Tips On Backing Up a Singer/Songwriter On 5 String Banjo

by David Bandrowski

Many 5 string banjo players have a hard time playing in other styles other than the traditional styles used for the 5 string banjo (bluegrass and old time). One specific style many players have trouble with is knowing how to back up a singer/songwriter who is playing in a slower tempo. Here are a few tips to help you with this along with a video example.

1. Learn the chords of the song

This sounds like a no brainer, but many players will try to back up a singer without even knowing how the song goes. Some players have a very good ear and can hear what the chords are the first time they hear the song and others play guitar and can see what the guitar player is doing. Both are very good strategies for when you are at a jam and there isn't time for the singer to explain the chords of the song, but if you are playing in a smaller setting, ask the singer what the chords are. Write them out on a sheet of paper. 

2. Don't Over Play

Remember that the song isn't all about you and your banjo licks. Play what is appropriate for the song. You are backing up a singer. Your role is to make the singer sound better - not prove that you are the fanciest banjo player in the world. This doesn't mean you shouldn't try to add something of yourself into the tune. If you underplay you won't sound bad, it just may not add anything to the song. It is always a very fine line between over playing and under playing. I would lean on the side that less is more though.

3. Don't Be Afraid Of Long Tones

This goes along with tip #2 of not over playing. It is hard for 3 finger style players or clawhammer players to slow down and play simply often. We have been practicing these repetitive patterns for these styles over and over and each style contains a constant stream of notes. Slowing down, giving space, and allowing the banjo to ring out is a different concept than what most of us had been taught to play on the 5 string banjo. Although it seems simple, it can be hard to flip your brain and not be afraid of the space between the notes. There are a number of very famous musicians who have talked about this concept.

Claude Debussy - "Music is the space between the notes."

Miles Davis - "It's not what you play. It's what you don't play."

4. Play Away From the Bridge

As you move your picking hand further away from the bridge of the banjo, the tone will become warmer, darker, and less bright.  This will allow your tone to sit underneath that of the singer. Again, you don't want to get in the way of the singer. You are supporting them. If you take a solo break or add a fill between the vocal phrases, you might want to move your hand closer to the bridge to get a brighter tone, but for the most part, I would suggest aiming for a darker and warmer tone when backing up a singer. Especially when it is a tune that is slower and has more space in it.

5. Find a Simple Picking Pattern That Works and Stick To It

I like to listen to the strumming pattern of the guitarist and find a picking pattern that will match or compliment the guitar pattern. When you find something, stick to it. If you are continually changing it up throughout the song, it will sound like you are just noodling over the tune and figuring it out as you go. Finding something simple that works and sticking to it will make everything sound much tighter. You can do variations of the pattern you decide upon, but once again, keep it simple and don't over play.

Here is an example of me backing up the New Orleans based singer/songwriter Ella Blue Paskel. Feel free to write in the comments below any questions you have.

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