Playing Irish Jigs in Clawhammer Style

Playing Irish Jigs in Clawhammer style on the Five-String Banjo

banjo and concertina, 1979 Before I played banjo, I played concertina, and most of the tunes I learned on it were Irish (under the heavy influence of Alistair Anderson and the Boys of the Lough, whom I first heard play at the Fox Hollow Folk Festival in 1973). When I picked up the banjo, it seemed logical to try to play tunes I already knew that weren’t "Skip to my Lou," which my older sister Lee had taught me. At the time, I was living in Ithaca, NY, and the best local banjo player was Howie Bursen, my precedessor as the president of the Cornell Folk Song Club (other past presidents include Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul, and Mary fame). Howieplays a very highly ornamented and clean style, performing American, Irish, and Scottish tunes, all brilliantly well. Howie doesn’t play many jigs, but I had the opportunity to observe him closely at a banjo workshop, and he played one then and answered a couple of questions along the lines of, "But how do you pick downwards twice in a row to get the rhythm like that?"

I liked the idea and went home that night and practiced for nine hours playing one tune. (I had a houseguest at the time, who fled with his hands over his ears after the first three hours.) After that, it was fairly plain sailing, as the hardest part really is accustoming yourself to hitting dowards twice in a row with your frailing finger. "The Lark in the Morning" was the third jib I ever worked out on the five-string banjo, and I think the two-part banjo harmonies that eventually appeared on my 1980 record (and in the MP3 this links to) were in my head from the beginning.

Many people think the five-string banjo is unsuited to Irish music. My feeling is that it is in fact better suited than the tenor banjo is, despite the fact that you'll find a lot more people playing Irish music on the tenor banjo. (If you don't know the difference, the tenor banjo has a much shorter neck and is tuned in fifths like a mandolin and played with a flat pick, where the five-string has a variety of tunings and is much more accommodating for chords.) Irish instrumental music is fascinating because of its eccentricities, or perhaps anomalies is a better word, and each instrument has to find its own way of playing variations that suit that instrument -- almost a problem in definition. A fiddler, for example, can play rolls, triplets (listen to Aly Bain if you want to hear clean, crisp triplets), double notes, slides, open string and double-stop harmony notes, drones, and so on, not to mention all the possible tricks with the bow. The pipes have many idiosyncracies that are well known: they bark, and the drones can, in the case of Irish pipes, play chords, crans, slides, and so on. Part of what interests me in adapting Irish music for the banjo is discovering the things that only a banjo can do. It can play ornaments and (albeit limited) harmonies, drones (again, limited), and do all kinds of ornaments. In addition, the banjo has specific techniques, such as the roll which, like the double G in Archie's March, are all its own. And it is a very percussive instrument with a great deal of punch and drive, which really suits Irish music very well. I believe there is a great deal more exploration to be done into the possibilities of the banjo as an expressive instrument.

My banjo

My banjo is a 1917 Orpheum I bought from John Ellis in Ithaca, NY, with a new neck made by Al Worthen of Old Forge, NY, in 1976. (As it happens, he is the same guy who made Howie Bursen's banjo, which at the time I knew him I think was also an Orpheum with a new neck.) It has very low action and is very easy to play, making it in turn easy to play ornaments, since these require a lot of left-hand action. I feel obliged to point this out, because anyone trying to do the same thing on a banjo with a high action is likely to get frustrated unless they have very strong fingers.

2002 update

I wrote that as notes for a banjo workshop in...Ottawa? Ithaca?...about 1981, which as it turned out was shortly before I gave up performing full-time and became a writer. Howie, of course, is still playing, often with his wife, Sally Rogers. Having recorded the two-banjo version of "The Lark in the Morning", I never really liked it with only a solo banjo afterwards, so I switched to playing a different version of the tune with the same name, which I got off a record of Seamus Heaney playing Uillean pipes and telling the stories behind the tunes. That I've never recorded, but I hope I will sometime.

Still, "The Lark in the Morning" was a preliminary stab at defining the problem; that and other tunes I played when I was performing full-time had nowhere near the variations I'd have liked them to have.

Since then, certain limitations of the banjo have become more apparent to me, chiefly that it is a very poor session instrument. Most Irish music sessions play any given tune no more than twice, and then flit on to the next tune. This would be no problem except that musicians playing on fiddle, mandolin, guitar, and bodhran have no problem changing keys midstream, and so they do. This is not true for the banjo, which is typically retuned for different keys and may also require the player to add a capo (eg, to play in D, you typically play in open C tuning capoed up two; to play in G, you typically play in open G). Playing any given tune on a banjo has more in common with an engineering problem than it does with picking out a tune on a piano or fiddle. This means that an important part of the fun of Irish music -- playing in improvised sessions with other musicians -- is pretty much closed to the banjo player unless you can find a group who will accommodate its special needs. In my experience, such a group is uncommon. Plus, I don't know enough tunes well enough.

Wendy Grossman
March 7, 2002

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