Frailin’ or Clawhammer is a style of banjo play

Smithsonian Folksways Banjo Builder Series

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Let’s start with “Looks”… the easy one. Some banjo players might consider this the  “throw-away.”  You’ll probably first be drawn to a banjo by how it looks. You do need to appreciate what you’re playing (no one wants to play a dog), but in the long run, beauty is only skin deep. And really playing clawhammer touches your soul.  So don’t sell it short on some hard-playing, poor-sounding but great looking tart. Instead, find a banjo that you enjoy listening to and helps you become a better player.

Buying a

frailing banjo

People often stumble across my site not because they intended to come here, but because a search engine thought they’d find my content of interest. There aren’t a bunch of sites out there that deal with frailing or clawhammer banjos… especially how to buy one.  So if a brass-tacks discussion of open-back, clawhammer/ frailing banjos is why you’re here, welcome!  Now, let‘s get down to biz.

If you’re serious about playing this, what’s commonly called “old-timey” style, there’s lots to keep in mind. First is actually knowing how to clawhammer. But that’s not what this site is all about. I’m hoping you each get connected with a good teacher/DVD or have the stamina and drive to learning it yourself. If you’ve started and you’re enjoying it, terrific! It’s worth the effort. But I’m not going to discuss the merits of  any particular style of play (i.e. Seeger, Diller, Perlman, etc,).  That discussion is for another day. Rather, I’m going to dedicate a few thoughts and words here about what to look for and think about when you’re making the decision on which old-timey banjo to buy.  

Next is “Playability.” Some of you might not know what this means. Here’s a tip; when you know your banjo (or it knows you) well enough that it begins to “give” you notes and sounds from your right OR left hand, whether you accurately chord or stroke them (or not!), then you’re playing a great instrument. And if you can get those sounds without a great deal of effort (i.e. playing hard, pressing hard on the strings, etc.), all the better. Some old banjos really make you work to get the tune out. Other new ones by some of today bumper crop of excellent luthiers actually “report” on what you’re trying to do! They tell on you! The good and the bad!

One of my banjos, “Tattletale” (a Chuck Lee tubaphone) often blabs to an audience/fellow players all about what I’m doing.  When I’m really on, it’s great. But if I’m being sloppy (for whatever reason), it tattles on me.  But that kind of sensitivity to play is a characteristic of a remarkable banjo. Look for it!

One last thing about Playability and Looks.  One banjo you pick up may have a fat neck (i.e. one from the turn of the century).  Another might have a thin neck. It really doesn’t matter. Your sweetie could have fat ankles or thin ankles. What really matters is not looks, but how you dance with her (both your sweetie and your banjo). So in choosing (either), consider first something you feel comfortable with, then take a look at the esthetics. Ok, now let’s get down to what’s really important. A banjo’s “Voice.”  

Adam Hurt

Kyle creed

Don't you just love that deep, rumbling bass of the Menzie's Grain Measure banjo?  And it amazes me how similar the Fairbanks Electric and (later Vega) Whyte Laydie sound. And isn't that bluegrass banjer just about the happiest sound you've ever heard? Makes me feel like Unca' Dave Macon looks in the picture on the left. HOT' dog!

Now, keep in mind, this Continuum is a generalization. There will always be exceptions (i.e. the incredibly rare and highly-desirable, deep, warm-woody sounding 12” pot with volume. And it does exist!). But if you’re just starting out, make it a point to find a sound you like! Early banjos like S.S. Stewarts, Coles, Fairbanks, Vegas, Weymanns, Buckbees, Rettburg & Langes and others are as great sounding, classic and desirable today as they were a century ago. But don’t go running off half-cocked to eBay.  It’s important to sample around.  Listen to old and new banjos. You should listen and try and play first… even if you are just learning the basics. 

Tommy Thompson

Dwight Diller

There are three things you should consider when buying a clawhammer or frailing banjo... in this order:

1.  Voice/tone

2.  Playability

3.  Looks 

Ok, I'm admitting right up front so as not to jaundice your decision on what YOU like. I have a banjo Voice I really like (I’m trying not to unfairly influence you). I started playing Scrugg’s style (3 finger) bluegrass banjo way back in HS (too many years ago to count).  I LOVED the bright, cheerful, ringing sound of my Gibson Mastertone.  So in settling on a frailing banjo that pleases my ear, I find I’m playing a brighter banjo than most. In old-timey land, “bright ‘n ringy” is not necessarily the most desirable Voice. But remember, as with Playability and Looks, it’s a matter of personal preference. You need to find something that pleases you.

Banjos are as individual as people. Each has a uniquely different and distinct voice. Although many factors play into it, Voices are primarily a function of the banjo's tone ring.

Below is a Banjo Voice Continuum of instruments representing enhancements/evolutions in tone rings since the banjo 1st appeared in the US (pre-civil war). The Continuum been assembled based on my first-hand playing experiences as well as the insights/opinions I’ve learned from other old-timey banjo aficionados (thank you Banjohangout members!).

