What's Old-Timey Banjo?
( C ) 2005
By Jason Z. Dehart

When you talk about old-timey American music, you can't forget the significant
historical contribution made by the humble five-string  banjo.

The banjo is a common thread in the musical tapestry of this nation. Starting as
a simple skin-covered gourd brought to America by slaves in the early 1800s,
the earlier three- and four-string banjo evolved into a widely popular five-string
instrument that could be heard­at various times­in eastern big-city society
parlors, plantations, subsistence farms, steamboats, and California gold claims.

In the 1840s and 1850s the five-string banjo's popularity spread rapidly thanks
to the advent of the antebellum "Minstrel Shows", and during the War Between
the States almost every army camp North or South had its share of banjo
players. Later, the banjo was carried West and it was the light and
easily-transported banjo ­ not the guitar ­ that found favor with working
cowboys on the long cattle drives between Texas and Wyoming.

Around the turn of the century the banjo became less "vulgar"' and large banjo
bands or clubs became fashionable. You could have even heard banjo music
being played at college campuses. Later variations of the instrument were used
in ragtime music (which later evolved into jazz and swing) and today the typical
five-string banjo can be found in bluegrass and country bands. However, there
are lots of old-school musicians out there who play and sing and record banjo
music in the traditional early American style,called variously "clawhammer,"
"thumbknocker," "tapping," etc. More on this later.

Unfortunately, these talented throw-back musicians are relegated to the
sub-culture status of "folk music" and don¹t have broad mainstream appeal.
You won't, for example, see a clawhammer banjo player on Country Music
Television's fancy music videos. You will, however, see bluegrass players
like Ron Block of AKUS fame and other assorted "Grassers."

In fact, popular TV hasn't seen a clawhammer player since that great
showman, Grandpa Jones. String Bean was also another old-timey banjo
guy.

At any rate.

The early banjos of the middle 19th-century bore only a small resemblance to
the ones found in concert halls and music shops today.The necks were wider,
there were no frets and the strings were made of gut instead of steel. They
were simple, light, open-backed wooden affairs and their sound was hollow and
plunky. But put it together with a tambourine and a pair of bones for rhythm and
you had an instant party machine.Toe-tapping, upbeat songs like "Nellie Bly"
and "Oh! Susana" had infectious tempos that were wildly popular, and there
were hundreds of songs like that. Indeed, as modern-day comedian Steve
Martin (a great bluegrass banjo player in his own right) once pointed out, "You
just can't play a sad song on a banjo."

So what made the old-timey banjo sound so upbeat and happy? Much of it had
to do with the way it was played.Before there was the fast-paced finger picking
of the modern-era bluegrass banjo player, there was "clawhammer." This was
fairly typical of the style played in the mid-19th century.Without getting too
technical, "clawhammer" banjo is all in the wrist. There is no individual finger
picking involved. The player's right hand curls into the shape of a "claw" or a
sideways thumbs-up posture. A wrist-snapping action is used to tap or
"hammer" out melody notes with the back of a fingernail. Snap the wrist down
and you have a downbeat note. Snap it back up and the right thumb ­ which
rests on the top fifth string on the downbeat­ flicks that string and generates an
upbeat note. When played up to speed together you have a "bum-ditty" rhythm
going on.

Clawhammer, or frailing, is the generic name for a type of musical style that
came into being as far back as the 1820s with a guy by the name of Joel
Sweeney. Joel took the old four-string "banjar" of African slaves and
gave it an additional string to create the prototype of the five-string
banjo commonly seen in country music today. His brother Sam took up the
instrument and was Jeb Stuart¹s banjo player during the Late Unpleasantness.

It was during the post-war years that there came a split in banjo-playing styles.
Around 1868 a new trend in form was inspired by classical guitar. This is where
we get the individual finger-picking which later became synonymous with
bluegrass. The new "classical banjo" style grew up in the urban areas; but back
in the Appalachians, isolation prevented many musicians from learning the
newer, louder and faster style. As a result, the old-timey clawhammer style
continued to exist-only in the shadow of the new-fangled style.

Today, the mainstream world of banjo music is filled with loud, fast-picking
Earl Scruggs clones and their fancy resonator banjos. Clawhammer
thumbknockers were consigned to the subculture of folk music, where they
have their own fans and followers.

Many old-timey style players today favor the open-back banjo for its traditional
look and sound, but my teacher Gordon Scott said things were different in the
old days. If you were poor, the only thing you could afford was a plain-jane
open back. But Gordon said if you look at some of the old photographs, you¹ll
notice that some clawhammer players graduated to resonator style instruments
when they could afford them.

The banjo I play is a 24-year-old Alvarez Silver Belle resonator. It's called a
"Masterclone" because it resembles Gibson's Mastertone model. I bought my
Alvarez new from an Ocala music shop around 1981. It has a maple neck,
rosewood fingerboard and mother-of-pearl inlays.

After learning some chords on my own and playing with my brothers for a
couple of years, this banjo sat in a closet for 20-something years. Then, in
a burst of seldom-seen inspiration, I picked it up two summers ago and started
strumming along with Ben on some of his songs. Then, at my wife's urging, I
was convinced to take lessons­something I never did before.

But I wanted to learn how to play the old-timey, 19th-century way so I could
fit it in with Civil War reenacting.I found the right teacher in Gordon Scott, who
has a shop here in Tallahassee. Gordon¹s taught me a lot since I started
lessons in July, but I still have a long way to go. Right now I¹m trying to unlock
the mysteries of the drop-thumb technique­which can be a useful tool in some
fast-paced songs.

Clawhammer banjo is all about finesse and precision, not noise. And it's a
very counter-intuitive way of playing the banjo, Gordon said. That's why
most conventional "grassers" won't touch it (he's the exception, being an
accomplished grasser in his own right).

Well, that's my story and I¹m stickin' to it.
Back to " Tellin' It Like It Is ! " main page


Jason