Lesson 4: Ringing the Fifth
Welcome to the fourth installment in the eight essential steps to clawhammer banjo video series. For many of you, this lesson is the moment you’ve been waiting for. Finally, we’re gonna start ringing the fifth string with our thumbs.
In many ways, we’ve building to this moment with the previous lessons, which have set the stage for us to learn this all important technique of clawhammer banjo playing.
If you recall back in lesson two, I mentioned that, for the most part, the short fifth string functions as a drone note in clawhammer banjo playing, meaning that it’s a note that’s continuously sounded in the background. Yet, in order for us to continuously ring a drone note, our picking hand must engage in two simultaneous tasks.
On the one hand, we have to pick out the melody note on the first through the fourth strings with our picking finger. And on the other hand, we have to keep ringing the fifth string with our thumb. As such, it’s critical that we develop a stroke that’s as efficient as possible, which is what we’ll end up with at the end of this lesson.
To recap what we’ve covered so far, in the first lesson we reviewed the two basic motions of the picking hand, which are the hammer and the strum. In the second lesson, we learned the all important thumb rest. And, in the last lesson, we covered the skill of striking the individual strings with our picking finger.
In this lesson, we’re going to cover the final piece of the clawhammer stroke: plucking the fifth string with the thumb.
Before you start picking the fifth string with your thumb in the context of the clawhammer stroke, first just practice plucking the fifth string with your thumb on its own. Press the pad of your thumb up against the fifth string and press forward until your thumb rolls off. Remember that your nail isn’t involved at all in sounding the string.
Practice plucking the fifth string a few times so you get the feel for it, and then move on to practicing it as part of the clawhammer stroke.
Now we’re going to do that same exact thing, except we’re going to do it at the end of the hammer motion. To do so, just strike down on the first string using the hammer motion, have the flesh of your thumb come to rest against the fifth like we’ve worked on, and then pluck the fifth string with your thumb like you just did. It should almost feel as if you’re squeezing the fifth string towards your palm as you pluck it.
AN ADDED BONUS
One of the neat things that happens here is that after you pluck the fifth, your hand is going to naturally recoil a little bit and come back towards the place where you started. So regardless of whether you decide to sound the fifth string or not after the thumb rest, your hand is basically doing the exact same thing. In essence, you’re able to sound the fifth string with your thumb as an added bonus with the stroke.
After practicing plucking the fifth string after the hammer stroke for a bit, try it with the strum. Strum across the strings, have the flesh of your thumb come to rest against the fifth, and then pluck the fifth again just as you’ve been doing.
Practice both of those strokes a little bit, and once you’ve got the basic idea of it, move on to the following exercises, which I’d recommend practicing along with the metronome. As always, I’d recommend that you start on a very slow metronome setting, and then work to faster speeds as you get comfortable with it.
In the exercises in this video as demonstrated, I’m playing one stroke per click of the metronome. In the previous videos, however, we’ve been playing one stroke per two clicks. This means that an eighty beats per minute setting will a good bit faster to you than it did in the other videos. So I’ve added some slower settings on the metronome playlist which you can access here, and I’d recommend that you for these exercises you start around the fifty beats per minute mark, and then increase by ten beats per minute until you can play along with the eighty beats per minute setting.
In this first set of exercises, we’ll play a hammer stroke, and then follow that with a hammer + thumb stroke. Do this first on first string, which in tab looks like this:
Now, repeat that same pattern on the second string, then the third string, then the fourth string, as shown below:
For the next set of exercises we’re going to again play a hammer on the first string, and then follow that with a strum + thumb stroke, as shown below:
Once again, repeat this same pattern on the second string, then the third string, then the fourth string, as shown below:
For the next exercise, we’re going to use the same pattern that we did in the first set of exercises, but then we’ll move it sequentially up the strings. So we’re gonna start on the first string, play the hammer and hammer + thumb pattern four times, move to the second string, then the third string, then the fourth string. Here’s what it looks like in tab:
In the fourth exercise, we’re going to be using the same pattern we did in the second exercise, the hammer followed by a strum thumb, and again take that pattern and move it from the first string, to the second string, third string, fourth string, just like we did in the last exercise. Here’s what it looks like in tab:
For the last exercise what we’re going to do is follow every hammer stroke with a thumb, and we’re gonna start by doing that on the first string. Here’s what it looks like in tab:
Once again just like in the first two sets of exercises, I’d recommend you do that same pattern on the second string, the third string, and the fourth string, like this:
THE SKY IS THE LIMIT
Congratulations, if you’re able to make it through those exercises then you’ve mastered the fundamentals of the clawhammer stroke, and now possess a tool that you can use to make incredible sounding music. As I said earlier, from here on out most of our exercises are gonna be either parts of tunes or entire tunes, so we’re gonna start making some really good music in a hurry.
So practice up, and I’ll see you in lesson five.