Evie Ladin’s polyrhythmic clawhammer banjo style, resonant voice, and percussive dance have been heard from A Prairie Home Companion to Celtic Connections, Lincoln Center to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. Known as a driving force behind San Francisco’s Stairwell Sisters, Evie has two solo CDs that feature her banjo playing and songwriting: Float Downstream (2010) and Evie Ladin Band (2012).
Evie grew up in a trad folk scene up and down the Eastern US and now travels the world, while calling Oakland, California home. Her childhood home was a hostel for folk revival artists touring the East Coast; John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers first put a banjo in her hands at age eight, and she got her first lessons from Bob Carlin. Raised on fiddlers’ conventions and square dances, Evie’s playing is firmly grounded in tradition, while taking the instrument into new territory. She is also a crackerjack percussive dancer and incorporates that rhythmic work into her playing and singing. A popular instructor at many music camps, as well as Berkeley, California’s Freight and Salvage when she is home, Evie tours frequently with her partner Keith Terry and their band Evil Diane.
“Evie Ladin is a natural entertainer with a gift for infusing folk practices with contemporary verve.” —San Francisco Chronicle
There are several versions of the traditional favorite “Shady Grove.” The one you’ll learn here is in G modal tuning, which gives the banjo a haunting sound that is used in a lot of old-time clawhammer banjo music. With Tablature
Clawhammer Banjo Lessons
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CLAWHAMMER BASICS In these introductory lessons Evie introduces you to clawhammer banjo and its roots, gets you started on the basic clawhammer bum-ditty stroke, shows you simple chords and a scale in the key of G, and introduces you to pull-offs, hammer-ons, and slides.
An Introduction to Clawhammer Banjo Evie gets you started on your clawhammer banjo journey by talking about the African roots of the style, showing you the parts of the banjo, and explaining open-G tuning (the most common banjo tuning). She also gives you advice on how to hold your banjo comfortably, what kind of banjo works well for clawhammer, and what gauge strings to use. You’ll also learn good hand position for both hands and how to get in tune.
Basic Clawhammer Technique Learn the basic clawhammer stroke, in which you brush down with your fingernails and pluck the fifth string as your hand comes up. You’ll also learn the bum-ditty rhythm and how to keep your hand moving in a regular down-up motion, and thenyou’ll start to focus on single strings using one finger and learn to combine single-string downstrokes with strums.
Chords and Chording The I, IV, and V chords are the most commonly used chords in any key, and in the key of G those chords are G, C, and D. You’ll learn to play the bum-ditty pattern with G, C and D chords and then play (and sing) “You Are My Sunshine” with the same chords. You’ll also learn some handy exercises that combine chords with the bum-ditty pattern as well as single-string patterns.
G Major Scale G is the most common key to start playing the banjo in, and the G major scale consists of the notes you’ll need when you start playing melodies in the key of G. Learn how to find the notes of the G major scale in relation to the chords you already know.
Pull-Offs, Hammer-Ons, and Slides By using pull-offs, hammer-ons, and slides you can get different sounds on the banjo, play more melody notes, and create more intricate rhythms. You'll learn to play each one and how to add them to the bum-ditty pattern.
FIRST CLAWHAMMER TUNES Now that you know the basic clawhammer techniques it’s time to start playing (and singing) some classic old-time tunes and songs that sound great on the banjo. Each lesson includes a Play-Along Track with Evie playing and singing what you’ve learned at a relaxed tempo so you can play and sing along.
Cotton-Eyed Joe Your first clawhammer banjo tune, “Cotton-Eyed Joe,” is a well-known old-time fiddle tune with the typical AABB fiddle tune structure. And it features some of the pull-offs, hammer-ons, and slides you learned in the previous lesson, so it’s a good tune for practicing them.
Nancy Rowland With your second clawhammer tune, “Nancy Rowland,” you’ll begin to explore the fingerboard a little more.“Cotton-Eyed Joe” stays at the second and first frets but this great old-time dance tune moves you up the neck of the banjo. The B part starts up at the fifth fret, where you’ll learn a new D chord. Evie gives you advice on getting used to moving your fingers up and down the neck.
DROP-THUMB TECHNIQUE Up until now, your thumb has only been playing the fifth string, but in this lesson you’ll learn the drop-thumb technique, in which your thumb “drops” down to play other strings, usually the second or third string. Evie demonstrates the basic technique and gives you some simple exercises to help you practice drop-thumbing. You’ll also learn to add drop-thumb licks to “Nancy Rowland.”
