6stringRamble started a thread; "How Long Did It Take You To Learn Clawhammer?" As a follow up question, How did you learn to Clawhammer (or 2-finger, or stroke-style, or anything else)?
I got a banjo for my thirteenth birthday (Bakelite Harmony-$40 from a local pawnshop), and learned from my Dad using the three L's- look, listen, and learn. He'd mail-ordered a banjo in the late-1920's and learned from local players in Chariton Co., Missouri. His biggest influence was his friend's grandfather who was from Kentucky, born in 1867.
Drop-thumbed on the second tune I learned- Sourwood Mountain. Over the following 52 years, I've picked up tunes and techniques from a variety of sources, but stylistically, still 95% my Dad's way of playing. He sometimes called his method "Drop-Thumb" to differentiate it from those who didn't, but mostly just "Picking the Banjo". His cousin Willard once asked me to get out the banjo and "thump" him a tune. Never heard the terms "Clawhammer" or "Frailing" until later.
Southern Illinois fiddler Mel Durham was a real mentor to me, and I was lucky enough to hear Tom Sauber occasionally in my beginning days.
Edited by - R.D. Lunceford on 07/10/2022 16:39:06
Bill Rogers (Moderator)
Had only the yellow Seeger book and a few records. Started with Pete’s “basic strum” and transitioned to clawhammer over about a three-month period. Cripple Creek, Old Joe Clark and Mike Seeger’s John Hardy were key tunes for me. Lots of practice. On my own in that I had no teacher.
I had the red Seeger book when I started, and started with Pete Seeger's "basic strum" and thumb leaf (Pete Seeger called it double thumbing). I also got the first edition of the Scruggs book and was most interested in three-finger, and Art Rosenbaum's first book. After a divorce in the beginning I started at little with clawhammer from Seeger's and Rosenbaum's books, but at the same time I also played three-finger and fingerstyle guitar. Then I took a 20 year break with new wife, children, dogs, house building, work carrier and almost forgot the banjo.
One rainy summer day in 2005 I took down the banjo from the wall and decided to begin playing again and focus on clawhammer. Still with the Seeger and Rosenbaum's books as tutors. At that time music became available on Internet. I also found the BHO tab archive where there were some good clawhammer tabs. I also bought two tab books with CD's which meant a lot for my development and my banjo interest: Drop Thumb and Cotton Blossoms by R.D Lunceford.
I grew up in Bardstown, KY, the location of My Old Kentucky Home and the Stephen Foster Story, an outdoor summer musical drama. I was lucky enough to meet Mike Lawrence, the banjo player for "the drama' in 1964 or so, and spent much of that summer with him. He taught me to fingerpick the guitar (Saturday Night Shuffle and Freight Train) and to play a little Bluegrass banjo (Ballad of Jed Clampett and Cripple Creek). We spent many afternoons in front of My Old Kentucky Home where I played guitar back-up to his banjo playing. Thank you, Mike, for those life-long gifts.
Five or six years later, I returned from college to play the banjo for the Stephen Foster Story.
I played guitar and banjo through high school and college (the Vietnam years) and met some wonderful folks. In graduate school, I started a family and spent less time with the instruments. This finally led to a 15–20-year period where I played maybe 2-3 times a year.
Around 2000, I had the neck reset and refretted on my Martin 00-17, and my guitar playing was revived. While waiting for the guitar work to be done, I picked up my Vega longneck and clearly heard it ask me to play it clawhammer style. I found a Ken Perlman book I had bought years ago for this very day, and the journey began. I slowly learned the clawhammer technique and began to pick up tunes.
In 2004, I had a hallway conversation with Dan Levenson at the IBMA meeting in Louisville that led to two summer workshops with him and some degree of reengineering of my clawhammer technique. I derive daily satisfaction from my playing and from the learning I still experience and enjoy.
From my previous post in "How Long..............."
I didn't take any official lessons. However, at a party, I got three good pieces of advice: 1) as I did finger pick guitar, I was told to stop waving my thumb around like a flag in a breeze, 2) left hand, one finger one fret and 3) the 5th string is played on the upward motion of the right hand and you get more power using the index finger rather than using the middle finger.
I'd come home from work and sit in my rocking chair and for the first three weeks, I just spent time getting my right hand relaxed playing clawhammer with no drop thumb [finding notes for tunes already in my head]. About the fourth week I picked the Melvin Wine tune "Calhoun Swing" to start to play drop thumb. There is one phrase in the 2nd part that uses drop thumb and that phrase is repeated three times; six times when you play the part twice. I felt as I had regressed a couple of weeks, but kept at it,,,,,,,,,,,.
