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Thread: Backup at a Bluegrass Jam

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    Registered User jmalmsteen's Avatar
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    Default Backup at a Bluegrass Jam

    I have a question about what exactly a mandolin player is supposed to do when playing backup at a bluegrass jam.

    I am able to play chop chords to the songs and most of the time the keys are not announced but I can keep up without a problem (standing across from the guitarists always helps!)

    Now that I can play chords and figure out the key, I am wondering where to go as a next step. I noticed that the mandolin players don't play chop chords and seem to be "soloing" during the entire song. When it is their turn to solo, they will just do what they have been doing but only louder. Even when the other instruments are soloing, they will continue this. I want to find out what is appropriate backup before I even attempt something similar since constantly "soloing" sounds like it is stepping all over the other instruments. Thank you for the advice.
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    Registered User mandobassman's Avatar
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    Default Re: Backup at a Bluegrass Jam

    You're right about backup throughout a song is not only stepping over the other instruments, but all over the vocal as well. After all, backup is supposed to support the vocals with appropriately-placed fill lines, mainly to fill the gaps between vocal lines. It's not supposed to be a opportunity to show off licks, like many inexperienced players do. It should not be through a entire song, and certainly not in a jam where there is no organization. It just winds up sounding like chaos. I almost never play back up in a jam unless someone indicated to me to do so. Just chop. There is enough going on in a jam. Even in my band, I don't do too much back up work, but that's mainly because our banjo player doesn't seem to want to give up much himself, and I won't play at the same time he is.
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    Registered User Andy Alexander's Avatar
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    Default Re: Backup at a Bluegrass Jam

    A good chop on the off beat is a pretty powerful contribution to the overall sound of the group. Once you get that down, try adding fill licks during the pause at the end of vocal lines. There is a wealth of Monroe licks that work great for this.

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    Default Re: Backup at a Bluegrass Jam

    That's right - playing licks during the singing portions is distracting and disruptive. People doing so are usually either inexperienced newbies or overbearing egomaniacs. If they're the former, it's understandable - they are trying to learn - but they really should keep quiet enough to be unheard by others. If they're the latter, they should be strangled with their own strings - it's for the common good.

    The best approach is to keep in mind the ensemble sound, and adjust your contribution accordingly. While someone is singing, stay out of the way - it's not your turn to shine, it's his or hers. When it's time for solos, let the leader - could be the singer, could be whoever called the song - direct things, and wait your turn. Often turns are taken in a circular fashion, sometimes they are split, just follow whatever seems to be what is going on. Be patient and considerate - everyone is in the same boat. If it seems to be taking too long to get to your turn, or if some players seem to be getting the nod more often than others, you may have wandered into a somewhat private jam, and may be better off to keep moving. That said, when you do get a chance to play, give it your best shot, which may mean not so much showing off or going nuts with fancy or fast picking as much as fitting into a groove, keeping in mind the ensemble sound,as I said. Adjust your volume relative to the rest of the activity with this in mind - this can be a bit tricky as you will tend to sound loudest to yourself. Playing this way will earn appreciation for you and what you're doing, and you will find yourself getting welcomed in more and likely getting the nod more often.

    It is possible to throw little licks in during the singing, but they should fit around what the singer is doing and complement it, not distract from it. It takes some doing, some smarts and sensitivity, to do this well. This is something you should probably work on at home, playing to recordings. Bear in mind that what you are doing in these places is generally superfluous and unnecessary, usually secondary at best, so keep it from attracting attention. And doing it constantly is a bad idea, and may even get you kicked out of the jam. It is a supporting role, not the lead role, and just like in theatre, don't upstage anyone. Doing this right takes practice, and practice is more the domain of band rehearsal (work) than jamming (fun), and as they say, if it ain't fun, why do it? Sometimes crosspicking fits in better than playing licks - it's a different texture, less often heard, works well with banjo picking, and tends to be quieter anyway.
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    Default Re: Backup at a Bluegrass Jam

    My advice is that it depends on the jam. If there are 20 instruments, less is more. If it's a singing bg jam, the vocals take precedent. but if it's small enough to be heard--either tunes or singing--you can play rhythmic figures, counter-melodies, harmonies under the lead and it can really lift the lead. Without having heard what others are doing, it may be the case that they're just blindly noodling. That's something to avoid if it gets distracting. Basic rule is that if you can't hear the lead/singer, YOU are playing too loud or too much.
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    Default Re: Backup at a Bluegrass Jam

    The best advice I heard was embarrassingly obvious and most people haven't gotten it: if you cannot hear the lead or solo directly, every note, word, or sound, you're playing too loud. "Directly" means that is doesn't count if you imagine the words they are saying because you know the lyrics already.