Overview of Voice

Pete Seeger

The Banjo Voice Continuum

Click on a Banjo and hear its voice

Using consistent recording standards, banjo-virtuoso John Balch recorded Year of Jubilo on instruments representative of each of the basic tone rings being played in Old-timey circles today. The idea is, by using one artist, playing one song under identical recording conditions, the listener will be able to hear the differences tone rings make to a banjo's voice. Thanks John!

John Balch

Gourd and Grain Measure banjos

Dobson “donut” tone rings

11” Electric and Whyte Laydie tone rings. Skin or plastic heads

Bluegrass tone rings... that full, throaty, bright ‘n happy sound!

Frank Neat Kentucky bluegrass banjo with Huber tone ring.

Gibson banjos begin the mystique (become the benchmark for a true “bluegrass” sound).

Whyte Laydie by Bart Reiter

1904 Fairbanks Imperial Electric

1880’s HC Dobson

Jeff Menzies banjos

12” wood pots (ebony, maple tone rings). Skin or Fiberskin heads.

11-12” rolled brass tone rings.

Rose Hill by Chuck Lee

SS Stewart 1890’s Special Thoroughbred

Wildwood Balladeer

Click on a Banjo and hear its voice

11-12” tubaphone tone rings. Plasticheads

Unca’ Dave Macon

Mary Z. Cox

Walt Koken

Mac benford – Kevin Enoch is considered one of today’s top banjo builders, although I have only played the Tradesman (bottom of the line model… didn’t satisfy my bigoted ear), one can’t deny the FACT that many of todays top frailers play his wares (i.e. Joe Newberry from Big Medicine, Rafe Stefanini, Bruce Molesky, Dirk Powell and MANY more)!

There’s a bunch of banjos to listen to out there. Finding out what banjo sounds you like to hear most is great fun! Point your mouse to or and buy some CDs from banjo artists like Cathy Fink, Mary Cox, Bob Flesher, Dirk Powell, Riley Baugus, Dwight Diller, Pete Seeger, Mike Seeger, Dan Gellert, Mac Benford, Walk Koken, John Hermann, Art Rosenbaum,  Ken Perlman, Adam Hurt, Reed Martin and Kurt Sutphin (many of their photos are sprinkled throughout this page).  And if you want to go back even further, pick up some classic old greats like Wade Ward, Fred Cockerham, Kyle Creed, Uncle Dave Macon, Charlie Poole, Doc Boggs, Clarence Ashley, Tommy Thompson and others I’m too lazy to dig out of my CD pile. See what tickles your ear and then do a little research to find out what they are (or were) playing.

Go fill yer ears...

More Great Players

Clarence Ashley

Charlie Poole

Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham

Bascom Lamar Lundsford

Mark “clawgrass” Johnson

Reed Martin

Tim O’brien and Dirk Powell

Ken Perlman

Arnie Naiman

Cathy Fink

Riley Baugus

Dan levenson

Dan Gellert

Mike Seeger

Doc boggs

Ready to go shopping?

Ok, so now you’ve got some idea of what banjo makes what sound. Maybe you’ve been fortunate enough to find something you really like. Perhaps it’s time now to see what’s out there that you could afford. There are some GREAT places to shop online to see if you can find your fancy. But remember, on the web, what you see (and want) is NOT always what you get.  The good news is, there are some reputable places to look. For starters: – This is Donald Zepp’s establishment in Wendell, NC.  Donald has forgotten more about banjos than most folks will ever know.  On top of all that, he’s a dandy player! Check out the “SOUND FILE” link on his home page to LISTEN to the banjos he plays (and carries) in his store. It’s an excellent way to first learn and then find the sound you’re after. I’ve had many business dealings with Donald.  Zepp is a great place to shop and buy.  By the way, if you still want to hear MORE banjos being played, stop by and click on MEDIA ARCHIVE section. Lots of really great pros and closet pickers alike come in and post tunes for all to enjoy. I’ve even heard a banjo or two played by friends right before I picked them up (bought them) to try for myself!

Look to the right for a few more places to buy: – The granddaddy of old-timey hangouts.  Check out their t-shirts and CDs, too. - Jason Romero 

Jason’s work is amazing. And his designs and principles are timeless. Jason put in some time at Wildwood banjos along the way.  You gotta love what he’s doing for the art of the clawhammer banjo. – I’m always amazed at the gorgeous, old banjos these folks continuously turn up.  Great to do business with, too. VERY knowledgeable… and they LOVE old banjos! – I LOVE Chuck Lee banjos!  Here’s a retired plumber in Ovilla, TX that (fortunately for us banjos players, not him) blew out his knees and back in his first trade. Today he makes premier banjos. Wood tone rings to tubaphones, classic to contemporary, Chuck pushes the limit for Voice, Playability AND Looks.  Seriously, I cannot say enough good about this guy or his work.

Great selection!  Reputable, knowledgable staff.  Wonderful folks to deal with, too.

John Drummond runs this place.  As with the other folks listed above, John carries excellent banjos, knows his business and treats you fair. – Not always the best prices, but PRIMO instruments!  You get what you pay for. – Nice selections.  Knowledgable. – True purveyors of FINE instruments.

If you build it, they will buy!

