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When I first began seeing bluegrass jam sessions up close, I could not believe what was happening before my eyes. I clearly recall the following scene which occurred in a parking lot in Lavonia, Georgia more than twenty years ago. Four men were standing together with instruments (guitar, banjo, mandolin and bass), and from the conversation, I could tell they had just met. After they had tuned their instruments, one of the men suggested a song (I think it was the old North Carolina fiddle tune Water Bound, but I am not sure) and he asked if the others knew it. The banjo player said he did, but the other two players (mandolin and bass) said they did not. "Oh, its easy" said the guitar player, and the banjo player kicked it off with a full verse break. By the fourth beat of the kickoff, all the instruments were playing. After the kickoff, the guitar player sang a verse and a chorus, and then the mandolin player played a wonderful break. Next the guitar player sang another verse and chorus, only this time the chorus was sung in three-part harmony, with the mandolin player singing tenor and the bass player singing baritone. Remember, these are the same two men who seconds before had said they did not know the song. The song finished up with another banjo break followed by a final verse and chorus (again in three-part harmony). The whole performance was excellent, seeming as tight to me as many of the acts on stage. And it was not a once-in-a-weekend occurrence, for as I watched, the men repeated the same type of performance many times on many different songs. I was hooked. It was clear that just as I was hearing this music for the first time, the musicians who were playing the music were also hearing it for the first time themselves, and they were personally delighted with their new creations. A magic afternoon for them and me alike, provided by four men who may well have never even learned each others names and may have never seen each other again. Their music, like much of the music in bluegrass jam sessions, was only performed once, and to hear it, you had to be there.
What I witnessed that hot July afternoon long ago was the wonderful legacy left to us by Bill Monroe, a legacy from the time when he invented bluegrass music over fifty years ago. You see, when those men were playing together and were making that wonderful music, they were operating under a set of mutually well-understood rules. These rules allowed them to seamlessly construct wonderful music, and even learn new songs, on the fly as they performed. At the same time, these rules allowed them tremendous freedom to improvise and show-off their individual skills. Because of the rules, each of the musicians knew exactly what was expected of him in each part of the song, and so long as each player played by the rules, the music worked.
So what are the rules? Well, I dont claim to know them all. For years, I have read everything I have been able to find about bluegrass, but, being a musician of modest accomplishment (that means I am not very good), I only know the basic rules. I will begin with the general rules, and then I will get more specific.
The basic bluegrass instruments are guitar, mandolin, 5-string banjo, fiddle and bass. All of the instruments are acoustic, with the possible exception of the bass. If the electric bass is used, it should be adjusted to the level and tonal quality of an acoustic bass. Other instruments which sometime show up in jam sessions are:
Dobro, which is widely accepted and may be considered almost a standard bluegrass instrument
Harmonica, which is sometimes loved, sometimes tolerated and sometimes hated
Autoharp, which may be too quiet to be effective in a full fledged jam session
Mountain dulcimer, which is often accepted but has even more of a volume problem than the autoharp
Hammered dulcimer, which often plays "specialty tunes"
Accordion, which is sometimes included but often scorned (even though it was a part of one of the early versions of Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys
By and large, electric instruments and drums are out.
The Structure of a Bluegrass Song
Bluegrass songs are typically divided into a series of breaks, verses, and choruses. A typical bluegrass song might be structured as follows:
(1) An initial Break (often call the Kickoff), (2) Verse, (3) Chorus, (4) Break, (5) Verse, (6) Chorus, (7) Break, (8) Verse, (9) Chorus, (10) Break, (11) Chorus
In each of the individual units, there is a lead activity and a backup activity. In a break, usually one of the individual instruments takes the lead while the rest of the instruments back him (or her) up. In the verse, usually there is one lead singer. In the chorus, there are usually one, two, three or four singers singing one, two, three of four part harmony. In both the verse and the chorus, there is instrumental backup music. The most important rule in bluegrass jamming is IF YOU ARE NOT LEADING, YOUR JOB IS TO DO BACKUP IN SUCH A WAY AS TO MAKE THE LEAD SOUND AS GOOD AS POSSIBLE. A point often missed by novices is that backup in a jam session is usually more important then the lead. You can make really good music with a good backup and a modest lead, but without a good backup, you cannot make good music no matter how good the lead is. Since backup is so important, I am going to talk about it first.
