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The “Bum-Ditty”

The video below explains the bum-ditty in detail...
 

 

When you're ready to progress from just playing the melody to playing the Level 1 arrangements, go for it. Remember, the melody arrangements are really just the bare skeleton of the song. Once you add the bum-ditty to the melody it starts sounding like an actual banjo tune. All of the Level 1 arrangements are simple enough for beginners to play. If you like one particular song better than the others, by all means, play that song as much as you like before doing other songs.

As you play the bum-ditty, keep in mind that in addition to playing the melody you are also strumming the chords, much like a rhythm guitar player plays chords. Be sure to pay careful attention to the chord changes that are written on top of the tablature. Most of the time the melody notes will be within the chord that you should be playing at the time, but sometimes you will need to move away from a particular chord position for certain notes. I know that sounds confusing, but the best way to clear it up is to start playing and figure out what needs to be done when something seems out of the ordinary.

The foundation of playing clawhammer banjo is the "bum-ditty" strum. This is derived from the rhythm of the banjo, with each measure sounding like "bum-ditty bum-ditty" or, when counted, "<one>, <two and>, <three>, <four and>," with the first and third beats of the measure being quarter notes and the second and fourth beats each being a two-part strum consisting of two eighth notes.

I don't want to oversimplify the bum-ditty, as it is probably the single most important element in playing the clawhammer style, but I don't want to make it sound overly complicated either -- it's not that difficult. Basically I believe it is just a matter of learning the basic stroke, then practicing it a few thousand times until it becomes second nature. Of course, your practice comes as you are playing your choice of the songs found elsewhere on this site.

 

The two pictures above should give you an idea of how your right hand should look. The first picture shows the right hand position as the strings as strummed. The second picture shows the hand after the strum.

The bum-ditty can be broken down into these three simple movements:

  1. BUM -- Play one of the first 4 strings with your middle (or index) finger. This is a quarter note.
  2. DIT -- Strum with the back of your middle (or index) fingernail. This is an eighth note.
  3. TY -- Pluck the 5th string with your thumb. This is an eighth note.

Following are some general observations regarding this:

  • The strum is accomplished using the back of the fingernail of one finger only -- either the middle finger or the index finger. Try it both ways and pick the one that suits you best. In the picture I am using my middle finger. If you use your index finger it should be tucked in a little more so that it is even the other fingers (more like a fist). Some people are adamant that using the index finger is the only proper way to go, and that the index finger gives you more control and volume. They may be right, but there have been quite a few good players to use their middle finger instead, so I think the argument can be made either way.
     
  • The thumb should automatically go to the top string (5th string) as the strum (DIT) is being made, all in the same motion. After the strum the hand pulls back slightly while the thumb plucks the 5th string (TY). If you have a hard time visualizing this, think of the top of the banjo as a door and make a motion like you are knocking on the door. The movement is very similar. Note that when knocking on the door, the forearm does not move, but rather the hand is bent at the wrist. Comparing the second picture with the first should give you an idea of this motion. The hand is pulled back only slightly, no more than an inch or so off the strings. In the Level 1 and Level 2 arrangements, the thumb always plays just the 5th string. In the Level 3 arrangements the thumb drops down and plays other strings as well.
     
  • Except for the bending at the wrist, the hand is basically held rigid. The position of the fingers should remain in a claw-like position, letting all of the movement be done with the wrist.
     
  • The technique for playing the single strings (BUM) is basically the same as the beginning of the strum. Your hand position does not change. The thumb still goes to the 5th string for stability, but when your hand is pulled back (remember the door?) the thumb comes off the 5th string without making a sound. When playing an individual note on one of the inner strings (2nd, 3rd, or 4th) the finger should come to rest on the string below it. For example, when plucking the 2nd string your finger should then come to rest on the 1st string, and so on. Of course, when songs are played at normal tempo this is hardly (if at all) noticeable because it is so quick, but it does make a difference.