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Still trucking on the clawhammer road

Posted by meritcooper on Tuesday, October 28, 2008

I am still going strong on my mission to learning to play clawhammer. I think I am more infatuated with it now since I got my latest banjo. Ever had a banjo just call out to you? My new banjo does that to me. It doesn't have as clear of a sound as a newer one, but I love the way it sounds and feels. I really love the skin head and the nylon strings. After playing on those, I am not much for the metal strings anymore. This new banjo I have also seems to have a bit shorter scale and the neck is shaped just so perfect for my hand.

At first when I started learning clawhammer, I was looking on the internet for everything I could find. I thought for sure I would just learn by watching some videos and stuff. Wrong. I learned so much wrong stuff in the beginning that I was really frustrated when I started learning the correct stuff. Dan Levenson is the MAN. He helped me correct alot of the bad habits that I was already picking up from the internet. I was thinking that I had to do a Bum-Ditty to play clawhammer. Heck, I wasn't even holding the openback banjo right when I went to his workshop. After playing bluegrass for a few years, I thought I knew my way around a banjo decent enough to sit in a class. I felt so akward trying to hold the banjo a different way and not to look at it. Those are all such great things that I learned from him. I am glad I went to his classes. I can't imagine how much I would be struggling if I hadn't went. I want to stress how important it is to all new players to go to a professional and learn the basics before you venture out on your own. Now, when I practice, I constantly ask myself questions like a checklist. " Where is the pot located on your lap? How high is the neck? Are you staring a the neck while trying to play? How are you holding your hand?" Those are all great questions that Dan checked us on that really did improve our sound.

Lately, when I sit down to play, I have been playing for 2 hours at a time. I can't get enough of it. I find myself just sitting on the porch and playing and trying to see what I can play without my music. It is amazing how much you can remember after all that practice. I am not chording and bum-dittying. I have not been tempted to go back to G tuning just because it is the most comfortable for me. I have one banjo tuned in ADADE and the other in C#AEAB. The biggest thing I have been working on now is getting away from the tab once I learn the fingering. The melody is not exact to the tab. I have noticed that when I try to play exactly as the tab, it doesn't have the lilt or added rhythms that it needs. It is too stiff to stay right with the tab.

My biggest influences right now are Dan Levenson, Mary Z Cox, and Cathy Moore. I am using Dan's book Clawhammer Banjo from scratch. There is a CD that goes along with it. All of the songs offered which are in ADADE are in 3 different levels of playing. That is fun to work your way though. I just got Mary Z Cox's Florida Banjo CD and Tab book. This is amazing. I can't say enough how important this book is to have in your collection. I love her. Cathy Moore replied to one of my comments here on the BHO one time, and when I found her site, I was drawn in. I don't know how many hours I have sat and looked around there. Most of her songs have tracks to listen to with tab or video. Her site is Banjo Meets World. I have enjoyed the different sounds of clawhammer that she has. Her blog entries are categorized by the tunings the songs are in. Super helpful. My fave song that I learned on her site is Shout Little Lulu.

So, that is what I have been doing for the past few months on the journey to clawhammer. Hope some of this info helps if you are looking for someone to learn from on the internet. All of these teachers have similar teachings which means they don't dwell on bum-ditties and they teach tab that sounds like what they play themselves. I think what I like about them the most is that they don't try to reinvent the wheel in search of a dollar, they just teach it like they play it.

2 comments on “Still trucking on the clawhammer road”

FiddlerFaddler Says:
Tuesday, October 28, 2008 @6:10:12 PM

Well, you are on a quest of merit!  I own all of Mary's CDs, and it is just a matter of time before  the same is true of Dan's and Cathy's.  I am planning on going to one of Dan's camps in 2010.  Dan, Mary and Cathy are exemplary clawhammer banjoists, and your recommendations are spot on.  Keep posting MP3s so that we may vicariously enjoy your progress.

Dale Farmer Says:
Tuesday, November 4, 2008 @12:59:06 PM

Hey Merit,

Thanks for the comment on my porch picture.  I just read your blog and it was pretty helpful.  Like you I'm a long time bluegrasser trying to learn clawhammer.  I'm doing it on my own and I can tell that I need some professional help...  All that tab stuff you wrote is right along with my thinking too.  I'm going to start looking for a good clawhammer pro to help me get started again. 


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