banjo picking
September 13, 2005 8:00 PM   Subscribe

Bluegrass Filter: Banjo specifically. Frailing vs. clawhammer vs. threefinger. What exactly are these methods? And how do they differ?

After chiming in on this question ( I googled for more info and was left terribly confused.
posted by snsranch to Media & Arts (7 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
No expert (I only play 3-finger style banjo), but in general, I believe that frailing and clawhammer are basically the same style of playing. This is an older style which is used especially in "Olde Time" banjo playing. It creates a great rhythmic sound.

Here's an example:

Basic Skip to My Lou

And another, by the great Wayne Shrubsall:

Clinch Mountain Backstep

Frailing has a particular sort of 1- 2& 3- 4& sound to it as you can hear in the above example. Players pick out certain main tune notes they want to play on the 1 and 3, and the 2& and 4& are filler to add a nice rhythm.

3-finger playing is what is used in the majority of bluegrass music you hear. In that, the drone string (the high G, the string closest to the player) is played by the player's thumb and then player uses their pointer and middle finger (along with the thumb sometimes) to play the other 4 strings. In this style of playing, the goal is to make a nice rolling and driving sound. No finger plays a string twice in a roll. It's kinda like rolling your fingers on a desk, but you don't use the pinky or ring finger.

Here's a good example:

Gold Rush (Break 1) MP3
Gold Rush (Break 2) MP3

In 3-finger bluegrass, you try to pick out the main melody notes of the song you're playing and fill in the rest with rolling notes. I think it can be heard well in the first Gold Rush mp3 there, but I'm used to listening to it.

I may be off on the frailing aspects a bit -- I haven't learned it yet -- but that's the basics. Which reminds me, I need to get my banjo out again.
posted by sapienza at 10:25 PM on September 13, 2005

Frailing and clawhammer are the same. It is a simpler style of playing than 3-finger, but 3-finger style grew out of frailing and was just about singlehandedly developed by the great Earl Scruggs. Earl is so closely associated with this style of playing that the most common name for 3-finger style is "Scruggs style."

Hee-Haw alumnus Grandpa Jones and Stringbean (that's a sad tale) were fine clawhammer players. Stringbean even played with the great Bill Monroe (the Father of Bluegrass), but only until Bill discovered Earl Scruggs.

All banjo pickers owe a debt to Uncle Dave Macon, one of the first big stars of The Grand Ole Opry, a consumate entertainer and clawhammerer.
posted by wsg at 1:01 AM on September 14, 2005

alumni...not alumnus. Here's the Hee-Haw link , like we need more of those.

I neglected to mention Don Reno, Ralph Stanley and onto Bela Fleck all contributed greatly to the evolution of Scruggs Style picking.
posted by wsg at 1:10 AM on September 14, 2005

I do note that three finger is really just the logical transposition of fingerpicking on the guitar to the Banjo. You only use three fingers because there isn't enough room to use more.

You play three finger (or frailing) because of the nature of the banjo -- it's a very sharp, pure tone, but sustain is bascially nothing compared to a guitar. Mandolin players get around this by trilling a note, but it's much harder to trill a string with a fingerpick than it is with a flatpick, so banjo evolved to fast arpeggios on chords to hold a "note." (Note in scare quotes, because they're really holding a chord.)

Note that 5-string banjo's drone isn't used like most other instrument with drones. Instead of complimenting the bass, it's used to accent the high notes. You can't really capo this string, but Dad (and many other players) would put a model railroad spike in the fretboard behind a couple of frets, and hook the string under it when they wanted to capo.

The big difference between the two -- frailing, you stroke down with the fingerpicks, clawhammer, you pull up. Unlike a flatpick, these make very different sounds. Frailing makes it easy to strum all the strings, leading to the "note, thumb, strum, thum" pattern of frailing. Clawhammer is one-string-played-then reset, so it's arpeggios. Frailing is often played without picks, using just the fingernails. Clawhammer, well, your nails would last long.

A variation of frailing is "drop thumb" -- which is really frailing with a clawhammer thumb, so you get a sharper drone or bass string effect. It's called such because of the look of your hand. In frailing, your hand looks like fist, in drop-thumb, the thumb is out (and moving.)

In frailing, the fingers move very little -- it's the wrist and arm doing most of the movement. In clawhammer, the fingers are moving, and the hand stay still.
posted by eriko at 5:45 AM on September 14, 2005

Scruggs style, or three-finger picking, gets difficult at a faster pace. It's not unusual for a bluegrass standard to be played at 120 to 140 bpm. So my suggestion is if you are considering lessons in Scruggs style, make sure you find a really good teacher. If you have bad technique it can work for you at 90bpm but will suddenly fail around 100 and you'll be left having to relearn the fundamentals all over. I know from experience and it wasn't fun.

Anything played by Earl Scruggs will generally be three-finger style.

Try Ralph Stanley's Songs My Mother Taught Me & More for examples of clawhammer.
posted by captainscared at 9:20 AM on September 14, 2005

You can't really capo this string, but Dad (and many other players) would put a model railroad spike in the fretboard behind a couple of frets, and hook the string under it when they wanted to capo.

And you'll find that some (many?) banjos will actually have these capo-spikes crafted in. Mine has 'em at the 2nd and 4th frets of my fifth string.
posted by cortex at 10:41 AM on September 14, 2005

Response by poster: I can't thank you guys enough! And I got a good history lesson too. I love it!
posted by snsranch at 4:45 PM on September 14, 2005

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