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Jul 6, 2020 - 4:59:14 PM
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3 posts since 7/6/2020

I recently bought Backup Banjo by Janet Davis (as I've seen recommended around here), and it seems pretty overwhelming in the knowledge it presents. It seems like it gives you a bunch of different building blocks (vamping, licks, rolls, etc), which you then can throw together in different ways for backup in a song.

My main question is: how much of this should I be expected to memorize and throw together on the fly while playing? Am I supposed to just memorize 50 licks and roll patterns, and mix them up during a song? or could I just get some blank paper and write my own backup tabs for reference ahead of time?

Jul 6, 2020 - 5:03:36 PM
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chuckv97

Canada

50785 posts since 10/5/2013

Hi Sid the Kid. Backup should be improvised pretty much “on-the-fly”, but to get your feet wet it might be a good idea to write them out. Try use all your phrases and licks for maybe 5 songs/tunes. Then after a while you’ll be able to mix and match by improvisation.

Jul 6, 2020 - 6:08:11 PM
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BobbyE

USA

2724 posts since 11/29/2007

Plan out your backup attack, especially if you are just starting out. In other words, decide what you want to do behind every song of the first verse, (rolling backup for instance and a lick you can play well at the end of the line,) vamp behind the chorus first time through, play up the neck a combo of vamp and licks on the second verse, etc. and then decide what you want to do behind the second chorus, etc. Just plan out your playing behind every song, write that down, and then do the same thing for every song. That book is very good but it is obviously going to overwhelm players just getting a start. Remember though, every thing you learn is one less thing you have to learn. Also, really listen to other players you admire and make notes on what they are doing during the backup. Emulate them where you can. See if they play any licks at a particular place in the song that you are familiar with. Where does the lick fall in the song? At a pause, end of a line. Intro leading back to the next verse. Rome wasn't built in a day if I remember correctly.

Bobby

Edited by - BobbyE on 07/06/2020 18:09:48

Jul 6, 2020 - 6:38:20 PM
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14841 posts since 12/2/2005

Welcome aboard, Sid. Here's what I tell my students:

"When you're playing backup, which you'll be doing approximately 75 to 80 percent of the time, your job is to make the singer or soloist sound better than they really are."

And it's true. There are very few players who are really busy who sound great doing backup. JD Crowe is one of a handful.

Mostly, though, our job in backup is supporting what someone else is doing. Start by knowing your closed chord positions and learning to vamp with a thumb-to-three-finger pinch, moving chord shapes constantly. That will get you a long ways.

Learn which solo instruments work well against a rolling backup and which are more problematic. Rolling backup against a fiddle is a marriage made in heaven. Rolling backup against a mando CAN be done, but only if you and the mando player know and trust each other. Rolling backup against a dobro is an extraordinarily difficult thing to do - Jason Burleson of Blue Highway is one of the few banjo players I know of who does this well, and that's only because he and his dobro players have worked together so diligently. Rolling backup against a guitar is often a big problem.

Keep this in mind: the banjo is an instrument that by its very nature draws attention. The SONG ITSELF is the most important thing - and if the banjo is pulling attention away from it, it's not supporting the song. Backup is outwardly simple and inwardly incredibly difficult. Keep the notes SUPPORTIVE of what's going on, not in conflict with it; keep the licks and notes uncolored where possible (playing ones and fives is a good concept here). Think of the banjo as being more of a percussion instrument than anything else.

This means that great backup is rhythmically PERFECT. A soloist or singer can screw with timing for effect. Backup? Not so much.

Jul 6, 2020 - 7:22:04 PM

2176 posts since 5/2/2012

I bought that Davis book about 6 months into switching over to Scruggs style picking. I, too, was overwhelmed. I liken the first part to being like high school, the second part like college, and the last part like grad school. You've gotten some good advice. Skip has given you some ideas of how different types of backup fits into the group, if playing in a group is your ultimate goal. You will need to learn the 3 basic (moveable) chord shapes, up and down the neck to do a simple vamp. I think if you go to your first jam session being able to do a basic vamp down and up the neck, maybe 3 or 4 simple licks in G, C and D, and (this is important), be able to transition between the chords quickly when vamping and transition quickly between vamping and playing a lick easily and quickly. You could mute your vamping if that would give you more confidence. If you are thinking about rolling backup, you will need to have your rolls down to the point where you literally don't need to think what your fingers are doing, as you need to divide your time between playing and listening to what the other instruments and the singer are doing. Good backup is a thing of beauty, and (at least to me) is more complex more difficult to learn than picking breaks/solos. And, some oft repeated advise -- some times less is more. Check out the lessons on the role (not roll) of the banjo and basic back-up here  John Boulding and if you can absorb that information and be able to apply it you will be well on your way. 

