The banjo for clawhammer players, also known as “frailing”, is a standard method for folk string music players. The difference between the clawhammer style and other methods is the direction of the picking.
The classic methods for bluegrass use an upwards picking movement while the clawhammer method is a down-picking style, which gives the picking hand the firm fingered claw shape that provides the method with its name.
It is a technique of playing where the strings are struck using the back of your middle fingernail, then plucked with your thumb. The term ‘clawhammer’ indicates both to the shape of your hand as you play, and the way that you strike the strings.
You can play clawhammer style on any banjo, but few features of the instrument will be more suitable to the technique than others. You need to search for the top banjo for clawhammer players with open back design. Regarding the fretboard and string set-up, most players find it comfortable to get the best banjo for clawhammer with slightly low action and a scooped neck.
- At a Glance – Best Banjo for Clawhammer
- Top Clawhammer Banjo – Comparison Table
- Bluegrass and Clawhammer: What is the difference?
- Tuning the Banjo for clawhammer players
- How to play banjo for clawhammer players?
- Why to learn clawhammer banjos?
- What makes a banjo best clawhammer banjo?
- Which type is right for you?
- Best Banjo For Clawhammer Players – Reviews
At a Glance – Best Banjo for Clawhammer
Top Clawhammer Banjo – Comparison Table
|Goldtone OT 800||$$$||4.8||Top goldtone banjo||0.45 kg|
|Deering Goodtime 5-string||$$||5||best overall banjo||1.8 kg|
|Pyle PBJ-60||$||4.3||top clawhammer banjo||2.2 kg|
|Rover RB-20||$||4||best open-back banjo||1.9 kg|
|Recording king RK-OT25||$$||4.9||great intermediate banjo||4.3 kg|
Bluegrass and Clawhammer: What is the difference?
The bluegrass banjo was introduced by Earl Scruggs who first displayed it on the Grand Ole Opry in December 1945. His way of playing was impacted by his sibling Junie Scruggs, along with few old clawhammer players including Snuffy Jenkins, Smith Hammett and Mack Woolright. Scruggs used ideas that he gained from these players and made had its impact on a series of notes called “rolls.” Most of the rolls either have four or eight notes.
The great and exciting about Scruggs style is the sheer number of notes that come flying out of the banjo! The drawback is that the song frequently gets lost in a swarm of different notes.
Clawhammer is the old style that has its foundations in West Africa. During the 1830s white artists like Joel W. Sweeney began learning the banjo from African-American slaves. Sweeney was soon joining different performers on the minstrel stage playing called the “stroke style.” The basic concept behind how to play banjo for clawhammer players is that the song is played by hitting down on the strings and following that with a little rhythm.
The Scruggs style banjo is mostly played in bluegrass music where the banjo for clawhammer players is played in classical music. Now you have a little idea about the differences between bluegrass and banjo for clawhammer players playing, let’s find out how to play banjo for clawhammer players.
Tuning the Banjo for clawhammer players
If you play clawhammer, then to play the banjo will be complicated. People who aren’t familiar with this style clawhammer is a kind of banjo playing that uses percussive hitting of a string with the middle finger.
Tuning the banjo is treated differently in the old-time music world. Both clawhammer and old-time or two fingerstyle performers can use a few unique tunings throughout a show. The reason is Scruggs style is just around 70-80 years of age and most of the songs in the tuning use open G. However, clawhammer and other old styles go back to ancient Africa.
The instrument followed slaves when they were brought to America, then they became the folk instrument of choice for a very long time. Furthermore, there wasn’t much consistency in how to play banjo for clawhammer players until it was adopted by minstrel performers in the 1830s. The first tuning to see the broad use was an open D variation with the strings tuned to dGDF#A.
How to play banjo for clawhammer players?
Here are the basic steps on how to play banjo for clawhammer players:
- With your right hand across the strings of the banjo, roll your fingers up like gripping a baseball bat.
- Hit down on the 1st string with the nail of your middle finger, which will be your melody note. With your hand yet in action, place your right thumb to hold on the 5th string.
- Then lift up your right hand and soon stroke down on the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd strings with the nails of your middle and ring fingers. After that, place your thumb to rest on the 5th string like before.
- Ultimately, your thumb will hit the fifth string.
You are attempting to get a rhythm that sounds like the best banjo for clawhammer players style. If you are hitting your foot, it is like “down, down-up, down, down-up.”
Note: Keep your right hand moderately stiff. The initial note of the clawhammer is your melody note. It can be on the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, or 4th strings. We recommend you to use you middle finger of your right hand for the 1st string, and your right index finger for the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th strings.
