An article from  Frets, The Magazine of Acoustic String Instruments, November, 1980
Tommy Thompson 
High-energy Clawhammer Banjo
By Mark Greenberg
That's how clawhammer-style banjo player Tommy Thompson of the Red Clay Ramblers describes both himself and the kind of instrument he looks for. A fellow of formidable though unthreatening presence, Thompson plays the 5-string with percussive drive and vitality well suited to the five-man old-time band's aggressive and exciting approach to its varied repertoire. Yet at the same time, Thompson's playing remains bright and tuneful, contributing to the music's melodic and rhythmic impact.

Though he hails from West Virginia, a state rich in both traditional and commercial country music, the 43-year-old Thompson comes to the banjo and old-time music via collegiate encounters with Dixieland bands and with the urban-based folk music revival of the late '50s. After graduating from Ohio's Kenyon College in 1958, Thompson joined the Coast Guard and moved to New Orleans. There he became a regular visitor to Preservation Hall. In that dingy store-front off Bourbon Street, musicians whose careers reached back to the earliest days of jazz could still play for tourists and aficionados. Thus inspired, Tommy bought a guitar and tenor banjo and took a few lessons.

Still, Thompson felt more drawn to the 5-string, which was receiving attention due to the efforts of Pete Seeger and other urban folk revivalists. "Five-strings were hard to find back then," Tommy recalls; but after some months he located a "nice little Stewart - that I stupidly later sold." The Stewart was replaced in 1963 by a Seeger-inspired Ode long-neck, even as Thompson's interests were beginning to turn back to the original old-time and traditional music behind the folk revival. "By the time I bought the long-necked banjo," Thompson says, "I'd gotten a lot more aware that folk music was not just something sung by 'folk singers' or found in books, but that it was a live tradition."

A visit to the Old Time Fiddlers' Convention, held since 1935 in Galax, Virginia, completed Thompson's musical conversion. "What really thrilled me was hearing [Galax clawhammer player] Kyle Creed," he says. "I heard him playing with what had to be the greatest old-time fiddle band there ever was: the Camp Creek Boys."

Having tasted the real thing at Galax, Tommy decided to move closer to the music - to Chapel Hill, where he could pursue graduate studies in philosophy at the University of North Carolina, while also becoming involved in what was developing into a lively bluegrass and old-time music scene. In Chapel Hill, he met fiddler and folklorist Alan Jabbour, with whom he eventually formed the Hollow Rock String Band. The group specialized in fiddle tunes, and it recorded albums for the Kanawah and Rounder labels. The band gave Thompson his first opportunity to develop his style by playing steadily with a knowledgeable musician. "I wasn't learning to play from tablature, but from a fiddle player - right at his knee," Tommy points out. "Alan would play it and wouldn't slow down - and I had to keep up. And I could hear Kyle Creed in the back of my head. And it worked."

In 1972 Thompson formed the Red Clay Ramblers along with two other "survivors from the '60s old-time music scene," guitarist/mandolinist Jim Watson and fiddler Bill Hicks. Formerly in the New Deal String Band, Watson had been playing bluegrass with Thompson and had appeared on the second Hollow Rock album. Hicks had been a member of the Fuzzy Mountain String Band, playing on both of that group's Rounder albums: The Fuzzy Mountain String Band and Summer Oaks And Porch. With the later additions of piano player Mike Craver and trumpeter/bassist Jack Herrick, the Ramblers moved considerably beyond their fiddle-band origins. Still, Thompson's rhythmic clawhammer work remained a central part of the group's sound.

Thompson's Ode, and a subsequent Gibson RB-250 Mastertone that he played during an unrequited flirtation with Scruggs-style picking ("I was powerful, but raggedy as hell!"), have long since been superseded by a collection of about ten banjos more suitable to clawhammer playing. Tommy finds that the old Fairbanks and Vega instruments generally possess the capacity to be played loud while still retaining the sweetness that he seeks. "It's different than what a Bacon or Gibson sounded like," he notes, "though they had good sound, too - brass instead of silver."

Tommy's current favorite is a Fairbanks #5 Special Electric, on which he keeps a skin head and which he keeps at home. On the road, he plays a Vega-Fairbanks Tubaphone #3 dating from around 1912. He uses a plastic head on that banjo because the plastic is less susceptible to variations in climate and weather. He uses light-gauge GHS strings on his banjos, substituting a .010" for the set's .009" fifth string. 

Thompson also travels with a 1946 Martin D-28 herringbone guitar. It is an instrument that he bought to play, though he also sees it as an heirloom - "something to pass on to my kids," he says sweetly, "who will probably sell it instantly." 

What was it about Kyle Creed's playing that particularly attracted you? 

What inspired me was the way he, just cranked that rhythm along and the way that he filled in all four notes - chucka-chucka and so on. If he left one out, it was for emphasis; it wasn't the other way around. He seemed to always be a little bit on top of the beat. He added a kind of propulsiveness to the band, and that's what I wanted to do. But I never really learned to play like him. 

Why not? 

Well, I first learned to play from Pete Seeger's book and record, How To Play The Five-String Banjo, and the reason that I could never get to play like Kyle Creed was that I already had that "bump-ditty" rhythm in my playing. When I realized I wanted to get all four notes in, I tried to break myself of the habit of the strum on "dit," but you can still hear it in there. I'm downstroking on notes one and three, but on three I'll hit two strings, instead of the one string that Kyle Creed would hit. After a while I learned to hit only a single string, but then I kind of let the two-string stuff creep back in because I think it gives the music a bit of a galloping quality.

If you could define your style, what old-time artist would you say it most resembles?

Actually, I probably sound closer to the women banjo players like Molly O'Day, Lilly Mae Ledford [of the Coon Creek Girls], and Cousin Emmy - kind of loud and raucous, with a driving rhythm.

