"Clawhammer Instructional Reviews"

by Tim Thompson , 31 Aug 97

Now, let's say you are NOT an experienced musician. You have a banjo that you've inherited, been given, or purchased and you want to learn to play it. There's no teacher nearby, or you can only afford a lesson or two, or you'd like to try out some different things before you commit to a teacher and lessons. You may be able to help yourself out by asking yourself a question or two that the teacher would otherwise ask you, like "what kind of banjo music do you want to learn to play?". Now you say to yourself, "I'm not really that sure. I've heard some banjo music, and I like it all, but I don't really know a lot about it, and it's hard to decide".

Think about it this way: Go ahead and pick a style -- it's not necessarily a lifetime commitment. After you learn some or a lot about your first choice, you may find that you want to expand your horizons and try something else. You may even leave your first material behind for awhile, only to return to it later with new skill and new appreciation.

On the other hand, you may know exactly what style you want to play, and what artist or music you want to emulate. This may also change in time, but in the meantime your best bet is to find a teacher that specializes in the details of that style and repertoire, or if you're lucky a book that is devoted to that style.

Of the clawhammer instruction methods that I have available in my collection, the book Clawhammer Banjo by Miles Krassen is devoted largely to the music of southwest Virginia and those better-known musicians around Galax such as Wade Ward, Kyle Creed and Fred Cockerham. The music is presented in a more or less typical form of tablature, and includes 56 tunes in several different tunings. The tablature lays out the tunes using many traditional instrumental figures from the region, but rarely attempts to provide a note-for-note transcription of a particular performance. The influence of particular fiddlers and fiddle performances on the arrangements is carefully noted, but they still retain the sense of banjo style that Krassen uses for the basis of his book. Among other elements, he presents the "Galax lick" or roll which gives a distinctively Galax flavor to these arrangements.

For a novice musician who has listened to the classic banjo recordings on County and Folkways, or has visited the festivals in southwest Virginia and northwest North Carolina, and fallen in love with this unique and sometimes mysterious musical style, Krassen's book is a good starting point. By learning and eventually mastering the techniques that he presents, the novice will be able to develop his or her ear-hand coordination and imitate most any of the delightful performances heard on record or in person. This will, of course, take a little time.

The section in the beginning of the book, however, is fairly cursory. For someone who reads standard musical notation, or has learned tablature on another instrument, such as the guitar, it will be obvious that the notes with tied tails last only half as long as those whose tails are not tied. The timing in the exercises is fairly intuitive, but not very fully explained. The "sound sheet" which was bound in with my 1974 edition is helpful in interpreting the tablature and specific "licks" presented for practice. In the tune tablatures, pick-up notes and repeat symbols are introduced without explanation, but perhaps most contemporary students will recognize the meaning of these without additional discussion. I suspect this book would be easier to manage with at least the occasional assistance of a teacher, or as a "course book" to be used with weekly lessons, but with some concentration and reference to the "sound sheet" a novice might manage unassisted.

CLAWHAMMER BANJO by Miles Krassen, Oak Publications, 1974, ISBN 0-8256-0151-7

Ken Perlman in his 1979 book, Melodic Clawhammer Banjo, provides a more detailed explanation of the tab. He uses some standard musical symbols in his tab, such as dotted notes and rest symbols, but he provides an adequate, if brief, explanation of these symbols for the uninitiated. In spite of this he provides true tablature -- NOT standard notation -- and the beginner will find this MUCH easier to navigate while learning clawhammer. Moreover, his description of the right hand "action" is a bit more detailed (and realistic) than that given by Krassen. Again, the "sound sheet" provided with the book is helpful, including demonstrations of the techniques, but of course one of those old fashioned, obsolete, spinny-around things (turntable with needle and tone arm) is required and those seem to be getting scarce. If you don't have one at home, the local library will probably let you use theirs. Whether they will let you bring your banjo in to play along may be a matter for negotiation.

Perlman's material in the beginning of the book is in "graded sequence"; that is, after the basic introduction to left and right hand technique, he provides a few simple tunes, and then introduces additional techniques in the context of particular songs. This is helpful and more entertaining than just presenting items such as "double-thumbing", "grace-notes" and triplets as barren exercises. Five of the most common tunings, "G-tuning", "sawmill", "double C", "F-tuning", and "('classical') C-tuning" are explained and used in the book.

The first section of "style" tunes is devoted "String Band Tunes" (18 tunes) and some essential favorites are provided, such as "Sandy River Belle", "Kitchen Girl", and the "Clinch Mountain Backstep". Perlman draws as much or more on fiddle parts in arranging the tunes, sometimes to an even greater degree than Krassen does, and this is consistent with his general approach to clawhammer playing, expressed in the title to his book, and in the introduction:

"Melodic clawhammer is a style that treats banjo as a complete instrument. Although clawhammer players have traditionally limited themselves to providing rhythmic background for fiddlers and players of other instruments, many modern pickers see no reason to confine themselves to this role. By expanding the range and flexibility of traditional clawhammer techniques, these modern players have, in recent years, been able to develop a totally melodic style of clawhammer. It is called 'melodic style' because it enables the clawhammerer to play the complete melodies of fiddle tunes and other types of music."