Also, during that first year, I watched some really good banjo players and saw what they did.
Nobody in my family or any of my friends played music. Even if they had, being raised in California, it would have been a different kind of music. Through high school and young adulthood, I would buy the cheapest Wards or Sears guitars, but never took time to learn to play, and would leave them behind when I moved on. Twenty-five years later I stopped in a music store and bought a used Kay bi-centennial banjo and about every book I could find, most with the square plastic records attached. I took a few three-finger lessons, but from listening to David Holt's Fire on the Mountain TV show every Saturday morning, I knew I wanted to play clawhammer. Bought more books and mostly self-taught myself, although I did take lesson for a few months from Clark Buehling.
Forty years later, I'm still just an intermediate clawhammer player, but I'm an expert at enjoying the music I'm able to play jamming with others.
Originally posted by jduke
Forty years later, I'm still just an intermediate clawhammer player...
I think the "intermediate" level is really where clawhammer lives. That's the genius of the style and those that created it. Even the simplest figures can sound so good.
If you've got swing, rhythm, and soul in your playing, intermediate is good enough.
I learned in two phases about 45 years apart.
Phase 1: When I graduated from high school I bought a very cheap, new banjo. Fortunately it was playable and I learned from the Red Pete Seeger book and over the years a little more from the tab books that emerged from John Burke and Miles Krassen. For whatever reason, I didn't find the clawhammer (aka Frailing in those days) too hard. After playing rhythm guitar in a weekly Southern dance evening in college I got to know a lot of tunes.
Phase 2: After semi-retiring and having more time (and being around since I traveled a lot for work), I found a few local jams and slowly but surely learned to pick up tunes in a jam. Now, I look for jams when I travel. (There are 3 in LA that I try to make when I get out there a couple of times a year.)
That said, I wish that I had sought out a teacher in Phase I. I would have learned a lot more and a lot faster.
Sometime in the early '60s, the son of our neighbors came home from college back east (I lived in Wisconsin), and I saw him playing banjo on their front porch. I can't recall what style he was playing, but I was completely enamored. Of course, Earl came along on the Beverly Hillbillies about then too.
In 1969, I got my first banjo from a music store in Oshkosh--some cheap-o resonator model--and Earl's book. Like so many that started out this way, I got only so far. No one played a 5-string banjo where I lived.
I got the bright idea of taking my banjo to the local college campus and sitting on the quad, and making whatever music I could muster. It is a private school, with many students that come from Chicago, or the eastern US, so I thought some student might play banjo, see me, and help me out. Finally, one day a college student, who was from Chicago, did just that it. It was John Stiernberg, older brother of the renowned mandolinist, Don Stiernberg (who was just starting out then), and founding member of the Morgan Brothers band. Anyway, John invited me to his dorm room, showed me how to frail, and turned me on to both the Seeger and Rosenbaum books. Awakening #1.
I messed around with various traditional styles for a few years, using the Seeger and Rosenbaum books, but it was a struggle without any real teacher available. I managed to get the rudiments, but direct exposure to the music was the music was the missing component.
In 1972, I was living in Salt Lake City, and heard the Deseret String Band. Awakening #2.
In the summer of 1974, I went to North Carolina and hit the festival circuit there and in Virginia. Awakening #3.
I was still playing quite a bit into my early years in grad school in Chapel Hill, but then studies and career overwhelmed that for a number of years. Later in my working life, I got back to it, first with clawhammer, but then eventually back to 2F, 3F and up-picking.
Edited by - jack_beuthin on 07/11/2022 11:45:10
In 2000 I picked up a Goodtime Gumby-head, a Pete Seeger video tape and a Perlman instruction book.
My brother, who had played since the. 60's, showed me how to "bum-ditty" with "Skip To My Lou," and that was the visual I needed to grasp the method.
I had played piano way back in the 50's, so knew how to read music, and taught myself Classical Guitar during the 70's and 80's, but tab was new to me. Used it because it was easier to read with the different tunings.
Skip To My Lou was a great way to start - I even posted a video or two about learning clawhammer on my PricklyPearMusic site way back towards the beginning.
Edited by - banjo_brad on 07/11/2022 16:07:45
Got turned onto the banjo back in early high school by my best friend who had got his hands on a cheapie bottle cap instrument. He was learning bluegrass and but some long forgotten transaction in 9th grade the instrument landed in my hands on a long term loan. Started playing bluegrass with his instruction and the Scruggs book.
