FINALLY! An instructional video that starts from the beginning! This two dvd set, Clawhammer Banjo From Scratch begins at the beginning and assumes NO knowledge of how to play the five string banjo clawhammer style.
Disc 1 Begins at the beginning. Dan presents a brief history of the 5-string banjo then goes over the parts of the banjo, holding the banjo, right and left hand styles and his basic clawhammer strum. Using one tune, Spotted Pony, you are guided through the chords, the scale then the individual notes of the tune in its basic double thumb format.
Disc 2 starts where disc 1 leaves off. First you will capo up to double D tuning, review the basics of the Double Thumb Pony, then head off into the banjo world by learning to drop thumb, hammer–on, pull–off and slide your way into the Full Blown Pony. That’s where we make it a fully functional jam session tune.
Each of the techniques that make Old Time Southern Appalachian Clawhammer Banjo music an exciting banjo style is taught then applied to the tune in easy to learn segments. At the end of each disc, you are even given a chance to play banjo with the fiddle and guitar just like in a real jam session.
If you have been looking to know all there is to learn about playing clawhammer banjo, this 2 DVD set is for you. If you want to learn to drop thumb, hammer–on, pull–off and more, this is the one for you, too! When you finish these discs, you’ll be playing at jam session pace and have all the tools you need to make any tune your own.
Disc 1 Recorded and mastered at Cedar Glade Studios; Lebanon, Tennessee Disc 2 Recorded and mastered at J. David Wells Studio in Lynchburg, Virginia DVD’s authored by Joe Loesch at Creative License, Inc. in Nashville, Tennessee Wrap sheet by Crooked Cove in New Hampshire Originally two separate discs, Buzzard 5001 & 5002 are now combined into one package as Mel Bay 5003DVD
Review of Dan Levenson’s banjo instruction video “Clawhammer From Scratch” DVD by “Bubba Hutch” for Banjo Newsletter
Once in a while a really outstanding banjo instruction video makes it to market. This is one of those rare instances. Why such a rave about a raw beginner’s instructional video? Because it fills a gap in the market that has been there for a very, very long time. I would compare Dan’s video favorably to the landmark “How To Play The Five String Banjo” record and book by Pete Seeger. When this appeared on the market about 40 years ago, it a major impact on the banjo playing scene because it was virtually the only instruction book/record available to all those that had fallen in love with banjo music but could not find a way to learn to play. And today, while there are some excellent book/tab combinations and videos about playing various styles of clawhammer banjo, I have found none which really addresses the needs of the true novice. This video, “Clawhammer From Scratch,” truly does and does it in a very delightful way.
Armed with this video, someone with no prior banjo experience (or even string instrument experience) could set up, tune and begin to coherently play clawhammer style banjo. Once the contents of this video were mastered, the aspiring player could then reasonably go on to more advanced video instruction offerings such as those provided by Happy Traum’s Homespun Tapes collection of instructional banjo videos.
Dan has a very good grounding in music and music instruction. Raised in a musical family, Dan has been at it in one form or another most of his life. And in the mid 90’s he decided to leave the traditional workplace and earn his living as a banjo performer and instructor. Dan made four albums with his band, the Boiled Buzzards, a dual album of Chinese-American traditional tunes with Kim Murley and a wonderful instructional CD and book from Mel Bay, “Buzzard Banjo.” Dan has led workshops around the country and, for the last 3 years or so, has been conducting “Meet The Banjo” mini-workshops (supported by Deering Banjos) where new players are provided with a simple banjo and taught the basics of Clawhammer and Bluegrass style over a 3 hour period. This has been so successful that Dan recently went to Brazil to lead such a workshop in Sao Paulo. So, when it comes to knowing and meeting the needs of newcomers to the clawhammer banjo, Dan is a master.
Dan begins the video with a brief, concise history of the banjo and then moves on to describing the key parts of the banjo. He then spends a bit time on how to comfortably hold and play the banjo, reminding the viewer that these are suggestions based upon what works for Dan and that each person has to find their own personal method for holding and playing the banjo.
He then presents significant detail about tuning the banjo and then demonstrates how to use two different electronic tuners to tune the banjo to the proper key, Double-C (gCGCD) in this case. This is time well-spent as properly tuning an instrument is one of the biggest challenges to a new player.
Dan then goes into how to use the right hand to properly execute the down-stroke, clawhammer style. He covers using either the index or middle finger for the downstroke and how to hold the hand and arm to properly brush across the strings. He also adds an example practicing the proper rhythm and action on muted strings. He breaks down the right-hand frailing motion into very discreet components that can be easily practiced and leave little doubt about how to execute the clawhammer strokes with the right arm and hand.
