Tag Archives: backup

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

The nice thing about working at home, as Casey has pointed out, is being able to work in your pajamas. So, here I sit at the computer, in my red pjs with my morning cuppa (tea), writing my blog before I’ve even had breakfast! My tummy protesteth!

This past weekend, as you know, we recorded a new banjo DVD, Beyond Vamping: Fancy Scruggs Backup. This was totally Casey’s idea and her concept of teaching a series of backup licks and then adding them to the same song so you get a whole song’s worth of backup is brilliant. You’re gonna love hearing Casey talk about the “short vamp diddley” and the “long vamp diddley” and what the Flint Hill Flash called the “Townhall Lick.”

My job throughout the shoot, in addition to playing guitar and singing and making sure Casey didn’t accidentally say anything wrong that she didn’t catch herself, was to keep an eye on Earl. Earl? Yes, Earl.

Casey has this wonderful gold necklace (which she wore on the Grand Ole Opry) from which hangs a tiny Earl Scruggs figure, possibly an inch high, with his banjo. What could be more appropriate for a Fancy Scruggs Backup DVD than to have a token of Earl actually in the room?

But a problem surfaced early on. Earl would occasionally be overcome with shyness and turn away from the camera. My job was to make sure Earl was always facing forward. This elicited comments from me such as “Earl’s getting a little sideways there” and “Earl’s a little crooked” and “I think Earl’s giving you a little kiss.” We had a lot of fun with Little Earl. (Which, by the way, is what Red and I named one of the chipmunks in our yard.)

Since my job didn’t require a whole lot of effort once Earl was in position, I took the liberty of writing down a few choice remarks that Casey addresses to the students. Which I will now share (if they pass Casey’s editorial powers!):

About the “long vamp diddley”: That’s a tricky little move. Get the timing in your fingers. I expect you to pause the video and go practice right now!

About the “Townhall Lick”: This lick takes an awful lot of left-hand dexterity.

About the “Cabin in Caroline Lick”: I’m about to sound like a broken record when I say, Get the notes down before you start to worry about the timing.

And my favorite (which she used several times): Take off your ring finger. Perhaps I’ve read the Lord of the Rings trilogy too many times, but each time she said this, I envisioned someone actually taking their ring finger off of their hand. With no help from Gollum!

Place your advance orders now. Operators are standing by. (One of them will be eating breakfast!)

Casey Henry

Casey Henry

Ask and you shall receive! The new backup DVD we filmed last weekend is now up on the site and available for pre-order. The title will be Beyond Vamping: Fancy Banjo Backup. The cover isn't done yet (I'm having the pictures taken tomorrow), so on the order page you'll see a still from the video rather than the cover design.

This DVD covers fancy, mostly up-the-neck, Scruggs-style backup. I've been thinking about how to teach it for at least a couple of years, and several of my students have been guinea pigs for these lessons, as have some workshop participants and camp attendees. I know for a fact that they were able to learn it in their face-to-face lessons, so I hope the same thing holds true for our DVD students.

The key to teaching this is to put the licks into songs. Many other DVDs out there are full of licks, and I'm sure they all show versions of these same licks. But they don't show you how to use them in patterns, within actual songs. Over the course of this DVD we build four different backup patterns, a lick at a time and if you make it all the way through the lessons (in order!) you will have a LOT of practice using these licks. Then it's up to you to take them and use them in your own playing and jamming.

A great way get some practice on this is to play along with the Slow Jam DVDs. Sure the songs seem too slow for many people once they get a certain number of playing hours under their belts, but this backup is a whole new ballgame! You can use the video in a new way and practice backing up a variety of songs.

But all this info is just academic until you actually have the DVD in your hands, which will be in about six weeks. So to tide you over, here's another picture from the shoot:

Casey and Murphy Henry, filming the new backup DVD.

Casey and Murphy Henry, filming the new backup DVD.

Here the first look at the backup DVD we're working on this weekend (that's look as in picture, not look as in video clip...). We shot all day yesterday and are about to crank up again this morning to finish it up.

Casey Henry, thinking about backup.

Casey Henry, thinking about backup.

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Apologies for not blogging on Thursday. Here’s my excuse: Casey arrived Wednesday night! Today (Friday) we start shooting a brand-new banjo DVD which she will be teaching. It’s chock full of all those fancy Scruggs backup licks you’ve been wanting to learn. They will all be taught note-by-note and then incorporated into a real song, so you can play along with us (I’ll be on guitar) until you feel ready to try them in a jam.

So, on Wednesday, what were we doing that interfered with my writing this all-important blog? Were we sitting around playing banjos? Were we discussing the upcoming DVD? No, we were not. First there was supper. Coming straight out of my lessons at 8 p.m., I managed to cobble together a “chick meal”–-baked sweet potatoes, black-eyed peas, avocado slices, and some of Casey’s homemade bread—since real meal of chicken and rice I’d planned on cooking was still in the raw stage. So it goes. Then, satiated, we retired to the sanctity of the TV room to watch Bridget Jones’s Diary! We love that movie!

And now, time’s up and I need to go upstairs and eat breakfast (Casey is fixing stell-cut oatmeal!) and get into my DVD clothes.

But first, a quick non-bluegrass story.

