SouthEastern Bluegrass Association

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An Introduction to Bluegrass Jamming:
Chapter 7: Harmony Singing

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

Harmony Singing

As a rule, the chorus of most bluegrass songs is sung either as a trio (baritone, lead and tenor) for a secular song or in four parts (baritone, lead, tenor and bass) for a gospel song. The reason that good bluegrass singers can sing harmony together on the fly is that bluegrass harmonies follow a few simple rules.

First, bluegrass harmony is generally as close as possible. This means that the tenor, lead, and baritone parts are formed as adjacent notes in a chord. In bluegrass (regardless of what you may have learned elsewhere) the tenor part is the note in the chord which is as close as possible to but above the lead, and the baritone part is the note in the chord which is as close as possible to but below the lead.

(It should be noted that the terms "tenor’ and "baritone" are applied to both male and female singers in bluegrass, and are really only a description of where the particular part is being sung in relation to the lead. So when we say that the normal bluegrass harmony stack is a baritone, lead and tenor, we mean that the lead is always being sandwiched between a baritone part below and a tenor part above in the form of a chord. It is also possible to add a high baritone part, which is an octave above the regular baritone, and a low tenor part, which is an octave below the regular tenor.)

It is also important to know that even though there will generally be several people singing on the chorus, it is also not a sing-a-long.

Generally, there is one lead singer, one tenor singer, one baritone singer, and (for a gospel song) one bass. However, the rule for the chorus is not as strong as for the lead. This is because the skill level and vocal range of the available singers may not allow a standard harmony configuration. It is still not good to sing along with the lead, although it may be ok to add a high baritone, a low tenor or even to double one of the other harmony parts occasionally.


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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