Banjo Practice (Cumberland Gap)

I recorded some banjo practice the other night. Here’s me trying to play Cumberland Gap.

I recorded it with an inexpensive point and shoot digital camera with not quite enough light, so there are limitations (besides the obvious ones involving my playing)

Clawhammer players fuss with their nails

Unlike Bluegrass banjo, which is played with metal thumb and finger picks, Old Time clawhammer banjo is most often played without picks. I say most often because there are players, and good players too who do use specialized clawhammer picks, sometimes of their own devising (using materials such as ping pong balls).

There are different ways of achieving sounds in clawhammer banjo but at its simplest, the fifth string is plucked with the thumb and the other other strings are struck with the back edge of either the index or middle finger. Sometimes the thumb is also used to pluck a melody note and as well there are left-hand techniques such as hammer-ons and pull-offs which have their own unique sounds.

I’ve tried a couple different clawhammer picks that are available but I don’t like them. I like the feel and the effect of striking the strings with my nails. The problem is that I don’t have the strongest nails.

IMG_2862I try to make up for this by using a nail hardening product which has the side-effect of making my nails shiny (+ it smells). The label says it will make my nails diamond hard, but I suspect the actual effect is limited to my imagination. I can tell you that if I play for a couple hours, that pretty much takes the coating off my playing nail. I have a strong imagination though so I continue to use the product.

I normally use my index finger to play. I feel I have the most dexterity that way and I can control the range of sounds I get best using that finger. Unfortunately, I broke that nail while playing a few days ago. You can see in the picture that I’ve filed it back to about the right shape but it’s a little short to play effectively. I keep my middle fingernail longer as well as a back-up and until my index nail gets longer, I’ll be playing with my middle nail. This takes a little adjustment for me, but I’m getting used to it. I keep my ring fingernail longish as well because I use that nail to help get percussive effects when I’m playing.

Some players get an acrylic nail put on and they swear by it. I’ve never tried this. I seem to be getting by OK without that kind of extreme measure (although I suppose some folks would think painting hardener on my nails is an extreme measure).

So if you see a banjo picker fussing with his/her nails, you can be pretty sure that person plays clawhammer vs bluegrass. There are other clues. Bluegrass players often wear nice outfits and have big hair. Clawhammer players often wear a dirty ball cap. Bluegrass players keep talking about some guy named Earl.

Starting to look like a banjo….

A little progress on the salad bowl banjo…

IMG_2617I think the neck is still a little clunkier than I’d like so over Christmas I’m going to take it down a bit. I may shorten the end piece some as well. Still to do – drill and ream the peg holes, shape the pegs, stretch the goatskin on the bowl.  Getting there.

Forked Deer

I came across this version of Forked Deer (that’s pronounced fork-kid) tonight surfing around on YouTube. I really like the relaxed pace on this one – a lot of versions of this tune seem to be played at lightning speed. The fiddler here is Joe Sites.

I’ve been listening to various versions of this one because I’m trying to learn it on clawhammer.

Camp videos

Regular readers of this blog know I attended the Midwest Banjo Camp back in June. I noticed they posted a few videos last week from this year’s camp concerts. There were two faculty concerts, once on the Friday and the other on the Saturday evening.

Here’s Chuck Levy with Erynn Marshall…

Chuck led the slow jams, which were handy for the “jam challenged” players (like me). I’ve been learning pretty much in isolation and haven’t had much jam experience. I participated in a couple of Chuck’s slow jams, and found them to be a really good confidence booster. I finally felt comfortable enough to start playing in intermediate jams. While I found some of the tunes difficult to jump in and play along to, I surprised myself in managing to find something to play in most of the tunes – and in some  other tunes I was able to play with some confidence.

Here’s Adam Hurt with Mike Compton on mandolin. Adam Hurt is a very strong teacher as well as being a great player. I took his class on fills where we started with a basic melody and inserted various fills to build an arrangement.

Then there were the Bluegrass guys. There were some very fine Scruggs-style players at camp.

I took one class at camp from Joe Newberry – all about the Galax lick. He’s a very likeable fellow. I was impressed Joe took the trouble to learn everyone’s name. He taught by ear and was really good at making sure everyone in the class got down what he was teaching.

Here’s Joe with Bruce Molsky, Mike Compton and more playing Rockingham Cindy.

I hope they post more videos soon – these brought me right back to camp.

Mark Twain on the banjo….

The piano may do for love-sick girls who lace themselves to skeletons, and lunch on chalk, pickles and slate pencils. But give me the banjo. Gottschalk compared to Sam Pride or Charley Rhoades, is as a Dashaway cocktail to a hot whisky punch. When you want genuine music — music that will come right home to you like a bad quarter, suffuse your system like strychnine whisky, go right through you like Brandreth’s pills, ramify your whole constitution like the measles, and break out on your hide like the pin-feather pimples on a picked goose, — when you want all this, just smash your piano, and invoke the glory-beaming banjo!
– “Enthusiastic Eloquence,” San Francisco Dramatic Chronicle, 23 June 1865

Salad bowl banjo progress report

IMG_2055Making good progress on the salad bowl banjo. The neck is roughly shaped out.IMG_2056  I still have some finer shaping to do, then sanding. Once that is done, I can drill the peg holes, and measure and cut the bowl to enable the neck to go through.  More updates soon.

Gluing up

IMG_1816I glued the fingerboard to the neck blank for the salad bowl banjo this morning, and later glued the heel/dowel stick section to the neck. I hope to find a few hours tomorrow to get going on shaping the neck.

I had planned to overlay some zebra wood on the peghead and on the neck behind the fingerboard – simply because I had it and it’s really nice looking wood. I’ve been rethinking that idea, though. I don’t think the banjo needs it.

Salad bowl banjo – progress report

I’ve rough-cut the wood I’ll be using for the banjo neck. Next step is to laminate the pieces and then start the shaping.


For the second photo I’ve laid out the pieces pre-shaping but you can imagine from the layout how the banjo will look when completed. The heel will go through the bowl and out the other side…for the photo I simply laid the bowl on top of the heel piece. Lots of work ahead shaping the neck.

The neck and heel piece are ash. The fingerboard is rosewood, and I’m putting a zebrawood overylay on the peghead and on the neck behind the fingerboard. The bowl, made by Jamie, is maple and the tailpiece is antler. I was going to use bone for the nut, but I’ve cut a piece of ebony and I might use that instead, or perhaps a piece of bone with a bit of ebony behind it as a decorative element.