SouthEastern Bluegrass Association

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An Introduction to Bluegrass Jamming:
Chapter 4: Backup

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 foundation of bluegrass backup (often called rhythm) is three instruments: the bass, the guitar, and the mandolin. The basic bluegrass rhythm pattern is a boom-chick boom-chick pattern. The boom here is often called the beat, and the chick is called the back-beat. A simple bluegrass bass pattern is simply to play the tonic of the chord on the beat and the 5th of the chord on the backbeat. The guitar typically plays a single bass note on the beat (boom) and brushes the strings of the chord on the backbeat (chick). The mandolin plays either not at all or a very light chord stroke on the beat (boom), and then a sharp chop on the backbeat (chick). A mandolin chop is performed by striking the strings of the chord quite hard, but then almost instantly damping the strings to stop the sound. The result is a short, percussive sound which is just barely identifiable as the chord.

When done correctly, the effect of a good rhythm section is remarkable. On the beat (boom), you get the tonic from the bass fiddle and the bass strings of the guitar, setting the pace for the music. Then, immediately following, you get the dramatic counter-sound of the backbeat (chick) with the roar of the full guitar chord accented by the percussive chop of the mandolin.

So what about the other instruments? Well, potentially the most wonderful and certainly the most dangerous backup instrument is the banjo. One basic form of banjo backup is vamping. This is basically just a banjo version of the mandolin chop, and it is used pretty much in the same way -- that is to punch up the backbeat. It is used in this way with the mandolin to backup other leads, and it is used to backup the mandolin when the mandolin has the lead. The other form of backup for the banjo is to use the same syncopated three-finger rolls which are used for a banjo lead. This can be very effective, but it can also be terrible when it conflicts or competes with other instrument or vocal leads. The best rule of thumb here is that, if you are a banjo player, go out of your way to learn syncopated backup techniques, and then, when you really know them well, use them very selectively and occasionally. The reason for this is that the banjo is such a loud, in-your-face instrument that it can interfere with, rather than backing up, the lead.

Almost equal in power and danger to the banjo is the fiddle. Fiddle backup is generally done by playing short tasteful riffs, usually referred to as "fills", that compliment the vocals as a breath is taken between lines or at the end of a verse or chorus. Next time you listen to your favorite bluegrass album listen to how the backup instruments come in and out. Something to keep in mind is that it's often said "It's more important to know when not to play than when to play". Another way to put it is, "sometimes less is more". This idea of playing during the "breaths" can also apply to playing fills between the lines of another instrument’s lead break.

Other advanced techniques that compliment another instrument's lead break are playing a harmony (the same way that a vocalist sings a harmony) or playing a counter-part lead that contrasts with, but at the same time compliments, the lead. Always remember that these backup techniques should be lower in volume so as to never overpower or take away from another's lead. Also, some fiddle players replicate the mandolin chop or banjo vamp by a sharp abrupt stroke on the strings using the frog end of the bow. If other instruments are already providing the backbeat, then it is not that interesting for the fiddle to provide this element. A fiddle can also add fullness by playing slow moving "string" parts consisting of half or whole notes. This is particularly effective in slower songs.

One final word about loudness. It is really important to adjust the level of the backup to match the level of the lead. Since the level of the lead often changes dramatically during a song, you must change too. A banjo at full cry can be very loud, and you may need to play flat out to blend. On the other hand, a soft voice or a guitar lead may be very soft, and you will need to cut way back. The basic rule is always listen to the music, not just to what you are playing but what the whole jam session is playing, and continuously adjust. The music will sound better, you will enjoy it more, and the other jammers will enjoy you more.


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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