Jul 6, 2020 - 7:53:36 PM

3 posts since 7/6/2020

Thanks for the advice. At what point should I expect to be able to play backup for something like a guitar?

I'd like to play with others as soon as I can, I feel like it'll be very easy to slip into bad habits with tempo and volume if I don't.

Jul 6, 2020 - 8:08:20 PM

chuckv97

Canada

50785 posts since 10/5/2013

Play along with these jam videos. You can slow them down to your level.

Jul 6, 2020 - 8:14:56 PM
Players Union Member

Blackjaxe47

Canada

1535 posts since 6/20/2014

Get on U-Tube and listen to J.D.Crowe, Russ Carson, Earl Scruggs, Ron Stewart, Ron Block and hear what they are doing in any of their songs. It's not just about BANJO, it's the entire band and when someone is taking a break you need to give them space and not drown them out with you playing, embellish and color what the vocalist is doing.....like a nice little tag lick when they sing the last word or phrase.

Jul 6, 2020 - 8:30 PM

chuckv97

Canada

50785 posts since 10/5/2013

quote:
Originally posted by chuckv97

Play along with these backing tracks. You can slow them down to your level.


https://youtu.be/3jguEI3DJes

Edited by - chuckv97 on 07/06/2020 20:30:42

Jul 6, 2020 - 11:35:25 PM
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doryman

USA

845 posts since 11/26/2012
Online Now

quote:
Originally posted by SidtheKid

Thanks for the advice. At what point should I expect to be able to play backup for something like a guitar?

I'd like to play with others as soon as I can, I feel like it'll be very easy to slip into bad habits with tempo and volume if I don't.


In my humble opinion, if you can do simple vamping, IN TIME, you can begin to play with others. Over time, and with experience and practice, you can add more flourish.  That means you will need to be proficient at closed position chord shapes and be able to execute them fast enough to keep the beat.  I cannot stress this enough, if you want to play with others, and if you want others to want to play with you, you must be able to keep the beat.  Like a metronome.   We are playing drums on a stick. 

Jul 7, 2020 - 4:47:08 AM
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Texasbanjo (Moderator)

USA

24613 posts since 8/3/2003

You've gotten some excellent answers, so just let me tell you what I did to learn backup....

I learned from Janet's book many years ago. What I did, I took it one section at a time and got familiar with vamping and changing chords, then I added an ending lick (usually in G). When I got comfortable doing vamps, I added a forward roll and vamps and an ending lick. After that, I learned to do runs up and down to different chords; i.e., G to C, C to D, D to G and so on.

Don't try to memorize two or three pages of licks, it'll just confuse you (or it did me). Try learning 2 or 3 that you like and can play and then try incorporating them in places where the singer is taking a breath and there's a pause. As you get familiar with those, add another and another...... slowly increasing your lick repertoire.

Go ahead, go to jams. If you aren't sure what you need to do, sit in the circle and quietly try to just vamp and change chords, try to hear chord changes if you can't now. Don't worry if you can't keep up, most newbies can't. Feel free to ask the person sitting next to you what key the song is in if it's not announced.

Jul 7, 2020 - 5:08:16 AM

3182 posts since 5/29/2011

Another one to add to Ken Forbister's list is Sonny Osborne.

Jul 7, 2020 - 5:49:30 AM
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2639 posts since 4/19/2008

Each lick you learn with be centered around either the F, D or barre shape. If you want to understand the neck instead of mindless parroting try to play the lick as best you can in all three positions.

Jul 7, 2020 - 6:34:01 AM

3 posts since 7/6/2020

Thanks everyone for the helpful answers. I feel like I have a plan of attack now!

