Alec Stone Sweet – Clawhammer Guitar


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Tumblin’ Gap: Clawhammer Guitar Solos

CD available through Solid Air Records, and alec.sweet@yale.edu


“Entrancing, the rhythmic sense and phrasing are spot on. Compulsory listening for guitar fans, Tumblin’ Gap is the kind of surprising
recording that inspires new movements”
- Acoustic Guitar, February 2006 issue

On Clawhammer Guitar
From the Liner Notes to Tumblin’ Gap:

On this recording, I use techniques adapted over more than a decade, from the old time banjo style some people call “clawhammer.” My previous recording of guitar solos, Memory and Praise (2000, available through Solid Air), included two clawhammer medleys of Appalachian tunes: Ducks on the Pond/The Frosty Morning, and Shady Grove/Salt River. These medleys were the first solo clawhammer guitar pieces ever recorded. Until 2003, I had only heard one other musician use such techniques on the guitar: Jody Stecher developed a clawhammer accompaniment for the song, Red Rocking Chair, which opens A Song that Will Linger, his exquisite duet album with Kate Brislin. In 2003, Solid Air released the compilation, Clawhammer Guitar: The Collection, to which I contributed four pieces. Steve Baughman’s liner notes to that CD also contain “the definitive history” of clawhammer guitar.

There are five characteristics of the way I play clawhammer. First, every specific note played by the right hand is produced either by the index finger or the thumb. Second, no note is ever plucked; each is played either with the thumb, or by striking down on a string with the nail of the index finger. Third, the index finger never plays off the beat, and the thumb never plays on the beat. This feature of clawhammer technique gives the music a heavier – and, to my ear, more natural - drive than it would have if it were played, say, as melody over an alternating bass. There is one exception to this rule: variations on a common clawhammer banjo lick (that you can hear on the climatic high notes of the second part of Polly Put the Kettle On, and the third part of Joke on the Puppy) when the thumb plays on beat. Fourth, for any piece, most of the notes are produced by the left hand, in combinations of slides, hammers, and pull-offs; slurs can occur on or off the beat. Fifth, I play in multiple tunings, and sometimes replace the sixth string bass with a high sixth string treble (of the same gauge employed for the first string). The banjo player will realize that I use my thumb on the bass strings to obtain drones, much as a clawhammer player uses the banjo’s high fifth string; indeed, when I string the guitar with a high treble in place of the sixth-string bass, it is partly to imitate the fifth string of the banjo. In many of the tunes, I keep multiple drones going, on different strings.

To sum up, in my version of clawhammer guitar, the thumb plays off the beat, even when it plays harmony bass notes or bass lines; no strings are ever plucked; with respect to the right hand, only the index finger and the thumb sound notes, but never at the same time. What is incredible is how much full textured sound one finger, one thumb, and left hand slurs can generate.

From the Acoustic Guitar Interview (2002):

Most Old Time musicians distinguish clawhammer from frailing banjo. A few might classify clawhammer as a specific form of melodic, double-thumb frailing (frailing then becomes a general category), which seems to be Steve's position. I always distinguish the two, but not in dichotomous or black/white terms. I am more comfortable thinking of the difference in terms of a continuum, or spectrum, that is anchored on one pole by pure frailing, and on the other pole by pure clawhammer.

To play clawhammer guitar, you probably have to play some clawhammer banjo, at least at first. As important, you have to listen to clawhammer banjo, all the time. Great, relatively pure clawhammer players whose recordings are readily available include Wade Ward, Fred Cockerham, and Tommy Jarrell.

My favorite living players (who make records) are Bob Carlin, Dirk Powell, Jody Stecher, and Walt Koken (Koken is so good, he occupies his own dimension). There is also a good deal of what I would call melodic frailing (which is what I think Steve Baughman means by frailing) out there, a kind of half-way between the ideal poles of clawhammer and frailing, in which melody is played mostly on the downbeat and then offbeat by the left hand, full strums are often sounded, and double-thumbing might be present, but limited. This half-way style simplifies things for guitarists, at least at first. Dwight Diller is an accessible banjo player who plays this way, and so is Kate Brislin; Bob Carlin plays this way too, at times.

All good banjo players have their own sound, precisely because each finds different solutions to common problems. The same will be true for any two clawhammer guitar players.

If you try to play in this style, you'll need patience and a willingness to experiment, sometimes with little hope of achieving much in the short run. There are no easy shortcuts. Existing banjo arrangements almost never translate onto the guitar in any straightforward way. It has taken me years to make the style work on the guitar, and I am still learning. I do it because I fell in love with Old Time fiddle music; I don't fiddle, and have no hope of learning to play like Bruce Molsky. Again, the point is that Old Time fiddle music, like Celtic music, has a life of its own, outside of the guitar; the music should shape the guitar playing as far as is possible (given one's own limitations and those of the instrument), not vice-versa.

You may not have noticed, but I use "anticipatory bass notes" in my Celtic Guitar pieces as well. Listen to the first part of Squire Woods Lamentation (the second cut of Memory and Praise). The thumb plays off the beat and then immediately into it, which I got both from frailing and from blues guitar. In ragtime blues, the technique is called a thumb-roll; Blind Blake used it all the time - Chump Man Blues being an obvious example. In his later records, Pierre Bensusan employs thumb rolls too, on Nice Feeling, for example.

Jody's lovely, virtuoso, Red Rocking Chair is the first and only clawhammer guitar piece I have ever heard, other than my own. I don't know if anyone else is trying to play clawhammer guitar.

[There are now many players experimenting with this style.]


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