There are many great clawhammer banjo players out there, but we’ve compiled a list of the 10 best. This list is based on skill, technique, and overall prowess on the instrument.
The banjo is a stringed instrument that has been around for centuries. Though it was once considered a rural instrument, the banjo has made its way into the mainstream music industry, with various styles and players emerging over the years.
Clawhammer banjo playing is characterized by striking the strings with the back of your fingernail, then strumming them with your thumb.
The name comes from the claw-like shape your fingers must be in to play this style. This method of playing creates a mellow boom-chick-a sound synonymous with old-time music and is usually played on an open-backed banjo.
In this blog post, we will take a look at some of the best clawhammer banjo players out there. Whether you are just starting out or you are looking to learn more about this unique style of music, this list is sure to get you started!
Without further ado, here are the top 10 clawhammer banjo players!
Top Clawhammer Banjo Players
#1 Dock Boggs
The legendary Dock Boggs (1898 –1971) played the banjo with both clawhammer, and up-picking styles. He was a fantastic musician playing either way, and so deserves recognition on this list.
His had a distinctive style which mixed the sounds of Appalachian folk music and African American blues.
A self-taught musician, Dock Boggs used unique banjo tunings and playing techniques to create a highly emotive banjo sound all his own, that many musicians have since cited as inspiration.
Ironically Boggs worked as a miner for most of his life. Initially discovered in the 1920’s, he recorded a few songs under Brunswick and Lonesome Ace records, before the inroads of the Great Depression prematurely ended his career.
He was rediscovered in the folk revival of the 1960’s and began performing again.
#2 Ralph Stanley
Stanley (1927 – 2016) was a bluegrass musician who performed both with his older brother Carter, as The Stanley Brothers, and then as leader of his band, The Clinch Mountain Boys.
After getting his first banjo at age sixteen, he learned to play in the traditional clawhammer style from his mother, before adapting it to make it his own.
The ‘Stanley Style’ – as it is sometimes called – is characterized by extremely rapid forward rolls guided by the index finger, which gives the strings a crisp, articulate snap when played.
Stanley was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor and became the first person inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in the 21st Century.
#3 Doc Watson
A very influential banjo player, Doc Watson was a major part of the American folk music revival in the 1960s.
Blind from the age of two, he played his banjo by touch and sound alone, pioneering his own, unique hard-driving sound. Over his career, won seven Grammy awards as well as a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
He played both in the clawhammer and finger picking style but is best known for his unique work with the former. Performing first solo, then with his son, Merle, and bass player T. Michael Coleman, he toured the globe, recording nearly fifteen albums between 1973 and 1985.
He even teamed up with the legendary banjo player, Earl Scruggs in 1994, for the AIDS benefit album Red Hot + Country.
#4 Abigail Washburn
Abigail is one of the modern heroes of clawhammer banjo playing.
She mixes the very traditional, bluegrass sound picked up touring with bands like Uncle Earl, with a tinge of traditional Asian music, picked up on from frequent travels to China, to create a unique and beautiful sound all her own.
Her latest album, a self-titled work with musician Wu Fei (composer and guzheng virtuoso) perfectly melds old-style Chinese and Appalachian folk tunes.
She has released several albums, some solo or with collaborators, some with her own band, Sparrows Quartet, and two with her husband, renowned banjo player Béla Fleck, the first of with earned the 2016 Grammy for Best Folk Album.
#5 Carolina Chocolate Drops
This old-time string band from Carolina is dedicated to excavating and celebrating the African American influence and contributions to old-time and bluegrass music, which are often overlooked.
The members all exchange and play a variety of instruments, including the banjo, but founding member Rhiannon Giddens is a past-master of the old-time clawhammer style.
Altogether, the band has created five CDs and one EP, as well as conducting live performances all over the United States.
Their 2010 album, Genuine Negro Jig, won the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album. The Carolina Chocolate Drops have not performed together regularly since 2014.
#6 Wade Ward
Ward (1892 – 1971) was an old-time banjo player from Virginia who for many embodies the clawhammer style of banjo playing. Despite being a master on the banjo, Ward lived a quiet life, making most of his living as a farmer.
He was part of the Buck Mountain Band, and later the Bog Trotters string band, performing throughout their local area.
They frequently played at, and won, the Galax, Virginia Old Time Fiddler’s Convention. Playing there was how Wade was discovered by folklorist John A. Lomax in 1937, who made the first recordings of Wade for the Library of Congress,
As the folk boom occurred in the 1950s and 60s, his recordings began to gain fame across America, and he began to perform again around the country.
#7 Allison de Groot
Allison is one of the most innovator players of modern clawhammer banjo, constantly creating fresh, and distinctive sounds.
She has collaborated with many artists over her career including touring with Molsky’s Mountain Drifters and the cross-genre, powerful all-female group The Goodbye Girls.
Her latest collaboration with Tatiana Hargreaves, which mixed traditional string, folk music with modern influences, won Best Bluegrass Album from the Independent Music Awards.
Allison says she loves clawhammer style because she is drawn to its rhythm, how bouncy yet driving it can sound.
#8 Steve Martin
Yes, Steve Martin the comedian, is also an amazing banjo player. After learning the banjo at a young age, Martin at first only played it publicly during his stand-up comedy sets.
Later, however, he began to make appearances with several bluegrass bands, and produce his own albums.
All in all, Steve Martin has won five Grammy awards for his banjo playing, including the award for for Best Bluegrass Album in 2010.
The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo was Martins first all-music album production and included features from huge country and bluegrass music stars such as Dolly Parton.
In 2010, he created the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, designed to reward amazing new artists, and help bring an often-overlooked genre to greater prominence.
#9 Kyle Creed
Kyle Creed (1912–1982) was an influential musician in the Roundpeak-style of old-time music, and a master of the clawhammer banjo style.
Creed’s unique playing style of performing the right-hand movement over the highest frets of the fretboard instead of right above the banjo head has been particularly influential to modern-day players.
He won the Galax Old Time Fiddler’s Convention for several consecutive years. He recorded both individually and with the Camp Creek Boys band.
Creed also worked as a luthier (a stringed instrument craftsman), and his limited run of banjos are much prized amongst modern-day banjo aficionados.
#10 Adam Hurt
Hurt is one of the most exacting, and musically satisfying clawhammer banjo players alive today. He is an innovative master of the craft, able to apply it both to the old-time and bluegrass tunes, as well as suit it to more modern genres.
His crossover appeal is evident in the 5 albums he has produced so far.
His skill is evidenced in all the old-time banjo competitions he has won or placed in, including Clifftop, Mount Airy, and Galax. He also won the state banjo championships of Virginia, West Virginia, and Ohio.
He also teaches the banjo, passing on the clawhammer style to the next generation.