Poring over online clawhammer forums this morning, I was struck by the amount of confusion there is over which finger to use – index or middle – in the clawhammer strum.
Before I take a crack at this question, let me first provide some background. When I started learning clawhammer back in the mid-2000s, I began by watching videos of a few teachers demonstrating the basic strum, or “bum-ditty”. The few teachers that I watched all used their thumb and index fingers. Knowing absolutely nothing about clawhammer at the time, I dutifully followed their examples. It was only after playing for a few months that I discovered to my surprise that some pickers prefer using their middle finger instead of their index. Since the videos that I’d studied all involved using the index finger, I considered these middle-finger-pickers to be outliers, a eccentric fringe group of social contrarians who clearly had no interest in learning how to play clawhammer the “proper” way. “Bunch of weirdos”, I thought.
When I began attending old-time jams, I was amazed at how many middle-finger pluckers there actually were out there. “Maybe, these guys are on to something,” I thought. Around this time I began my first attempts at drop-thumb. After struggling with this new technique for a few months, I tried an experiment: I stopped using my index finger and switched to my middle in hopes of improving my drop-thumb. And, to my surprise, it did improve. Consequently, for the next couple of months I became a dedicated middle-finger-plucker. It was only later, when I made a side-by-side comparison of middle vs. index finger, that I discovered something curious: while my drop-thumb accuracy was slightly better using my middle finger, my accuracy OVERALL was much better using my index. I also found that I had more control with my index and could play faster. My plucks sounded louder and cleaner as well. So I switched back to my index.
This story is in no way an attempt to persuade clawhammer players to use their index fingers instead of their middle. It’s simply an illustration to demonstrate that whichever finger works for you, index or middle, is perfectly fine to use.
If you’re just beginning your clawhammer journey, choose one of those fingers and stick with it for a few days. Maybe even a week. Then switch to the other finger for a while. Then ask yourself these questions:
Which finger feels more natural? Which finger feels more effortless?
Which finger feels more comfortable?
Which finger allows you to play with more accuracy?
Which finger allows you to play with more speed?
Which finger provides more volume? More power?
Ultimately, the choice of index vs. middle finger is entirely up to you. The bottom line here is if the way you play sounds and feels good to you, that’s the way you should continue playing. End of story (whew!).