I have one more small question about this book and backup playing. When vamping, which beats do you vamp on? When the book introduces vamping, there are a number of different vamping patterns, most of which includes a thumb (or rest) on the first beat, a pinch on the second beat, and then some sort of flourish on the 3rd and 4th beats.

For example, with a G chord in the F position one of the vamp patterns is: (5) (435) (eighth rest 35) (4 35). I used parentheses to represent each of the 4 beats in a measure.

Am I supposed to vamp the last note of each beat? or vamp every note? or something else entirely? or is it just personal preference?

Jul 7, 2020 - 6:34:13 AM
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beegee

USA

21753 posts since 7/6/2005

To me, concerning backup. less is more. You don't have to play constantly filling all the empty spaces. Sometimes, just a simple tag lick or fill-in is all the backup a song requires. Backup should fit the mood of the song and not be formulaic. One of my favorite backups is jack Hicks' work on Bill & James Monroe's Father & Son album, Walls of Time.

Jul 7, 2020 - 6:46:28 AM

chuckv97

Canada

50785 posts since 10/5/2013

Yes, vamp on the 2nd half of the beat. But there are variations like you described. Check out this Sean Ray video. 
https://youtu.be/YC6tnqWeHyg

Edited by - chuckv97 on 07/07/2020 06:51:11

Jul 7, 2020 - 7:02:55 AM

12 posts since 5/28/2015

Start simple! Get good at rolling and vamping. Add in one lick at a time, even though it will sound redundant until you build up your stash. I wouldn't tab out or memorize it though.

Jul 7, 2020 - 7:03:50 AM

10845 posts since 2/12/2011

Mike Hedding has some good Youtube stuff on backup.

Jul 7, 2020 - 7:23:22 AM

1945 posts since 2/10/2013

I used her book and thought it was fine. I just selected one technique, say one type of vamping pattern, and played along with a recorded tune. I had two goals (1) become comfortable using that vamping pattern and (2) learn when/where the vamping pattern sounds right.

Don't use tabs when playing backup. You should play from memory. Practice playing the technique by itself until you have memorized it and feel comfortable playing it. Then try using the technique while playing rhythm for a recording. For example, play the music for "Fireball Mail" and play backup using the one vamping pattern you are learning. You have to gradually learn where/when each example for technique is effective.

Folks tend to ignore backup. You have to practice backup just like you practice playing breaks and/or licks.

I use "The Amazing Slow Downer" software when I practice. Software like this helps a lot when someone is learning. You can control tempo, key, loop, etc.. There are other software products similar to the one I mentioned.

You can't "eat" Janet's book in "one gulp". Select one item for a technique, work on that item. Practice playing backup for tunes using the techniques you have learned from the book. Regular practice reinforces your memory and also develops your "feel" for where a backup lick will work in a tune.

I would use the same approach to learn and use backup "licks". Actually, a lot of those licks aren't limited to playing backup. Many are used when playing "breaks" as well. When I first started playing I kept wondering what the difference was between backup licks and licks used when playing a break. I learned to stop doing that. If it sounds good, it is O.K..

Jul 7, 2020 - 9:24:17 AM

14841 posts since 12/2/2005

quote:
Originally posted by SidtheKid


I have one more small question about this book and backup playing. When vamping, which beats do you vamp on? When the book introduces vamping, there are a number of different vamping patterns, most of which includes a thumb (or rest) on the first beat, a pinch on the second beat, and then some sort of flourish on the 3rd and 4th beats.

For example, with a G chord in the F position one of the vamp patterns is: (5) (435) (eighth rest 35) (4 35). I used parentheses to represent each of the 4 beats in a measure.

Am I supposed to vamp the last note of each beat? or vamp every note? or something else entirely? or is it just personal preference?


You're in the right time zone here.

In 4/4 time (let's not argue over time signatures here) we're generally playing eight notes. Four beats. So we can think of it this way:

ONE and TWO and THREE and FOUR and.  Every number and every and is a note.

Put into the thumb/pinch vamp motif, that would be

THUMB and PINCH and THUMB and PINCH and, correspondingly.

