Today, I’m going to show you a basic bluegrass backup lick that everyone uses. It was made popular by one of the most famous banjo players of all-time, Earl Scruggs. I HIGHLY recommend listening to the Foggy Mountain Banjo album if you haven’t already done so. It’s one of the essential bluegrass albums. I’m sorry, but you can’t be initiated into the bluegrass banjo cult without wearing it out. Ok, let’s help you play better banjo!
Bluegrass Backup Lick
How to use this Backup Banjo Lick
- Static I chords ( G to G for infinity)
- I going to IV (G to C)
- V going to I (D to G)
I am notating this in both the Roman numeral and letter systems. That way, if more seasoned players want to transpose it to another key, they can. However, I don’t want beginner’s to be confused by the number system if they don’t know it-in that case, only pay attention to the LETTERS.
1) Static I Chords
So, this banjo lick works any time you have two to four measures of a G chord. You can put the lick in the 2nd or 4th measures if you have four bars of G. Some great bluegrass tunes that have long stretches of G include:
Roll in my Sweet Baby’s arms.
The chorus to “Big Spike Hammer.”
Long Journey Home
2) I going to IV
In the video, I use a few examples (Can the Circle Be Unbroken and Nine Pound Hammer).
Let’s look at the chord chart for Nine Pound Hammer.
We will add the lick to the second measure as a transition into the C chord. I’d say this is the way Earl Scruggs used the lick the most.
3) V to I
Once again, take a look at the chord chart for Nine Pound Hammer up above. The only difference this time is you plug it in over the D chord going to G (measure 6). At this point, you are probably aware most bluegrass songs in the key of G contain a D to G movement. So, get prepared to drive your fellow jammers (or bandmates) nuts with this one. You can use it all the time!
Some additional notes to keep in mind
This is where a lot of banjo players fall short in their practice-They learn a lick, but it isn’t enough to learn banjo licks. You must take that ONE lick and practice putting it in a bunch of different places. You have to practice the lick in different songs and keys. Only then do you truly know the material. In the video, note how I used it in the classic fiddle tune “Salt Creek” (Timestamp 5:40). Yes, I used it over the G and the F chords.
There’s a story where someone told the late great jazz saxophonist Michael Brecker, “You sounded great tonight” and his response was, “All I did was play the same lick over and over.” What he meant was-he played a lot of the same material but in different orders and places.
Don’t obsess over finer details. In this example, where you slide from does not have to be exact, as long as your final destination is the middle finger on the 8th fret (For a G chord). As long as you aren’t doing something ridiculous and it sounds good, go with it.
You don’t need a 100 page book full of backup banjo licks to sound good. If you pay close attention to Earl Scruggs and J.D Crowe, they didn’t use that many licks. They were simply incredible at knowing WHEN to play them, WHERE to play them, and using them in a variety of ways.
As always, please leave a comment or send a message if you have any questions about how to play the banjo. I’ll have more Beginner Backup Banjo Licks coming soon!