Jack Tuttle
Performer - Instructor
jack@jacktuttle.com
650/248-4951
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Backup Methods For Instruments

Banjo
Often plays backup in a similar style to lead to impart the drive but sometimes plays a vamping pattern using closed chords with a percussive chop on the 2nd and 4th beats of a measure. Relentlessly puts fills in vocal holes and also plays a lots of up-the-neck licks, usually based on those by Earl Scruggs. Banjo is the most active backup instrument and in that respect has a unique role in bluegrass as an almost ever-present instrument from a backup perspective. Even when it is playing a passive, quieter back-up, one can usually hear fill licks.

Common problem areas: Some banjo players often over play, playing too much or too loud, but beginners usually play too little, failing to impart the necessay drive.

Mandolin
Mostly chops on the 2nd and 4th beat during backup, with occasional extra upstroke hits just ahead of the beat. On time pieces, the mandolin would usually chop on beats 2 and 3. It sometimes fills in the vocal holes on fast songs, and even occasionally it will play right over the singing. On slow numbers, the mandolin becomes a bit more prominent when actively backing up, filling vocal holes or playing tremolo behind the singer.

Common problem areas: Some mandolin players over play the rhythm, strumming too often. Also, some mandolin players fill too much.

Guitar
Uses very dynamic strumming with surprisingly quiet normal (but solid) strumming, with aggressive swells at the ends of lines. Special emphasis is added by occasionally strumming on the downbeat instead of playing a single bass note. Bass runs are common, with G runs at every opportunity during fills. Some players use lots of bass runs while other are more sparing. Some use highly syncopated bass runs.

Common problem areas: Most common problem is over-strumming, resulting in a thick, thrashing sound that makes the other instruments and vocal sound muddy. Also, many beginners don't use enough dynamics or enough variety in their strumming patterns.

Fiddle
Fills actively in the vocal holes at times, usually playing blues based licks. Will also play right under the vocals adding a subtle texture, usually on the lower strings, but occasionally up high. Often a fiddle will vamp right with the mandolin, either while holding a double stop or sometimes just hitting muted strings with the bow for a percussive sound. Sometimes the fiddle will disappear entirely from the sound.

Common problem areas: Playing too much or too loud or phrasing too much with the melody. This can distract a singer, especially if it's in the upper register.

Bass
Good groove for bluegrass most often consists of a fairly simple bass line - root and 5th of the chord on the 1st and 3rd beats of a measure. Bass runs connect one chord to another and are used on successive beats. Walking bass lines, where the bass plays on each beat using mostly arpeggio, scale or chromatic passages, is used for bouncy numbers with a swing feel, or to change the feel of a song, often during instrumental breaks, somewhere along the way. On time songs the bass normally would play just on the 1st beat of the measure, except during bass runs, but may play an additional offbeat note just ahead of that beat.

Common problem areas: Playing out of time, out of tune, or not getting good tone. It's not usually a problem to play simple lines, but good bass runs are a plus.

Dobro
When actively backing up, it plays bluesy fill licks on slow songs with lots of slides. On faster songs, it tends to play more punctuated lines. Often vamps on the off-beat in a mandolin style or can just be silent.

Common problem areas: Playing too many fills, thus squeezing out equal chances for other instruments to fill.

Updated June 7, 2008