Steve Martin, Clawhammer Banjo Master

1 comment February 2nd, 2009at 10:12pm Posted by Eli

I’m actually not kidding…

In his mercurial career Mr. Martin, 63, has gone from manic, rabbit-eared stand-up comedian to introspective memoirist. He has made movies for Carl Reiner (“The Jerk”) and David Mamet (“The Spanish Prisoner”) alike. Through his many incarnations a banjo has never been far from his reach, whether the instrument was an integral part of his act or a tool to help him unwind in private.

Now Mr. Martin is once again in the musician’s role as he releases an album called “The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo.” The record (which is being sold exclusively on, until April 26, when it also will be released elsewhere) is a token of his affection for bluegrass, with appearances by performers like Vince Gill and Dolly Parton. But it is also an opportunity to show off one of his less celebrated, least commercial skills, and to reimmerse himself in a musical genre he never fully gave up.

“It’s a secret world,” he said of bluegrass in an interview at his “SNL” dressing room, where his banjo sat beside him in its case like a baby in a bassinet. “It’s a big world, but it’s thin. And it doesn’t make the news, which is actually quite fantastic.”

Mr. Martin, who came of age in Orange County, Calif., in the early 1960s, recalled the era as one when folk groups like the Kingston Trio and bluegrass bands like the Dillards were at their peak. Having decided to become an entertainer, Mr. Martin seized on the banjo as one more element he could add to an all-purpose act.

“I needed everything,” said Mr. Martin, who in person is more reserved than his on-screen characters but excitable once he starts talking about music. “I did jokes, I did juggling, did magic. I put the banjo in just really to fill time, so I’d have enough to call it a show.”


[S]tarting in 2001 he began a banjo resurgence. That year Earl Scruggs, the bluegrass pioneer, asked him to play on a recording of the song “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” for the album “Earl Scruggs and Friends.” In 2007 he contributed an original composition, “The Crow,” to the Tony Trischka album “Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular.”


Among country and bluegrass musicians, Mr. Martin is regarded as a master of a difficult five-fingered playing style known as clawhammer or frailing, in which the instrument’s strings are pushed down by fingernails, rather than pulled up with picks.

“I know I can’t play it,” said Mr. Scruggs, for whom the traditional three-fingered Scruggs style is named. “So it’s a challenge for me.”

There you have it: Steve Martin has mastered a banjo style that even Earl Scruggs can’t play.  And no-one even knows about it.

Entry Filed under: Coolness,Music,Weirdness

1 Comment

  • 1. Jefff Jurczyk  |  June 7th, 2010 at 3:34 pm

    Mr Steve Martin i watch you play the banjo on the Dave Letterman show twice and that inspiried me to learn how to play the banjo. Mr Martin could you give me any tip on how to perfect the playing of the banjo other then practice …
    thank you for your time sir .
    Jeff Jurczyk

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