The foundation of bluegrass backup (often called rhythm) is three instruments: the bass, the guitar, and the mandolin. The basic bluegrass rhythm pattern is a boom-chick boom-chick pattern. The boom here is often called the beat, and the chick is called the back-beat. A simple bluegrass bass pattern is simply to play the tonic of the chord on the beat and the 5th of the chord on the backbeat. The guitar typically plays a single bass note on the beat (boom) and brushes the strings of the chord on the backbeat (chick). The mandolin plays either not at all or a very light chord stroke on the beat (boom), and then a sharp chop on the backbeat (chick). A mandolin chop is performed by striking the strings of the chord quite hard, but then almost instantly damping the strings to stop the sound. The result is a short, percussive sound which is just barely identifiable as the chord.
When done correctly, the effect of a good rhythm section is remarkable. On the beat (boom), you get the tonic from the bass fiddle and the bass strings of the guitar, setting the pace for the music. Then, immediately following, you get the dramatic counter-sound of the backbeat (chick) with the roar of the full guitar chord accented by the percussive chop of the mandolin.
So what about the other instruments? Well, potentially the most wonderful and certainly the most dangerous backup instrument is the banjo. One basic form of banjo backup is vamping. This is basically just a banjo version of the mandolin chop, and it is used pretty much in the same way -- that is to punch up the backbeat. It is used in this way with the mandolin to backup other leads, and it is used to backup the mandolin when the mandolin has the lead. The other form of backup for the banjo is to use the same syncopated three-finger rolls which are used for a banjo lead. This can be very effective, but it can also be terrible when it conflicts or competes with other instrument or vocal leads. The best rule of thumb here is that, if you are a banjo player, go out of your way to learn syncopated backup techniques, and then, when you really know them well, use them very selectively and occasionally. The reason for this is that the banjo is such a loud, in-your-face instrument that it can interfere with, rather than backing up, the lead.
Almost equal in power and danger to the banjo is the fiddle. Fiddle backup is generally done by playing short tasteful riffs, usually referred to as "fills", that compliment the vocals as a breath is taken between lines or at the end of a verse or chorus. Next time you listen to your favorite bluegrass album listen to how the backup instruments come in and out. Something to keep in mind is that it's often said "It's more important to know when not to play than when to play". Another way to put it is, "sometimes less is more". This idea of playing during the "breaths" can also apply to playing fills between the lines of another instruments lead break.
Other advanced techniques that compliment another instrument's lead break are playing a harmony (the same way that a vocalist sings a harmony) or playing a counter-part lead that contrasts with, but at the same time compliments, the lead. Always remember that these backup techniques should be lower in volume so as to never overpower or take away from another's lead. Also, some fiddle players replicate the mandolin chop or banjo vamp by a sharp abrupt stroke on the strings using the frog end of the bow. If other instruments are already providing the backbeat, then it is not that interesting for the fiddle to provide this element. A fiddle can also add fullness by playing slow moving "string" parts consisting of half or whole notes. This is particularly effective in slower songs.
One final word about loudness. It is really important to adjust the level of the backup to match the level of the lead. Since the level of the lead often changes dramatically during a song, you must change too. A banjo at full cry can be very loud, and you may need to play flat out to blend. On the other hand, a soft voice or a guitar lead may be very soft, and you will need to cut way back. The basic rule is always listen to the music, not just to what you are playing but what the whole jam session is playing, and continuously adjust. The music will sound better, you will enjoy it more, and the other jammers will enjoy you more.
Many people are first attracted to bluegrass because of the power of its instrumentals. Indeed, there is little that can compare to the power and excitement of Earl Scruggs playing a banjo solo or Tony Rice playing a guitar solo, and you can find many wonderful instrumentalists in a bluegrass parking lot.
As a rule, most bluegrass songs start with a kickoff, which is just an initial (sometime abbreviated) instrumental solo. After that, a full instrumental break is played after each of the choruses except the last. Each break is played by an individual instrument, with all the other instruments playing a backup role as discussed above. Each successive break is generally played by a different individual instrument, unless there are not enough different instruments, in which case one of the instruments gets to repeat. In this way, each of the people in the jam session gets his or her individual chance to show out on a break.
The break itself can range from a simple rendition of the melody to some wild jazz-like improvisation which never comes even close to the actual melody. Most good breaks are somewhere in between these two extremes. The cardinal rule for breaks is that when it is your turn, give it all youve got -- at all other times, play good backup, support whoever is playing lead as best you can, and generally stay out of the way.
