Is it Frailing or is it Clawhammer?.

by Donald ZEPP

One frequently asked question about the 5-string banjo concerns the differences between "frailing" and "clawhammer." This is not easily resolved, simply because it would appear to be largely a matter of opinion. Read on...

Perhaps a word about the style in general is in order. Despite the myriad things one can do to--and with--a banjo, the most common techniques for producing what those of us who love the instrument call "music" are: striking the strings with a flat pick (also called a "plectrum"); picking upward on the strings with the finger tips, i.e., pulling the fingers into the hand (which may be aided by the wearing of special finger picks); and striking downward on the strings with the back of the fingers or nails . It is this last, 5-string banjo technique that is generically called "frailing."

In its basic form, then, frailing consists of striking downward on a string (or several strings) with a nail (the player's choice, although the index and middle fingers are the most commonly used), then--on the next beat--repeating the motion, and finally --on the off beat--plucking the fifth, or drone, string. In 4/4 time (simplest to explain the rhythm; in fact, it's usually 2/4), this pattern is repeated in each measure, leading to the following (in which "X"=either a down-struck quarter- or eighth note played on the beat, and "+"=an eighth note played off the beat):
X X+X X+, or a rhythm count of 1 2+3 4+. This produces what Pete SEEGER called a "bumm-titty bumm-titty" rhythm in his book/record How to Play the 5-String Banjo.

To hear this style, the RealAudio-equipped browser is strongly advised to visit our Banjo Sampler and Primer, where links to several examples of this style are to be found. That stricken text was appropriate in 1996, when I posted this on, but is very much out-of-date now (and the sound files long since gone). So, if you do want to hear clawhammer/frailing, just visit YouTube for myriad examples.

Additional eighth notes can be squeezed into those conveniently open half beats after the 1st and third quarter notes by bringing the thumb in to pick a string other than the 5th. This is called a number of things, including "double-thumb frailing," "drop-thumb," and "clawhammer." It is here that we get into trouble, for some people argue that that it's "frailing" if you don't "double-thumb," and "clawhammer" if you do. Others consider the terms to be completely synonymous.

In his "Introduction to Styles in Old-Time Music" (The New Lost City Ramblers Songbook. 1964. Oak Publications.), John COHEN wrote:
"In the oldest technique, the picking is done entirely with a downward motion of the hand and fingers. The strings are struck with the back of the fingernail, rather than plucked up. There is no consistent name for this; it is variously called frailing , claw-hammer (C. Ashley), clubbing (Roscoe Holcomb), rapping (Hobart Smith), flailing, thrashing, knock-down, drop-thumb, and downpicking."

In his book, Pete SEEGER says, "Double thumbing can also be done in this (frailing) system..." and he never mentions the word "clawhammer" in this context* although he does say that the style is "...variously called 'beating' a banjo, 'frailing,' 'rapping,' (and) ' framing' the banjo."

Cecelia Conway, writing in her book African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia (1995. The University of Tennessee Press) wrote:
"Downstroking has evoked a number of local names: 'beating' (Tross), 'thumping' (Odell Thompson, Burl Hammons),...'knocking' and 'knockdown' (Dock and John Boggs), 'rapping' (Hobart Smith), 'racking,' 'rocking,' 'whomping' (Dave Macon), 'fisted' clawhammer (Elizabeth 'Babe' Reid), 'that-club-fisted-way' (unidentified white man from Hiltons, Virginia), 'gun-hammer' (Arnold Watson), 'clawhammer,' and 'frailing.'"

So what is the difference between "frailing" and "clawhammer?" Depending on your point of view, there either is none, or "clawhammer" describes a "double-thumb" technique while "frailing" precludes it unless otherwise noted. What is clear is that if one uses any of these terms in a restrictive sense, he should make that clear, for there are others who will interpret the term in its broadest sense.

Remember, if you will, Lewis Carroll's writings:

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master--that's all."

Donald ZEPP
Dec. 1996; July 1997; August 2016
* SEEGER does contribute a bit to the confusion regarding "clawhammer" style, because he refers to it in his chapter on "Three Finger Picking and Bluegrass Banjo," where he states about Earl SCRUGGS, "...when he was a teen-ager he had worked out a syncopated variation on the old 'clawhammer' fingerpicking style."