You’ve got your heart set on learning to play the banjo. Come to find out, there are currently two popular styles of banjo playing: bluegrass or clawhammer banjo. Which one should you choose? And most important, which style is easier?
First, let me explain each style and then we’ll talk about which one is easier to learn.
Bluegrass banjo was more or less “invented” by Earl Scruggs who first showcased it on the Grand Ole Opry in December, 1945 when he joined Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys. Earl’s way of playing was partly influenced by his brother Junie Scruggs, along with several older banjo players including Snuffy Jenkins, Smith Hammett and Mack Woolright. Scruggs used ideas he gathered from these players and created his own smoother and faster style. The basic idea behind what is often called “Scruggs Style” is that the melody of a song is played as part of a series of notes called “rolls.” Most rolls either have four or eight notes. The thing that’s so impressive and thrilling about Scruggs style is the sheer number of notes that come flying out of the banjo! The downside is that the melody often gets lost amidst a swarm of other notes.
Clawhammer, or old-time banjo, is an older style that has its roots in West Africa. In the 1830s white musicians such as Joel W. Sweeney started learning the banjo from African-American slaves. Sweeney was soon joining other performers on the minstrel stage playing what was then called “stroke style.” The basic idea behind the modern clawhammer style is that the melody is played by hitting or stroking down on the strings, and quickly following that with a little rhythm that sounds like “claw – ham – er.”
For the most part, Scruggs style banjo is played in bluegrass music and clawhammer banjo is played in old-time music. If you’re unclear about the differences between these two different but related styles, check out my article, “Bluegrass and Old-Time Music, What’s the Difference?”
So now that we know a little about the differences between bluegrass and clawhammer banjo playing, let’s get down to brass tacks and answer your burning question, “which style is easier to learn?”
I hate to do this to you, but “it depends.”
Traditionally, clawhammer style has been thought to be easier to learn than bluegrass Scruggs style banjo. That’s because once you learn the basic clawhammer stroke, everything else easily falls into place. It’s like the old analogy of riding a bicycle. Once you learn to ride the thing, everything else is easy.
If you believe what I just said about how easy it is to learn clawhammer banjo, I’m guessing that you’re ready to run and get your banjo and start to learn clawhammer style. Well, hold your horses right there. I’ve actually figured out how to make bluegrass banjo even easier than clawhammer style.
Let’s call this new way of learning bluegrass banjo “the melody approach.” In the many bluegrass banjo instruction books I’ve looked at over the years, the most common way of teaching banjo might be called “the roll approach.” That means that tunes are taught with the melody and the roll already combined. For many beginners, this way of learning doesn’t work very well because the melody is lost in a swarm of other notes.
Using this method means that the beginner is faced with the daunting task of memorizing an entire page of notes, with no clear understanding of which of those notes are the melody, and which ones are the roll. It also leaves very little room for improvising.
On the other hand, with the melody approach, the first thing that is taught is the basic bare bones melody of a song – just the tune itself. After that, the student is introduced to one simple roll: the thumb-pinch. This amazingly simple method that I use has allowed thousands of frustrated banjo players to easily pick up the banjo and play. They’re able to add the thumb-pinch to a variety of bluegrass, folk and gospel tunes without being burdened and dependent on reading and memorizing an entire page of complicated tab.
By the way, the thumb-pinch merely involves playing a melody note with the thumb quickly followed by plucking or pinching the 1st and 5th strings together at the same time. That’s it!
Once a beginner gets the hang of using the thumb-pinch method, of course, other rolls can be added to make the tunes more fun and interesting.
The melody approach is exactly what I use in my book for beginners, Bluegrass Banjo for the Complete Ignoramus as well as my newest book, Bluegrass Jamming on Banjo. This book takes over where the Ignoramus leaves off.
Now, let’s get back to our original question of which is easier to learn, bluegrass or clawhammer banjo. I would actually say that bluegrass banjo can start out somewhat easier if the student leans by this melody method using the thumb-pinch. That’s because the thumb-pinch is slightly easier to grasp than the basic clawhammer lick.
On the other hand, clawhammer is a quite simple style to learn once you get over the small hump of learning the basic clawhammer stroke.
It all boils down to is this: Either bluegrass or clawhammer banjo can be quite easy to learn if you find the approach that works for you. And here’s a novel idea: Why not learn both styles? At their most basic level, they both decorate the melody with either a simple roll or a clawhammer lick. Of course, it might be a good idea to focus on one style before going on to the other. That is, unless you don’t mind eating your peas and carrots in the same mouthful!
For more information about playing banjo in clawhammer style, check out Wayne Erbsen’s book: Clawhammer Banjo for the Complete Ignoramus! Wayne has written three bluegrass banjo books: Bluegrass Banjo for the Complete Ignoramus, Bluegrass Jamming on Banjo, and Starting Bluegrass Banjo from Scratch. Also check out his instruction books for fiddle, mandolin and guitar on this very website. Free catalogs are available by calling Native Ground Books & Music at (828) 299-7031 or filling out THIS form.