The Clawhammer Fingerpicking Technique

While there are many different patterns you can play when fingerpicking your guitar, this one is going to be more useful to you than any other.

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Ultimate Guitar
The Clawhammer Fingerpicking Technique
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While there are many different patterns you can play when fingerpicking your guitar, there is one in particular that is going to be more useful to you than any other. This is because you will be able to use it over and over again to play literally thousands of songs!

Before we begin, it is important to note that you will find what it is I am going to teach you today a lot easier to do, if you already have basic fingerpicking skills. If you are new to this style, check out an article/video lesson I created on how to fingerpick your guitar first, before going any further.

The pattern we will look at today is sometimes referred to as the clawhammer fingerpicking pattern, or travispicking. If you know anything about travispicking you will realise there is much more to this style of playing guitar than this pattern offers alone. Yes, there are elements of travispicking, but it is not travispicking in the strictest sense. The clawhammer name derives from a banjo technique. It is not really this either, but is related so is often referred to by this name.

Let’s face it, who cares what you call it. This pattern is going to enable you to fingerpick your way through many songs, and sound different all the time. For the sake of today’s article I will refer to this fingerpicking pattern as the clawhammer technique.

Songs such as “Dust In The Wind” by Kansas, “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac, and “The Boxer” by Simon and Garfunkel, are just a few examples of songs that use this fingerpicking pattern throughout.

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The Clawhammer Fingerpicking Technique

The driving force behind this fingerpicking pattern is the bass, always falling on the beat. It also serves as a reference point, as you will soon see, and is plucked with the thumb of your picking hand.

Let’s start by looking at the bass in isolation, applied to a C major open chord.

Here it is:

The bass in the example above is made up of the root note (C) on the 5th string, and the 3rd of the chord (E) on the 4th string. I am alternating between these two notes on each beat of the bar.

Next, you simply pluck some higher notes of the chord in-between the bass note hits, on the off beats of the bar. Here is a common clawhammer fingerpicking pattern doing exactly that on our C open chord:

This is the clawhammer fingerpicking pattern. It’s that simple! You have the bass that is always on the beat, while you pick notes higher in the chord on the offbeats (in-between the hits of your bass notes). This is why the bass acts as a great reference point as it is consistently on the beat. If you know where the on beat is, the off beat is easy to find/feel.

The bass in the example above is known as a 5 4 5 4 pattern in reference to the strings the notes fall on, as well as in which order.

A variation of this pattern is what’s known as a 5 4 6 4 bass. Here is that pattern in isolation:

Notice I now have a bass note on the 6th string as part of my pattern. This brings a little more movement to the bass component of the clawhammer fingerpicking pattern.

Here is the 5 4 6 4 bass pattern complete with hits on the higher notes of my C chord in-between, on the off beats:

You are fine to use either the 5 4 5 4 or 5 4 6 4 bass patterns with your clawhammer fingerpicking. One may suit more than the other in certain situations. The 5 4 6 4 is a little more challenging so take your time with it and perhaps get the 5 4 5 4 down first.

The great thing now is you can take this fingerpicking pattern and apply it to any chord you like. Here it is applied to a G major open chord:

Notice how I had to adjust the bass pattern to fit the G chord. This is because the root of the chord is on the 6th string while the root of our C chord was on the 5th string. With the clawhammer pattern you want to always start it from the root note.

So the bass for the G chord above is a 6 4 6 4 pattern, again in reference to the strings the notes fall on. Apart from that, I am plucking the same strings as I did for my C chord previously.

We could also vary the bass for the G chord, like we did the C, and make it a 6 4 5 4 pattern, like so:

Applying The Clawhammer Fingerpicking Pattern

The next step is to apply the clawhammer pattern to a chord progression. Before doing so however, be sure you have got the pattern down with isolated chords first, as demonstrated above.

Assuming you have, here now is one example of applying the clawhammer fingerpicking pattern to a progression:

Learn the above example well, but don’t stop there. The key is always in application, so take this fingerpicking pattern you have learned today and apply it over and over again to all sorts of different chord progressions.

In doing so, you will truly master the pattern and develop the ability to effortlessly use it in your own guitar playing.

About the author:

Having helped countless amounts of people both locally and around the world with their guitar playing, Simon Candy specialises in all things acoustic guitar. Particularly fluent in the styles of Rock, Blues, Jazz, And Fingerpicking, Simon teaches both locally in his hometown of Melbourne, Australia, as well as offering online tuition for acoustic guitar

 

47 comments sorted by best / new / date

    flatwound
    Have tried and failed at fingerpicking for ten years or more. This lesson has inspired me to have another determined attempt. Great lesson, plain, simple, and very clear. Superb.
    Simon Candy
    That's great flatwound! Just take it one small step at a time, and be sure to watch the video that I mention and link to in the video and the article above to get a strong technical foundation for fingerpicking. Definitely let me know how you go
    triface
    The hardest part of fingerpicking is being able to get clear sounds and not mute out notes you want to be ringing. Once you get that down, you can do anything you want. Use the clawhammer. Make your own. Do a straight quarter note pattern if you're feeling boring. Maybe throw in some unexpected eighths in there.
    farmsimcrazy1
    Great lesson! If I remember right, Jerry Reed used this picking pattern extensively in most of his faster songs. 
    Simon Candy
    Thanks farmsimcrazy1! Jerry Reed probably used variations of this pattern for sure, but he also used a tonne of banjo rolls and similar techniques too. He had quite a unique approach to the guitar. Love his playing!
    foreverMoR
    This is absolutely brilliant! Thank you Simon. Was looking forward to another fingerpicking article but this surpassed my expectations! Thank you!!!
    Agar4life
    Great lesson! Weirdly, this was one of the first techniques I learned when starting the guitar - funnily it came more naturally than most other techniques! I had no idea that is what this style was called. More songs with the same fingerpicking to keep you guys going/inspired: Eddie Vedder - Tuolumne Eddie Vedder - Guaranteed Pearl Jam - Just Breathe
    Vermilion314159
    I learned this as "Travis Picking"? Or is Travis Picking specifically when the soprano and bass of the chord are played simultaneously at the beginning of the pattern?
    Simon Candy
    It is very similar to travis picking, however there is much more to travis picking than what I present in this video. For one, travis picking is done with a thumb pick and you mute the bass for the most part do the harmony and melody parts stand out in contrast. This also puts your picking hand on a different angle to the strings as a result.
    EtotheG
    This is pretty neat, the one thing i really struggled with when learning fingerpicking was patterns. These patterns sound great! 
    jeremydolby
    Nice fingerpicking, but it's not clawhammer.  Brits confuse the two for some reason.  They are opposites; see a great video of real clawhammer here:
    Simon Candy
    Thanks for posting jeremydolby. Yes, I did make the point in the video (in the introduction) that it is not truly the clawhammer technique but for the sake of simplicity I would refer to it as the clawhammer throughout the video. I am Australian by the way
    FryingPan9
    This is a great lesson!  I learned the picking pattern for "Dust in the Wind" about 36 years ago. Now I know it's got a lot more uses than for just that song.
    Simon Candy
    Awesome FryingPan9! I have a follow up to this lesson that will be released in the near future that will allow you to take and use this fingerpicking pattern much further in your guitar playing