Tip Jar Jam #42: Banjo Backup

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Another interesting Wednesday night jam. Again, we had only three students, Bob Mc, Kathy Hanson, and Bobby, who answered "Yes, dear" to my frantic, last minute call asking him to come to the jam. But small jams are nice because, for one thing, the music has more room to breathe, allowing the jammers to do more than vamp during the vocals.

It only took one vocal number last night for me to realize that the music was empty and flat, devoid of color or nuance. Bobby was singing Little Cabin Home On The Hill and Bob and Kathy were vamping quietly and I was chopping mandolin. There was absolutely nothing else going on while Bobby was singing. And since there were so few of us, the silence was deafening.

So, after the song was over I asked, "Did the music seem empty to you?" Small discussion about what I meant. "Well, it seemed empty to me. Let's do this same song again, but this time I want the banjos to do some backup while Bobby is singing. And since you don't know any real backup [read: fancy Scruggs backup] I want you to quietly play your break while Bobby is singing. You two will have to work out between yourselves who is going to be playing, and who is going to be vamping. You'll have to trade off. And remember: never, ever do this kind of backup in a large jam session. This only works when there are four or five people."

I continued on. "There are a couple of ways you could work this out. One of you could back up the verse and chorus and then trade off or you could trade off  after the verse and let the other one back up the chorus. It's your choice. And also remember, don't play any backup while the other instruments are taking their break. You should be vamping then."

Off we went again, with Bob backing up the vocals first. He chose to back up the verse and chorus. Since the whole concept was so new, I think it was too hard to think of switching off after he'd just gotten started. Then he traded off so Kathy could back up the next verse and chorus. It went very well and I even had to ask them to play louder, a novel concept for banjos!

Naturally, there was a small glitch. Me: "Was someone playing backup while I was taking my mandolin break? Bob: "Guilty! It was me." (I think Bob was having such a good time backing up the vocals that he forgot to move to vamping. Nothing more.)

However, we then had a short discussion about the different ways for a banjo to back up a mandolin in a small group. The way I prefer is to have the banjo vamp. But the more modern way--which comes from the Jimmy Martin school of bluegrass--is to have the banjo continue to roll in first position while the mandolin is taking its break. IMHO, this competes with what the mandolin is doing. (And can drown the mandolin out.) However, if you are in a band and this is the sound you prefer, then go for it. But in a jam, it's best to err on the side of caution and vamp. NOTE TO WOMEN BANJO PICKERS: If you are in a jam and the male banjo players are rolling through the mandolin break, then you should do likewise, even if it seems "wrong" and intrusive. It's a case of when in Rome. To continue to vamp will be seen as a sign of weakness and not knowing how to back up a mandolin.

Now for an abrupt shift in topic....

Later in the jam, Kathy made her debut on the bass. She had recently bought a bass [shout out to Fretwell Bass in southern Virginia] and had been working with our Beginning Bass DVD. Since she plays guitar and banjo and hears her chord changes, bass is coming pretty easy to her. And she has an excellent sense of timing, putting the bass notes--the beat--right in the "pocket" as we call it.

Aside: Someone once explained the concept of "pocket" to me this way. (I think it was Murray Ross, electric bass player with the Front Porch String Band. He played bass on our Everyday Silver album.) He said, "Think of the beat as the letter V. The 'pocket' is the very bottom of that V, right there in the middle. That's where you should put the beat." Of course, there is the whole concept of playing slightly in front of the beat or even slightly behind the beat but that's an extremely advanced concept. I'm not quite sure I understand it myself.

And I wish I had time to tell you all about the IBMA World of Bluegrass in Raleigh. I had a wonderful week with Tip Jar Jammers Kathy Holiday, Kathy Hanson, and Kristina. Right now I just want to close out with a shout out to IBMA Banjo Player of the Year, Mike Munford, from Baltimore.

Here is my favorite Mike Munford story: It was Sunday, the last day at the Maryland Banjo Academy, which was put on by Banjo Newsletter in Buckeystown, Md. All the instructors were gathered in a big room to do some picking together for the students. Present were: Eddie Adcock, Martha Adcock (the only other woman, on rhythm guitar), Bill Emerson, Mike Munford, me, and several other local banjo players. I didn't know Mike very well, but playing in the company of Eddie Adcock and Bill Emerson was pretty intimidating for me. I was afraid they would choose something difficult to play and, God knows, they could have. But, bless their hearts, they stuck to three-chord banjo tunes like Lonesome Road Blues. I loved them for that. But here you have this line of banjo players, all taking lead breaks, one at a time. Most of us vamped quietly in the background when it wasn't our turn to play lead. But Mike Munford stopped playing entirely and listened to what the other players were doing. I have never forgotten that. He is a Prince of a Fellow (as Big Dalton would say) and I am so glad he was named IBMA Banjo Player of the Year. Congratulations, Mike!

One thought on “Tip Jar Jam #42: Banjo Backup

  1. Martin Bacon

    My worthless 2 cents:
    If rhythm is important (and it is) what better time for the banjo to vamp than when the mandolin is playing their break. When a good mandolin player is chopping on the offbeat, the banjo the vamping is and often sounds redundant (even if it is all I can do). When I can play banjo again I am going to work on that backup thing. The problem is it is way harder for me than playing a break (I guess that is why I should work on it, duh!). Great banjo backup adds so much to the music. I am glad you all are working on it.

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