohn Says:
Monday, June 30, 2014 @2:09:02 PM

All I have is a smart phone, No Puter. Don't know how to fade. I'll be listening close though.

Josh Turknett Says:
Monday, June 30, 2014 @2:37:25 PM

crappiejohn - thanks for the feedback!

jm - yeah, audio editing is always a bit of a crapshoot since everyone's listening situation is different (not to mention everyone's ears!), especially these days. So usually the end result is a bit of a compromise. I'll definitely keep your feedback in mind when editing the next one.

Josh Turknett Says:
Monday, June 30, 2014 @4:08:13 PM

jm - I should also mention that I've submitted a full transcript of the video to youtube, which means if you click on the Closed Captioning icon underneath the video, the text will appear as I speak it onscreen. Pretty cool!

steveareno Says:
Tuesday, July 1, 2014 @5:57:07 AM

I've been "messing around" with clawhammer for years (mostly a Scruggs-style picker, sorry!) and still can't decide whether to use my index or middle I use both! Index on the 1st string and middle on 2,3 & 4. Is that a bad thing to do? It sorta works for me, but I'm not a very accomplished clawhammer picker. Reno

Josh Turknett Says:
Tuesday, July 1, 2014 @12:14:29 PM

Interesting, Steve! I've actually heard of a few other folks doing something similar, so it's certainly doable. I would think the biggest potential drawback would be just the extra layer of complexity it adds, i.e. having to decide as you're playing which finger to use. I could see this potentially obstructing your progress, or at least making it more difficult. That said, if it's already become second nature (i.e. you don't have to give it any thought), then I'd probably say stick with it!

banjothrasher Says:
Tuesday, July 15, 2014 @5:14:43 AM

Thank you.

Fuzzworth Says:
Thursday, July 17, 2014 @8:01:07 AM

Good instruction, but you seem nervous--constantly swaying side to side. You might have a more effective delivery (for you excellent discussion of technique) if you were a little more relaxed.

crappiejohn Says:
Thursday, July 17, 2014 @8:12:47 AM

I never even noticed it. My ears were on his voice and my eyes were on his hands. WONDERFUL JOB! !!!

Josh Turknett Says:
Thursday, July 17, 2014 @8:34:12 AM

Fuzzworth - I actually do the same whenever I perform with my band (rock back and forth when I play), or even play by myself at home. A habit I wasn't even aware of until I saw myself on video! I agree it can be distracting for some folks, which is why I made an effort to voluntarily suppress it in the second lesson :)

crappiejohn - thanks!

Tajay Says:
Friday, July 18, 2014 @9:19:21 PM

You have a good teaching manner. You communicate your thoughts clearly and concisely without a lot of tangent side thoughts that can be distracting from the main point and confusing to us beginners. Best of all, you're genuine and sincere. I've only just started learning banjo, for a little more than two months now. I still drill on the basic clawhammer stroke in every practice session. The 15 to 20 minute practice time each day is about right in the beginning, but I found it is best to break that up into a collection of 'mini-sessions' about 5 minutes each. Brief practice pauses allow me to 'rest' and 'reflect' on how I'm doing and how I can improve. Persistence plays!

Mr Thomas Says:
Monday, July 21, 2014 @4:13:26 PM

Hi Josh! Thank you so much for the excellent instructional videos. I've trying to teach myself clawhammer banjo for three years now, with the help of various YouTube videos. Some of them are pretty good, but interestingly, not a single one of them addresses the issue of the knocking motion versus the side to side motion. I don't understand why. Maybe the teachers think it's so obvious that it's not worth mentioning. And you can't tell from a video whether a player uses the knocking motion or the side to side motion. Anyway, this makes a world of difference. Without this it's just impossible to get a solid rhythmic motion. I started out dismissing the advice of one YouTube video: "Do this for about a week!" Yeah, right! And started playing flicking my finger. It works but you don't get any sound. Then I realized that I have to keep my hand still. Then another approach, and then another. Nothing worked. But I think I'm on the right track now, back to basics.
I know that there are many various ways, some of them idiosyncratic, ways of playing clawhammer banjo, and yours, based on a wrist movement, is just one of them. I saw a woman on YouTube called Hilarie Burhans who doesn't so much moves her wrist but her whole forearm and she gets a kind of more solid sound, which I like. But for now I'm going to stick to your advice. Can't wait to see what you going to do about the thumb pop on the fifth string.


Josh Turknett Says:
Monday, July 21, 2014 @5:58:49 PM

Hey Tom - Thanks for the kind words! Yeah, there are a lot of things going on in the clawhammer stroke, which means a lot of ways to go astray! And oftentimes some really important pieces are glossed over. I agree there are some idiosyncratic approaches the work for some folks, but after studying a lot of players, it's very rare to find one that doesn't move primarily at the wrist (even ones who say they don't :)

Mr Thomas Says:
Tuesday, July 22, 2014 @1:56:15 AM

Yes, you're probably right, about the the wrist movement. What do I know? I've never even seen a clawhammer player live. They are not so common here in Sweden. But you get the impression that Hilarie primarily moves here forearm:

She is pretty good, by the way. But never mind that, what I wanted to emphasize is that from the various YouTube instructional videos you get the impression that the single string stroke and the brush stroke are essentially the same, when they are not.

Josh Turknett Says:
Tuesday, July 22, 2014 @3:46:14 AM

Oh, I agree Tom, Hilarie is definitely one of the exceptions to the rule (and a great player), with a lot more forearm excursion than the norm.

Mr Thomas Says:
Tuesday, July 22, 2014 @5:32:08 AM

Yes, she's great. I love her sound, more heavy and thicker than for example yours. Which is great too, but different.

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