Clawhammer to Classical: Banjo Playing Styles and Sounds

There are many ways of playing the banjo. This old-time instrument, which typically features four or five strings, is associated with several musical styles, including traditional Irish music, bluegrass music, Dixieland jazz and country music. The following are some of the most popular Banjo playing styles and sounds.


This “traditional” style of banjo playing produces a mellow sound; players make down-picking movements on the strings with the index or middle finger, and they “pop” the 5th string with the thumb.  The hand is in a “claw” shape, and the finger hits the strings like a gentle, stiff hammer. Clawhammer also focuses on harmony and melody in addition to rhythm, making it an ideal style for solo playing. Famous musicians who have used the clawhammer style of banjo playing include Neil Young, Doc Watson, and Ricky Skaggs.

The Gold Tone CB-100 Clawhammer is an excellent clawhammer style beginner banjo that we carry in-stock.


Earl Scruggs, when he first appeared on the Grand Ole Opry in 1945 with Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, introduced a revolutionary new style of banjo picking that electrified his audience.  Most bluegrass banjo players since have wanted to play like Earl.  This three-finger style is usually performed with fingerpicks on the index and middle fingers, and a thumbpick.  Three-finger picking is a staple in hard-driving, fast-tempo bluegrass and Southern gospel music.

The Deering Goodtime is one of our most popular beginner bluegrass style banjos that we carry in-stock.

Irish Folk

This style originated from Ireland and is played on a four-string, short-necked (17-fret) banjo.  Tuned the same as a fiddle and mandolin, it reduces the learning curve required to master each of these instruments.  Strummed with a single guitar-style flatpick, the Irish Tenor banjo is still popular in its home country and in The Appalachian Mountain region.  Probably it’s best-known artist is Gerry O’Connor.

Dixieland Jazz Style

This style is commonly played on four-string tenor and plectrum banjos, performed originally by New Orleans bands such as Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five.  The era ran from about the 1890s to the 1930s, and can still be heard today in some Shakey’s Pizza parlors around the USA.  Most Dixieland Jazz banjoists strum with a single guitar-style flatpick held between the index finger and thumb.


2 thoughts on “Clawhammer to Classical: Banjo Playing Styles and Sounds

  1. Pingback: Sweet Sounds of the Banjo: The History of the Banjo

  2. Pingback: 40 Facts About the History of the Banjo (From Africa to Appalachia)

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