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Beginning Clawhammer

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The Claw thing, for absolute beginners or long time players who have managed to evade down picking until now

183 Members, Created 1/31/2011 -

Administrators: oldwoodchuckb (owner)

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The basics of the basic stroke

From oldwoodchuckb on 2/1/2011 2:33:03 PM

 Going back to basics might seem like going backwards, but you should always keep in touch with and refine your basics - ask any dancer how important the basic moves are. This set of exercises will pay off pretty quickly and you can soon drop the amount of time you put into it. But never forget that the basic stroke is 90 percent of everything you will ever do in clawhammer. It is that simple, and therefore that important.

The basics stroke is the key to the whole thing, and the thumb is the key to the hand - the thumb is the driver that runs clawhammer banjo.

My friend and fellow teacher Alan Julich (Stillhouse Bottom Band) actually decided to teach the thumb stroke first - before showing students the frail. Here is the exercise set we developed.

Sit back from your desk and let your right arm lightly fall from vertical pointing up, to vertical pointing down. Keep the arm at your side, and make sure that your curled fingers clear the desk - not by much, just a little. Now hold the thumb out so that as your hand passes the desk top the thumb catches on it, and the entire hand ends up hanging from the thumb.

With your hand dangling below the desk, flex the wrist joint of the thumb, so that it pushes sharply down against the desk. Note that as you snapped that thumb down, it could not move the desk, and so the hand jumped up. Try it a few times. This is the thumb part of the basic stroke - that "snap" from the wrist joint (the joint that is not really visible as part of a separate finger - in fact it IS the wrist). 

This jump back of the thumb is in fact where the name Rocket Science Banjo comes from. It is the 3rd law of the conservation of something - ask Sir Issak Newton, or his sister Fig for more details. I aren't a scientist, I are a banjo player.

Now switch to banjo. Dangle your hand from the thumb on the 5th and do the same spring down. Note that you actually get a "jump back" from it. The banjo, like the rest of the Universe, works on Newtonian Physics (Side note: the bluegrass forward backward inside out mobius roll is not Newtonian - it is Quantum - which was the name of Chief Pontiac's wife)

Sorry. Just another time slip - I sometimes get so far ahead of myself I will never see the light from my thinking because it is over the bracket band horizon. I obviously need more hooks.

SO... Now switch to banjo. Dangle your hand from the thumb on the 5th and do the same spring down. Note that you actually get a "jump back" from it. The banjo, like the rest of the Universe, works on Newtonian Physics. 

Keeping the thumb on the 5th string try a down strum with your right hand. Let you frailing finger brush across all 4 strings, Next snap that thumb against the 5th, snapping the entire hand back to position for the next frail. Remember to snap the thumb from the wrist joint.

Try this a few times. If you ever want to make a lot of noise with a banjo (Who would want to make a lot of noise with a banjo?) you can add an up stroke to that downstroke and you have what Pete Seeger referred to as a VERY LOUD STRUM, in his book on banjo. It is fun, but it is actually NOT clawhammer.

SO... I've given you a half hour worth of how NOT to play clawhammer. Big waste of time, right? Not if you are following along. All this has been to get you to accept the idea that the thumb actually IS a driving spring. The next step is to apply the driving spring to clawhammer.

Start with the thumb on the 5th string, and the hand hanging in "just frailed" position. Snap the thumb down on the 5th but don't make any attempt to keep it on the string, let it fly back upward with the hand, Let the thumb move with the hand. The thumb and frailer should maintain the same position relative to each other.

Add the frail. Let your hand fall past the strings like you did at the desk, Let it fall without hitting the strings until the thumb hangs up on the 5th string. Snap the thumb down, and since every action creates an equal and opposite reaction, your hand will fly back up to frailing position. But now, with the thumb flying back up. 

The thumb snap will not only lift the hand, but it will lift the hand WITH the thumb.

Now start hitting the 2nd string with your frailer. Let your finger follow through to come up against the 1st string for now. Set your thumb so that it comes up hard against the 5th string as the frailer hits the 1st string. (later you will refine the move so your frailer doesn't quite hit the 1st string). This is your first eighth note in the pair.

Follow that with the thumb snap on the 5th - the 2nd eighth note. Make sure Keep the hand and the thumb are moving together both downward and back up. Watch carefully - the thumb must stay in the same position relative to the frailer no matter what you do. This is the basic "Basic Stroke" Keep doing it slowly, carefully, and if possible, in front of a mirror. Make sure that thumb stays with the hand.

Move so you are seeing the thumb from your left in the mirror, and can see that it is catching that 5th with every downstroke.

Work your way up to the basic stroke over a few minutes at the beginning of your practice and then put 10 to 15 minutes a day into just doing the basic stroke, before you move on to playing your tunes. You will have it solid in no time.

I'm going to try to make a video of this as soon as the weather gets better. 
Meanwhile check out
for more on basic strokes, tunes, memorizing and all the little things you need to know about the clawhammer life.

This article is now on my blog .

Feel free to ask questions, give advice (is this clear enough?), and add your variations, on this and other exercises either here or at my blogsite

From now on all my blog articles will be posted on the hangout in one way or another also..



RobJ says:
8/16/2011 1:23:14 PM

Do you have a video posted of this yet? I think I understand it, but just want to see a video example to make sure I'm on track

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