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Not Just One Way to Play

One of the fascinating things about the banjo is the many ways the instrument is played. For every player, there is seemingly a different method. Some styles have distinct names with many practitioners, whereas other styles are distinctly unique to one musician.

When I first started, I didn't really know another style existed beyond how Earl Scruggs plays, which is a three-finger picking style that involves syncopated "rolls," alternating the thumb, index and middle fingers. Scruggs elevated this style to point that it now bears his name, Scruggs style.

However, Scruggs was not the first to pick the banjo with three fingers, nor was he the first to use metal finger picks, but he was the most popular. Now, his style is emulated by the majority of Bluegrass banjo players. 

Aside from Scruggs style, there were many other finger-picking styles. Old-Time banjoists like Dock Boggs, Charlie Poole, and sometimes Uncle Dave Macon (who played any way he wanted) used three fingers, but usually without metal picks. There were also a number of two-finger styles, either thumb-lead or index-lead, which were used by such players as Roscoe Holcomb, Lee Sexton and Will Keys

Clawhammer is perhaps the second most popular style of playing the banjo, and this is predominantly among Old-Time musicians. Though there are a few clawhammer players who play Bluegrass, most notably Mark Johnson, who calls his style "Clawgrass." 

Clawhammer is basically a two-finger style, only instead of picking upwards with your finger, you strike down with the back of your fingernail and then use the thumb to strike the fifth or another string in the process of bouncing the hand back up for the next down-stroke. In short, you bend your hand into a claw and hammer away. At least, that's how I do it. Here's how John Herrmann does it. 

Many historians believe clawhammer is a variation on the "stroke style" that black-face minstrels used in the mid-1800s. After the Civil War, classical banjo style -- similar to guitar finger-picking -- was popular among ragtime musicians, such as Fred Van Eps and Vess Ossman. In the 1970s, melodic banjo styles became popular among both finger-pickers and clawhammerists, notably Bill Keith and Ken Perlman, respectively.

The banjo can be played in so many ways and can suit any type of music. I haven't even mentioned the styles commonly played on tenor and plectrum banjos, which generally use a pick. Above is just a small sampling of what the banjo can do, and playing styles will continue to evolve as today's musicians incorporate the banjo in various ways. I mean, did you see the Grammys


  1. Amazing performance and feel. When there's a guitar missing from a jam it usually feels a little thin, but not with this banjo player--it seems like he's overcompensating a little bit to make up for the lack of guitar chords.

  2. I've only recently discovered John Herrmann, but I really love his sound. I wish I could add some of his elements to my playing.


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