Jul 7, 2020 - 9:28:54 AM

chuckv97

Canada

50785 posts since 10/5/2013

quote:
Originally posted by chuckv97

Yes, vamp on the 2nd half of the beat, if 2/4 time signature. (Thanks for reminding me, Skip)  But there are variations like you described. Check out this Sean Ray video. 
https://youtu.be/YC6tnqWeHyg


Jul 7, 2020 - 11:40:02 AM
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36 posts since 2/7/2020

The Davis book is large but I wouldn’t say it has a lot of material in it. A lot of its girth has to do with repetition and the inclusion of standard notation.

If you tabbed out every backup lick/pattern Earl ever used, it might take up 5 pages of tab. It’s modular/plug in stuff.

If you have an effective mandolin player, please don’t “vamp” too much.

Effective banjo backup to a dobro or guitar break can be accomplished by not playing anything audible.

Jul 7, 2020 - 6:23:20 PM

609 posts since 11/21/2018

I much prefer Jack Hatfield's Backup book to Janet Davis'. It starts you off on tunes right away, sequentially adding techniques in a very hearable and common sense manner. You'll be amazed after just a chapter or two how it all makes sense and is quickly transferable to other songs right away.
I was able to vamp and roll/pinch reasonably convincingly at my lst jam after a month of daily practice with it. It comes with 2 CDs and is a real deal. The CDs could use slower versions though....

Janet's book is more "encyclopedic" and is extremely comprehensive but not as beginner friendly.
I own both. I think following up Hatfield's book (eventually) with Janet Davis' book is a good path to take.

Jul 8, 2020 - 5:42:42 AM
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pickn5

USA

1491 posts since 8/8/2012

All good advice above. Geoff Hohwald has a very good backup series also.

Jul 8, 2020 - 7:31:34 AM
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1945 posts since 2/10/2013

Except for his "Pentatonic Banjo" publication and "Banjo Primer", I have not been a fan of Geoff's other books. Actually his "pentatonic banjo" instructional should have been labeled "Minor Pentatonic" because it never addresses major pentatonic scale usage.  The two instructionals I mentioned were fine.  I consider myself an intermediate level banjo hobbyist rather than a beginner, so that may have created the incompatibility between my needs and some of the publication's contents.  Most banjo instructionals don't address music theory.   It is sometime briefly mentioned but indepth explanations are not provided.  Before the flames start, I AM NOT referring to tabs for tunes.   I have 4 large 3 ring binders full of tabs.  I cannot understand why someone hasn't created a banjo instructional series using the same approach Steve Kaufman did with his "Parking Lot" guitar series.  Same thing for fiddle.

Some banjo instructional book authors put a lot more work into their publications. A comprehensive book on playing backup would have to be quite large. Janet Davis' rhythm backup book has "been around" for a very long time. With the availability of the software and the ability to download audios today, a lot of the material could be eliminated to create a less expensive and smaller version. Something like her melodic banjo book. Nevertheless, learn the techniques in her book and a banjo player will be a much better backup player than the average banjoist.

BTW, I do like Mel Bay's method of downloading audios. Whenever I have a problem with one of the "downloadable" audios, I just download it again.

Edited by - Richard Hauser on 07/08/2020 07:42:17

Jul 8, 2020 - 8:45:21 AM
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4165 posts since 6/15/2005

More than using books, I'd suggest listening and watching as much as you can. YouTube is a great resource for that. You can watch and listen to backup masters from Scruggs to Crowe to Carson.

I'm in the "less is more camp" when it comes to backup. You want to complement and support the singers and the other instruments, not distract or interfere with them (or, if you're performing, the audience).

I also have an issue with "thumb-pinch" vamping, in particular on using the thumb on beats one and three. That works really well when playing a version of Crowe's syncopated back-up vamping, but in ordinary, unsyncopated vamping, it can unintentionally undermine the music's drive - just like a band with a downbeat so strong that it overwhelms the backbeat and as a result the music drags and lacks a consistent rhythmic pulse. Especially as a beginner, it's easy to fall into that trap. I prefer to be silent on beats one and three except when I want to syncopate the vamping.

Edited by - arnie fleischer on 07/08/2020 08:46:06

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