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Thread: Complex Bluegrass Arrangements

  1. #1

    Default Complex Bluegrass Arrangements

    I play in a mostly traditional bluegrass act, therefore most of the arrangements we do are fairly formulaic and simple. We'd like to stretch our wings into some more challenging arrangements, but stay relatively within the realm of the traditional (i.e. not newgrass or progressive).

    Have you got any suggestions for interesting/complex arrangements in the bluegrass style? And, just to be clear, I mean more in the sense of band tightness than individual virtuosic playing.

    Thanks in advance!

  2. #2
    Registered User grassrootphilosopher's Avatar
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    Default Re: Complex Bluegrass Arrangements

    If you are interested in "band tightness" then it is relevant to understand how a bluegrass instrumentation works. It is not so much a question of how simple or how complex a musical piece is. Even "uncomplicated" pieces sound awful when you are not able to have a tight band. A pet peeve is the continuously rolling banjo player (Greg Liszt even though he is musically proficient), the ever noodling mandolinist or the sloppy rythmn guitar player that rather wants to be a Tony Rice clone (rant mode off).

    I think that whatever song you play, you can make it work in a bluegrass setting. Take "evergreens" like "Gentle On My Mind". The song works because of an interesting chord progression, not so much because it has an incredible melody. Take a jazz piece like Lady Be Good. Or take "Childhood Play" (listen to Doc Watson). It has interesting - yet simple - chords. Here the challenge is in the melody (itīs a bitch to sing). Take "Satisfaction" by the Rolling Stones. You can rock the house (I know I did, in a bluegrass trio even). It all works if you know how bluegrass instruments have to interact. My reading suggestion is "Bluegrass Breakdown - The Making of The Old Southern Sound" by Robert Cantwell. It has some interesting chapters about how bluegrass instruments work together.
    Olaf

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  4. #3

    Default Re: Complex Bluegrass Arrangements

    I appreciate your insights grassrootsphilosopher, and agree that making the most of the instrumentation is key to band tightness, and that simplicity doesn't necessarily mean uninteresting.

    I suppose more to the heart of what I am asking is for examples of "flair": stops, hits, rhythm changes, cues, key changes, acapella parts, unexpected turns, etc.

  5. #4
    Registered User Bob Visentin's Avatar
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    Default Re: Complex Bluegrass Arrangements

    Dynamics! simple but effective. For example on the last verse have everybody drop out but maybe the guitar playing long (whole note) strums then build it back up slowly on the chorus or come in all together full force.

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    Registered User KGreene's Avatar
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    Default Re: Complex Bluegrass Arrangements

    I would agree completely with grassrootsphilosopher and Bob ... a couple of good. but simplistic examples (of what Bob is referring to ... I believe) with a few well placed "oddities" (for lack of a better term) that I like are songs such as "Blue Kentucky Wind" ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u5UrHeHQAPk ) Originally done by Lou Reed and Carolina if I'm not mistaken but these guys do a great job. .... And, "Old Moonshiner from Tennessee" by Russell Johnson ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yQY1TtqVhxQ ) ... Basic minor chords but the band is in complete synch, complementing one another. I've found that we've been getting a lot of attention by adding these types of songs into our sets.

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    Registered User Ivan Kelsall's Avatar
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    Default Re: Complex Bluegrass Arrangements

    I agree with Olaf - sometimes you've got to know when to back off & let the other instruments shine through. I will say however,that in the early days,Earl Scruggs was 'up front' most of the time,but that was because banjo was still pretty new to a lot of folks,& that's what they wanted to hear. I love to play 'back up' on banjo & i'm spending a lot of time doing that on mandolin,but i also hate hearing a mandolin noodling away in the background all the way through a song. Learning when ''less is more'' is an essential part of getting the balance of a band 'right'.

    The only way to arrive at a 'distinctive sound' for your band,is to discuss 'whatever' with the band members & try things out. I will say that if you're striving for a really 'trad.' Bluegrass sound - but a 'tight one' - still listen to Lester & Earl's original stuff. It'll never be bettered (IMHO). For me,they set the absolute standard that all Bluegrass bands should aspire to. Listen also to bands such a 'Blue Highway' & 'The Lonesome River Band',just to mention 2 of my own favourite bands,& pick up on some of their ideas re.presentation
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    Default Re: Complex Bluegrass Arrangements

    If you are looking for a bunch of chord changes Dear Old Dixie uses most of them and it is as traditional as you can get.

    The Dillard's Old Home place goes some different directions.

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    Registered User Tom C's Avatar
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    Default Re: Complex Bluegrass Arrangements

    Del McCoury Band. They have some cool chord progressions like "All Aboard" for quick example.

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    Mando-Accumulator Jim Garber's Avatar
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    Default Re: Complex Bluegrass Arrangements

    I agree with the recommendations above. One other thing to try is working out some harmony breaks with two instruments. Get together with banjoist or fiddler and plan out the notes so it is tight. Do it once in a song, not every time.

