I Play Clawhammer Banjo

Updated: Aug 20, 2021

In the video seen here, I play a clawhammer banjo variation I wrote on the song, "The Blackest Crow" -- a traditional apalachian folk song.

Clawhammer Banjo has been an ongoing form of meditation for me since around 2017. The independent film that we had just finished shooting, Synthetic Love Incorporated , needed to have a theme and I believed that the theme should mimic the character, like in Peter and the Wolf. I felt that the banjo was the only proper instrument for our socially anxious, schlubby protagonist (Harold Finch), who walked with his arms at his sides in a perpetual slouch, often "...gazing at the map while the landscape passed him by".

You can hear the theme that I wrote for the film in this teaser trailer. I recorded it in my office at home using a ukulele, banjo, a kick drum, and a tambourine, high out of my mind on Sudafed.

The day before our delayed honeymoon vacation I came home to find that my wife had purchased a banjo for me as an anniversary gift. I spent the next few months learning the clawhammer method, which is very often used in traditional, old time music. There is something about the tin rattle, and the consistent, cyclical work of finding the correct dynamic to the banjo that I find soothing. Unlike guitar, the pattern of clawhammer requires the player to use the back of their fingernails while also plucking the fifth note with their thumb.

A good amount of clawhammer also relies of hammer-ons and pulls-offs, as demonstrated below by the great Taylor Doolittle.

Clawhammer banjo is not about getting it right the first time. It requires practice and patience, but once a particular pattern is achieved, without thought, a person's mind is free to wander elsewhere. Everything after that is just frosting.

My brother and I jam in the industrial parking lot next to a dive bar before I head off to door county (Circa 2017).


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