MORE BEGINNING CLAWHAMMER SONGS AND TUNES
Cluck Old Hen Learn the classic old-time tune “Cluck Old Hen” in a new tuning: G modal, also called “sawmill” or “mountain modal tuning.” To get into this tuning you simply tune your B (second) string up a half step to C. This gives the banjo a haunting sound that is used in a lot of old-time clawhammer banjo music.
Waterbound To play the old-time favorite “Waterbound” (also known as “Stay All Night” or “Water’s Up, and I Can’t Get Across”) you’ll go back to G tuning. In addition to the basic melody you’ll learn a few variations to each part, with slides, pull-offs, and drop-thumb licks.
Shady Grove There are several versions of the traditional favorite “Shady Grove.” The one you’ll learn here is in G modal tuning, the same tuning as “Cluck Old Hen.” “Shady Grove” is a one-part tune, and you’ll mostly play the melody, not chords, when you’re playing the melody by itself or singing the song. You’ll also learn some variations to the basic melody, including more hammer-ons and drop thumbing.
Say Darlin’ Say So far, you’ve learned tunes in G and G modal tuning. The old-time favorite “Say Darlin’ Say” is in a new tuning: double C. Evie starts by showing you how to get into double-C tuning and how to play the I, IV, and V chords in double C. You’ll play a simple bum-ditty pattern with these chords, so you can get used to fingering them, and learn the C major scale. “Say Darlin’ Say” has unusual timing, with just three short phrases, so you’ll start by singing the song and get it in your head before starting to learn it. Once you’ve got it down on the banjo, you’ll learn some variations on each phrase.
Goin’ Across the Sea The old-time song “Goin’ Across the Sea” is also played in double-C tuning. Evie starts by playing and singing it through and then shows you the song’s chord structure. Then she breaks the melody down, playing each phrase in a “call and response” so you can play along with her. The variations you’ll learn include some drop-thumb licks that give a nice rhythmic variation to the melody.
Pretty Polly The well-known murder ballad “Pretty Polly” is another modal tune, played in G-modal tuning. You’ll start learning it by singing the melody while playing a bum-ditty pattern on the open strings. You’ll also learn a hammer-on lick to play between lines of the song, and then learn the banjo melody by matching the banjo part to your voice.
The Blackest Crow The beautiful old-time song “The Blackest Crow” is a waltz (in 3/4 time). Evie sings it in the key of A, in G tuning with a capo at the second fret. You’ll learn how to use a capo, and either tune your fifth string up to A or use a “railroad spike” to capo your fifth string. Then you’ll learn how to turn the bum-ditty pattern into waltz time (bum-di-ditty) as well as another pattern where you play melody notes on the first and third beats of the measure. You’ll learn to play the chord progression with the bum-di-ditty rhythm before learning the melody to “The Blackest Crow.”
MOVABLE CHORDS Learn basic chord theory, so that you understand what people mean when they refer to chords by numbers. Evie also shows you some “movable” chords: shapes that you can move around the neck to different keys and fingerboard positions. The first shape you’ll learn is the F shape, and Evie shows you how you can move that shape up the neck to play G, C, and D chords. You’ll also learn the one-finger barre chord and a third movable chord (the D shape) and how to find all the shapes for G, C, and D chords from the bottom of the neck up to the 12th fret.
INTERMEDIATE CLAWHAMMER SONGS AND TUNES You’ve learned nine great old-time tunes and songs. In these next lessons you’ll learn some more complicated fiddle tunes, starting with a bunch of dance tunes in the key of D, played in double-C tuning with the capo at the second fret and the fifth string tuned up to A.
Ducks on the Millpond The great old-time fiddle and banjo tune “Ducks on the Millpond” comes from the Round Peak area of North Carolina and was often played by old-time masters Tommy Jarrell, Fred Cockerham, and others. The tune starts with a new technique that breaks the standard clawhammer pattern by putting the fifth string thumb note on the downbeat. You’ll also some variations, and get advice on practicing your drop-thumbing.
Mississippi Sawyer The classic old-time dance tune “Mississippi Sawyer” is in D with two standard-length parts of eight measures. The first part starts with a melody up at the fifth fret, so Evie gives you advice on fingering and walks you through each phrase, showing you some variations with drop-thumbing and hammer-ons.
Soldier’s Joy The Civil War tune “Soldier’s Joy” is an old-time classic and played by all sorts of roots musicians. It’s in the key of D, played in double-C tuning with a capo at the second fret. You’ll learn to play and sing it, with some variations for the phrases of the melody that repeat.