    This usually results in you becoming a better musician and a good ensemble player while others drown each other out.

    It doesn't take much for a chop to chop off half a word.
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    Default Re: Backup at a Bluegrass Jam

    Quote Originally Posted by jmalmsteen View Post
    I noticed that the mandolin players don't play chop chords and seem to be "soloing" during the entire song. When it is their turn to solo, they will just do what they have been doing but only louder. Even when the other instruments are soloing, they will continue this. I want to find out what is appropriate backup before I even attempt something similar since constantly "soloing" sounds like it is stepping all over the other instruments.
    That's exactly what they are doing. Stepping all over the other instruments. These players are self centered and not cooperative.

    Quote Originally Posted by mandobassman View Post
    It just winds up sounding like chaos.
    Yep!

    Quote Originally Posted by Andy Alexander View Post
    A good chop on the off beat is a pretty powerful contribution to the overall sound of the group.
    And, yep.
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    Default Re: Backup at a Bluegrass Jam

    Quote Originally Posted by journeybear View Post
    That's right - playing licks during the singing portions is distracting and disruptive. People doing so are usually either inexperienced newbies or overbearing egomaniacs.

    ...While someone is singing, stay out of the way - it's not your turn to shine, it's his or hers.

    ...Be patient and considerate...

    ...Adjust your volume relative to the rest of the activity with this in mind - this can be a bit tricky as you will tend to sound loudest to yourself. Playing this way will earn appreciation for you and what you're doing, and you will find yourself getting welcomed in more and likely getting the nod more often.

    It is possible to throw little licks in during the singing... It takes some doing, some smarts and sensitivity, to do this well. This is something you should probably work on at home...
    This.

    Quote Originally Posted by Fred Keller View Post
    ...it may be the case that they're just blindly noodling. That's something to avoid if it gets distracting. Basic rule is that if you can't hear the lead/singer, YOU are playing too loud or too much.
    That.

    Quote Originally Posted by tomgun View Post
    The best advice I heard was embarrassingly obvious and most people haven't gotten it: if you cannot hear the lead or solo directly, every note, word, or sound, you're playing too loud.

    It doesn't take much for a chop to chop off half a word.
    Again, this.
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    Default Re: Backup at a Bluegrass Jam

    Remember, jamming in it's finest form should not be a competitive event but it often is. Egos collide and carnage ensues. Don't get caught up in that garbage and don't bother trying to correct it. Playing over others is inconsiderate and rude whether they are aware of it or not. You can't make them "not suck". If you're gonna noodle like that than stand away from the jam on your own. Play the melody. Keep your head up and listen to what's going on.

    Don't be the "head down" drummer lost in their own world of rock stardom not caring what the others are doing or playing.

    Learn to stand out by blending in.
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    Default Re: Backup at a Bluegrass Jam

    Great question, and just by asking says a lot of good things about you!

    I agree with most responses but would like to add a different variation. I recently started working on chord substitutions. Last nights jam we played leather britches in G and I tried out the fiddle tune progression I learned. I think it threw off the guy on lead. How does everyone feel on that? The chords absolutely fit. I'd think if you're blending with just enough it should be fine, however to someone not used to it maybe it's a problem?

