Exploring the Differences Between Clawhammer and Three-Finger Banjo with Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn

When new players decide to pick up the banjo, they're often faced with a key first decision: Are they going to play three-finger or clawhammer style? While both of these approaches to the instrument find origin in the same musical tradition, the actual playing techniques couldn't be more separate. It's rare, for example, to find individual players who operate in both schools. As banjo master Béla Fleck told us, "It's like the differences between a physicist and a painter."

When we recently had the chance to catch up with Mr. Fleck and Abigail Washburn, his musical partner and wife, the banjo team took us on a tour of both styles—showcasing Abigail's clawhammer background and Béla's three-finger heroics. Béla also took us on a brief tour of the variants within three-finger, including single-string and melodic styles, all of which you can see in the video above.

While chatting with Abigail and Béla, we were also treated to a performance of their song "Over the Divide," which you can watch in this second video. In this song, the couple's unique interplay between the two banjo techniques is on full display, with all the harmonic richness that entails.


When visiting with Reverb, Béla and Abigail also gave us their picks for the essential bluegrass and clawhammer banjo records. Check out that video and browse their choices over at Reverb LP.


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