BY ADAM PERLMUTTER | FROM THE SPRING 2017 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Pound for pound—and decibel for decibel—the banjo is much heavier and louder than the ukulele. But that doesn’t mean you can’t appropriate banjo techniques to excellent effect on the uke. Case in point is the clawhammer approach used in so much old-time music on the banjo—and which, as the title implies, the roots musician Lil’ Rev borrows all over the place on his excellent new ukulele album, Claw and Hammer.
To learn the clawhammer style, it’s essential to use a ukulele in re-entrant tuning. You want that high fourth-string G, which will produce an effect similar to a banjo’s fifth string. The approach might sound like a whirlwind of notes, but in this lesson you’ll learn it in easily digestible steps: playing a single melody-note, a chord, and a single drone-note on the fourth string before combining everything in a pattern that feels great to play.
The Claw and the Hammer
Begin by curling your pick-hand fingers inward, making that “claw.” Now do the “hammer”: With the back of the nail on your index finger, or middle if you’d like, strike the second-fret A, as in Example 1. [Editor’s note: Be sure to watch the video clip above with Rev’s technique lesson.]
Begin slowly, at say, 60 beats per minute, targeting the third string until you can cleanly play the A each time as you work up to faster tempos. You can get additional practice with single notes by using a scalar pattern—try an octave of D major, for instance (Example 2).
When you’re ready, try playing an open-G chord, depicted in Example 3, using the same motion as you did for the single notes in the previous examples. This might feel counterintuitive—you’re playing all downstrokes, as opposed to the down-up strumming that you might be accustomed to. But keep at it; make sure you’re strumming steadily, and at a consistent volume level.
All Together Now
Once you can confidently play single notes and chords on their own, try combining them (Example 4). The single notes should fall squarely on the beats, and the chords on the “ands.” Again, evenness is key here—you want this exercise to sound almost mechanical, like a locomotive.
Now you’re ready for the final component of the clawhammer style. Try Ex. 4 once more, with your pick hand’s thumb curved at about a 15-degree angle to the strings. If you’re doing this correctly, you’ll find that after you play each G chord, your thumb will come to rest against string 4. Lift your thumb, and you’ll get the sound of the open string, along with a transient popping sound. String the fretted A, the G chord, and the open G together in a rhythm of eighth-16th-16th (or “bom-dit-ty,” in the vernacular), and you’ll have the full clawhammer pattern, demonstrated in Example 5.
Practice Ex. 5 super slowly, gradually increasing your speed until it becomes second nature at a fast clip. This could take a while—no less a player than Lil’ Rev spent a week practicing the pattern before he had it down pat. But it’s worth putting in the effort. Not unlike learning to ride a bike, once you know it, you won’t forget it, and you can apply the clawhammer approach to so many different songs.
Lil’ Rev’s arrangement of the traditional tune “Ukulele Polka” offers a nice and reasonably easy situation for you to try out your newfound clawhammer skills. The piece has lots of repetition; though it’s comprised of two eight-bar sections (A and B), you’re essentially only learning four bars of music.
Here, where you see the bom-ditty-rhythm, use your clawhammer pattern, and where you see single notes, remember to swing that hammer down with your index or middle finger. As before, practice slowly and work up to a brisk tempo for this lively tune. After that, try applying a clawhammer approach to your own favorite tunes.