Around 1976 or so, I randomly ran into some people in Washington Square in the Village who were playing what would be referred to as “OldTime”. Few banjoists there were doing frailing style. That caught my interest and I cornered somebody and got them to show me what the heck they were doing. Picked up on it fast. Went around the corner amd got a few books and records, kept going to the park, picked up more. Wound up meeting a number of musicians in Brooklyn and Long Island. Learned more. Practiced a ton. More records. Trips down south in the late 70’ and early 80’s. Fiddle amd banjo competitions. Met more musicians. Picked up more. Practiced more. Met more musicians. Traveled around the country playing music. Met more people. Picked up more tunes and techniques. Picked up more stuff. Started trading instruments. Married a musician who somehow knew a ton of people who played fiddle amd banjo up and down the coast . She introduced me to more folks. Picked up stuff from them. Played in a mess of bands, picked up stuff from my band mates. Listened to A ton of music. On and on.
45+ years later...I guess I can hold my own.
I started banjo to college when I was 20 and messed around with it for about 3 years. I took 8 weeks of group lessons during that time. Then I met a friend who played fiddle, mostly Irish tunes and we got together weekly. I got John Burke's book and some Ken Perlman's books and learned the tunes he new from those books. Been playing with fiddlers ever since. Still learning at 65.
Picked up the banjo at 12 being a Flatt & Scruggs fan, had a hundred dollar Japanese bottle cap and started playing Scruggs style 3 finger, heard Ed Lowe and Tom Sauber play at a jam at McCabe's after a 3 finger lesson with Tom Scholcker around 1976 and after that started listening to every record I could that featured CH & OT banjo, the County Clawhammer series, High Atmosphere, Instrumental Music Of The Southern Appalachians, Tommy & Fred, Kyle Creed, Wade Ward, Obray Ramsey, Roscoe Holcomb, Old Virginia Vols 1 & 2, etc. and just immersed myself into the music and started to figure it out on my own. Also bought the Miles Krassen, Muller & Koehler and Art Rosenbaum's first books, and then Art's Kicking Mule LP with the tab book, and although I couldn't really make heads or tails of the tabs, I could HEAR the music and just kept at it... yanked the frets out of that Japanese bottle cap and glued toothpicks in the fret slots and never looked back except for a period of time where I didn't play... work, kids, family, but picked it up again about 20 years ago and surprised how much I remembered. Never had a lesson learning how to play old-time banjo styles other than what the records of those amazing old-time players taught me and still learning...
Edited by - RG on 07/13/2022 16:41:58
I started playing the banjo when I was 65 years old. I'm not sure why. When I was a kid in K.C. MO, I went to the Stockyards with my dad starting when I was around 7-8 years old on some Saturday's. He and grandad had a livestock commission business there. Pop always stopped at a pawn shop on the way to the "yards" just in case there was a bargain to be had. I don't remember him ever buying anything. But, the shop had a rows of bland, blond, guitars on one wall (boring) and a bunch of sparkly, shiny banjos (neat) on the other wall. I thought they looked pretty cool and decided that I should probably have one.
That was not to be. Mom had a grand piano in the living room so that was the instrument I learned when I was 10 years old. Later, I got a used accordion for Christmas (bought a the pawn shop, for sure) and took lessons and enjoyed that much more than the piano. But, baseball, summer camp, model building and other "kid stuff" was much more fun.
Growing up, I watched "Hee Haw" on TV so that's where I probably got interested in the banjo. But, I worked in the cattle business at the family's feedlot/ranch for the next 35 years and there wasn't time to do much else but take care of cattle. There were no music stores where I lived and I didn't know anyone who played string instruments, either.
I retired from the cattle business and moved to Wyoming in 1997 and did several different jobs here with the last job being a geologist "tech" in the methane exploration business. While scurrying around, getting ready for a 4 well job in northern MT, I slipped, fell and shattered my left wrist when I was 64 years old which ended up being held together with an external fixture. I was also one of the "lucky" 2-5% of folks who developed CRPS, a nerve disorder. I slept in a Lazy Boy because I couldn't stand to have bed covers touch my left arm.
After a $40,000 repair job and a year of intense P.T. (it took me 2 months before I could tie my shoes again) and when it looked like I might have an actual functioning left hand, wrist/arm instead of a "hat rack", I decided since I'd always wanted a banjo, to buy one. I took a few lessons and it took a year before I could make a clean, quick "C" chord.
