View Full Version : Hornpipes and Reels on Clawhammer?

Jack Roberts
Apr-03-2016, 9:43am
I've been taking my time looking for a banjo on which to learn clawhammer style. I was fortunate enough to attend a Dillard's performance in a very tiny venue (about 20 in the audience) and Beverly spent a lot of time discussing the clawhammer technique and the importance it has in American musical history. She got me thinking it would be nice to ad this to the list of instruments I can't really play.

I spend most of my time playing tunes out of old Scottish flute books, Milliner-Koken, and Ryan's Mammoth on mandolin, fiddle, and guitar, but I would like to add banjo.

Are any of you ladies and gentlemen playing this type of music on your banjos? What are you playing? Links to video or sound files?

Mike Baker
Apr-03-2016, 3:02pm
I love playing fiddle tunes on my banjo, especially out of tune books. I have played the banjo off and on for about five years now. I started with frailing, then tried Scruggs style, but always using tab. Then a few months ago I decided to learn to play by reading standard notation. I had learned to read for fiddle and mandolin but had never tried to figure out where the notes are on the banjo. Anyway, I find that lots of reels and hornpipes work really well on the five string banjo. I don't really play clawhammer style, but I do pick with downstrokes using my middle fingernail, and I hit the high g with my thumb and strum chords to fill out the sound. Lots of tunes in D fall really nicely on the fingerboard, and so many hornpipes are heavily arpeggiated, it's like they were written for the banjo.

Jack Roberts
Apr-03-2016, 5:12pm
... Lots of tunes in D fall really nicely on the fingerboard, and so many hornpipes are heavily arpeggiated, it's like they were written for the banjo.
Mike: Thanks for the input. Could you suggest a couple of tunes that you play? I'm sure I can figure it out if I have the notation around here somewhere.

Mike Baker
Apr-03-2016, 5:56pm
I'll make a list. I play a lot of stuff out of Gordon Stobbe's fiddle books, and this past winter I played a lot of the tunes from Evelyn Tiffany-Castiglioni's collection, "Winter's Tale." I also have a pretty good collection of sheet music printed off from mandolessons.com, and I play a number of those on banjo.

Apr-04-2016, 9:27am
I'm a fiddle tune guy. That's primarily what I play on mandolin and (duh) fiddle. But a bare-bones melody can tend to be sparse when playing solo on those instruments. Adding double-stops and drones can help, but these tunes really come alive when played on clawhammer banjo. It's just a fuller, busier sound.

Reels and hornpipes work fine on clawhammer, as well as any 2/4 or 4/4 metered tunes. I do some 3/4 waltzes as well, though 6/8 jigs have thus far eluded me.

The thing about clawhammer banjo, though, is that if you're coming from a mandolin/fiddle background and you're used to playing full melodic stuff, you're going to have to readjust your thinking. That was (and is) one of the hardest things for me: learning how to convert a fiddle tune to clawhammer. The frailing stroke and bum-ditty or bump-a-ditty patterns don't really allow you to do long ascending and descending scale work like you can do with a bow or pick. So you end up learning pretty quickly how to drop-thumb and use pull-offs and hammer-ons very creatively, or get some syncopation going. But more importantly, you have to learn how to make it sound banjo-like. Getting that drone string into play makes for a great sound, but comes at the expense of melody notes. So you have to dissect a tune and figure out how to keep the overall melody going while still working with the frailing pattern, banjo tuning, and drone.

The other big thing to consider in how you convert a fiddle tune to clawhammer banjo is whether you're playing it solo or accompanying a fiddler. There's a lot of leeway you can gain if a fiddle is covering the main melody notes and you're just adding to it, as opposed to you having to cover the melody yourself.

There are tons of examples out there. Here's one that comes to mind. Cooley's Reel and Congress Reel played clawhammer-style and a bit non-traditionally. But it works wonderfully.


Jack Roberts
Apr-04-2016, 10:24am
Tobin: Your post confirms both my desires and fears of adding a banjo to the mix. I love fiddle tunes, and yes, they sound great on fiddle and mandolin especially with the added drones and double-stops. I well note that hammer-ons and pull-offs, as well as slides are important for clawhammer banjo, and I do recall Beverly Dillard making that point. Since I play 18th century German flute dance tunes, I mark up the notation quite a bit to make them more playable on fiddle and mandolin: I imagine I could do the same with fiddle tunes for the banjo.

Another reason for looking to the banjo is that our band has lost its guitarist and harmony vocalist (same guy) and I have been filling in for him. But that means I have to play guitar rather than mandolin, and now we just sound like any other old-folkie guitar band with just a guitar and a 12 string and singers all singing in unison. I would like to get a fuller sound to backup the vocals, and I think the banjo would do it, plus allow playing the melody. I can't fill that role with the mandolin or the violin. We only play about 9 tunes in our set, so I figure I can work hard on those with the banjo and be up to speed sometime before the end of the year, and have our female vocalist take over the guitar work. I can work on the harmony part, and we'll be back in business until we can find another one or two real musicians and I can go back to chopping chords on the mandolin.

Mike: I look forward to hearing your suggestions. I think I'll grab a banjo I know is up for sale sometime this week, and I'll let you know how it goes.

Apr-11-2016, 1:30am
There's a nice clawhammer version of the hornpipe "Off to California" on Mike Iverson's website. http://www.bluesageband.com/Tabs.html
That's how it should sound after you master the Galax-Lick


Mike Baker
Apr-11-2016, 5:58pm
Hi Jack,
Sorry about the delayed response.

A few of the tunes I play are:
Temperance Reel
Key West Hornpipe
Liverpool Hornpipe
Rites of Man

But Tobin us exactly right. The way I play them, attempting to reproduce the ascending/descending eighth notes, does tend to sound un-banjo-like. I really need to go back and work on my drop-thumb!

Did you pick up that banjo you had your eye on?