Why to learn clawhammer banjos?
The banjo for clawhammer players is a laid-back instrument compared to the fast picking of 3-finger style. It gathers ideas of nighttime sitting out on the balcony, instead of the dancing moves of bluegrass. It doesn’t mean that the banjo for clawhammer players can’t play fast. It means that each style sparkles in particular playing conditions.
The banjo for clawhammer players is more melodic than the 3-finger style. The rhythmic pattern puts restrictions on the number of notes you can play. This means the best banjo for clawhammer players tend to stick closer to the basic melody notes of the tune being played. The bluegrass players tend to make a ‘wall of sound’ where the gaps between melody notes are filled in with additional from the chord tone ring.
The capacity to play single notes and play makes banjo for clawhammer players a unique style. It can carry the tune by choosing single notes and play chords to emphasize the rhythm of a song, allowing it to lead different performers as needed. Singing into clawhammer is also effective as you can realize among instrumental and vocal parts of a song.
The banjo for clawhammer players explains well on different instruments as well. Both guitar and ukulele can be played in clawhammer style, creating a unique sound that is proper to old-time, folk and country songs.
What makes a banjo best clawhammer banjo?
The beginner banjo with clawhammer tunes has a unique sound on its own. This unique sound projection is an outcome of two or three unique factors. The first is obviously the style of musicianship, which can combine the rhythms and plucking style. The second may be a slightly less significant factor is the kind of stringed instrument used.
Clawhammer tunes banjos are often played on beginner banjos which come up short on a key part found on bluegrass instruments, perhaps the resonator banjos.
So it is wise to take a closer look at what makes a good banjo for the clawhammer playing style. And also remember to find out the difference between open back banjos and resonator banjos.
Also, don’t forget to see our post on clawhammer banjo strings
Which type is right for you?
If you want to play a five-string banjo, the choice between a beginner banjo for clawhammer players or some resonator banjos is quite simple. You can find videos of both clawhammer and bluegrass banjo playing on YouTube, and choose which one you like best.
The list above will work fine with the clawhammer tune in terms of playing method. You need to look at the specific tone quality you are going for and your budget. As we have mentioned above, open-back models are expensive than closed back for similar sound quality. If you are concern about the budget, you can find Pyle that is listed above.
If you are not concerned about your budget, consider what sort of a sound you look for from your instrument. An open-backed model will give you a gentler, mellower sound, while a closed-back banjo will be more brilliant and stronger. The folk players will prefer open-back banjo played in the clawhammer style, while most country players prefer the twangier, which provides the stronger sound of a closed-back or resonator banjo. If you want more flexibility for a variety of genres, the closed-back banjo would be the best one for you.
Besides this difference, the materials used in the construction of the head and rim will influence how the banjo will sound. You can listen to the models above in practical and choose which one comes nearest to your ideal sound, then you will locate the best banjo for clawhammer players for your own preference.
Best Banjo For Clawhammer Players – Reviews
Gold Tone OT-800 (Top goldtone banjo)
The OT-800 is the best contribution to the Gold Tone company’s catalogue for frailing. It features a laid back design. However, the structure of the neck is a significant part of this technique. It’s a scooped neck, which is made of maple with a bound fingerboard. This beginner banjo includes few modern touches and most importantly the coordinator rods that are used instead of a dowel stick where the neck joins the body. This improves the fit as well as makes it simpler to fix the activity.
The Gold Tone OT-800 is a solid banjo in terms of your playing style. It’s one of the best banjo for clawhammer players due to its improved volume and sustainability compared to different models. This is because of the design of the rim and head, using a design based on the classic Vega Tuba phone. If you are searching for a beginner banjo that is user-friendly with a vintage sound, this is an ideal choice.
Deering Goodtime 5-string (Best overall banjo)
Deering is one of the renown names in the banjo world. Their Goodtime series offers a range of materials, constructions, and price focuses for beginner banjo in every genres and style. This open-backed beginner banjo is lightweight, which makes it better for travelling and gives the sound a more open quality. Goodtime 5-string Banjo is the ideal choice considering its expert-level construction and materials.
The neck is made of rock maple, slim and built with a low profile on each of the 22 frets, bringing about a stringed instrument that is simple to play. Everything on this beginner banjo is intended to be flexible to suit any player. The 11-inch head is the tailpiece, bridge, and sealed geared tuners. The vibrant and singing tone ring you escape this instrument gives banjos that cost twice.
Pyle PBJ60 ( Top clawhammer banjo)
The open-back is not a vital part of clawhammer playing style but it is traditional for a banjo player. The bluegrass players can find they miss the additional volume support their sound gets from the resonator on a closed-back beginner banjo. The Pyle is an excellent choice with white jade tuners and a maple bridge that provide you with low action and incredible for the clawhammer tunes.
