Clawhammer: Patrick Costello is cool

When I brought my first Banjo I hadn't actually given any thought about what style I wanted to play. I knew about Bluegrass, but I was looking for something different, so looked around the internet for inspiration. The first style that I came across that really appealed to me was Clawhammer (sometimes known as Frailing), a rhythmic and at times repetitive style of playing popular long before Bluegrass. Many of the tunes I came across used modal tunings like (GDGCD), which give the Banjo a much darker sound, the archetypal example of this would be The Coo Coo Bird by Clarence "Tom" Ashley. Over the next few weeks I watched loads of lessons and examples on youtube, and I have to admit I was really struggling with the style until I came across a guy called Patrick Costello, who has posted loads of free content online for several years now. Now if you haven't heard of this guy, then watch the clip below. He is an amazing Frailer, and a great teacher, and if you watch his clips you'll start to think of him as a good friend too. He does talk a bit, quite a bit, but he talks so much sense, and he'll have you playing Clawhammer in no time! Patrick has several other lessons on youtube, and has also written a book called A Book Of Five Strings, which can be downloaded for free. I have not read it, but I am sure it's full of really useful information.

Saying all this I have not stuck with Clawhammer as my main technique for the following reasons.

Firstly I find that it's not a great style for playing in bands that play original music, and are not trying to create an purist sound. The style is certainly cool for the odd song, but things can very repetitive if you try to use it throughout your set. The problem is that Clawhamer is very much a rhythmic sound, and a dominating one at that, great for solo performances, but using that sound again and again, song after song certainly lost it's appeal, this is especially an issue in bigger bands where it can overpower other instruments. I also have very brittle nails, and my nails would ware down quickly and become broken and painful. If this is an issue for you, but you really want to play Clawhammer, then look into the some of Pete Seeger's methods, which are easier as you don't use the backs of your nails. You'll find these in his Banjo course, before he starts talking about real Clawhammer, which he does as well, and has a couple of cool tunes worth learning.

I learn't so much from playing some Clawhammer, it is a beautifully rhythmic style, which sounds fantastic even at an intermediate level and I am more than happy to have it as part of my Banjo DNA.

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About Me

I have been playing guitar for over 20 years, at first playing in indie bands, followed by a long stint playing rockabilly on the streets of Oxford, a short excursion into dance music, followed by looking at early blues styles. Now after a few years of listening to Dylan, Guthrie, and early Americana I find myself in possession of a banjo, and I'm addicted! Currently I play Banjo and Guitar in an Oxford based group called Swindlestock, you can hear our music our myspace page.

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