Banjo Newsletter

April 2007: Why Does Everyone Want to Learn Backup?
By Casey Henry

Why are so many students obsessed with learning backup? It seems that when students get to a certain level of playing, when they think they can play pretty well, regardless of how well they can actually play, they suddenly develop a burning desire to study backup licks. Why is this? When the banjo is playing backup most people are listening to whatever else is going on, usually singing. No one listens to banjo backup except for other banjo players. Ah! That must be it. They want to impress other banjo players. OK! I can accept that as motivation.

Teaching backup is somewhat problematic. First, there are no set backup "breaks" to songs. Backup is improvisatory from the beginning and until you can grasp the knack of improvising it's difficult to grasp the concept of backup. Second, backup is based on playing the chord changes. So in order to effectively play backup to a song you first have to be able to vamp to a song without thinking about it. Third, backup is largely lick based and if you teach licks out of context it is very hard to convey how to use those licks appropriately when you stick them back into a song.

That said, I have recently had some success teaching backup to a few of my advanced students. I've tried to solve the problem of there being no backup "breaks" by making up arbitrary breaks or patterns for each song. I started with "Cabin in Caroline." In this song Earl plays an absolutely killer break that contains one of his stranger D licks. I taught the break for the first time to Kyle, my youngest and most advanced student. The reward he gets for being the best is that he's my guinea pig for new material and his lessons are often disjointed and off the cuff. After he learned the break it struck me that there is lots of great backup in the song. I pulled out the licks and taught them individually and then struggled to tell Kyle how and when to use them. I made up a backup pattern for the song and taught it lick-for-lick, just like I would do a lead break. We played the backup behind the verse high, and then moved to some open rolling under the chorus and it worked! The licks were all in context and used in the correct places.

The next song I used was "No Mother or Dad" which, conveniently, is quite similar to "Cabin in Caroline," so many of the same licks work. I ran into an unanticipated problem in how to talk about the licks. Since they're not from any particular song I can't say "the Old Joe Clark lick" or "the Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms lick." I had to resort to such mundane names as "the forward roll lick" and "the fancy lick" and "the two finger lick." These names are non-specific enough that they could apply to any number of licks. Do other people have this problem? Has no one named these licks?

I'm pretty sure this approach can be expanded to apply to other types of backup-waltz time, slow songs-but I haven't had a chance to experiment with that yet. I can feel a new DVD coming on!

On another subject entirely…Today in my mailbox I found a nice surprise. Rebel has reissued J.D. Crowe's Bluegrass Holiday on CD. This amazing album, from 1968, features the Kentucky Mountain Boys: Red Allen on vocals and guitar (what a singer!!), Doyle Lawson on mandolin, and Bobby Sloan on bass and fiddle. The snappy new cover art mimics a vacation postcard. It really fired me up to hear that material again. The vocals are so tight, the banjo so crisp and clean. And, as an added bonus, the disc includes four songs from two 45s that the band cut for King Records soon after recording the LP: "Blackjack" / "You're Not Easy To Forget" and "We'll Meet Again Sweetheart" / "Pike County Breakdown." The audio on a couple of these is a little distorted, but that makes it charming to listen to-the banjo so crankin' loud that it overdrives the speakers-yeah! This album, along with the two that followed it, Ramblin' Boy (re-released as Blackjack) and Model Church, are absolutely classic-must hears for all banjo players.

Another CD I recently acquired is Tony Trischka's Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular, which has been getting a lot of press. Big press. Good press. When I popped it into my CD player I had the delight of finding it to be one of the most inspiring banjo albums I've heard in a long time. It's absolutely astounding. I love Tony for many reasons and among them is that he chose to lead off his album with Earl. Scruggs's distinctive tones flash from the speakers in a blaze of glory harkening back more than fifty years as he kicks off "Farewell Blues." Hearing that made me happy.

On this CD Tony takes twin banjo to heights never before seen or imagined. There are, in addition to Earl, the guests you would expect: Bela Fleck, Alison Brown, Scott Vestal, and the only bigger star than Earl, in a pop-culture sense, Steve Martin. But Tony also plumbs the depths of the traditional pool, teaming up with Kenny Ingram, Bill Emerson, and Tom Adams. He nods as well to the younger generation by including the amazing Noam Pikelny, lately of Chris Thile's How To Grow A Band, on "Run Mountain," sung by Thile himself.

Steve Martin's presence probably helped generate much of that big publicity. Most notably the two appeared on the Ellen Degeneres Show playing "The Crow," which Steve wrote, inspired by the playing of Tony Ellis. (You can watch it on You Tube.) When Ellen came over to talk to them after the song she started asking Steve questions about his banjo playing, which he answered, but then in a most generous fashion, pointed out that it wasn't about him, that it is Tony's album. Classy. So Tony got to talk some on national TV, too

The tunes Tony and Bela do together bespeak long years of musical conversation. The liner notes, in a wry moment, read "New York native Bela Fleck is Tony's best known student." Indeed. Some of their pieces here are reminiscent of the tone found on the outstanding Solo Banjo Works of 1993. The beguiling "Ivory Toad of Catalan" sneakily segues back and forth between ¾ and 4/4 time. "Twilight Kingdom" uses the tuners in an intriguing context-tuned down to the key of C.

The exemplary liner notes by Neil Rosenberg give some history of each player, as well as history of twin banjos in bluegrass starting with Don Reno's double-time "Double Banjo Blues"; continuing with the Osborne Brothers cut of "Ruby," on which we hear both Sonny and Bobby on the five; and of course the most popular of all two-banjo tunes, "Dueling Banjos."

Hearing these two CDs reminds me of all that is good and right in the banjo world-the old and the new, the founders and the innovators. When the numbing sameness of much modern bluegrass banjo playing gets me down I know I can turn to these albums and be refreshed in mind and spirit.

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