Clawhammer is one name for a fingerstyle guitar technique—a way of plucking the strings with the thumb and fingers of the right hand. It differs from classical guitar technique in the angle of the fingers and because frequently only the thumb, index, and middle finger of the right hand are used (the action of the two fingers resembling the movement of a clawhammer as it pulls out nails). The little finger is often pressed against the soundboard of the guitar to support the fingers. Three finger styles are also common.
Clawhammer styles were also used by early banjo pickers. Country and folk blues music for guitar often uses clawhammer techniques. One of the leading exponents,who disseminated the style widely through the Sixties blues and folk revival was the Rev Gary Davis. Sam McGhee was an early white country picker. The style was adapted and modernised by the likes of Nashville player and record producer Chet Atkins and is used today by rock star Mark Knopfler. Many leading exponents of "hot" country guitar have adapted the technique to the electric instrument by using a plectrum between thumb and forefinger and using middle and third (ring) fingers to pluck the strings.Albert Lee is a prime exponent of this approach. Clawhammer variants are common in many world music styles, but it remains in its purest form an acoustic folk or blues technique—James Taylor has adapted the technique to the pop market while it is still a prime rhythm technique of the Nashville studios.
Clawhammer often relates specifically to a method of playing the five-string banjo. Unlike Scrugs style, in which strings are picked individually using the thumb, index, and middle fingers, in clawhammer playing the melody string is picked downwards with the nail of the index or middle finger, followed by a strum using the same nail, after which the shorter fifth string is picked using the thumb.
Clawhammer and the closely related playing method called frailing are a highly rhythmic and common component of American old-time music. Whether or not clawhammer and frailing are one and the same is the subject of heated debate within old-time music circles.