The clawhammer banjo, 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 best clawhammer banjo 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.
The clawhammer banjo is firmly connected with classic tunes and traditional American music. However, the best clawhammer banjo style can be applied similarly to contemporary genres and songs.
It is normally played on open-back banjos, which stress its smooth tone and are with regards to the instruments used by its music makers.
Best Clawhammer Banjo Reviews 2020
If you are a clawhammer player who is looking to purchase a new banjo, look at our choices beneath. It will furnish you with the sound you are searching for. These are the best clawhammer banjos available.
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. The OT-800 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 clawhammer banjos among country 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 banjo that is user-friendly with a vintage sound, this is an ideal choice.
Deering Goodtime 5-string 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 banjo players in every genres and style. This open-backed model is lightweight, which makes it better for travelling and gives the sound a more open quality. Deering 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 an instrument that is simple to play. Everything on this 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 you escape this instrument gives banjos that cost twice.
The open-back is not a vital part of clawhammer playing style but it is traditional for the players. The bluegrass players can find they miss the additional volume support their sound gets from the resonator on a closed-back 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 style.
The traditional cover and Remo M1 head provide you with a classic twanging tone 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 choice for a beginner and also a substitute instrument for the people who usually play on an open-back banjo but often need the extra force given by the resonator. If you are on a budget, this is the best clawhammer banjo you can discover.
The Recording King Madison Banjo is created considering the traditional banjo players. Since the clawhammer style is frequently used by those searching for that old-school sound, which makes it the ideal fit for that playing technique. 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 tone 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 clawhammer banjos in the market.
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 banjo 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 clawhammer banjo 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 clawhammer banjo is played in classical music. Now you have a little idea about the differences between bluegrass and clawhammer banjo playing, let’s find out how to play clawhammer banjo.
Tuning the Clawhammer Banjo
If you are a clawhammer player, then tuning your 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 clawhammer banjo 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.
Also, don’t forget to see our post on how many strings does a banjo have.
How to play clawhammer banjo?
Here are the basic steps on how to play clawhammer banjo:
- 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 clawhammer banjo 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 you should learn Clawhammer Banjo?
The clawhammer banjo 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 clawhammer banjo players can’t play fast. It means that each style sparkles in particular playing conditions.
The clawhammer banjo 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 clawhammer banjo 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.
The capacity to play single notes and play makes clawhammer banjo 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 clawhammer banjo 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.
Also, don’t forget to see our post on best beginner banjo.
Which type is right for you?
If you want to play a five-string banjo, the choice between a clawhammer banjo or a resonator banjo 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 style in terms of playing method. You need to look at the specific sound 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.
Also, don’t forget to see our post on how hard is it to learn banjo.
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 clawhammer banjo for your own preference.