Often used in country, folk and bluegrass music, the American banjo is an instrument evolved from versions made by African slaves who, in turn, replicated indigenous West African plucked instruments made with bamboo or wooden necks, a gourd-and-skin body and three or four strings.
The two most common techniques for playing the banjo are clawhammer style, the style that Abigail Washburn uses, and three-finger style, as used by Bela Fleck. The major difference between the two styles is the picking direction.
Clawhammer style features a down-picking motion, in which three fingers and thumb curl up together in a clawlike shape and pluck the strings downward. The thumb plays off the beat, often on the drone string. It is considered the old-time style of banjo playing, as opposed to the three-finger style.
The three-finger style, also known as the Scruggs style after Earl Scruggs, is a fingerpicking method often seen in bluegrass music. In this style, a banjoist picks with three fingers - thumb, index and middle fingers - and can achieve very quick speeds, one of the hallmarks of bluegrass music. The melody line often is played with the thumb for emphasis.