Don’t want old?  That’s fine.  If you’d rather buy something new (versus a 100 year old beauty), there are some terrific builders of the classic greats (i.e. rolled tone rings, woodies, Whyte Laydies, etc.). Bart Reiter and Mike Ramsey are cranking out their new versions of the timeless oldies at a record pace. But here’s a real mind blower. Although today’s roster of banjo luthiers is long, what most people don’t know is that almost all are backordered in building banjos anywhere from .5 to 5 years!  That’s right! Most build anywhere from 10 to 120 banjos a year and can’t come close to keeping up with demand. But if you see the quality of what today’s builders are making, you’ll understand why. I’ve had the good fortune of being able to see and play many instruments by the folks on this page. If you’re REALLY lucky, you’ll have the same opportunity BEFORE you buy (most people are too impatient to wait that long… either than or they don’t want to travel the world over to sample everyone’s wares). Ok, so here’s a partial list of some of MY favorites! – Another builder of classic banjos, even primatives, is Lo Gordon of Brevard, NC.  Before he learned how to play banjos (from Dwight Diller) Lo first had to learn how to make one. He mastered the playing part, no sweat. But his banjo-building work is even better. Lo likes rosewood tone rings. Their Voices can be smokey, sometimes even a little dark.  They’re LOADED with character and charm. Amazingly Playable.  Whatever you do, make sure you get a chance to see and play one of Lo’s banjos. At one time, I had 3 of them! – Mike Ramsey and Bart Reiter are really the Chevys and Fords of the banjo world. They’re great, well-made, reliable banjos… with excellent resale. If you like the Voice (remember?  This is what is most important), and find one used for a fair price, you won’t go wrong. - Like Mike’s banjos, Bart’s are well-made, great sounding and great playing! – Bob is truly an artist (as well as an award-winning  player!).  While you’re looking at his stunning work, check out a few CDs. - What can you say about banjo-building pioneer Chuck Ogsbury that hasn't already been said? He's advanced the art more than any other builder in the past 40 years.  - Philippe Ravel lives in France.  If Looks won, this guy would be a top 3 contender. What I really want to know is, do they sound as good as they look?! I’ve written Phil and told him he needs to come over here so we can play on his banjos a while. – Hugo Valcke is in Belgium.  Too bad. I’d like to spend a few weekends playing through everything hanging on his walls… one at a time! - Been around since the 70’s.  Still making fine axes today.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of builders. There are just too many to cover so I stuck with the ones I'm most familiar with. If you learn of someone new, doing something amazing, I'd hope you'd let me know!  

One more thing...

"How many tunes should I be learning a in year?"

This topic came up on Banjohangout the other day and I thought it was worth putting down here.  Many of you are just getting into frailing/clawhammer. In your excitement, don't forget to stop and smell the aural roses you're making and passing on your journey. 

Here's a true story about learning tunes from my mentor/teacher/friend, Dwight Diller.

Anybody can learn notes and play. Fewer choose to understand the tune they're playing... what it's about, what is needed, what is right, what is wrong, what allows for personal interpretation and what may not. 

To Dwight, tunes are sacred. They tell stories. Anyone can play 'em. But each is a unique opportunity to let a timeless message of joy or sorrow pass through your soul on the way to living again through your hands. THAT's what it's about!

No, it's not about the notes. It's about music giving the deepest part of you a chance to take a journey... personally.

Dwight once shook a boney finger at me and said "you should learn NO more than 6 tunes a year. Any more and you're goin' too fast." 

Not really sure how he arrived at that number. But when I went back for a refresher course with Dwight a year later, I proudly produced my list of 60 tunes (I'd always been an over-achiever). He fumed at me... said I'd compromised! Said I was more interested in learning the notes than understanding the tune! He didn't say "show off"... but I felt it. With that he turned and stomped off. It wasn't until 2 years later I finally figured out what he meant.

Remember, it's not the NUMBER of great tunes you can play, it's not really even how GREAT you can play the number. It's how GREAT that tune/song can make YOU and YOUR LISTENING AUDIENCE feel.

Tunes are timeless and music is infectious. You and your musical brothers and sisters as well as listeners can re-live something through music!  Listen to the tune. Beyond the beat or the melody, do you feel it?  Are you moved to dance?  Or to tears?  I'm sure, at some point in time, music has touched you. Here's your chance to really let music flow through your soul. Be open. That's key. You'll also find it's easier to learn, once you understand.  

Best part is, that level of appreciation makes for GREAT music... for you and your audience.

"This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it." 

Psalms 118:24

Tattletale Brooks Masten 

Brooks banjos are the REAL DEAL! I don’t think anyone building instruments today puts more love and joy into their work. And they sound fabulous. You gotta love Brook’s banjos!

Here’s the Webinar interview I had with Chuck in the fall of ’09.

Here’s Brook’s Banjo Hangout Webinar.

Here’s Jason’s Banjo Hangout Webinar.

Here’s a Webinar interview I had with Bob during the Banjo Hangout, Banjo Builder Webinar Series from the fall of ’09.

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Contact:  Craig Evans - frailinflix Productions -