Banjo Backup: How to Do It (more about listening)

Red HenryWhen I listen to quite a few modern bluegrass bands, one thing I hear is the banjo. Playing and playing. Loudly. All the time. Through the vocals. Through the choruses. Through the other instruments' breaks. And most of the time, the banjo player doesn't seem to be listening to the rest of the band, but is just playing his own [or her own!] favorite licks and droning rolls over and over. It's as if he thinks the rest of the band is playing and singing along with him! --- he's not thinking of listening and playing together with the group. The banjo is the giant in overshoes, stepping on everybody else's music.

But when I listen to old Flatt & Scruggs records, although Earl's the best banjo player in the world, he's not stepping over anybody else. Earl keeps his banjo out of the way of the vocals and other instruments, and never crowds the music or detracts from it. And that was part of the magical Flatt & Scruggs band sound, one reason why it was so good and so many people liked it.

There was an article about Earl in a recent issue of the Fretboard Journal. In it, John McCuen quoted Earl about backing up a lead singer: "If he's singing low I play high, and if he's singing high, I play low." Earl talks just like he plays, expressing the most with the fewest words! Just fourteen words, and he said so much! When he's backing up a singer, Earl's not just playing, he's listening. Earl's not there to show off his banjo licks. He's there to make the music sound better. He LISTENS while he's playing, to make sure he complements the music and doesn't intrude or cover anybody else up.

Earl's a musical genius, but you don't have to be one to follow his rule. Listen to his records to get the idea, and then keep it in mind when you're playing with others yourself. When you're playing the banjo in a group, don't let your banjo step on everybody else. Make the banjo be part of the group, not the giant in overshoes! Make yourself part of the music. That's How to Do It!

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About Red Henry

Began playing mandolin, guitar, fiddle, and banjo in 1967-69. I married Murphy in 1974. We led the Red & Murphy bluegrass band, playing professionally, from 1975-87. Since then I've handled the technical side of Murphy Method cassette, videotape, and DVD production. When you call I usually answer the phone, and I'm normally the one who sends out the orders.