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Clawhammer Ukulele
by Richard Hefner

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Since the original tutorial was done I made a 4-part video tutorial that contains about 45 minutes of instruction. I left the older tutorial intact below those videos, and also be sure to check out the links near the bottom of the page to more clawhammer uke tablature.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m including a video on how to read tablature in case you need help with the tabs...

 

 

 

 

Below is the older tutorial for clawhammer ukulele that was done prior to the videos above. Much of it is the same information, but in addition to the tutorial there are also links to the clawhammer uke tablatures that are on ezFolk, so be sure to check those out as well.

 

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As a clawhammer banjo player, one of the first things I noticed when I picked up a ukulele was that I was able to play it clawhammer style. That’s unusual because it’s the only instrument I’ve found (besides the banjo) that lends itself well to the clawhammer style of playing.

When you first try playing clawhammer style it will seem awkward, and maybe even a little weird. It’s possibly the only style of playing a stringed instrument in which all of the notes are plucked downward, either with your middle finger or thumb. Unlike standard fingerpicking in which you move your fingers to pluck the notes, in clawhammer you hold your hand partially closed and the only movement is in your wrist, much the same motion as knocking on a door. As odd as that sounds, once you get the basic motion down it’s easy, and it’s a great technique to learn because it not only adds a new dimension to your playing but it also adds a technique that will enable you to play many songs that you’re not able to play in other styles. Since it’s a combination of strumming and single string picking it can also sound much more complicated than it really is.

 

The Bum-Ditty 
The foundation of playing clawhammer ukulele is the "bum-ditty" strum. This is derived from the rhythm of the ukulele, 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. Notice in the example below the thumb plays only the 4th string.

Many songs can be played like this, with the thumb only playing the top string, and some clawhammer banjo players such as Grandpa Jones only use their thumb for the 5th string. However, the technique is enhanced considerably if you also learn to bring your thumb down to play the 2nd and 3rd strings in certain situations. This is most commonly called drop thumbing.

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.

 

 

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.

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.

The thumb should automatically go to the top string (4th string) as the strum is being made, all in the same motion. After the strum the hand pulls back slightly while the thumb plucks the 4th string. If you have a hard time visualizing this, think of the top of the uke 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. The hand is pulled back only slightly, no more than an inch or so off the strings.

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. Having said that, you’ll notice in my videos that I keep my hand a little more relaxed and not quite so rigid.

The technique for playing the single strings is basically the same as the beginning of the strum. Your hand position does not change. The thumb still goes to the 4th string for stability, but when your hand is pulled back (remember the door?) the thumb comes off the 4th string without making a sound. When playing an individual note on one of the inner strings (2nd or 3rd) the finger should come to rest on the string below it. For example, when plucking the 2nd string the back of 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.

 

Drop Thumbing 
Sometimes there are notes that you are just not able to get to unless you go down and play the 2nd or 3rd string with your thumb. In addition, this technique tends to add some nice variety to the sound of the clawhammer strum. It’s a little more difficult at first, but just like the bum-ditty it becomes a simple movement once it is mastered.

Practice the exercise below until you get a feel for it.

Most of the time your thumb will go to the 2nd string just as in the example above, but there are times that you will also play the 3rd string with your thumb. In the video example below, I wasn’t playing along with the above tablature so there are some strums in there as well, but the important thing is to observe how the thumb goes from the 2nd to the 4th string.

 

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Below are some example videos. The first ones have video of me playing them and the remainder have audio only. I was mostly improvising on the videos and not playing the exact arrangements but in each case what I played would be most similar to the Level 3 tab.

 

O Susanna

 

Tablature for O Susanna:

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Mountain Dew

 

Tablature for Mountain Dew:

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Under the Double Eagle

 

Tablature for Under the Double Eagle:

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Ukey Duel Dandy (similar to Dueling Banjos)

 

No tablature is currently available for Ukey Duel Dandy, but post a note in the forum if you’d like to see one and if there’s some interest I’ll do it.

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The examples below have audio only (no video). I intend to replace these with actual videos as soon as I get a chance.

 

John Henry

 

Tablature for John Henry:

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My Old Kentucky Home

 

Tablature for My Old Kentucky Home:

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My Dog Has Fleas

 

Tablature for My Dog Has Fleas:

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Big Rock Candy Mountain

 

Tablature for Big Rock Candy Mountain:

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Railroad Bill (with Tablature)

 

 

Cat’s in the Cradle

 

 

Will the Circle be Unbroken (with Tablature)

 

 

Under the Boardwalk

 

 

Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World