4 Clawhammer Banjo Exercises to Improve Your Picking

Like most things worth doing, playing the banjo takes practice. To help you with that, this article walks through some basic clawhammer banjo exercises to get you started and help you focus during your practice time!

In this article, we aren’t going to focus too much on what a clawhammer banjo is, or Scruggs Style banjo playing. We’ve written a separate article specific to that playing style to learn bluegrass banjo roll exercises!

Clawhammer Banjo Basics

The clawhammer style of the banjo is also known as the old-time banjo and produces a distinctive sound compared to the other styles. Typically, clawhammer banjos are classed as “upright with a pick”.

It’s important to note that we will only be talking about your strumming hand in this article, the right hand for most of us. The chords don’t change between clawhammer and bluegrass banjo and can be used interchangeably.

The clawhammer rhythm is made up of a single picked note, followed by a down strum, and another picked note. This gives the “claw-ham-er” rhythm to this strumming pattern, and thus its name. The clawhammer banjo exercises we’ve included in this article all center around developing this rhythm.

The first picked note is played with either the index or middle finger. Most people will also strum the 2nd part of the pattern using the same finger to strike the strings on the down strum. Finally, the last picked note, always plucking the 5th string (drone string), is done with the thumb.

Using a Metronome

Anytime you are practicing strumming we recommend you use a metronome. Staying in time is a critical aspect of solid banjo playing, and practicing with a metronome will help you develop the timing skills necessary to become a great banjo player!

For now, set the metronome at a slow speed and start to work on the basic clawhammer strum pattern. You’ll want to start slowly at first so you don’t accidentally develop bad habits or miss notes.

All of the drills we list below can be started very slow, maybe at 60bpm, and increased in speed as you gain confidence and accuracy.

Clawhammer Banjo Exercises

Learning the clawhammer banjo technique can be difficult due to the complexity of the pattern. We’ve broken it down into 4 simple patterns to get you started. These exercises will work to build confidence with the pattern before combining everything for the clawhammer sound you crave!

Pick and Pluck

The first clawhammer banjo exercise gets is the most basic and gets you used to pick out notes with both your middle or index finger quickly followed by plucking the 5th string. Play the 1st string with your index finger, then pluck the 5th string, play the 2nd string with your index, and pluck the 5th string.

By picking the four full strings with your chosen finger, followed by plucking the drone string, you’ll complete one full bar of 4/4. This is a great first exercise to get your fingers moving and accurately hitting strings.

Strum and Pluck

This drill follows the same pattern as the first one, except this time you will be strumming all four strings before plucking the 5th. Strum, pluck, strum, pluck.

Make sure that your strums are consistent and that you are hitting each string so the notes ring out true before speeding up!

The Drop Thumb Exercise

The drop thumb exercise is popular to build dexterity and accuracy with your thumb. With this pattern, you’ll be picking out the first string with your index or middle finger each time. Following each of these down strums you’ll pick out a note with the thumb.

After the first down strum, you’ll pick the 2nd string with your thumb, after the 2nd you’ll pick the fifth. By completing this pattern you’ll play a single bar.

You can change this up by down strumming a different string each time. When you do this the thumb should pluck one string lower than the down strum alternating with the 5th string.

Clawhammer drop thumb exercise
Thumb Drop Banjo Exercise

Out of all of the clawhammer banjo exercises we know, this is one of the more challenging ones because you can’t just plant your thumb on the drone string. That being said, it has some of the best long-term paybacks as your skills and versatility will increase quite a bit after getting good at this!

The Clawhammer Strum

Finally, we put the different pieces together to get the classic clawhammer strumming pattern!

You start this pattern by playing a single note on the first, 2nd, 3rd, or 4th string, followed by a down strum on all strings and finally picking the 5th string with the thumb.

If this is too tough, focus on only picking one note, let’s say the first string, with your middle or index finger each time. This will keep you from having to move around the strings as much and make the pattern slightly easier to start with.

As with all these drills, start slow and only speed up your metronome gradually over time.

The Final Note

The clawhammer strumming style is a staple of the banjo world and definitely something worth learning! By following the exercises in this article, you’ll be playing the material in no time and on your way to amazing banjo sounds!

If you want to learn the details of the traditional clawhammer banjo style, check out our quick guide here!

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Edward Bell Author

A ukulele player pretty much from birth, Edward has gone on to play banjo, lead guitar, and bass for a number of bands and solo projects! Edward loves talking, teaching and writing about music!