In this article I want to talk specifically about claw hammer. Before I go too far, I need to give a disclaimer. (I know some of you will be disappointed.) This is not an article about the Amsterdam rock band Hammer and their album Claw Boys Claw. Claw hammer (also known as frailing) was a technique that was originally developed for the banjo, although the technique can be applied to the guitar as well.
The banjo began in Arabia and Africa probably sometime in the 1500’s. It migrated to America with the black slave population beginning in the 1600’s. Compared to other instruments, it was relatively easy and cheap to make, and it was very portable. It could also be used to play melody and thump out a rhythm at practically the same time. If the musician could also sing, they were virtually a one-man-band.
And this was back before the time of planes, trains, and automobiles; let alone Facebook, HBO, and the Internet. They were virtually the only game in town, so to speak. If somebody even had half a clue as to what they were doing, they could be very popular.
I believe claw hammer came to dominate the technique at the time because it is a simple, efficient technique. Once you learn the fundamental technique you can about play any piece of music with it. Your right hand (assuming you are right-handed) is held in the shape of (you guessed it) a claw.
It is as if your right hand is holding an imaginary microphone. Claw hammer is based on the bum-ditty strum. In time, this is a quarter note and two eighth notes – 1 2 +. Your index or middle finger plucks the first note on the first beat. On the second beat, your index or middle finder strikes a string for the first ½ of the second beat. On the other half of the second beat your thumb sounds a string. There are variations, of course, but that is the basic pattern. Sounds like it is easy, doesn’t it? It is and it isn’t.
A special twist for me is I play with pick and fingers, so I try to adapt this using pick and fingers. It’s kind of like chewing gum, rubbing your tummy, and working Sudoku puzzles. And if you think about it, you are not going to get it. You just have to keep practicing until your fingers can play it without having to think about it. You want your right hand to almost be a club. You don’t want to be flexing your fingers to strike the strings. It is all about economy of motion. You know, your mind has to be in that place it is 30 minutes before quitting time on Friday afternoon (or for some of you, 5 minutes after arriving at work on Monday morning.)
Steve Baughman is one of the innovators as far as applying Claw hammer technique to the guitar. He shared a couple of helpful exercises; the Lubus Pick and the Cowboy Pick. For the Lubus Pick, you play a root note of a chord on the first beat, and alternate up and down stroke brushes on the chord with your index and middle finger for the two half-beats on two – 1 2 +. The Cowboy Pick is similar, but alters bass notes and throws in an extra brush stroke – 1 2+ 3 + 4 +. When I started playing around with these finger brush strokes, I thought why not also use one finger in alternating up/down brushes? If you play with pick and fingers, you have increased your alternate picking capability fourfold. Musically, I felt like the little kid in Twilight Zone who fell under the bed through the wall and found another dimension.
The claw hammer technique was very popular in early Americana even up through the early 1900s. It was forgotten for a while, but it has made a comeback. It is a very efficient playing technique. It combines economy of motion with the right hand, and adds finger slides and hammer-ons and pull-offs with the left hand to creative a distinctive style with its own musical texture. If you have never heard it, I encourage you to check it out. Much of the music comes right out of America’s past.
I recommend Ken Perlman, David Johnson, Steve Baughman, or Odell Thompson. If you are a player you should consider taking up claw hammer. It could open up a whole new musical area for you.