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BACK-UP : Backing Up Behind Other Instruments

Posted by Banjophobic on Tuesday, December 31, 2013

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Welcome back to the Back-up series. In this installment, let's talk about back-up behind other instruments in an jam or band situation. The banjo's 'job' behind each of the other instruments varies and is based on what you think sounds best at a given moment. What kind of back-up type you perform behind other instruments can be completely different, or exactly the same. For example, what kind of back-up would you play on the banjo behind a mandolin player? This could be based on what the mandolinist is doing; playing back-up or soloing. What sounds 'best' will be greatly impacted by how the banjo interacts sonically with the mandolinist's back up or soloing note choices.

Mandolin

Typically, it's tasteful to concentrate on vamping behind a mandolin player while he/she is playing back-up and or soloing. But there are spaces where rolls and an occasional banjo 'lick' work well and aren't too distracting to the mandolin's work. Again, you'll have to use your ear and sense of taste to judge when your banjo 'stuff' is too much and is not complimentary to the mandolin's solo and backup. Your main goal should be to compliment , not to override or clutter up the sonic space the mandolin player is trying to fill or solo over.

Guitar

Playing back-up behind a guitar player who is taking a solo usually requires more finesse and volume control from you as the banjoist. Most guitar solos lack the sheer volume and power to compete with a banjo, so you need to tread lightly here and err on the side of caution in regards to your overall volume. Vamp and rolling works well, but again, this is dictated by what, say, the other instruments are doing at the same time you are. Is another instrument like reso or mandolin providing very solid 'chops' behind the guitar? You might then consider playing rolls only, over the chords as rhythm, behind a soloing guitarist. But be careful where you choose to roll on the neck. If the guitarist is playing a solo very high on the neck, you could choose to stay away from the upper reaches of your banjo neck and go lower in the octave space, as to not compete with the guitar's note choices. If the guitarist plays low in note choices, maybe go higher on your banjo neck. An occasional lick can also be inserted behind the guitar solo, but be conscious of what is sounding/working good and what is distracting  and uncomplimentary.

Fiddle

Backing up a fiddle solo and fiddle fills is traditionally a 'two go at it' scenario. By this I mean the banjo and fiddle traditionally play simultaneously during the fiddle solos, almost like a duet. Scruggs players are typically cued mentally to really step up and 'twin' with a fiddle during his/her fiddle solo. The banjoist will really cut loose and play much more actively, not worrying too much about note choices or volume, other than to make the notes harmonious to the solo notes from the fiddle. But this isn't saying you always have free will to throw in every lick you know and play like a wild man with overbearing volume either. There are limits of taste you must consider too. Just because you are backing up the fiddle doesn't mean you don't need to think about tastefulness, even though your back-up may be more energetic and varied. 

Reso

Backing up a reso guitarist can present its own unique challenges at times because the reso is normally tuned in open G and has similar ranges of tones as your banjo. Be aware of 'sameness syndrome', which means having the reso and banjo be in the same range of note choices, on strings that are tuned the same. Reso players often use rolls very similar to yours, so be aware of not mirroring them. Stay away from his/her note choices if you feel they are too similar to banjo. Also follow the rules of taste, volume, etc and pick things that do not distract from the reso player's solos and or back-up. The reso has amazing sustain, so when it is playing very beautiful, sustained types of back-up or solos, help keep the drive and rhythm going with rolls.

Bass

During bass solos, really watch your volume and be aware that it's typical to use 'stops', or places where all other instruments stop playing for a few beats, to allow the bassist to take solo sections and also to emphasize the bass' range of notes. DO NOT play busy licks during the bassists solos, but find complimentary rolls or vamps and watch your volume. Bass players need and deserve the same rights and respect when they play as you do. Don't ever think bass players are not 'due' a solo. If they want one, they should get it and therefore don't screw it up for them. The bass is a crucial member of any ensemble.

The main goals of your back-up are always to blend in and make the over sound of the ensemble work, and to compliment other instruments when they play back-up and solo. You must always LISTEN to what everyone else is doing and adjust on the fly. It takes lots of skill and time to learn to be a great, tasteful player. It is worth every drop of sweat and every hour of time you invest. Playing great back-up makes you a complete player! 

Thanks for reading this installment and I look forward to more lessons in 2014. Happy New Year to everyone!



6 comments on “BACK-UP : Backing Up Behind Other Instruments”

Mountain Mac Says:
Monday, January 6, 2014 @12:10:11 PM

Wow, so much of value here in such a concise article. It's like the "cheat sheet" for backing behind instruments. I definately agree with what is said, and have subconsciously followed along with some of this in my band just because it just sounds right. I've just recently made some conscious effort adjusting my backup to a mandolin player at a practice last week, experimenting with when rolls vs. vamping sounded better. I would just add that speed of the song is certainly something to consider too. I did the opposite of what was said here for mando, but I think it is primarily because it was a slower song with a very steady beat. slow rolls (not so distracting) matched well with mado soloing, and vamping backed well when musical space was filled by fuller, rhythmic chord playing by the mandolinist. I've played with this person very regularly for some time now, often as a duet, and filling the sound with just two instruments (especially when lacking a guitar!) really influences the dynamics of what we each need to accomplish with our playing-such as the mandolinist basically filling the role of the guitar in our music. So... a lot is dependent on what instruments are present, and back up/soloing must adapt accordingly. For a great example of a banjo-mando duet, check out the Youtube video of J.D. Crowe and Ronnie Reno playing "Lonesome Road Blues". They both look like they are having a lot of fun too!

harpman54 Says:
Monday, January 6, 2014 @2:43:22 PM

For a just beginning banjoist, this is prime lesson material. A lot of this simply isn't put into books and it'd take years to learn by osmosis. Having this information at hand though, allows newbs like me to now listen to songs and hear how the banjo fits the information provided. There's lots to learn here. Thanks!

From Greylock to Bean Blossom Says:
Monday, January 6, 2014 @3:55:51 PM

Thanks John.
Happy New Year.
Ken

Banjophobic Says:
Monday, January 6, 2014 @7:31:58 PM

Thanks guys for the feedback. Hopefully this little article will be of some help.

pbiasi Says:
Tuesday, January 7, 2014 @7:30:55 AM

Thanks John for all your help and videos!!

Banjophobic Says:
Wednesday, January 8, 2014 @5:08:52 PM

and remember these are just general tips/ guidelines for tasteful backup. The only set in stone rule is if it sounds good in the ensemble setting, it IS good.

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