Backup Banjo Concepts

If your goal as a banjo student is to one day play in a group or at a jam session, you need to understand this BIG POINT:

You’ll spend at least 75% of your time playing BACKUP and not lead!

The good news is backup doesn’t need to be complicated. It can be quite simple and sound good. -I always kid that I could probably take one piece of paper and write all you need to know about backup on the front and back.

If you have one of those big books with a hundred backup licks in it, you can probably just toss it in the trash, you don’t need it. You can’t possibly memorize all of that and none of the greats use that many backup licks and tricks.

Banjo Backup Ideas

Let’s start with the two major types of banjo backup you’ll encounter.

The Two Types of Banjo Backup

  • Vamping/Chording
  • Rolling Backup

Vamping or Chording style backup refers to your Boom-Chick or what I call Thumb-Pluck technique.  You are holding down chords and choking off the sound on the 2nd and 4th beats of the measure (In 4/4 time signature).  Vamping is good for slower & soft tunes.  It also works well on vocal songs where providing rhythmic drive and momentum is less important.  You can hear Earl Scruggs and J.D Crowe do this a lot.

Rolling Backup refers to doing simple rolls behind the singer or instrumentalist.  The key is to play softer and make sure you keep time.  The largest challenge behind this style is that you’ll be playing something besides the melody, so care is needed not to lose your place in the song.  If your Rolling Backup is complicated, then you are probably doing something wrong.  Keep it simple.  I wrote an easy e-book on Rolling Backup.

Jimmy Martin was someone who liked his banjo players to do this behind his singing.  Modern Bluegrass uses a lot of rolling backup.  People like Sammy Shelor and Ron Block are good to listen to for this.

Some Quick Good Backup Hints

  1. As a beginner, plan it out in advance
  2. Use Contrast-if there are a lot of high sounds, use low sounds and vice versa
  3. Blend in instead of sticking out
  4. Listen for the spaces or holds

Here is my Backup Banjo LIVE STREAM going over these ideas and processes in more detail:

Plan it out in Advance

I think a lot of beginners go to jams and think they’ll  just wing it.  They think they’ll be able to put in the licks they practiced on the spot.  You have to be able to work out a rehearsed backup before you can improvise one.  When you are planning, map it out as follows:

Break down songs into sections.  For example, Verse and chorus.  Have THEMES to your backup.

On the verse I’ll play vamping backup.  On the chorus, I’ll play rolling backup.  Maybe break it down into each verse. 

Verse 1-Keep it simple,

Verse 2-insert Scruggs lick like this.

Verse 3-Insert this Bluesy lick

There are a myriad of possibilities.  Play around with the approaches in different orders and see what you like the best.

Use Contrast

I often use an example of a male versus female singer.  I listen for the high versus low notes each singer does.  If i sense the melody is in the low ranges (envision Johnny Cash) I stay out of the low register and move up high.  Vice versa for high tenor singers.  This is a rule and it is and can be broken.  It’s just a guideline.  The same thing with other instruments.  If I sense the fiddler is playing up high, I stay down low with my rolling backup.  I learned a lot about this when I studied classical composing with a teacher.  We discussed ORCHESTRATION.  In summary:

If you get too many instruments and sounds in the same register, you get a bunch of mud.  A wash, that isn’t distinct and clear.

Blend in, don’t stand out

A good backup banjo player understands it is not their time to shine.  Your goal is to make the rest of the group sound better.  Volume is important.  If you play too loud, you will drown out the vocalist or instrumentalist or their lead breaks.  If you put in too many hot licks, the audience and group will get tired of hearing it.  They call this OVERPLAYING.

You can’t beat J.D Crowe and Earl Scruggs for backup.  Listen to their playing and see how they fill in the spaces.

Listen for the spaces and holds

These are opportune times to insert fills, runs, and neat rhythmic ideas.  A hold is pretty self-explanatory.  Anytime you hear the lead vocalist holding a note for a longer period of time, you can put a little something underneath them.  The same goes for any time they stop singing, you can tastefully add some fills.  Once again, be careful not to overdue this.

A more intermediate banjo concept-Listen to what everyone else is doing.  If you go to put in backup licks at the same time as the fiddle or mandolin, it can get tiresome quick.  Respect your bandmates or fellow jammers.  Give everyone else a chance to put in backup licks.  I had a mandolin player tell me to get off the backup licks when I was about 18 years old.  I’ll never forget it, his stern but true advice was quite helpful.  Hey, sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know!

Closing Thoughts

I hope you enjoyed these quick hints about backup.  Please be sure to sign up for my Banjo Journey Newsletter to be informed of updates on my YouTube channel, this blog, new products, and any special sales I run.  CLICK ON THE PHOTO UNDERNEATH

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Jody Written by:

Professional Musician of 27 years. I've played Banjo and Acoustic Guitar on the stages of Carnegie Hall, The Grand Ole Opry, and The Ryman Auditorium. I've also played in six different countries.