By that time, I discovered the Banjo Hangout and I devoured everything "banjo". I didn't know what kind of music I wanted to play so I practiced three finger rolls and the clawhammer stroke. As my left hand ring finger didn't fully recover full function and I was unable to do three finger chords up the neck, I decided that clawhammer might be the best path for me to follow. After to listening to the music, I found that I really preferred that music so away I went with clawhammer/old time. I figured that I'd probably get slower as I aged and old time sounded fine to me slowed down and I figured I could play tunes by myself for the "duration" and maybe learn a few tunes to instill an interest in music in my twin grandsons. Bluegrass seemed to need multiple instruments and clawhammer/Old Time, could stand on it's own I had no concept of "jams" at the time and never figured I'd play in a jam.
I took a few lessons from a local really good teacher, Lynn Young, but went on my own after awhile, learning from many resources on the net. I played banjo at our local, "Living History Day's" here in Buffalo a few years after I took lessons from Lynn and he heard me play and asked if I'd like to join his small group of old time only players. You bet! And, I've been on cloud nine since. I've been playing with this group since 2018 and have had a blast. In my wildest dreams, I never thought I'd be playing with such good musicians and having so much fun. And, being able to play with such great fiddle players and wondering, "how the heck can they do that?", I figured that at age 72, if I were going to figure out anything about a fiddle I should buy one pretty quick. I've got around 40 O.T. tunes that I know on the banjo and I can play them up to speed on the fiddle with recordings. Learning the fiddle is an even a greater adventure than the banjo and I wake up every morning, itching to get downstairs and start "fiddlin".
I heard a lady play a version of 'Shady Grove' on a public radio program that used to be broadcast on Sunday evenings in Oregon. The program was called 'Ridin the Rough String', and we were listening while coming home from a weekend sheepdog trial. I had a history of playing guitar, and the lady's playing sounded so cool that I thought that I would give that a try. It took a little while to discover she was playing clawhammer style. Her playing sounded different, but I couldn't place it right away.
Anyway, I got a Gold Tone banjo and learned the basic technique from the old Bob Carlin VHS tape. It took me about 3 weeks to get the basic bum-ditty down to the point that I didn't need to think about it too much about it while I was doing it.
After that I went to the music camp that's put on just before the Father's Day festival in Nevada City, CA and Alice Gerrard was there teaching old time banjo. I think we were in classes for 3-4 days and spent the first half of each day with our primary instructor. I came home with lots of stuff to work on.
Over the years I've been to a couple other camps and some festivals and been through a half dozen or so banjos. I mainly play with friends and we play out once in awhile and will occasionally host contra dances for the public (when there isn't a pandemic going on). It's been a lot of fun.
I started on and spent lot of time with bass and guitar; getting to sit and play with banjo players and fiddlers. Little later picked up fiddle; learn the tunes more melodic perspective; again getting to play with banjo players. By time I decided to pick up banjo, I already knew lot's about music, was comfortable with left-hand, right hand rhythm; tunings, heard and knew lots of the tunes, and the style, what I wanted it to sound like (and what not)... heard and observed in direct way.
Was at a party, when banjo player went to get some beers and handed me his banjo... others started playing Angelina Baker... thought what the heck... and found I could more or less play that (basic simple version). Went home and borrowed banjo, sat focused for next 12 hours messing around with other basic tunes.
Edited by - banjoak on 07/14/2022 18:41:56
I picked up my father’s banjo and copy of Earl Scruggs and the 5 string banjo in my teens, but didn’t stick with it very long.
Twenty years later I wanted to provide a similar experience for my children by having music played in the home and decided to give banjo my attention again. While I liked traditional grass the sound of frailing banjo from records in my youth were more appealing to me. I bought a banjo uke in early 14 and practiced right hand technique based on some forgotten internet videos while I looked for my first banjo, which I located a few months later. Early 2015 I made a few monthly trips to visit Dan Gellert in Dayton (about a 3 hour trip). Between trips I’d practice what I’d learned and began to really immerse myself in old-time banjo recordings.
That summer I traveled down to visit Dan Levenson while he was at his place in southern Ohio, and in early 2016 I went to Tennessee for Megan and Adam Chowning’s clawhammer camp where I was encouraged to start attending local jams.
The change of learning tunes at home vs trying to pick up a new tune at speed in a jam was something that I really struggled with on the banjo. I kept attending jams at the Rambling House, but didn’t feel that I was progressing very much. Somewhere in that year I decided that it would be helpful to learn fiddle tunes from the fiddle’s perspective and that might in turn inform my banjo playing.
By April of 2017 I’d traded a banjo for an old fiddle and began taking fiddle lessons from a local named Lauren Spavelko, then attended Megan’s adult beginner fiddle camp in Tennessee that summer.
