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Back Up: An Essential Skill for Bluegrass Banjo Players

Posted by Banjophobic on Wednesday, September 4, 2013

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Welcome to my first official BHO newsletter article. I'm glad to be contributing here and hopefully these articles will be informative and help some of  you understand more about 3 finger style bluegrass banjo. The first article Eric suggested was on the topic of "Back-up." Eric either knows this topic is near and dear to my heart as a player, or it was meant to be. Either way, I am eager to jump on this topic. 

Most new players to bluegrass style banjo tend to see it as a solo based and driven style of banjo. While soloing is exciting and definitely an important skill, playing back-up is as, if not more important, for the development of what I consider to be a fully competent banjo player in bluegrass or any other genre of music. As I often tell my students, learning to play great back-up requires more of your brain than any standard solo will. They often say that soloing would seem to be 'harder to do' since it means hours of tedious memorization of tabs,building muscle memory for the various licks involved in the solo, hitting the right notes,etc. The reason for that assumption is easy to find. Its simply because most new players only try to memorize solos and aren't aware of the differences in it and playing back-up. Once they decide its time to learn back-up (which is immediately in my methodology), it becomes apparent that it can be the most difficult thing to learn and really understand. The challenges are worth every drop of sweat and busted grey matter cell, trust me on that.

Let us start this series on some basic premises, as far as see it. In teaching folks to be fully versatile and capable in back-up, I will break it down into two main types of back-up: 'Active' and ''Passive'. "Passive' back-up is a term i coined to refer to a rhythmic approach, which is rolling back-up over chords and vamping techniques. The Main objective is to use the banjos powerful syncopated three finger rolls to propel the song forward and provide that 'drive' so often talked about. This type of  playing can always be commentary to singing and other instruments, if done with taste in mind. The goal should always be to keep the rhythm solid, and be aware of note choices. Playing in the "X" and "Y" positions along with what octave the positions you are playing in, i.e. chord shapes, and watching your volume/dynamics, is important even though you are 'just a rhythm player at this stage of back-up. And to be fluent and able to traverse the entire range of the neck, the player must know the primary chord inversions very well. Scruggs style back-up is chord dependent. It requires either a full or partial version of  chords as the function of the style.

Here's a "Lick of the Week" video demonstrating passive backup (vamping) >

"Active" back-up is a term I use to describe the back-up 'licks' so often heard in Scruggs style. This is where you will actively seek out places in songs to insert 'licks' and other music phrasings. This requires not only chord shape knowledge and fluency, but understanding how Scruggs 'active' licks depend on chord shapes and their relationships to each other on the fingerboard. The licks do have syncopated rhythm all their own and do have rhythm as a function of the idea, but they are more for 'filler', inserted into 'holes' in songs. The easiest spot to locate these voids where licks can be inserted in in vocal melodies. Typical songs with lyrics have predictable places where a verse, or chorus ends, and they are generally rests that provide the 'holes' for back-up instruments to play their 'licks'.  But again, taste and the ability to not crowd the vocalist is important. Throwing licks actively, anywhere you wish, means you'll be playing over top of vocals or other instruments. As the saying goes, its not how many 'licks' one knows...its where you put them, that counts. 

Here's a "Lick of the Week" video demonstrating some essential active backup licks >

In my view, to be a great player, you must have the ability to play both solos and back-up. In band situations, a banjoist with no back-up skills will be one always looking for a job,haha. Percentage wise, I would estimate 75 percent of ensemble playing is back-up. In jamming situations, you will be playing back-up for most of the jam.  The solos are nice, sound great and say 'look at me, I can solo !'  If  you were to evaluate the metal processes going on during a typical 30 second solo with an EEG machine, verses the processes going on while playing back-up, my guess would be that one would look like a small L.E.D light going off while the other one would look like the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center in December. Why would there be such a difference in thought processes? The average player who is about to play a solo is thinking about getting the notes and positions in the solo right, and staying in time with good tone. He/she is not thinking about what anyone else is doing, other than staying in time with them and listening for chord changes. But the back-up player can have multiple things being considered.: should I vamp, or should I roll, does the roll need to be in lower positions, up the neck, in the middle area, what type of vamping should I do, hows my volume-too loud, too soft, what lick sounds better her or there, is it too busy, too laid back, does it compliment the singer/soloist, should I play anything here and just rest or should I really play a lot of licks?  

Looking at that previous list of possible thought processes, you'll soon appreciate how much skill it takes to play back-up well and tastefully. The skill set you acquire playing tasteful and exciting back-up also translates into knowing the neck extremely well , as well as improving your soloing abilities. Back-up gives you greater command of syncopation, overall rhythm, dynamics and muscle memory. And more importantly, it makes you more than a one sided player. This is purely my opinion, but a player who can play unbelievable solos but terrible back-up is akin to a race car driver who can drive Daytona at 210 mph but who cant operate a vehicle worth a hoot on the street between races.  

If you are a player who avoids back-up, for whatever reason or excuse, take time to re-evaluate its importance in bluegrass banjo, and also in your quest to be a complete player. If you spend time learning  it, you will gain the knowledge, physical skills and also the appreciation for it as an art, not just  'something to do while you wait for another solo' .  You'll be very glad you did take that time in years to come.

6 comments on “Back Up: An Essential Skill for Bluegrass Banjo Players”

chasman Says:
Monday, October 14, 2013 @11:08:41 AM

awsome article.
super helpful.
thank you very much.

tmercks Says:
Thursday, October 31, 2013 @8:23:48 AM

Awesome Article - agreed. Now that I've read it all of a sudden I realize what it is to master your instrument. I began thinking back and re-listening to the Dillards (i.e. Darling Boys), Flatt & Scruggs, and a few others. You can listen and tell when the artists are in backup mode and when they are in solo mode, two different entities within a song. Learning to play backup well with others is essential, and then they will play well behind you when it comes your time to shine.

Banjophobic Says:
Thursday, October 31, 2013 @8:33:47 AM

Thanks guys-I appreciate you taking the time to read the article and I really hope it makes a difference in your playing.

chasman Says:
Thursday, October 31, 2013 @1:45:51 PM

thank you again John. :)

Rbuhrman Says:
Monday, November 4, 2013 @11:24:24 AM

this is terrific!! Thanks for taking time and effort to write this up......makes a lot of sense, and I'm sure all of us will take this to heart in our playing. Thanks again!

KiwiGrass Says:
Thursday, February 12, 2015 @8:12:33 PM

Thanks for the article John.
Just thought I'd let you know that your articles are still having an impact after a couple of years.


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