The traditional cover and Remo M1 head provide you with a classic twanging tone ring that is punchy on the attack. The most amazing thing about this Pyle banjo is it comes at a reasonable price. It makes Pyle PBJ60 the ideal beginner banjo and also a substitute stringed instrument for the people who usually play on an open-back banjo or bass guitar but often need the extra force given by the resonator. If you are on a budget, this is the best banjo for clawhammer players you can discover.
Rover RB-20 (Best open back banjo)
If you are looking for a solid rock sound beginner banjo at a reasonable price point, then the Rover RB-20 is the best open back banjo for beginner clawhammer players like you.
To play the banjo as a beginner, you may want a slim banjo where the inlays are made of reliable acrylic that won’t easily break or crack. This beginner banjo is just like that. Moreover, this 22 frets open back banjo is made with a pleasant mahogany neck and rosewood fingerboard. The extra fortitude you crave for in the neck of the banjo offers a better hold to play the banjo.
Undoubtedly, this is an impressive banjo with clawhammer tunes and great for people who are looking for a beginner banjo at a reasonable price point.
Fortunately, this banjo offers you a great tone ring for the sound that it advances as you play the banjo.
Recording King RK-OT25 (Great intermediate banjo)
The Madison Banjo is created considering the traditional banjo players. Since the clawhammer tune is frequently used by those searching for that old-school sound, which makes it the ideal fit for that play the banjo. It’s an open-back design that uses a steam-twisted maple rim and a 24 bracket stress band that is made of nickel-plated brass. It uses a Remo FiberSkyn head that delivers your brass tone ring a particular vintage sound with a punch on the stresses and clarity on the support.
The vintage touch comes through in different parts similar to the no-tie presto tailpiece and scooped rosewood fingerboard. The material is nickel with a bone nut and a two-way customizable truss rod, which make this banjo comfortable to play. Although it’s made for old-school players, the nature of the tone makes it excellent for any genre and playing style. The cover head and pearl dot trims on the rosewood fingerboard provide a great stylish design. This is one of the best banjo for clawhammer players in the market.
What is clawhammer style banjo playing?
- Clawhammer, also known as frailing, is a unique banjo playing style and a popular part of American old-time music. In its most traditional style on the banjo, only the thumb and middle or index finger are used and the finger always down picks, striking the string with the back of the fingernail.
What is the clawhammer technique?
- Play the clawhammer defines a way of playing the banjo where the strings are struck using the back of your index or middle fingernail, then instead plucked with your thumb. This is in analogy to the 3-finger style, where the strings are all plucked separately by the thumb, index and middle fingers.
What is the difference between clawhammer and bluegrass banjo?
- Unlike clawhammer, the bluegrass banjo evades strumming together. Rather, the fingerpicks are used on the thumb, index and middle fingers; the strings are plucked in the similar way a classical player plucks the strings of a guitar.
Is clawhammer banjo hard to learn?
- Classically, the clawhammer style has considered being easier to learn than bluegrass style banjo. Because once you play clawhammer stroke (basic), everything simply comes into place. It’s like your old relationship of riding a bicycle. Once you learn to ride, then everything becomes easy.
How do you play clawhammer banjo for beginners?
- Beginner clawhammer players play clawhammer banjo by taking lessons from instructors or video lessons. Since it’s a long discussion and might be hard to understand, you can follow some videos on YouTube. For example:
Do clawhammer banjos come with a gig bag?
- It depends on the model you buy. While most beginner banjo with clawhammer tunes may not come with a gig bag, Rover RB-20 does come with a gig bag.
Can you play clawhammer on resonator banjos?
- Yes, of course, you can play clawhammer on the resonator banjos.
Can I play bluegrass on an open back banjo?
- Yes, you can play bluegrass on an open-backed banjo. And also, you can play clawhammer on resonator banjos.
Who are the best clawhammer banjo players?
- Matthew Morse
- Bruce Molsky
- Rhiannon Giddens
- Dock Boggs
- Carolina Chocolate Drops
- Kirk Sutphin
- Allison de Groot & Tatiana Hargreaves
- The Perreze Farm
Should I buy new or used banjo with clawhammer tunes?
- When it’s about purchasing the banjo, one major consideration is whether to buy a brand new or to find fresh used instruments. We all know that a new banjo will come up with the durability of a warrantee and a solid modern construction. However, you can also find great deals on used banjos since there are a lot of interesting fresh used instruments available out there.