Somewhere in the next two years I realized that rather than being a banjo player learning the fiddle, I’d become someone passionate about the fiddle that had collected a number of banjos but was really an infrequent player.
Well, another 5 years of fiddle have passed and I I’m thinking of circling back around and trying to put the banjo back in regular rotation and see if all this fiddle will translate to better banjo playing.
I started on guitar in '65. Around '73 I got a pre-bottlecap "Lero" open-back and the red Seeger book. In '77 I bought a fine Jake Neufeld open-back and took a couple of clawhammer lessons from Kathy Murphy at the Toronto Folklore Centre. I took to it right away - drop thumb and all. I guess it came naturally after Seeger strumming. I later picked up the Burke, Perlman (Melodic CH), Krassen, and Rosenbaum books.
But, after stupidly unloading the Neufeld in favour of a resonator banjo (and, not long after, picking up an old Orpheum to replace the Neufeld), I basically hung it up for about twenty years. I got back into it around the time I joined BHO - and that's been an inspiration and Impetus ever since. I was the clawhammer player at the Bluegrass jam, and even taught CH for a very brief time at a local music store.
I've lately been playing mainly guitar, but my friend Peter, who's in upstate New York when he isn't at his cottage north of here, wants me to play banjo on his original songs, so that gets me to focus on banjo, somewhat.
I found a '78 Neufeld at the Twelfth Fret three years ago (traded the Orpheum, which never really replaced the first Neufeld) - came full circle, so to speak, in my CH playing. It has the string spacing I need - and the tone.
Started out as a bluegrasser in 1970. Then heard John McCuen playing clawhammer on NGDB ‘s Uncle Charlie and his Dog Teddy LP, and had a “what the hell is that?” epiphany. Bought Highwoods, Fuzzy Mountain, and Hot Mud Family, and started listening. Traveled the Cincy area in high school and college years, and listened to WYSO, checking it all out. Purchased Krassen, but struggled, and law school intervened. Went back to Krassen years later, and it all came together quickly. Haven’t played 3-finger in 35 years or more.
I was living in San Francisco and fell for Southern Appalachian clawhammer music after seeing a documentary of one of the Lomax films of Kentucky Mountain Music. I was wild to play that music and learn more about that music, and was referred to Gryphon Instruments in Palo Alto an hour or so south of SF. I took a couple rounds of group classes there, and quite frankly struggled to get the knack of it. I can still recall the words of our wonderful teacher (Tom Culbertson, a wizard on banjo, guitar, mandolin, fiddle, and more). It was something to the effect that everybody who wants to learn and keeps at it, gets it. That, it might come faster to some or slower to some, but everybody who keeps at it, gets it. And that was true. The "knack of it" hit me in the year or two after the group classes, and it seemed to arrive like a bolt out of the blue, without conscious striving aside from keeping at the tunes, and listening a lot to the old-school masters.
I started in that period when a lot of the classic stuff had not yet been issued on CD. I remember going through bins at vintage record stores and stumbling on incredible records that were like a door to a magical world--things like the County Clawhammer records, now so accessible online or on CD, at that time were only findable on out-of-print LPs. And during the group classes I took, my teacher loaned me a worn copy of Tommy Jarrell's solo banjo LP on County, "Sail Away Ladies." It blew my mind and changed my life. I remember finding a new-old-stock copy of a live clawhammer record by the late Pat Dunford, ethnomusicologist, awesome CH soul man, and wild visionary character. OMG. I wore grooves in that thing.
Edited by - ceemonster on 08/01/2022 21:23:33
I should add that I had the great good fortune never to be told by anyone that "drop-thumb" was a separate way of playing clawhammer from a style of playing clawhammer where the thumb was used only to drone the fifth string. I never even heard the term "drop-thumbing" until I came to this site and saw 20-page threads full of people having hissyfits over it. In the classes I took as a beginner, we simply progressed learning tunes, and past the first tune or so everything we learned had notes where the thumb played inside strings, just like in picking styles. Not always a ton of DT notes per tune, but it occurred, and it was not presented or discussed as a "thing," or given a name or label.
I did hear the term "melodic" style explained, and did my best to avoid it. Drones, drones, drones. That is what pulled me into the banjo. I don't want everything explained in my stringband music. Or if I do want everything explained, I prefer other instruments to do it. From the banjo, I want the droning buzz of the mysterious world behind the screen of our perception. Sometimes aka, the "half-barbaric twang."
Edited by - ceemonster on 08/01/2022 22:16:35