Rediscovering the Banjo, Clawhammer Style

So, this is my 2nd post ever about banjos, even though they have been my primary hobby for the last 3 years. That’s restraint. If you like the banjo and want to learn a little history (very little), you might find this interesting.

Rediscovering the banjo for the first time

Even though I had owned a cheapo banjo about 30 years earlier, I knew so little about banjos when I started researching them about 3 years ago, I was shocked to find that the most popular style of banjo did not have the large resonator that the bluegrass guys played. And, I was also shocked to find that there was a common style of playing called clawhammer or frailing, that didn’t involve the use of picks. I was even more surprised to find that one of my all-time favorite banjo songs was in clawhammer style…


This, by the way, was the song that first got the banjo on Top-40 radio.

A little banjo history

Clawhammer style, where you strike the main strings with the back of the fingernail and pluck the 5th string with your thumb in a syncopated beat, has been around for hundreds of years. The 3-finger bluegrass style was more or less invented and popularized by Earl Scruggs. It was flashy and noisy (and new and exciting), so it caught on. The clawhammer style of playing actually dates back hundreds of years to Africa where 3- or 4-stringed instruments—always with a short drone string on top—were played in much the same fashion. This style of instrument and playing was brought over by African slaves, which explains the syncopation of the clawhammer playing style.

Sometime around 1830, the 5-stringed banjo was developed by a minstrel performer named Joel Walker Sweeney. By the civil war, 5-string banjos were getting to be popular; in fact, Stephen Foster’s famous song Oh, Susanna with it’s line “with a banjo on my knee” was published in 1848. An interesting historical sidenote is that in the early days of slavery, both African and Irish slaves were often housed together, where African rhythms were added to Irish folk tunes, giving us Appalachian or “old-time” fiddle and banjo music.

Banjo Mythbuster

buckbee copyMany people assume that when Sweeny added the 5th string to create the modern banjo, this means he added the short 5th string. However, that is not the case. As stated above, the banjo and its predecessors always had one short string. The 4-string Tenor banjo that became popular in the 20’s was a later invention—first appearing around 1910—that was developed to be strummed with a pick. The resonator was also developed to add volume so the banjo could be heard on early orchestral recordings, as guitars were, as this was pre-amplification, not loud enough.

By contrast (and for example), my oldest 5-string banjo is a Buckbee, dating back to around 1880-1890. (It is nearly identical to the banjo played by Taj Mahal in the movie Songcatcher.) The Buckbee Banjo Co. began manufacturing banjos during the Civil War and went out of business in 1896 or ’97.

One more tune…

Here’s another example of clawhammer playing: another old Stephen Foster song, Angeline The Baker, played on a banjo built by Doc Huff of Dallas, Oregon, who makes some of the most beautiful and unique banjos I’ve ever seen:

Okay, 2 more tunes. This is from the Honey Dewdrops, one of my favorite folk duos. Laura Wortman is a great example of a modern folk clawhammer banjoist.

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