SouthEastern Bluegrass Association

SEBA Newsletter Sample

An Introduction to Bluegrass Jamming:
Chapter 5: Breaks

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


Many people are first attracted to bluegrass because of the power of its instrumentals. Indeed, there is little that can compare to the power and excitement of Earl Scruggs playing a banjo solo or Tony Rice playing a guitar solo, and you can find many wonderful instrumentalists in a bluegrass parking lot.

As a rule, most bluegrass songs start with a kickoff, which is just an initial (sometime abbreviated) instrumental solo. After that, a full instrumental break is played after each of the choruses except the last. Each break is played by an individual instrument, with all the other instruments playing a backup role as discussed above. Each successive break is generally played by a different individual instrument, unless there are not enough different instruments, in which case one of the instruments gets to repeat. In this way, each of the people in the jam session gets his or her individual chance to show out on a break.

The break itself can range from a simple rendition of the melody to some wild jazz-like improvisation which never comes even close to the actual melody. Most good breaks are somewhere in between these two extremes. The cardinal rule for breaks is that when it is your turn, give it all you’ve got -- at all other times, play good backup, support whoever is playing lead as best you can, and generally stay out of the way.


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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