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    jbmando RIP HK Jim Broyles's Avatar
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    Default Re: Backup at a Bluegrass Jam

    I'd say leave the chord substitutions in your practice room and play the exact chords at a bluegrass jam. Unless you mean change the voicings and play the same chord a different way, I do not want to hear a Bm when the song has a D and jazz chords sound off in a bg jam.
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    Default Re: Backup at a Bluegrass Jam

    Quote Originally Posted by Patrick Bouldin View Post
    ... maybe it's a problem?
    Maybe? It's called backup, so back the #@!! up! Unless you're trying to work up some stuff with band members (which is kind of a jam faux pas), or you're with a bunch of guys who are into progressive bluegrass or otherwise mixing genres together, best to let whoever is taking the lead shine and back him or her up until it's your turn. Unanticipated experimentation can throw people off.
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    Default Re: Backup at a Bluegrass Jam

    Quote Originally Posted by Jim Broyles View Post
    I'd say leave the chord substitutions in your practice room and play the exact chords at a bluegrass jam. Unless you mean change the voicings and play the same chord a different way, I do not want to hear a Bm when the song has a D and jazz chords sound off in a bg jam.
    Interesting. A few weeks ago there was a guy who played backup during my lead using a typical Tx fiddle progression. Liked it a lot and that was my inspiration to learn. Had a very well known and respected pro out here teach them to me and encouraged me to use them in the jams. I think it's one of those grey areas, if it bothers someone, stop; if it it's welcome, done right and welcome all the better.

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    Registered User mandobassman's Avatar
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    Default Re: Backup at a Bluegrass Jam

    You're right, Patrick. It can be done. But very few people do it right and most of the time it just sounds messy. It usually has to be worked out ahead of time and seldom works in a jam situation.
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    Default Re: Backup at a Bluegrass Jam

    Quote Originally Posted by Patrick Bouldin View Post
    Interesting. A few weeks ago there was a guy who played backup during my lead using a typical Tx fiddle progression. Liked it a lot and that was my inspiration to learn. Had a very well known and respected pro out here teach them to me and encouraged me to use them in the jams. I think it's one of those grey areas, if it bothers someone, stop; if it it's welcome, done right and welcome all the better.
    In my very humble opinion, I believe that it is only "grey"" because you want to play the sub chords. It is most definitely not a grey area in any bluegrass jam I have ever been involved in. The (not un)spoken rule is leave the jazz chords and relative minors, etc., for the free-form jams and play the songs right unless your name is Grisman, Thile, or Marshall.
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    Default Re: Backup at a Bluegrass Jam

    The (not un)spoken rule is leave the jazz chords and relative minors, etc., for the free-form jams and play the songs right unless your name is Grisman, Thile, or Marshall.
    I might vote of "play the songs like the rest of the people in the jam," but "play the song right" sounds like too many fiddle players for my taste. (That should get a rise out of the fiddlers[I]

    My rule is, "When in Rome do as the Romans," and when in a jam do as the other jammers or find another jam."

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    Default Re: Backup at a Bluegrass Jam

    If it's a jam that you've been going to for a short time, then mostly listen. If it's a jam that you've been going to for a long time, then since you've been listening for a long time, you will know what is appropriate!

    When in doubt, lay out.

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    Default Re: Backup at a Bluegrass Jam

    Quote Originally Posted by Patrick Bouldin View Post
    Interesting. A few weeks ago there was a guy who played backup during my lead using a typical Tx fiddle progression. Liked it a lot and that was my inspiration to learn. Had a very well known and respected pro out here teach them to me and encouraged me to use them in the jams. I think it's one of those grey areas, if it bothers someone, stop; if it it's welcome, done right and welcome all the better.
    I think there's a place for color substitutions in BG. Tony Rice sure made it work and he had to start at the beginning, just like everybody else. Probably not the kind of thing you want to do with everybody all the time, but judiciously with people you think are likely to hear and/or get it.

    One substitution you can get away with fairly easily is using the appropriate half-diminished chord in lieu of a 7th chord. It is basically the 7th without a root note, and odds are pretty good that somebody in the group is playing the root.
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    Default Re: Backup at a Bluegrass Jam

    If you approach the jam with the intention of improving the over musicality of the night then you will find places within songs that you can add a little fill or run that highlights the song or the words. Like many others say, just don't go steppin' in toes. Have fun.