Yesterday morning I headed into town to run some errands. I stopped by Tom’s Market (our local Citgo station) for some gas. When I got back in the car, the day was so bright, I reached for my sunglasses. Drat! I couldn’t find them. Must have left them in the house I thought. As I drove, I tried to envision where I might have pulled them off and set them down. I felt very annoyed (or v. annoyed, as Bridget would write). I checked all the places in the car they might be. Nada.

Then I thought of checking my old sunglasses holder, which is actually too small to fit my new sunglasses. (Exact same brand and number, only slightly “improved,” doggone it.) Well, my new sunglasses weren’t there, but my old ones (with the broken earpiece) were. They’ll do, I thought. I took them out and put them on. Or rather, I tried to put them on. They fit right over my glasses and they weren’t going on too well. In that moment I realized, surprise, surprise: I already had my sunglasses on! And didn’t realize it!

Naturally I called Casey to tell her, but was laughing so hard I could barely get the story out. She was properly appreciative.

Alright. That’s all you get for a nickel, as we say here. Send good thoughts for a excellent day of shooting this DVD!

Casey Henry

Casey Henry

I’ve had a couple little students jams in the last month. After each jam I resolve to hold jams more often, but somehow I never do. This time, though, I really mean it. (Ha! How often has that been said?) Part of the problem is that at the moment I don’t have a group of students who are at the same level. I do, however, have two who are roughly compatible level-wise, and it only takes two people to have a jam, so I decided to go with it.

Ginny (the one who is now flatpicking the banjo) and Jean have enough material in common that we can jam for a good hour. Last night was an all-instrumental jam because my lingering cold prevents me from singing. We didn’t avoid the singing songs (Two Dollar Bill, Worried Man, Mountain Dew), we just played them as instrumentals.

I had a small revelation last night while I was watching them trade breaks back and forth. I’ve been thinking a lot about backup lately because I’m getting ready to film a new DVD teaching backup. Students are often impatient to learn backup because they find vamping boring. What I realized last night was that when someone else is taking a break, you shouldn’t be paying attention to your own vamping — that should just happen by rote (i.e. you should know the chords so well that you don’t have to think about them). You should be paying attention to, and watching, what the lead player is doing. The only reason students get bored vamping is that that’s all they’re thinking about. If you’re bored, then you’re not doing the right thing.

To use a sports metaphor (which I hardly ever do, but this one seems particularly appropriate): keep your eye on the ball. Keep your eye on the melody.

When I was in eighth grade, I played basketball for our middle school team. One particular game sticks in my memory. I played forward; I was never much of a ball handler. We were down at our end of the court, trying to score. One of my teammates had the ball and I was between her and the basket. She was dribbling, dribbling, then she shot. The moment the ball left her hand I turned and looked toward the basket, hoping for the rebound. Unfortunately, her shot was considerably short and instead of hitting the basket, it hit me in the head. Yes. Hit me in the head. Why? Because I took my eye off the ball.

If you’re playing lead, you’ve got the ball. If you are vamping, you should always be looking at the person with the lead, ready to take it at a second’s notice, or with no notice. When you hand off the lead, you need to follow it to its destination (the other player) and make sure it gets there. Once it’s there, what do you do? Keep watching! You don’t want it to come back and hit you in the head.

Casey HenrySomeone suggested to me, as I was getting ready to film the new Easy Songs DVD, that we do a video solely on backup. Of course, vamping is the first step in any banjo backup and we do have a video on that. There are some difficulties inherent in teaching more advanced backup. For one thing, in order to move beyond vamping, you have to be able to hear your chord changes absolutely cold. You can't spend one second of time thinking about the changes if you're also going to be thinking about doing backup licks at the same time.

For another thing, backup, by its very nature, is improvisatory. There is no set order in which to use backup licks. It's more like there is a pool of licks and you have to be able to tell which one is the appropriate one to use in each situation, and you have to make that decision very quickly. But to teach the licks you have to teach them in the context of a song, so it's almost necessary to make up an artificial "backup break" to a specific song so the student can learn both the licks and how they are used. [This topic is sounding familiar. I think I wrote a Banjo Newsletter article on it last year.]

But, all those difficulties aside, that idea is rattling around in my head and I'll no doubt refine it throughout this year as I teach as workshops and camps, and with my live students. Chances are you'll eventualy see a backup DVD in our new releases.

Casey HenryIn the last couple weeks, with two of my more advanced students, we've been looking at a particular backup lick that Earl uses sometimes. It's found on medium-to-slow tempo songs and is done with two-finger chords on the first and second strings way up the neck. (Here is where tab would come in handy. I could just show it to you and say--this lick!). One thing I sometimes have trouble with is finding the perfect example of a lick I want to teach. It can be a lick I use all the time, yet I'm not sure what song it came out of originally. For these backup licks I actually found three songs, which I'll share, first of all so that you can go listen to it, second of all so next time I want to teach it I can come and look and see what songs I used!

1.) "He Took Your Place" - The lick comes in on the second verse, 1:08 on the counter. This is the earliest example, from 1955, which was pre-dobro in Flatt and Scruggs, so you can hear the banjo really well.

2.) "On My Mind" - Earl uses the lick in the second half of the chorus, starting at 1:08, and again at 2:29. Now there's dobro in the band and therefore less banjo backup.

3.) "Crying My Heart Out Over You" - Two short uses here at 0:53 and 2:18.

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!