This will wrap up the series of BHO newsletter articles on basic backup, at least for this series. One last thing I want to talk about is putting some "spaces" into your backup. What do I mean by spaces?
Spaces can be looked at a few different ways in Scruggs-style backup. One angle is to replace continual steams of 8th notes with quarter note ideas, or 16ths with 8th, depending on the time signature and how you like to interpret the pulse. Instructional materials in tab form like to quantify and express rolls as continual streams of notes, be they 8th or 16th. While it is accurate to say that those are the durations of notes typically used in BG patterns on banjo, it is NOT accurate to say that all these classic patterns are all notes and no spaces. Scruggs playing, if done with some musical 'maturity', will contain those spaces. These spaces will let the music breath and have some relief from the effect I call "machine gun banjo".
Another way to see spaces, beyond using longer duration ideas in place of those endless machine gun patterns is to use "rests". A rest is basically choosing to NOT play notes, but to replace them with silence. Rests are identified by duration, just like the notes they replace. So there are 8th note rests, quarter note rests, 16ths,etc.
How you decide to break up those machine gun patterns is up to you. One simple method I like to teach my students is to trim roll patterns, especially when crafting a mix of different rolls and licks together as 'back-up'. An example would be playing a common forward roll as 8th notes, leading into an 8th note lick pattern. Yes you could try to weave those two ideas together, but it if this meshing together is done repeatedly, you will get the 'machine gun' feel. This type of backup not only sounds too forced, but lacks any breath and it is harder to smoothly transition between ideas that are 'slammed' together. Smart and experienced players learn the benefit of incorporating longer duration ideas and rests into the flow of the backup as they play.
The resulting insertion of spaces and loner note ideas not only sounds more flowing, pleasing and tasteful, but allows you a respite from having to play so many notes so close together. One exercise I give students is to practice playing a roll pattern as 'incomplete', meaning instead of running together an 8 note roll right into a lick that follows it, try playing a 6 or 7 note pattern. This effectively serves two great functions: it breaks up the patterns and makes it easier to play them both.
The insertion of rests allows you a small window from which to connect ideas together. The use of long duration ideas, such as the classic Scruggs example of using quarter note pinches, inserted into the patterns to break up those machine gun patterns, is one great use of this concept. It doesn't matter if the rolls and licks are down the neck or up the neck, the concept is always the same. Allow more rests and longer notes into your patterns and not only will it be easier to daisy-chain licks and rolls together from a technical standpoint, but your rhythm will smooth out and you will sound more tasteful.
Also look for something I refer to as "linking notes" between patterns. A great Scruggs example is to find notes that are shared by two ideas you are attempting to mesh together. The last open G note in one lick could be the first note of the next pattern, making the two licks easy to link together. Sometimes the difference between your backup being flowing or rough and jumpy could be that your ideas are not daisy-chaining together well. You could be doubling some notes that don't need doubling, trying to play 'perfect rolls' ( all being 8th patterns) or choosing spots in rolls that don't lead into a new pattern very congruently.
Even simple rolling back up can be rhythmically challenging if the patterns don't 'mesh' well and the fault is never the rolls you choose, just the way you choose to play them. Try to play a roll that has, say, 7 notes, leaving an 8th rest, then switching to the next roll pattern that starts on a different string. This can be especially effective and helpful if you are using a left hand ornament such as a slide leading into a roll pattern or lick. The inclusion of a rest before two distinctly different patterns makes for a smooth transition and a more pleasing rhythmic flow.
I plan on making a video for the LOTW covering this topic, which can be a companion to the article posted here. Be on the lookout for it, hopefully this month. My PC is currently down and I'm using my IPad, which I can't use to make the videos their standard length and form.
Thanks for reading and I really hope that all these back up articles have proven useful to your playing, and understanding! See you next article, the topic to be chosen later. Ciao....
Saturday, February 15, 2014 @1:36:51 PM
Great article as always John. An often overlooked topic that definitely needs addressing.
Sunday, February 16, 2014 @11:12:24 AM
Thanks Alex, I think it's overlooked too.
Monday, February 17, 2014 @9:05:33 AM
Hi John, I really hope you do make a companion video for this informitive article. I don't get to play with others & videos help me learn easier than tabs. Thanks, Chris
Monday, February 17, 2014 @9:08:51 AM
Still on my bucket list to methodically go through your great tutorials John. I thought I'd get into your melodic stuff because I find that difficult, but I'm thinking backup might be worth visiting. I just posted an mp3 of Amie by the Pure Prairie League and while I was happy enough with the lead phrases, when listening to the whole song I have to admit that some of the backup was just OK and some was crap, or "rough and jumpy" as you label it above. I play in a church group and am mostly playing what would be considered backup or accent music to the rhythm guitarist, and although I've not recorded any of that I'm pretty sure it sounds good. But listening to my mp3 was kind of an ear opener. Thanks for all you do here at BHO.
Bill Barker Says:
Monday, February 17, 2014 @10:59:02 AM
You are wonderful teacher AND banjo player. Looking forward to your next video. Any new videos about melodic playing on your schedule?
Tuesday, February 18, 2014 @4:53:00 AM
Another way of looking at the "spaces" and "rests" is to approach them as being played as well as the notes. That is, when in a piece, we play silence as well as the notes. I've found that helps with the idea of holding off... generally a tough thing to do...we all, I think, love the machine gun! Ha!
Tuesday, February 18, 2014 @5:10:26 AM
John, Thanks for a great series. I'm a new player, but still like to read your articles and am able to pull out a "nugget" or two I can apply to my level of play. Currently, my banjo teacher and I have been working on backup technique, so it's been a great compliment.
Tuesday, February 18, 2014 @12:14:43 PM
This is really good advice for all the reasons given.
Tuesday, February 18, 2014 @8:11:50 PM
Thanks for the feedback folks!
Wednesday, February 19, 2014 @9:09:54 AM
Great stuff, John!
Laurence Diehl Says:
Friday, February 28, 2014 @10:41:22 AM
These are good tips for just about any instrument in any genre! I used to play with vocalists quite a bit and there's nothing like that sour look the singer gives you when you are stepping all over his vocals to get you to let it all breath.
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