Spring Creek Gals The dance tune “Spring Creek Gals,” also in D, is a “crooked” tune, which means it doesn’t have the usual number of four or eight beats to a part. Evie starts by showing you the “crooked” A part, which includes a fair amount of syncopation. The B part of “Spring Creek Gals” is a little straighter than the A part, but still has some syncopation, and the melody is mostly played on the lower strings, which can be tricky.
Buffalo Gals Learn the old-time classic “Buffalo Gals” in the key of G. You’ll learn a few different ways to interpret the melody on the banjo, including some variations that use drop-thumbing, pull-offs, and the Galax roll.
North Carolina BreakdownThe old-time tune “North Carolina Breakdown” is in the key of G and covers a lot of the fingerboard, from the low D string to the B note high up at the ninth fret on the first string. Evie begins by reminding you where the G-scale notes are up at the fifth, seventh, and ninth frets so you’ll be able to find them easily when the tune goes there. The B part of “North Carolina Breakdown,” which starts on the IV chord, is probably the most memorable part. Variations include a syncopated strum on the offbeats.
Waynesboro “Waynesboro” is another great old-time tune in G that uses the whole fingerboard. Well, at least up to the ninth fret. The A part uses some internal drop thumbing, in which you use your thumb on the G string. You’ll also learn a syncopated phrase (called an “I-skip”) that skips a note played on the downbeat. The B part of “Waynesboro” starts up at the ninth fret and moves back down through the seventh and fifth frets. You’ll learn some variations on this simple melody that use small chord shapes and drop thumbing.
A TUNES There are a lot of wonderful fiddle tunes in A, played in either A tuning or A modal tuning (the same as G and G modal, but with a capo at the second fret.
Greasy Coat This great, rhythmic tune is played in A modal. It’s pretty straightforward melodically, but is often played at a fast tempo, so keeping it simple is important. Evie also talks about playing just the top two strings when you strum, which will give your playing a tighter, more percussive sound.
Pretty Little Widow The old-time fiddle tune “Pretty Little Widow” is in A major tuning, but the second part has some notes of the G chord in the key of A, giving it a “modal” sound even though you’re not in A modal tuning. In addition to the main melody you’ll learn some subtle variations with slides and partial chords.
“Shady Grove” in A Major You already learned a version of the old-time and folk standard “Shady Grove” in G modal, which is probably the most common way to play it, but in this lesson Evie shows you another version in A major, with the song starting on the V chord and with a second (instrumental) part, as opposed to the modal version, which just has one part.
June AppleThe old-time classic “June Apple” is in the key of A, but it has a strong G natural note (the flatted seventh of A) in the melody. You’ll learn the melody to both parts and to sing the melody of the second part.
Lost IndianThis great A tune comes from fiddler Benton Flippen. The A part is one continuous melodic line, without much repetition but with some cool slides and little melodic variations. The B part starts up the neck and ends the same as the A part. You’ll learn a new IV chord up the neck, and get advice on making the shift from the fifth fret back to open position.
Sugar in the GourdThere are a lot of versions of the fiddle tune “Sugar in the Gourd,” but the thing that ties them together is the melody of the sung words. You’ll start by learning a basic version of the vocal melody, the A part, and then how to add some variations with drop thumbing, I-skips, etc.
Jenny Get Around “Jenny Get Around” comes from Kentucky fiddler John Salyer. It’s a “crooked” tune in A, and Evie starts by showing you how to listen for the patterns in the melody and focus on the melody by singing it without worrying about counting it. The B part is also slightly crooked and uses some of the phrases you’ve already learned in the A part. Evie shows you where each phrase starts, counting you through them so you understand each phrase.
The Cuckoo Clarence Ashley’s version of “The Cuckoo” is a classic modal clawhammer tune in the key of A. It features the “Galax roll,” and Evie gives you advice on playing the quick strummed notes of the Galax roll clearly and distinctly. You’ll learn the instrumental verse of “The Cuckoo” as well as a banjo part to play when you’re singing.
WARM-UP DRILLS In this lesson, Evie shows you a series of simple drills you can use to warm up before playing. They’re similar to some of the drills you learned in the Basic Clawhammer Technique and Drop-Thumb lessons, but they’re gathered here in one video, so you can get warmed up by playing along with Evie or use the downloadable PDF as a reminder of the drills when you’re away from the computer. You’ll also learn some different ways to practice the exercises: using dynamics, for example, to make the thumb notes quieter or louder.