The clawhammer banjo technique, known as the "bum ditty strum" due to its distinctive sound, is a basic playing style that has also been known by the name "frailing," "stroke style" and "downpicking." It is vital that banjo players learn how to hold their instruments correctly when they first start playing. Starting off with the correct technique will help keep bad habits out of your playing, allowing you to fulfill your potential as a clawhammer banjo player.
Holding the Banjo
Sit in a comfortable chair that provides plenty of upright back support and does not have any arms, as you should not look to rest either of your arms on anything while you play. Hold the banjo with your dominant hand over the strings that sit above the banjo's body and so that your weaker hand can access the length of the fretboard. Sit the banjo's body between your thighs so that it is evenly-weighted on each leg and raise the banjo's headstock to approximately shoulder height, supporting the weight of the neck with the palm of your weaker hand.
Support the neck of the banjo in between your thumb and forefinger and across the palm, making only small adjustments to this so you are comfortable and can reach the whole of the fretboard. Apply pressure onto each of the strings with all four of your fingers to demonstrate that you can play every note available to you -- adjust your holding position slightly if you find you cannot comfortably and easily reach the entire fretboard but ensure you always keep the banjo between your thumb and forefinger.
Hold your dominant hand over the strings that sit above the banjo's body. As a beginner, use the face of your thumb to play the bottom string of the instrument (nearest your body) while you use your index or middle fingernail to play the other four strings. Practice this strumming technique, which feels awkward at first, by resting your thumb on the top string and holding the rest of your hand as a loose fist-shape above the strings so your fingers point toward your face. Then, straighten either your index or middle finger -- depending on which feels more comfortable to you -- in an unfurling motion so that it is held slightly bent. Play the bottom four strings by moving your wrist and holding your chosen playing finger in the same position, rather than moving your finger to play the strings as you would with a guitar.
Strumming and Bum Ditty
According to EZfolk.com, the bum ditty clawhammer technique breaks down into three parts: "bum," "dit" and "ty." "Bum" is where you play one of the bottom four strings of the banjo (a quarter note) with the face of your index or middle finger, often while fretting a note on that string with your weaker hand. "Dit" is where you strum the bottom four strings with the back of your index or middle finger, using the wrist-moving technique you initially learn when playing the banjo. Finally, "ty" is where you play the top (fifth) string with the face of your thumb, often while fretting a note on that string to produce a specific note. Practice this technique slowly at first, listening to how other players play and tutorial videos (see Resources) in order to master the clawhammer banjo technique.
- Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images