Here I’ll attempt to get you playing a simple tune, without having to rely on notation or tablature. (If you’re a visual or auditory learner, Jesus what are you doing here. There’s by now six lifetimes of videos on YouTube for this stuff.)
Part 4: Playing a Tune On Your Banjo
You should by now, on the down beat (bum) of your bum ditty, be able to consciously strike the first, second, or third string with the back of your finger.
I haven’t recommended or mentioned doing so because in these early stages the gap between your skill and the music you might enjoy is so great as to cause fits of weeping and a return to dabbling in home pizza cookery or meat smoking and you’ll get back to the banjo some day soon you promise.
But you didn’t come here to listen to old-time music, you came here to play it. This is folk music; time to play with folks.
Nine episodes, all adaptations of old European folk tales, evoke the darkness and dread of the source material. The language of the stories is glorious, even more so as delivered by John Hurt in the title role.
The boy has reached a great age for these, and tonight we watched my favorite of the series, “The Three Ravens,” the story of a princess who must speak to no one for three years, three months, three weeks, and three days, if she is to break the enchantment that has ensnared her brothers.
The episode features Jonathan Pryce, Joely Richardson, and Miranda Richardson as a witch so evil that the boy—who has made it through all three Lord of the Rings movies—crawled up onto the couch between us for reassurance before the story was done.
This is part two of a crash course in clawhammer banjo for the novice with a guitar background. Part one covered four tunings, and the basic (I-IV-V) chords in each. In this post you’ll learn to train your right hand to perform the unnatural motions of the clawhammer playing style.
Part 2: The Clawhammer Strum
While you can find a fair amount of tablature for old-time banjo, it suffers from the same problem that most tablature does—it shoehorns music that was developed by feel into a system of rational notation. Starting out I learned a lot of tunes badly using tablature, because I didn’t know how the basic act of playing clawhammer was supposed to feel.
Some teachers also suggest learning simple “tunes” as a way to start out learning to play. But to me the process of plucking out individual notes is too intellectual of a process for this stage in your learning.
What you need right now is to develop some fundamental muscle understanding and memory. Once your hand has begun to know what it’s doing, tablature and tunes can become of use.
Now let’s talk about three ways to make sound with your right hand.
When choosing between clawhammer (old-time, frailing) and Scruggs-style (bluegrass, 3-finger), many beginning banjo players are at first intimidated by the speed and technical complexity of bluegrass picking they have seen or heard, and decide to give old-time clawhammer a try instead.
Then they hit the wall.
“HOW THE @#$%. AM I SUPPOSED TO HIT A STRING. WITH THE BACK OF MY @#$%ING NAIL. AND THEN HOOK MY THUMB BACK UP TO THE TOP STRING WTF.”
Those who come from playing guitar have it the worst, as their right hands have developed muscle memories that are not merely useless, but counter-productive.
So they return to learning Scruggs-style, because there at least they have some relevant skills to apply, and if they do stick with it, and don’t give up, and practice regularly, they have the opportunity to look forward to spending the rest of their lives being a really shitty bluegrass banjo player.
This post can help you, someone with experience playing guitar, get over the wall as a beginning clawhammer player, and put you on the road to being passable at it within a year’s time.