If you have dabbled in clawhammer at all, I'm sure someone, somewhere has mentioned the phrase "bum-titty" or some variation thereof to you. I am convinced that the popularity of this approach to the rhythm of clawhammer comes from Pete Seeger's use of the term in his 1948 publication, How to Play the 5-String Banjo. Through the 1950s and most of the 1960s "Folk Boom," that book was the only good method available for teaching, and many of us who played and taught through those years adopted Seeger's approach to teaching the instrument.
Since then, I have moved away from that approach, preferring to introduce a beat-oriented method. In its simplest form, clawhammer consists of playing the instrument by using a fingernail to strike down on the strings on each beat.
To do this, the hand is held in a loose fist with the thumb extended. The motion of striking the strings comes from a combination of elbow, wrist and hand motion, and the finger nail continues down towards (or even into) the head after each strike.
As the strings are struck, the extended thumb often makes contact with the 5th string, coming to rest there briefly. As the hand is lifted in preparation for the next beat, the thumb is lifted back off the 5th string, either sounding it gently or not at all.
Try this: Strike downward on the 1st string open on each beat as indicated:
Watch this video clip showing this motion . Note that I use only the middle finger nail for the downstroke; many people prefer the index finger. I'm holding my index finger away so you can see more clearly. And no, there is nothing wrong with my middle fingernail. It's merely painted white in an effort to make it more visible:
(You can download this video file directly with this link: beginning1.wmv
Did you remember to stop your thumb on the 5th string?
This same motion is used to pick other strings, of course. To accomplish this, you will simply open or close your right hand slightly to hit the correct string. It takes practice, but accuracy will come:
(You can download this video file directly with this link: beginning2.wmv
Of course, we don't usually play the same note so repeatedly, so try:
(You can download this video file directly with this link: beginning3.wmv
And then, a little more randomly:
(You can download this video file directly with this link: beginning4.wmv
Or, even a little Haydn:
(You can download this video file directly with this link: haydn.wmv)