While I'm still in the throes of moving houses (ugh...for some reason I thought doing this a little bit at a time would be less stressful), I feel a bit negligent for skipping the blog last week; I'm therefore making time for it this weekend. For today's post I'm tackling "the cluck," a sometimes-maligned percussive maneuver favored by many so-called "modern" clawhammer players (myself included). Let's get started!
What is the cluck and how do you do it?
Most readers of this blog likely know what I'm talking about already, but for good measure: the cluck is a percussive sound accomplished by the right hand (for a right-handed player that is...). The sound is something like a "chimey" click, like you're snapping along to the beat with a little bit of resonance (sound examples to follow).
As for how to do it - well, to be honest, while I can pull a cluck out of just about any banjo (in fact, I'm usually fighting to dial back my clucks), I have a hard time explaining how to do it when people ask. What I can tell you is that, while I play melody notes with my index finger, I cluck with my ring and middle fingers (kind of simultaneously). I have very short fingernails on those two fingers so its mostly skin hitting the strings, which may or may not be important. The motion moves across the strings faster than a brush and actually involves a little kind of twist/flick of my wrist. I also hit mostly the top 2 or 3 strings rather than all 5. If that's not enough info for you to get a cluck out of your own banjo, there are some really great tutorials on youtube (in particular one "rocket science banjo" video featuring Tony Spadaro) that can likely be of more assistance.
Things that affect the sound of the cluck
First off, setup matters. As readers may know, I'm pretty finicky about head tension (here) and banjos with properly tightened heads certainly have louder clucks than those with looser heads. The Buckeye (here) has a pretty wild cluck at a head tension of 90ish and above - in fact the clucks kind of dwarf the melody notes at that setting, which is one reason that I really like to keep the head dialed back to 88 or 89.
The other thing that really affects the intensity of the cluck is where you do it. The type of cluck that rings across an open field/parking lot/etc. for most banjos lives around the 19th fret. In fact, I got the buckeye scooped to the 15th fret just so I'd have plenty of room to hit this location with all of my might. There is a natural harmonic at the 19th fret that likely propels clucks forward at this locale. If you're having trouble clucking, you might try moving your efforts to the 19th fret sweet spot.
However, you don't have to be there to cluck - you can cluck over the head and further up the neck. Below, I've included a picture of the Buckeye and some corresponding sound files - I've marked out 4 places on the neck and recorded myself clucking (just a basic bum-ditty with brushes switched out for clucks) at all 4 of them.
Figure 1 - A picture of the Buckeye taken in the apartment I just moved out of (nostalgia!). I've marked 4 places on the neck/over the head that correspond to where I cluck in the sound files below. Note that these locations indicate where the cluck happens - my melody notes (i.e. the "bums" in the bums-ditty below) are played a fret (or imaginary fret) or two up the neck with my index finger.
Examples 1 and 2 - Over the neck clucking. Example 1 (left, above) is clucking at the 12th fret, while Example 2 (right, above) is clucking at the 19th fret. The 19th fret is my go-to spot.
Examples 3 and 4 - Over the head clucking. Example 3 (left, above) is clucking just over the head. In fact, I'm trying to play with my index finger at the head-to-pot joint and cluck just below that so I may have aimed the arrow a little low in Figure 1. Example 4 (right, above) is clucking about halfway between the head-to-pot joint and the bridge.
As you can tell, all of these clucks sound just a bit different. In general, theres a bit of a rounder/more-bassy/darker sound as you move up the neck, and a sharper/more-trebley/brighter sound as you mover towards the bridge. This is the same pattern that melody notes follow when played over the neck or towards the bridge and likely also has something to do with the harmonics/overtones that one finds at these locations. The clucks in Examples 2 and 3 sound pretty good to my ear but those in Examples 1 and 4 are not that usable (Example 1 is a bit weak, and Example 4 I find a bit annoying).
When to cluck
As I learned in a recent post on banjo hangout (here), when to use the cluck (if ever!) is a contentious issue amongst banjo players! However, as with most things banjo, this is obviously a matter of opinion and theres really no wrong answer about when to cluck.
My position on the matter can be summed up as follows: I freaking love clucks. The percussive side of the banjo is one of the things that attracted me to it in the first place and up-the-neck clucky playing is really one of my favorite banjo styles to listen to. I've also gotten to a place in my playing where my clucks are fairly non-optional - I don't really do a lot of index-finger brushing these days so I either put clucks or ghost notes where my brushes would normally go - I could likely work on breaking myself of this habit...but I don't wanna. I control the intensity of my clucks by dialing back my right hand force and/or moving around where I strike (as shown in figure 1 and the sound files above). That being said, clucks don't always play a huge role in my playing. For example, my version of "Yew Piney Mountain" (which I've talked about here) includes only a few (what I deem to be tasteful) clucks:
Example 5 - "Yew Piney Mountain" played on the Buckeye with just a few clucks : )
The anti-cluck crowd seems to think that clucks are either 1) over-used by many players or 2) non-authentic. In the over-use camp, some players tend to cluck on every available off-beat (i.e.the 2nd and 4th of every measure). This constant off-beat clucking is a lot like mandolin chopping in bluegrass, which I guess is the complaint people have about it. I don't actually have too much of a problem with this (in fact playing with a chop-heavy mandolin player is actually kind of fun) but I suppose I can understand the desire to keep old time weird : ). Some players would rather not emphasize the off-beat at all, and I guess these voices would be anti bum-ditty as well. As for the authenticity, I quibble with this a bit: while clucking may not be a mainstay of every clawhammer source recording, you can definitely find clucking in Fred Cockerham's playing...he probably got it from somewhere. Perhaps it is more prevalent these days and thats the issue? Maybe its something about putting Fred Cockerham technique into Hobart Smith tunes (for example)?
Overall, I think there's room in Old Time for a lot of different banjo styles - so I say put clucks wherever you like. However, you may want to learn how to keep them under control in case you get the stink eye for being over-clucky in a jam : )
As always, thanks for reading! Next week I'm off to Clifftop (!!) - hopefully I'll have time for a quick post first....
About this blog
I have lots of ideas about banjo playing and music in general - this blog allows me to get them all out of my head and see what you think.