Lesson 1: The Basic Motion
Welcome to the first lesson in the “8 Essential Steps to Clawhammer Banjo” lesson series. In this first installment, I’m going to be covering what is the distinguishing feature of this style of playing, which is the movement of the picking hand. For most of you, this is going to be your right hand.
I’m covering this first not just because it’s what imparts this style with its defining sound, but also because it’s the thing that oftentimes leads to the most frustration for folks who are trying to learn it. This is not because the motion is particularly difficult, but rather because folks get the wrong impression or idea about what it should be.
So I want to make sure that you end up getting started off on the right foot, that you don’t end up developing a technique that will make it difficult for you to progress or that will be really hard to unlearn later.
The Shape of the Picking Hand
In some respects, everything that you need to know about the right hand, or the picking hand, in clawhammer banjo is in the name itself. You basically put your hand into a claw-like shape, and then you hammer down on the strings.
Now, if you’ve ever played a stringed instrument before, or even if you haven’t, this may seem like an odd approach to playing. It’s our natural inclination, particularly when we’re trying to strike individual strings, to try to do so by plucking up with our fingers. This makes sense because we’re able to make very precise movements with our fingers.
Fortunately, many years ago, probably in the continent of Africa, some brave and ingenious soul, who was likely playing a banjo-like instrument, decided that he or she would instead try to strike the individual strings not by picking upwards, but by striking down with the back of their nail towards the ground.
And surely this felt awkward at first, as it will feel to you, but over time that person must’ve realized that you could teach yourself to become just as accurate at hitting individual strings with the downpicking motion as you can by up picking. And, better yet, what they also probably realized was that using this technique opened up a world of musical, and particularly rhythmic, possibility that you just can’t get using the up picking method.
So the first thing that I want you to do is start to get comfortable just with the shape that your hand should be in when you’re playing clawhammer. And here there are two points that I want you to remember, or to think about.
One is that the hand should be very relaxed. Muscle tension in general is the enemy of music, and muscle tension in the hand with clawhammer banjo is going to lead to a lot of pain and frustration. So the first thing is to make sure your hand is nice and relaxed.
I think some people get the idea that the strings are set in motion by keeping a very rigid hand through the striking motion. Yet, the reality is the strings are set in motion not from a rigid hand, but from the momentum of the hand that’s generated by the movement at the wrist. In essence here the striking finger is really just along for the ride as it moves through the string.
Now you’ll notice when I play my index finger actually sticks out a little bit. I’m actually striking the strings with my middle finger, so my index finger really isn’t doing anything. But the reason it’s out there is because that’s simply the most relaxed position for my hand.
If I were to try to bring it into a more claw-like posture, it would introduce tension into my hand, and I don’t want muscle tension. So the point here is not that you should stick out your index finger like I do, but that you should be mindful of how your hand feels, and mindful of the position where it feels the most relaxed.
The Hammer and the Strum
In clawhammer banjo, almost all of the movement you’ll be making is going be at the wrist. And you can think of the wrist as having two primary degrees of freedom. You can either move it side to side, as you would if you’re shaking off some water from your fingers, or you can also move it up and down, as you would when you’re knocking on a door.
Most of time, the movement you’ll be making is the hammering motion, or the up and down movement of the hand like you’re knocking on a door. Sometimes, clawhammer is also referred to as “knocking banjo”, or “rapping banjo”, for this reason. And the hammering motion is the motion you’ll be using to strike individual strings.
If you’re strumming across multiple strings — a technique many players use in their playing — then you’ll be moving your wrist in the side to side motion.
Now, the question that inevitably arises at this point is: “what finger should I use to strike the strings with?” And here there are really two viable options.
You can use your index finger, or you can use your middle finger. And, generally speaking, clawhammer banjo players are divided equally in these camps. So about fifty percent use the index finger, about fifty percent use the middle finger, and about two percent use another appendage.
Personally, I use my middle finger, just because that’s what I find more comfortable. And what I’d recommend you do when you’re first starting out is just experiment with using the middle or the index finger, and if one feels more comfortable than the other, just go with that. If they feel equally comfortable, or equally awkward, which is more likely, then maybe just choose your fate with a coin toss.
I’m gonna leave you with two exercises that I want you to get comfortable with before you move on to the next lesson. And the purpose of these two exercises is to allow you to get familiar with the two basic motions. So the first one we’ll start with is the hammer motion.
All I want you to do for the first exercise is just practice the hammer motion on the first string.
The first string is the one that’s closest to the floor, the fifth is the one closest to you. Just practice striking down in a hammering motion on the first string.
Don’t worry here about being accurate. If you don’t just strike the first string, if you hit others, it doesn’t matter. If you miss, it doesn’t matter. Just practice getting the basic idea of the hammering motion down.
One of the things I want you to experiment with as you do this is how much force, or how little force, it actually takes to get a sound out of the string. You’ll probably be surprised at how little effort you have to exert to actually make a sound. And if you can start out with a light touch from the beginning, then it’ll make your life a lot easier down the road with this style.
The second exercise that I want you do is to just practice the strumming technique with the hand, which is the side to side movement. Again, don’t worry too much about accuracy here, whether or not you hit two, or three, or four strings when you strum. I just want you to get the basic side to side motion down as you strike the strings.
So those are the two exercises I want you to practice, the hammer and the strum, until you feel comfortable with them. I think that any time you’re learning a totally new technique or skill, that about fifteen to twenty minutes a day of dedicated and focused practice on it is really all you need to make progress. Do that, and then once you feel like you’ve got it down, you’ve got it under your belt, then you’ll be ready to move on to the second video.
Key Points from Video One
- The motion picking hand is the defining feature of clawhammer banjo.
- Virtually all of the movement of the picking hand occurs at the wrist, either in an up and down, or hammering, motion, or in a side to side motion.
- Choose whether to use your index or middle finger as your primary striking finger based on what feels most comfortable.
- The hammering motion is the one you’ll use to strike individual strings, the side to side motion is the one you’ll use to strum across multiple strings.
- Practice the two exercises and get comfortable with them before moving to video 2.