    In my very first old time band, one of the the lessons we learned early on was not to clutter up the music with everyone playing at once. This was especially true behind vocals so we took turns playing a few choice notes behind the vocals and not to step on the vocalists words. I assume tho that you have been playing with these folks for some time, so maybe that is too obvious a recommendation?
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  11. #10

    Default Re: Complex Bluegrass Arrangements

    Thanks to everyone for the input. Certainly tasteful dynamics, complimentary playing, etc. are all aspects to a well-knit and tight band.

    Like I said in my last post, I'm looking for some specific examples of "flair" (stops, hits, rhythm changes, cues, key changes, acapella parts, unexpected turns, unison/harmony playing, thematic elements, etc.). In other words, devices that move beyond the simple ABAB. While we do take interest in working these devices out on our own, I'd like to get some crowd-sourced input of songs/bands that use these devices liberally.

    Thank you for the suggestions from KGreene, Ivan Kelsall, CarlM and Tom C.

    Jim, we have been playing and gigging a little while. We do employ some of the harmony/unison devices, as well as work on neat and tidy fills during vocal parts. What we really enjoy working on (and get the best response from) is the use of interesting variations and flair.

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    I really look like that soliver's Avatar
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    Default Re: Complex Bluegrass Arrangements

    My first thought as well as my first venture out of the standard Nashville I, IV, V kind of structure was "Old Home Place" which is I think what CarlM was referring to. Its almost like it is a mix between 2 keys. I play it in G, but it seems like part of the Chorus is in D... fun song for sure!
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    Mando accumulator allenhopkins's Avatar
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    Default Re: Complex Bluegrass Arrangements

    Well, Bill Monroe wasn't above "complex arrangements"; how about the tempo change in Blue Moon of Kentucky? Or the Jenny Lynn fiddle "outro" in Uncle Pen?

    You can "spice up" arrangements without getting weird. Key modulations are one alternative, take the last verse up from G to A (lots of performers do that in Me and Bobby Magee). Repeat the last chorus with all the instruments dropping out but the guitar. Put an a cappella sung intro in before the instruments enter. As suggested above, have two lead instruments harmonize on a break. Or have the instruments alternate lines on the break. Many a bluegrass instrumental has the rhythm stop, while the lead instrument puts in a phrase that ends the break.

    These are all things that mainstream bluegrass bands have done, without seeming to be self-consciously "arty" about it. They vary the standard verse/chorus/break, verse/chorus/break pattern without seeming incongruous or, Heaven help us, "non-bluegrass." Flat & Scruggs often included one banjo/fiddle duet, just Scruggs and Paul Warren, in their sets. Ralph Stanley would go from finger-picking to clawhammer for a couple songs. Listen to the Osborne Brothers' original recording of Ruby, Are You Mad; it has Bobby and Sonny both playing banjo, in harmony. (At least I think it's Bobby, since there's no mandolin audible.)

    There are a lot of things you can do within a basic "trad" bluegrass context. And they don't need to be "complex," just different.
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    Default Re: Complex Bluegrass Arrangements

    Here's a few of ideas (we're also a traditional bluegrass band):

    - standard bluegrass song but everyone stops playing and sings the last chorus acapella...then finish with a fiddle break. we do that with "thirty years of farming" and "you ain't going nowhere". crowd definitely notices the difference and responds well.
    - also, (and I admit to stealing this from Dudley Connell...) when we do "you ain't going nowhere" I do a bob dylan immitation with the third verse. If I introduce it as a dylan tune (and we have an older audience) it usually goes over well.
    - we do an old-timey (-ish) version of "let me fall". the banjo and fiddle do all of the breaks in unison. for the third break the rest of the band drops out and it's just the banjo and fiddle...definitely noticeable and makes it more interesting. then we come back in a full throttle.
    - for a couple of the softer songs we do (ie East Virginia Blues") we start with just harmony vocals and guitar strumming. when the rest of the band comes in for the second verse you almost feel a lift...cool effect.

    Just some thoughts...

    Interesting thread - I'll follow this for some ideas for our band too!

    Kirk

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    Registered User Ivan Kelsall's Avatar
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    Default Re: Complex Bluegrass Arrangements

    From Allenhopkins - "...how about the tempo change in Blue Moon of Kentucky ?" . I think that most of us are aware that Bill Monroe did that in response to the success of Elvis Presley's 'faster' version of the song. BM re-recorded it,kicking off slowly as in the original version,& then increasing the tempo as per Elvis,folks liked it & it sold !!.

    Quote - " And they don't need to be "complex," just different." Spot on Allen !!. I hear songs / tunes with 'differences' all the time,& the vast majority are simply 'different' chord patterns & pretty simple. Moving a song up a key ie. G to A / C to D etc works pretty well also.

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