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    Registered User Mike Snyder's Avatar
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    Default Re: Backup at a Bluegrass Jam

    In a jam with a good banjo player who LISTENS you can share the runs and fills and it sounds real good. You do fill and runs while he chops (or "vamps") then he fills while you chop. Listen to some McCoury recordings. They get all three going at once with the fiddle added. Bluegrass is just dull if it's just "your break, my break" style. Just one reason I prefer old-time/ITM style.
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    Default Re: Backup at a Bluegrass Jam

    Quote Originally Posted by tree View Post
    I think there's a place for color substitutions in BG. .
    There absolutely is. The issue though, is whether there is a place for it in a jam. The practice, the rehursal, the performance, yes of course, but if its not already happening in the jam then its probably not good to be changing up the chords.
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    Registered User John Duncan's Avatar
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    Default Re: Backup at a Bluegrass Jam

    Chop. Just Chop. The more I play mandolin at jams or out at gigs, the more I realize there is sooooo much to be done rhythm wise and chop wise. There isn't just one chop. There is muted, full, ringin; you can work on pushing the beat, being right in the center or how to accent the rhythm at the end of vocal lines (ala Doyle).

    Good rhythm, and chopping are so often overlooked but it is 90% of what being a bluegrass mandolin player is (IMO). For the most part, you might have one kick off in a song or one break. The rest of that song you are playing rhythm. Working on that part has been really rewarding for me. I think in your jam you might be able to really shine as having good rhythm and taste. Its already been said but, DO NOT "FILL" OR "SOLO" THE WHOLE TIME.
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    Default Re: Backup at a Bluegrass Jam

    Quote Originally Posted by jhduncan View Post
    Chop. Just Chop. The more I play mandolin at jams or out at gigs, the more I realize there is sooooo much to be done rhythm wise and chop wise. There isn't just one chop. There is muted, full, ringin; you can work on pushing the beat, being right in the center or how to accent the rhythm at the end of vocal lines (ala Doyle).

    Good rhythm, and chopping are so often overlooked but it is 90% of what being a bluegrass mandolin player is (IMO). For the most part, you might have one kick off in a song or one break. The rest of that song you are playing rhythm. Working on that part has been really rewarding for me. I think in your jam you might be able to really shine as having good rhythm and taste. Its already been said but, DO NOT "FILL" OR "SOLO" THE WHOLE TIME.
    When I posted my variation of the question I did so with my own inpretation of jams here in my neck of the woods. I've been to jams in several states, and also in Canada and England. I think here in North Texas it's fairly unstructured compared to other places. By that I mean that although there are "rules", (the same ones everyone here knows well) unfortunately the most basic ones are pretty much violated on a constant basis. I'm one of the irritated ones when I hear too much volume, or someone leading a song and not passing to anyone - at all, or ripping a lead through your lead, etc. I've seen it degrade in the last few years. Or, maybe I've been more aware of it too. So, I definitely don't want to make things more chaotic with chord subs, but if I'm in a group of jammers that know me I think the best way for me to proceed is to simply ask them in advance - I feel comfortable doing that and I know they'll respond either way.

    That said, just as being on the "receiving" end of that experience greatly benefitted me by driving me to expand my rhythm I feel sure that if the group welcomes the variation it is the right thing - at least here.

    Patrick

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    Default Re: Backup at a Bluegrass Jam

    I listen to LOTS of Bluegrass every day. What i mostly hear in songs,is the Mandolin player 'chopping along' behind the other instruments along with the Guitarist.The Fiddle & Banjo are playing the 'tune' & improvising as they go.At a 'point in the proceedings',the Mandolin player will begin his own 'accompaniment' to the song & the Fiddle/Banjo will step back until the Mandolin player's done his part,then they'll step in again. For me,that's just a way of 'sharing the lead spot' & letting the Mandolin add it's own flavour to the song. Very often (watch lots of YouTube clips),you will see the Mandolin player 'improvising' on the melody (not chopping), during a song,adding another ingredient to the sound of the Fiddle & Banjo.Usually the Mandolin doesn't try to take over any more than the Fiddle or Banjo players would - it's a 'group sound'. For any player to try to 'hog it' & to overplay the 'solo' part is just bad musicianship & bad manners (IMHO). In a well rehearsed group,all this is sorted out during their practice sessions - pulling a 'surprise' on stage can lead to a 'crash & burn' situation - not good !,
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    Default Re: Backup at a Bluegrass Jam

    As long as you use your ears and your best judgement, you can utilize a variety of backing techniques at a jam. Works a lot better when the jam is populated with like-minded individuals of similar taste, who have their ears on . . . which is a rarity, I admit. But your ears should tell you when it is okay to try something outside of the lines and when it is not. If you never make mistakes, you're not learning.
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