My friend and mentor Steve Baughnan just released two new clawhammer guitar videos up on youtube. They were filmed at Doug Young’s studio and showcase Steve’s tune “Wasilla Weed” as well as give a basic primer on the clawhammer technique. Steve has a new DVD out at CDBaby called the Power of Claw.
So what is clawhammer guitar? In a nutshell its using clawhammer banjo technique but on a guitar. If you can play clawhammer banjo you can probably pick up a guitar and do it with a bit of adjustment. I found it much easier to learn the technique on banjo first. When I first saw Steve doing this six or seven years ago it was more of a right hand fingerpicking pattern that had the same rhythm as clawhammer banjo, with the thumb playing on the “and” of two. Over time it evolved into standard clawhammer technique.
Playing claw guitar is a bit different then on the banjo. For one you have more strings so there are some different options as far as tunings and drone strings. I think the guitar having more sustain lets you play tunes that might not work as well on the banjo. Check out my arrangement of Lord Mayo to see what I mean.
Having a heavy bass string as a drone string can also be problematic sometimes. I feel I have to be bit more sensitive of how I play the drone string on a guitar or things tend to sound overwhelmed by the bass. Alot of times I will clawhammer in Double Drop D, which is DADGBD. That way I can switch between the 6th and the 4th strings as drone strings. CGDGCD or the Orkney tuning is also nice for clawhammer as its not to far from sawmill banjo tuning of gDGCD. One fun thing to do on guitar is what Steve calls a “High Five” or “High Six” tuning. What you do is swap out your fifth or sixth string with a high string of the same pitch. So with Orkney I would remove the sixth string and put on an .16 guage second string tuned up to G. This would give me gGDGCD. It can be problematic tuning a string up that high so what you will need to do is get something like a Third Hand Capo or a sixth string capo that can target individual strings. I tuned the 6th string to B initially and then capoed at the 8th fet to get it to G. This gets the capo up and out of the way of your fretting hand.
Clawhammer guitar is such a fun way to play once you get the basic technique down. After years of regular fingerpicking it has helped recharge my playing and add a different groove and drive to my repotiore. I definitely encourage folks to give it a shot.