The use of the left hand is the next topic. He demonstrates how to hold the neck with the hand and make some basic chords. He provides some detail about how one would fret or finger a note to make it happen. A discussion of rhythm, consistency and speed follows. Dan demonstrates the use of a metronome, which is truly essential to developing the proper timing in the clawhammer style.
Thus far, Dan has only presented the brush of the hand across the strings. He now adds the use of the thumb. He spends significant time in building on the previous material and then how one sounds the fifth string using the thumb without ‘plucking’ the string, a common mistakes made by many beginners. He then demonstrates the use of the brush-thumb with the chord.
The failing of many introductory lessons is that they cover too many songs at too high a level. And the tunes normally presented are really common stock – Cripple Creek, Old Joe Clark, etc. Dan presents only one tune, Spotted Pony. This is a really cool tune. It is still one of my favorites that I play regularly. So, while only one song is presented, it is a good song that is covered in enough detail to learn all the key elements of the clawhammer style that one needs to learn to sound like a competent banjo player.
Finally, Dan adds the downstroke with the index/middle finger and adds it to the brush/thumb version of Spotted Pony that has been presented thus far. He now delves into noting individual strings with the downstroke, followed by a thumbed fifth string combination…again, exactly how we really play tunes in the real world. He presents a set of examples going first sting to fourth string and then reverse order.
The antipenultimate exercise is to play the C scale in double-C tuning using the downstroke-fifth string thumb combination. Very simple, very quick – and exactly what the player needs to be able to play Spotted Pony through with clarity and ease.
Finally, Dan presents the tune, Spotted Pony, in its final form. He begins with playing through part A at a normal speed and then breaking it down into measures at a slow speed. He follows up with the B part and then the whole tune. During the process, there are copius repeats of each section at a very slow speed.
Dan wraps it up with an example of playing in a mirror to see how you are playing and to judge your position and technique versus that presented in the video and some good, practical advice on how to move forward. The closing moments and credits are presented to the tune “Spotted Pony” played only on guitar and fiddle, giving the student a realistic setting to practice what they have learned by playing along. What a nice touch!
What is it that makes this video so special? It is professionally done; it is delivered with a very warm, understandable style; it delivers its content in useful ‘chunks’ that speed up learning; and, most importantly, it presents good information and tips that are usually only available with one-on-one instruction from a master player/instructor. There is nothing else to match it on the market. While most BNL subscribers won’t need this video for themselves, if the reader is a banjo teacher or simply has a friend who would like to learn to play clawhammer banjo, this is the video for that purpose. I can say without reservation that this video would have saved me literally years of effort and frustration!
From Bluegrass Unlimited – August 2004 by R. Buckingham
DVD Set – Clawhammer Banjo From Scratch Mel Bay 5003 DVD (Formerly Volumes 1 and 2 DVD’s – Buzzard 5001 and 5002 respectively)
Dan Levenson has produced a pair of DVDs that teach the basics of the clawhammer style. He only attempts to teach one tune, “Spotted Pony,” and systematically sets out to explain the how of clawhammer playing, with a lot of banjo history along the way.
Dan has the viewer tune the banjo to double C tuning. Then, using tab, Dan gets the beginning player to strum the chords in double C tuning. The methods Dan uses for building left-hand techniques are a strong point in this course. The next step has the student strumming chords, followed by the thumb on the fifth string. While not yet a real clawhammer stroke, we are building our way to it. Then Dan uses the same approach that he used in his earlier book, Buzzard Banjo, for Mel Bay. He effectively adds exercises to build left- and right-hand coordination for getting melody notes, and he ties that to scale exercises. By the end of the first video, the player should be conversant with single thumbing and basic scales.
On the second video, we start getting into the meat of the matter. There is a chordal drop-thumb exercise and more scales. If you are going to learn to play melodically, scales are essential. With more coaching and cajoling, Dan gets the student through a basic version of “Spotted Pony” by a technique that all accomplished players know. That technique involves breaking the tune down into parts-learn each part and then put them together. Once you have the basic version down, he moves on to the full-blown version. All of this material is broken down in the accompanying booklet, measure by measure.
Why Dan picked “Spotted Pony,” a middle level tune, as a vehicle to teach may be based upon his personal experience. My guess is that the tune uses the scale in a sequential manner in the low part, and the developmental possibilities of the tune are rich. This two-DVD set is recommended to folks who do not have a clawhammer banjo teacher within driving distance, or for those brave souls who would venture into these waters on their own. It is of utmost importance to tell you that there is a wealth of material presented here that will not be covered in two weeks (well, maybe if you don’t sleep or eat.) But this package does about as good a job as any non-interactive media can do. The setup of the DVD chapters makes it an audio/visual textbook on banjo basics. The accompanying sheets provide some tab for your reference as well. RCB