Would clawhammer style banjo fit in at a jam class/camp?

It would fit in at the jam camp, but it’s appropriate to mention that clawhammer is not the “style of choice” for bluegrass, and the reasons for that.

On one hand, any song playable in Scruggs style (3-finger picking) banjo can also be played in clawhammer style, and as an accompaniment in a group setting, either style of banjo would work. If played well and tastefully, it can sound good in a variety of bluegrass settings. As a good example, the late Merle Watson did some fine clawhammer work on Doc Watson’s most “bluegrassy” record, Greenville Trestle. Ralph Stanley and others have occasionally played clawhammer style, perhaps a single song in a set, as a welcome novelty.

However, the reason the style is not normally heard in bluegrass is that, depending on what sort of clawhammer style is used (single notes, vs. more of a rhythmic strum), clawhammer banjo is not as clear and distinct as 3-finger picking is, and may either be too quiet to be heard, or else possibly “muddy” the rhythm sound that already includes a good amount of guitar and mandolin. While in informal bluegrass jam situations clawhammer may fit in easily, you will almost never hear it in a performing bluegrass band, for the reasons given.

All that said, I am happy to welcome clawhammer banjo players to a bluegrass jam camp, since their playing should fit in just fine. However, during the camp when it comes to learning soloing, they will encounter the limitation I’ve described.n

Category: Banjo
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