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An Introduction to Bluegrass Jamming:
Chapter 3: The Structure of a Bluegrass Song

By Tom Barnwell

Editor's Note: This excellent article is a must-read for anyone interested in Bluegrass music. For readability, we have divided the article into 10 "chapters", as follows:

Chapter 1 Preface
Chapter 2 Instruments
Chapter 3 The Structure Of A Bluegrass Song
Chapter 4 Backup
Chapter 5 Breaks
Chapter 6 Lead Singing
Chapter 7 Harmony Singing
Chapter 8 Song Selection
Chapter 9 Bluegrass Jamming Signals
Chapter 10 Jamming Etiquette

The Structure of a Bluegrass Song

Bluegrass songs are typically divided into a series of breaks, verses, and choruses. A typical bluegrass song might be structured as follows:

(1) An initial Break (often call the Kickoff), (2) Verse, (3) Chorus, (4) Break, (5) Verse, (6) Chorus, (7) Break, (8) Verse, (9) Chorus, (10) Break, (11) Chorus

In each of the individual units, there is a lead activity and a backup activity. In a break, usually one of the individual instruments takes the lead while the rest of the instruments back him (or her) up. In the verse, usually there is one lead singer. In the chorus, there are usually one, two, three or four singers singing one, two, three of four part harmony. In both the verse and the chorus, there is instrumental backup music. The most important rule in bluegrass jamming is IF YOU ARE NOT LEADING, YOUR JOB IS TO DO BACKUP IN SUCH A WAY AS TO MAKE THE LEAD SOUND AS GOOD AS POSSIBLE. A point often missed by novices is that backup in a jam session is usually more important then the lead. You can make really good music with a good backup and a modest lead, but without a good backup, you cannot make good music no matter how good the lead is. Since backup is so important, I am going to talk about it first.

Notes

This article Copyright, 1997 by the SouthEastern Bluegrass Association.

The author would like to extend special thanks to Selwyn Blakely for his valuable input, and to Scott Woody, Mike Flemming and Gerald Hooke for their valuable comments.

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