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You could theoretically play clawhammer style on any banjo, but some features of the instrument will be better-suited to the technique than others. Generally speaking, you want to look for an instrument with an open back design. In terms of the fretboard and string set-up, most players find it most comfortable to get an instrument with a relatively low action and a scooped neck.
If you’re a clawhammer player looking to buy a new instrument, check out the four options below, all of which will provide you with the sound and feel you’re looking for. They’re the best clawhammer banjos on the market.
Gold Tone WL-250 White Ladye Open
The Gold Tone company was founded relatively recently, by luthier standards; they designed and sold their first banjo in 1993, and though they’ve had a small and dedicated following since that first release, their name has only recently gained national acclaim among bluegrass and folk musicians.
The White Ladye is their most popular open back model. It uses an accurate replica of the 3-part white ladye tone ring, with a ½” rim to maximize volume (see full specs). Combined with the 11” Remo High Crown Renaissance head, this gives the instrument a punchy, bright tone that’s perfect for folk players.
The neck is constructed of maple with an ebony fingerboard and it uses a Fairbanks headstock with GT master tuners. The dual coordinator rods give the neck a solid fit and make it easy to adjust, while the 5/8 bridge puts the strings at the ideal height for a clawhammer technique.
Recording King RK-OT25-BR Madison Banjo
The Madison Banjo is designed with traditional players in mind, and since the clawhammer style is most often used by those looking for that old school sound, that makes it the perfect fit for that playing technique. It’s an open-back design that uses a steam-bent maple rim and a 24 bracket tension hoop that’s made of nickel-plated brass. It uses a Remo FiberSkyn head that gives your tone a distinctive vintage sound, with punch on the attacks and clarity on the sustain.
The vintage feel comes through in other details, as well, like the no-knot presto tailpiece and scooped rosewood fingerboard. The hardware is nickel with a bone nut and a two-way adjustable truss rod—details that make this instrument comfortable to play and easy to keep in tune. While it’s built for old-school players, the quality of the tone make it great for any genre and playing style, and the hide head and pearl dot inlays on the rosewood fingerboard give it a lot of aesthetic appeal. This is among the best clawhammer banjos period.
Gretsch G9540 Dixie
The Gretsch Dixie banjo brings you an open-back design and authentic, traditional tone for less than $250. It uses mahogany for the neck and rim and rosewood for the fingerboard, and like the models above is designed to be played comfortably using the traditional clawhammer style, with relatively low action and geared tuners to keep your intonation steady throughout your playing session.
It gives you a scooped neck for frailing and uses a Remo Fiber Skin head that combines with the open back to give you a rich sound that’s clear but not too bright. Just because it’s affordable doesn’t mean it skimps on the construction quality, either. This is a solid instrument that’s equally at home on the professional stage as it is in the student’s practice room, with the versatility to work in a wide array of musical styles and genres.
Though the open-back is traditional to clawhammer players, it’s not a necessary component of the playing style. Bluegrass players especially may find they miss the extra volume boost their sound gets from the resonator on a closed-back banjo. This Pyle model is a great option, with white jade tuners and a maple bridge that give you a relatively low action, great for the clawhammer style.
The traditional binding and Remo M1 head give you a classic twanging tone that’s punchy on the attack. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this Pyle banjo is the price, which at less than $150 is incredibly affordable. This makes it the perfect choice for either a beginning player or as an alternate instrument for those who usually play on an open-back banjo but occasionally need the extra power imparted by the resonator. If you’re budget-minded, this is likely the best clawhammer banjo you can find.
Which Banjo’s Right for Me?
All four of the instruments on the list above will work wonderfully with the clawhammer (frailing banjo) style in terms of playing technique. Your main deciding factors will be the exact sound quality you’re going for and the price range you’re able to work within. As mentioned above, open-back models are generally a bit pricier than closed-back for the same level of sound quality. If price is a limiting factor, you may find it serves you best to get the Pyle listed above (or the Gretch Dixie, if you’re on the quest for an open-back banjo that won’t put too big a dent in your bank account).
If money isn’t a major concern, think about what kind of a sound you want out of your instrument. An open-backed model will give you a softer, mellower sound, while a closed-back banjo will be brighter and louder. Players in mountain or folk genres tend to prefer an open-back instrument played in the clawhammer style, whereas most bluegrass players prefer the twangier, louder sound of a closed-back or resonator banjo.
Aside from this main stylistic difference, the materials used in the construction of the head and rim will affect how the banjo ultimately sounds. Listen to the models on this list in action and decide which one comes closest to your ideal sound, then you’ll find the best clawhammer banjo for your own tastes. If you’re still not sure which one you’re looking for, the closed-back option might be the best one for you, giving you more flexibility for a variety of genres. Good luck!