What about Virginia banjoist and multi-instrumentalist Hobart Smith - did he influence you?

I got to visit him. He was another early inspiration. I don't think he was really recognized as much as he should have been. He played lightning fast, but if you slowed it down it was just as clean as if he was playing piano.

How do some of the other old-timers whom you've sought out and learned from, such as Mount Airy, North Carolina, banjo player and fiddler Tommy Jarrell, feel about the Red Clay Ramblers' approach to old-time music?

Tommy Jarrell is the one that I know best, and who I've kept up a friendship with the longest. He likes our music a lot, but he thinks we play the fiddle tunes too fast. He's not the only one: sometimes I think we play them too fast. But if we feel like playing that way, then we play that way. 

How do the fiddle and banjo fit together?

It depends on the players. The way I do it, I think of the nature of the fiddle as being such that the fiddle player can be a lot looser about the rhythm. He can anticipate beats in a fairly irregular way, or he can hold off by his bowing. A lot of things that he can do rhythmically are not natural for the banjo. So the most exciting thing for me is to make the banjo be square rhythmically. That sets up a foil for the fiddle to work back and forth against. When you get a fiddle player and banjo player with about equal energy levels, and who listen to each other, then, without thinking about it, they make the most of the difference.

When playing a fiddle tune, do you try to play every fiddle note?

No. Absolutely not. I think the best banjo playing is the banjo playing that gets all the notes that the player can get while still keeping the excitement in his playing. You go beyond that - if you have to push hard to get those fiddle notes - and it gets kind of limp-sounding. One of my favorite banjo players is Blanton Owen, and he can get more of those notes than I can; but he's never lost the drive by looking for too many of them. Peter Hoover is another one. He's more complex than me. He gets more fiddle notes. Then there are people who get all the fiddle notes, but the music has lost all its energy. It's sort of like swimming with a knapsack on your back. I would just rather hear fiddle playing. The best instrument for playing fiddle notes is the fiddle.

What tunings do you use, and what are their advantages?

We play a lot of stuff in D, especially instrumental numbers. That's a good, bright key for a band to play in. I use a double D tuning - A-D-A-D-E, fifth string to first string - so you get a D chord by fretting the first string at the 2nd fret. I use that a lot, especially when we play Mount Airy kinds of tunes. On a lot of things the fingering is easier. It also has a primitive quality to it, because if you're not fretting the first string you have the D and E together. You get that little dissonance there. And you don't have the seventh degree of the scale (C#) ringing anywhere by accident or sort of by accident. You have to seek it out. But there are other tunes in D where I like to get the A chord, that V chord, and get the whole thing - that is, with the C# in it. The easiest way to do that is to put the banjo into what I call the "minstrel" tuning, which is just single D-A-D-A-C#-E. That's the tuning that in the later minstrel books became the way to tune the banjo. I use the standard C tuning - G-C-G-B-D - when we do Charlie Poole numbers, and I like to sound a little bit like Charlie Poole. Then there's standard G (G-D-G-B--D) or A (A-E-A-C#-E), and variations on either one of those with the second string raised a half step.

Do you have any thoughts or theories about the origins of clawhammer style?

Yeah, I do. Actually my wife, Cece, is finishing up a dissertation that includes a history of the banjo. She's looked at early travel and slave trade records, and at drawings from as bar back as the 1600s. It seems pretty certain that the down-picking method of playing the banjo was African, and came here with the instrument. There is also the fact that there isn't a European precedent for that way of making a note. But the most impressive bit of evidence is something that Bob Winans came up with in the Journal Of American Folklore. The minstrels published instruction books, and Winans figured out a lesson in a book from the 1880s, and it was clawhammer. And all the early minstrels were imitating plantation blacks. Then the banjo, as it came from Africa, must already have had a thumb string.

What does that do to Joel Sweeney's claim? [Ed. Note: Joel Sweeney is commonly credited with having added the fifth string to the banjo about the year 1830.]

Joel Sweeney didn't claim to have added a thumb string to the banjo; he claimed to have added a fifth string. So a banjo could have as few as two strings, with one of them still being a thumb string. And from the old pictures it's pretty clear that there was a thumb string. In some of the pictures, it looks like there's a short string on a 3-string banjo, and there are lots of pictures of banjos with four strings.

What about drop-thumb style, bringing the thumb into the first four strings?  Is that also of African origin?

The stuff that was in the minstrel books was very syncopated and rhythmically interesting. The down-strokes wouldn't always come on one and three. It's also quite clear that they intended you to use the thumb on other strings besides the thumb string. And there were pull-offs, hammer-ons, slides - all in those old books. The whole works is there, though the music seems pretty different.

Is the technique called "clawhammer" in the old books?

It isn't called anything. It's called "the right way to play the banjo."

Do you think that old-time and clawhammer banjo playing are on the upswing?

All fiddle and banjo music is. In '67 or '68, I never would have believed there'd be so many people playing banjos and fiddles, playing old-time music. They're everywhere. 

What is responsible for that?

I think it's concerned with what caused a lot of things - the back-to-the-country movement. It's music you can make for yourself, just like growing your own food, building your own house - to get out of the system. It's not just a fad, because the people who have moved out of town and are playing fiddles and banjos are raising kids, and for those kids it will be perfectly natural. The tradition is not at all what it used to be. But it has gone back to the people and it's flourishing. There are a lot of antiquarians - people who view things from the past as having been perfect just as they were - who don't recognize at all what's happening. But the music's been replanted, and it's growing like wildfire in a lot of places. 

This article was followed by "The Red Clay Ramblers - String Band Music for the '80s"
Tommy Thompson Souvenirs
January 1, 2001
updated January 8, 2002