Lesson 2: The Thumb Rest
Welcome to the second lesson in the eight steps to clawhammer banjo video series. In the first lesson in this series, I introduced you to the basic clawhammer motion of the picking hand, which is the signature feature of this style of playing. And perhaps the single most important thing for you to do when you’re playing this style of music is to make sure you that you always keep that clawhammer motion going.
In this lesson, I’m going to share with you what I think is the secret to making sure you’re always able to do just that.
Let’s briefly review what I covered in the first lesson in this series. In that lesson, I mentioned that most of the movement that you’ll be making with your picking hand in clawhammer banjo is going to be at your wrist. And the main movement is an up and down, or knocking motion. That’s what you’ll be using to strike the individual strings like this.
The second movement you’ll make is a side to side movement of the wrist, which is what you use to strum across multiple strings. Hopefully you’ve been practicing both of those and you’ve gotten reasonably comfortable with them and are ready to move on to this lesson.
THE THUMB REST
So in today’s lesson I’m going to be covering what I refer to as the thumb rest.
One of the signature features of the five string banjo is the short fifth string itself, and most of the time in five string banjo playing, that fifth string functions as a drone note. A drone note is simply a note that is continuously sounded in the background in a piece of music.
I mentioned earlier that it’s important to always keeping our clawhammer motion going with our picking hand, but, in addition, we also need to make sure we’re always keeping this fifth string ringing as well. So how do we accomplish both those tasks? With the thumb rest, that’s how.
So what’s the thumb rest? Each time you make the clawhammer motion with your wrist, whether it’s the up and down hammer motion, or the side to side strum, the flesh of your thumb comes to rest against the fifth string at the end of that movement. The easiest way to make sure you do this is to keep the thumb extended as you play.
Here’s how your hand should look at the end of the initial clawhammer movement. Again, notice that the flesh of the thumb is pressed against the fifth string:
As I said earlier, I think the thumb rest is really the key to making sure you maintain a continuous and fluid motion with your picking hand. It’s the glue that maintains the clawhammer stroke as an efficient and compact, two-step, motion.
What often happens to beginners is they inadvertently break up the motion into three steps. They’ll strike with picking finger, and then they’ll try to find the fifth string with the thumb, and then move back to the starting position.
This ends up making it hard for them to develop speed, and hard to maintain a steady rhythm throughout their playing. As I’ve said, keeping a steady rhythm is vital to the sound of clawhammer banjo. And I think it’s this inadvertent failure to develop or learn the thumb rest that probably serves as the biggest impediment most folks face when learning clawhammer banjo. Fortunately, that’s not going to happen to you!
PREPARING FOR LESSON 3
So what I want you to do before the next lesson is to practice the thumb rest with both movements of the picking hand, making sure that the flesh of your thumb comes pressed up against the fifth string at the end of each movement. Once you get a little bit comfortable doing that, I want you to practice both of these along with the metronome.
For these exercises, I want you to play one clawhammer stroke for every two clicks of the metronome, like this:
I’ve created a playlist for you (click to access) that has metronome clicks at different settings. And what I’d recommend you do as you’re practicing the thumb rest is to start with the slowest metronome setting I have on there, which is 80 BPM, and practice both the hammer and the strum along with that one.
As you get comfortable with it, move to the next fastest one, which would be 90 BPM, and continue to do that until you are able to play comfortably and in time using both the hammer and the strum at the 140 BPM metronome setting. Once you’re able to do that, you’re all set for the third lesson.
BUILDING THE FOUNDATION
I understand that playing along with the metronome like this may seem a little bit tedious, but as I mentioned before, I think that getting the thumb rest right is one of the most critical pieces early on when you’re learning this style. And I also said in the introductory video that a little bit of patience in the beginning as you’re learning clawhammer banjo is really going to pay off in the long run, which it most certainly will.
So practice the exercises that I’ve covered here. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them in the video comments section. Otherwise, I’ll see you in lesson three.
Key Points from Video Two
- A smooth and steady clawhammer picking motion is critical for building speed and a solid rhythm
- The thumb rest, where the flesh of the thumb comes to rest against the fifth string at the end of the striking motion, is the key to keeping the clawhammer stroke efficient and compact.
- Practice the thumb rest with the hammer and the strumming motion, first on their own, then along with the metronome.
- Once you’re able to perform both motions comfortably and in time with the metronome, you’re ready for video 3!