Recently I have turned my thoughts toward improving my backup playing. I’ve been playing the banjo steadily for the past 20 years and have the books and materials on backup banjo by Janet Davis and Jack Hatfield. These are excellent materials and I have read some very good blogs on the Hangout about these books. The consensus that I am getting is that Jack’s materials are very playable and instructive, and Janet’s materials are very thorough and encyclopedic. I have benefitted and still benefit greatly from these materials, and use them continuously.
However, over the years my approach to playing backup has been lacking something that I have not been able to put my finger on. I would study the materials I had and memorize the licks, and occasionally I would try to introduce some of them at a jam session, band practice or in my own individual playing, or while playing along with the radio or CD. I just wasn’t advancing and I was falling back into the same old roll patterns that I had developed from just playing what “felt right.” This I would do over and over so that while my playing was improving, I wasn’t really making any headway in being able to relax and come up with some real consistently clean and interesting backup. You know, the kind that makes you drool while you are mesmerized by JD, and seems to “fill the moment” without taking the emphasis off the band’s focus at the time. So here I was spending a lot of time learning all of these fancy licks and patterns, but when it really came down to it, my backup was still sounding pretty much the same. This really concerned me, because I was able to pick up pretty much any song and put together a banjo break, and even provide vocals and harmony while playing certain rolls and backup, but my backup was not getting any better and didn’t put the accent behind the other musicians that needed to be there.
Recently I purchased the backup materials that Geoff Hohwald put together. I have used Geoff's excellent banjo materials for many years, and he is an excellent, methodical, and highly disciplined banjo teacher, with a perfect teaching personality. There is a book and CD. The CD takes you through the book in a series of lessons teaching you licks that are basic “building block backup licks.” In these lessons Geoff will guide the less advanced players on the proper fingering and technique in playing these licks, so as not to develop bad habits that will handicap you later on. While this was tedious at times for a more advanced player, I soon found that I had to re-learn some of the ways I played the licks. Through the lessons Geoff would group these various most common licks into arrangements through several songs, and emphasize taste, technique, timing and repetition. Instead of playing long lists of licks, he was grouping a few of the most useful licks into several different tunes, and play them at different speeds. So what I had was instructional material and arrangements that progressed, as he introduced more licks, but I was also getting a method for improving my playing and lick selection, as well as speed and accuracy. The CD then has this progressive, and yes basic instruction, but also has audio tracks in the back and some tunes that “bring it all together” at the end for some more intense backup playing. These audio tracks progress in speed. Geoff’s premise here is that to really understand a lick it needs to be played in 2 to 3 song examples at different speeds. With familiarity should come better accent and timing, as well as taste and skill in lick selectivity as you are playing.
OK, so I asked myself why I am I having to re-learn the way I play some of the licks? And why was I making no progress even though I knew a lot of licks and could play at a pretty good speed. And why was my timing still sloppier than I would like it to be, even though I already knew pretty much all of these licks? And why wasn’t I making the same progress before, even with all the good materials I had on hand, plus all the many hours of practice? I was rushing through myriads of licks in the books I had, in hopes that the more I played the more I would remember, and the more I picked through the books the more I would find and master the “head turning licks.” And it wasn’t really happening. I wasn’t playing more licks and I was still playing them sloppily. Once I sat down with Geoff’s CD and started playing these basic backup patterns and arrangements over and over, and began to see that playing a few basic licks clean and with good timing was much more effective (and easier) than trying to throw together a bunch of licks and rolls that you have trouble remembering until it’s too late to grab them. Also, with this Geoff stresses the importance of listening – to yourself and to the masters. Less is better, if the less is played better. Anyway I believe I am making steady progress now – more than ever before. My band partner (guitar player) is already noticing a significant difference in my backup playing. Although I continue to pick through my other materials, the center of my practice is drilling with Geoff’s CD, my rhythm tracks and my metronome. And I am getting faster, cleaner and playing with more accurate timing. I am encouraged once again in my playing and am looking forward to mastering these basic lessons and then moving on with adding more tasteful licks to my repertoire and incorporating them into my own arrangements. I plan to do this by applying the methodology I learned from Geoff, in mastering a few licks at a time and applying them through several different songs, and resisting the temptation to try to learn a lot of licks and only practice them on one song. This will involve a lot of repetition, drilling, metronome work, listening back, and planning. Hard work? You bet. But it’s worth it.
So while I recommend all of these materials I mentioned before, I think that Geoff’s instruction on backup will greatly enhance your playing, and not just drown you in a sea of knowledge that you somehow cannot translate from your brain to your fingers. You will apply a methodology that actually works and see real progress in your playing.
In corresponding with Geoff, this is what he wrote to me:
This is something that I'm starting to realize because most players think of advancing as playing more complicated stuff.
An advanced player has more accurate timing, relaxes completely,
and achieves whatever sound or tone he desires.
He knows how he is doing because he gets immediate feedback either from band mates or from recording himself and listening back. So Earl Scruggs sounds like he does because of timing and if you think of it any intermediate player can play 80 to 90 per cent of what Earl plays but they don't sound like Earl.
To experiment record Earl playing Cripple Creek on any recorder you have. Then you play it on the recorder. Listen back to both yours and Earls and then record it again.
Do this 20 minutes a day for a month.
It will really help you focus on the fundamentals
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'California Cottonfields' 18 min