Donald ZEPP's

ClearHead™ Clawhammer Banjo

  1. The Basic Clawhammer Right Hand Motion
  2. The Brush Stroke
  3. Left Hand Techniques
  4. Double Thumbing
  5. Triplets
  6. The "Cluck"
  7. "Personalizing" your play, or "How to create your own style."

3. Left Hand Techniques

Clawhammer banjo uses a lot--no, a whole lot--of left hand technique. While we are busily striking down on each beat with our basic motion, there are several ways to slip notes in between those beats through use of left hand techniques.

First, let's discuss the whole notion of "between-the-beats." In essence, we have said that the beat is kept by our downstrokes; you'll recall:

wherein we counted the even beat ("1, 2, 3, 4") on each stroke. These notes, having a simple "stem" are called "quarter notes."

To count notes played between those beats, we simply say "and" after each beat. Thus, we can have eight notes per measure, counted as shown in the next piece of tablature. Note that consecutive eighth notes are connected by a "beam." In the second measure below, we've mixed quarter notes and eighth notes (which gives us the same rhythm you hear in the children's song One Little, Two Little, Three Little Syllables):

Incidentally, lone eighth notes that cannot be connected to another by a beam are indicated by their having a "flag" attached to the stem:

There are three left hand techniques that we shall use to squeeze in these eighth notes. When playing these between-the-beats eighth notes with left hand techniques, it's critical that the notes be timed evenly, i.e., don't rush to perform the left hand motion; remember: the count is "one-and-two-and-three-and-four-and," with the left hand-sounded notes falling between the numbered beats on the "and."



Simply put, this technique is nothing more than picking a string with one's left hand. The easiest way to do this is to strike a fretted note with the right hand's downstroke, and then a half beat later, snap the fretting finger off the string, thus sounding a different, lower note:

Watch this video clip showing this motion (all videos are set to loop until you stop them):

(You can download this--and all these videos--by simply right-clicking and saving.)

Note that in the first measure, we're then playing the first string open as a single note on the next beat, while in the second measure, we're using a brush. This technique can be--and is--used on any string, of course.

We also play pull-offs on strings that have not been struck with the right hand. Consider this rhythmic lick that Pete Seeger called the "Rufus Crisp Lick" in honor of the man from whom he learned:

(You can download this video file directly with this link: crisp.mp4)

For ease, I usually use my middle finger for the pull-offs in this lick. BTW, did you happen to notice that the video looks virtually identical to the one just above it? That's because the only difference between pulling off a struck string and some other string is what the right hand is doing! Pretty cool,, eh?


In this technique, we use the left hand to strike a string down against a fret wire, using enough force that the string vibrates hard enough to be heard:

Again, we've mixed the tab to show both single string play and alternating brushes. When playing it slowly for the video, I have exaggerated the motion; try not to move so far from the fingerboard when playing!

Similar to pull-offs, hammer-ons are done on all the strings:


Now, Let's mix some hammer-ons and pull-offs:

Sorta simple & cool, eh?


A "slide" involves quite literally sliding a finger of your left hand from fret to fret. Just as you would do with a hammer-on or a pull-off, the left hand moves on the "and" between beats:

Now let's mix some pull-offs, hammer-ons, and slides together! Here is part of the well known tune Cripple Creek: