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Back Up Series: Adding Licks

Posted by Banjophobic on Wednesday, November 20, 2013

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Welcome back to this series of articles about back-up. This installment will take a closer look at the concept of playing 'licks' in the flow of your back-up. I tend to categorize back-up as 'active' and 'passive', passive being more rhythmic in nature as in vamping and rolling, while active would mean looking to play 'licks' in the background. The lines can get blurred between the two types of back-up,  and it is really important  that your rhythm is solid regardless of which type of back-up you are playing. At the heart of any accomplished back-up is great rhythm and dynamics control. Ok, having said all that, let's just jump right into the concept of playing "licks."

Job one in this discussion should be to define what 'licks' are in these discussions of bluegrass banjo and back-up. Licks can be thought of as independent musical phrases that live outside of melodies. Maybe an analogy could be that 'licks' to a banjo player are similar to adjectives and adverbs. Licks enhance and make things more interesting without distorting the storyline (if we are talking 'tasteful' backup and good writing). For bluegrass banjoists, the three main branches of licks come from the 3 major styles: Scruggs, Melodic and Single String. There are bodies of licks that  each player learns that are considered 'must know' for each particular style. Since the body of licks for each of the three styles is very large and this article very small, I will focus on the style that is fundamental to any bluegrass banjo player, which is Scruggs style back-up. 

Scruggs style back-up is a chord based system and knowing your shapes, and how to navigate between them, is a pre-requisite for being a great Scruggs style back-up player. These 'licks' are either totally based on chord manipulation, or on chord tones strung out as 'single string' patterns, or as notes used from chord 'partials'. Any way you look at these Scruggs licks, you will be seeing chord tones used as building block notes for his back-up 'licks'. Once you understand the standard chord shapes and partials and can move between them fluidly, you are ready to tackle the Scruggs vocabulary of back-up licks.

The next question is: 'How do I know where to play these "licks" and make them sound tasteful?' That is the sixty four thousand dollar question, isn't it? Many players learn a plethora of 'licks', but they  spend far less time learning when to play them, and when not to. Sometimes the best back-up is knowing where and why not to play a lick. There can be significant differences when playing back-up behind an instrumentalist, or vocalist. What sounds tasteful and appropriate behind a singer and soloist  is not always the same. Let's take a look at playing behind a vocalist first.

One of the things that attracted me to bluegrass banjo playing (beyond being a native to western North Carolina and having it genetically encoded in my DNA) was listening to Earl's back-up playing. Yes the solos were fantastic, but those intricate patterns in the background, and how they were woven into the song structure, was the aspect of his style of playing that really made me want to play banjo. Then the other pioneers like Reno, Osborne, Emerson, Crowe and many others reinforced in my mind how much I enjoyed playing back-up in a group setting and how important it was to be a complete player. All of these players and others like them have the ability to play extremely tasteful and appropriate back-up behind vocalists. This was an obvious skill to develop since all of those influential players supported powerful vocalists in the band. If you play in a group with great singing, you have to learn to play tasteful back-up behind it. The banjo can add so much to the background and provide tasty 'licks' and keep 'drive' happening in the song. Earl's back-up was designed by him to fill spaces behind vocalists, so he has already "done the homework" for us. There's no need to wonder if his licks will work or sound good--they will, if you have the proper rhythm and technique, and learn to be tasteful with the ideas.

One thing I teach students about playing back-up behind vocalists is to locate 'holes' in the vocal lines being sung. By this I mean look for spaces in the flow of the lyrics, where the sing pauses for whatever reason. Most of these 'holes' appear in pretty predictable spots in the flow of the lyrics, when talking standard bluegrass vocals. But singers and bands have the luxury of changing the rhythmic flow anytime they wish, so playing good back-up with licks means learning to adapt.  Let me 'chart out' a typical line of a common bluegrass vocal and identify some 'holes' in it where you as the banjoist could insert some tasty Scruggs licks. I'll use Nine Pound Hammer:

Its a nine pound hammer..its a little too heavy.........(hole)..............for my size...honey for my size......(hole).............well roll on buddy....(hole)............with your load of coal....(hole) can I roll...when the wheels won't roll.....(hole).......................

You can visualize the holes as you sing these words. About every vocal song will have holes appearing. How many of them and where can vary, but after a good bit of time playing back-up over these standard jam tunes and paying attention to the patterns, you will become adept at sensing where these holes are likely to appear. Here's another classic jam tune, Worried Man Blues:

It takes a worried man....(hole) sing a worried song.. it takes a worried sing a worried song.......(hole) takes a worried man....(hole)......... to sing a worried song, Im worried now but I wont be worried long............(hole)..............

Again, there are holes appearing that follow some classic patterns , as far as where holes will appear. The standard Scruggs vocabulary will have licks designed to fit into these holes. The licks can be modified to last slightly longer or be shortened, to fit about any situation that arises, but in standard form they can be categorized by duration; 2 beat and 4 beat licks being the norm ,and they can be quantified differently, depending on the timing signature of the song being played. In common time, for instance, you can generally see that a lick will be a half measure long, or encompass a full measure. Licks that need to be, say 3 beats long, can be modified to meet that criteria by lengthening a 2 beat phrase, or shortening a 4 beat one. This is another aspect of learning to play back-up that is so challenging. There is no memorizing one break, as you tend to do as a lead player, when talking back-up. There is no 'one' back-up that works in every situation. You have to learn to adapt quickly and your back-up needs to evolve for each new situation. It requires much more of you as a musician to play great back-up, than to flop out a memorized solo, in my opinion. 

There's no time to go into depth about the licks themselves in this article. I will assume you know some of these 'must' know' Scruggs licks and if you don't, start learning them NOW. They will become your 'go to' vocabulary for back-up behind vocalists. Check out the video below to see a few examples of using these classic phrases behind a vocal line and hopefully it will cause some light bulbs to ignite in your mind. Next installment we can take a look at playing back-up behind another instrument, as they solo. Thanks for reading and see you next time.

8 comments on “Back Up Series: Adding Licks”

Banjophobic Says:
Monday, December 9, 2013 @9:03:47 PM

And to reiterate from the video, playing all those licks is not tasteful. This video was related to another topic posted on a forum about playing and singing, but I thought it would 'cross-reference' to this topic too, from a lick standpoint.

vlc Says:
Tuesday, December 10, 2013 @7:02:57 PM

thank you for your great videos ... i always seem to get in on the tail end of a series ... where might i find the rest of your back up series articles and videos?

wbgair Says:
Wednesday, December 11, 2013 @3:17:06 AM


Go to "" where a great humanitarian has taken the unselfishly given time to classify John's lessons and provide links to each one.

John is amazing!


somarmd Says:
Wednesday, December 11, 2013 @4:09:19 AM

What a wonderful lesson. You are an awesome teacher! Thank you for your time and dedication.


Randall10 Says:
Wednesday, December 11, 2013 @5:17:10 AM

John is the man. Great job as always. I never get tired of learning from you.

wbgair Says:
Wednesday, December 11, 2013 @7:55:50 AM

Sorry folks. I messed up. The site address is "". Sometimes even we pickers don't get it right.


donrs Says:
Wednesday, December 11, 2013 @12:27:56 PM

I enjoy & learn from your lessons, you do a very good job. Thank you

Banjophobic Says:
Monday, December 16, 2013 @8:22:58 AM

Thanks everyone. I really hope these articles are useful and helpful to your playing.

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