Indeed, a large section of Perlman's book is devoted to jigs, reels, hornpipes, and set tunes (23 tunes) from Ireland, Scotland, and England, classes of traditional dance music in which the five string banjo has not traditionally participated. These present some technical challenges which clever arrangement and persistent practice may overcome. The beginner who is convinced that he or she wants to stick strictly to traditional Appalachian music might not find Perlman's non-traditional explorations of interest. Such a student might wish to consider, however, that Perlman's presentation of techniques, most of which are found in traditional music, is rather clearer and more detailed than that offered by Krassen. Perlman's arrangements of string band tunes probably vary only slightly more from the originals than do Krassen's, and learning to play jigs and hornpipes, if you treat these only as exercises, is unlikely to injure your ability to render traditional arrangements, and may even help.

MELODIC CLAWHAMMER BANJO, by Ken Perlman, Oak Publications, 1979, ISBN 0-8256-0226-2

After ten years of collecting, performing and teaching Perlman produced another book called Clawhammer Style Banjo. Reflecting the advance of technology in 1989 a Video is available, though not included with the book. I've not seen the Video, but having seen Perlman in performance and in workshops, I'm sure that it provides a clear and straightforward presentation of the material and will aid the beginning student in grasping not only the sound of the music, but also the "kinesthesia" of the techniques. These may be the hardest elements of the style for the beginner to grasp, and being able to see them "up close and personal" on a tv screen (in the absence of a live teacher) will be very helpful.

Comparing Perlman's 1979 and 1989 books leads to the conclusion that his students and critics have told him to include additional detail in the instructional material, because he uses the same approach in the later book as in the earlier, but much expands both the discussion and the illustrations. In particular much more detail is devoted to the right hand technique, which he refers to as "plucking". This indeed is the most mysterious part of clawhammer playing, since even when you are observing it first hand (or on the small screen), the player's hand masks the basic action. He takes the beginner step-by-step through the motion with enough detail that it might be possible to achieve the correct result without actually observing someone demonstrating it.

It is easy to forget after you have been playing for only a few years that what seems so natural and "automatic" now was not at all obvious or easy when you started out, and Perlman provides exceptionally detailed descriptions and sequential exercises to reassure the beginner that he or she is proceeding in the right direction.

Again, the material is in "graded sequence" from easy to difficult with new techniques introduced by example along the way in the context of a particular tune or tunes. The tabs are clear and easy to read. There are 79 tunes in the sequence with somewhat fewer Irish tunes proportionally than in the previous book, but all are rendered in a very melodic style, which does not always duplicate the old-time banjo patterns for the original version of the tune. Again, learning the material in this way should not hinder the student from adopting more traditional arrangements, and it will increase dexterity.

CLAWHAMMER STYLE BANJO, by Ken Perlman, 1989, Centerstream Publishing, ISBN 0-931759-33-1

All of the beginner methods that I have seen strongly emphasize the importance of listening to as much banjo playing as possible, recorded and especially live. It should also be emphasized that if you have access to a knowledgeable and competent teacher, you are likely to make progress much faster through the material presented in these publications. Once the beginner masters the most basic techniques and reading the tablature he or she will keep these books for reference and as a source of material, since there are so many tunes in these books that it would take years to master them all. At this point the musician might look to one of the earlier clawhammer tunebooks prepared by John Burke, John Burke's Book of Old Time Fiddle Tunes for Banjo.

Burke clearly specifies that his book is NOT for beginners, but rather for clawhammerers with two or three years experience. For beginners, he recommends Art Rosenbaum's book (Old Time Mountain Banjo - I have not read or used this, but someone who has should provide a review, since it is often mentioned with approval), which was about to be published at the time Burke's book came out (1968). The majority of the material is drawn from old time musicians, primarily fiddle players, since his arrangements are generally as "melodic" as those by Perlman. Many of the "Round Peak" or Galax musicians, Ward, Creed, Cockerham are represented as well as Roscoe Holcomb, Hobart Smith and even Pete Seeger. A few of the arrangements attempt an exact transcription of original banjo parts or an exact duplication of the fiddle part since most of these musicians were equally adept on fiddle and banjo. A few old-time three finger style tunes are included at the end.

The tablatures in Burke's book are manuscripts and it is a challenge to read and interpret particularly the timing on many of the pieces, though many are quite straightforward. In the 76 tunes tabbed by Burke there is a wealth of material, and his introduction provides an entertaining, if sometimes jaundiced look at the "folky" culture of the '60's in New York. Those of us who only visited that "scene" find his descriptions quite pointed and entertaining, particularly as regards the cliqueishness and snobbery of the different sub-cultures (Perlman comments on this as well). Younger players might take care to hold themselves up to this mirror as they become more skillful to protect themselves from turning into similarly obnoxious caricatures.

JOHN BURKE'S BOOK OF OLD TIME FIDDLE TUNES FOR BANJO, by John Burke, AMSCO Music Publishing Company, 1968, ISBN 0-8256-2801-6

Other beginner oriented material that I am familiar with includes Seeger's book, which has been reviewed (accurately, in my opinion) elsewhere in this space, and Bob Carlin's videotape which I have viewed recently, but not tried to use as a learning or teaching device. Videotapes are probably essential learning items these days since they are easily accessible and offer a more direct access to the music and the details of techniques than will the printed page. They are more likely to augment rather than replace the "method" books which can provide a relatively large volume of material at a relatively small cost.

All of the tune tabs in the introductory books are indexed here, on the BANJO-L website so if you are looking for a particular tune, or different versions of a tune you can check this source. All of the books mentioned here as well as a number of others with which I am not familiar, are listed as available at House of Musical Traditions -- check their website or give Wendy Morrison a holler there. I had heard that Burke's book was out of print, but they show it. Or check your local music store. If they carry this kind of material, it might be advantageous to encourage them to continue to do so by patronizing them.