Clawhammer banjo is a style of playing the banjo which was popular in the late 19th century up until the onset of bluegrass. Essentially, it is a picking pattern which produces a rhythm with one note followed by two closely connected notes, and is a simple method of playing songs on the banjo. The technique used for the clawhammer can produce more complex music if slurs and other techniques are used alongside it. Down-strokes are used throughout, and the hand is held like a claw, hence the name clawhammer banjo. The high first string will be struck, followed by the second, third, and fourth strings, and then the fifth string.
Different picking styles or strumming patterns are used when playing the banjo to produce different effects. Rolls are common techniques in banjo playing, and they are essentially patterns of finger movements used to play chords as individual notes. The technique of clawhammer banjo is another one of these styles, but it is more of a strumming style than a picking style. Many banjo songs can be played in clawhammer style, even if they weren’t originally written in that way, because it is just a strumming pattern. There are also many old-time banjo songs which use the clawhammer style.
When players produce notes using clawhammer banjo, the strings are struck with the backs of the players’ fingernails. This is done as a down stroke, as are all of the individual notes produced as part of the pattern. To facilitate the backs of the nails coming downwards to strike the strings, players generally hold their picking hands in a claw shape, as if they were gripping an invisible baseball bat. This and the downwards, hammering motion is the inspiration for the name of the style. Clawhammer banjo is also sometimes called “frailing.”
The basic pattern for clawhammer banjo is one strike of the first string, or the highest string, followed by a strum of the highest three strings. This is topped off by a single stroke of the fifth string using the thumb. A player’s middle finger is usually used for the first strike, and the thumb is allowed to rest on the fifth string. After that, the ring and middle fingers are used to strike the highest three strings, with the thumb hitting the fifth string just afterwards.
Pre-bluegrass players used clawhammer banjo most, and are generally known for the style. Many beginners may find clawhammer more accessible than bluegrass, because of the comparative simplicity of the style. Clawhammer banjo can be made more complicated by adding slurs onto the individual notes played and opening other strings up to be played by the thumb.