When I first was attracted to bluegrass, it was the lead instruments, particularly the banjo, which captured my imagination. In contrast, I was not particularly drawn to the singing, which seemed to me sort of old-fashioned and excessively rural. At this point, my viewpoint is completely reversed. I still love bluegrass instrumentation, but I am completely addicted to bluegrass singing. To hear it is a truly spiritual experience, especially when you are singing one of the parts.
As a rule, bluegrass verses are sung by a single, lead vocalist singing solo. Traditional bluegrass singers often sing relatively high in their range and with a relatively high volume. Bluegrass music dates from the 1920s and the days of the Kerosene Circuit, when the music was performed purely acoustically and without amplification. The singing had to be loud to be heard over the loud instruments and the instruments had to be loud to be heard without amplification. This is exactly how it is still performed in jam sessions, and the high, loud singing gives it its legendary high lonesome sound.
It is important to realize that bluegrass jam sessions are usually not "sing-a-longs". For each song, there is generally one lead singer, and that singer sings all the verses For that song, the lead singer chooses the song and the key. If you like to sing, you should learn some good songs and offer to take the lead on a song or two. As always, when a lead singer is singing a verse, your job is to support him instrumentally as best you can and if you cannot help, stay out of the way.
As a rule, the chorus of most bluegrass songs is sung either as a trio (baritone, lead and tenor) for a secular song or in four parts (baritone, lead, tenor and bass) for a gospel song. The reason that good bluegrass singers can sing harmony together on the fly is that bluegrass harmonies follow a few simple rules. First, bluegrass harmony is generally as close as possible. This means that the tenor, lead, and baritone parts are formed as adjacent notes in a chord. In bluegrass (regardless of what you may have learned elsewhere) the tenor part is the note in the chord which is as close as possible to but above the lead, and the baritone part is the note in the chord which is as close as possible to but below the lead. (It should be noted that the terms "tenor and "baritone" are applied to both male and female singers in bluegrass, and are really only a description of where the particular part is being sung in relation to the lead. So when we say that the normal bluegrass harmony stack is a baritone, lead and tenor, we mean that the lead is always being sandwiched between a baritone part below and a tenor part above in the form of a chord. It is also possible to add a high baritone part, which is an octave above the regular baritone, and a low tenor part, which is an octave below the regular tenor.)
It is also important to know that even though there will generally be several people singing on the chorus, it is also not a sing-a-long. Generally, there is one lead singer, one tenor singer, one baritone singer, and (for a gospel song) one bass. However, the rule for the chorus is not as strong as for the lead. This is because the skill level and vocal range of the available singers may not allow a standard harmony configuration. It is still not good to sing along with the lead, although it may be ok to add a high baritone, a low tenor or even to double one of the other harmony parts occasionally.
Many people are first drawn to bluegrass by a modern bluegrass band doing modern, sometimes complex, material. The basis of the genre, however, was set more than thirty years by such people as Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, Jim and Jesse, and Jimmy Martin. Many of these old songs are known by a very large percentage of bluegrass musicians, and a good rule is to learn some of these songs. Another good rule is to sing mostly old, well known songs in a jam session until you get to know the other participants well enough to involve them in less well known materials. Since the less well known material can cause people to loose interest and drift away, mostly you should keep your special new song for yourself and your close friends.
Bluegrass Jamming Signals
Although at first glance, it may appear that everyone in a good jam session knows exactly what to do at all times, in point of fact usually there is a leader who is organizing the jam session, and the musicians are all communicating among themselves. This communication is normally done by eye contact and a series of nods. It is quite normal for the lead singer to control a particular song, but the leader may be anyone. What the leader generally does is choose when each player (and each instrument) will get a break. Normally if you want a break, you should make eye contact with the leader. If you cannot find the leader, make eye contact with someone. When the leader is ready to give you a break, he will make eye contact with you. If this happens and you do not want to take a break, shake your head. If you do want a break, nod and take the next solo. In general, if you do not make eye contact with anyone, the group will assume you are just playing around the edges, and will not give you a break.
In jamming, I always live by the old Ted Turner saying, "lead, follow, or stay out of the way," only I reverse it to "stay out of the way, follow, or lead." I always offer to get involved (using eye contact), but if my offer is not accepted, I stay out of the way. If my offer is accepted, I follow the leader, and play the role assigned to me. Only if there is no leader will I take the leader role.
If you have never approached a jam session before, you may find it a very intimidating situation. When you first come up to a jam session, particularly if you dont make eye contact, you will mostly be ignored. This does not necessarily mean that the jammers do not want you there, but rather that they think you just want to play along. Playing along (that is playing backup appropriately and tastefully at all times) is a perfectly acceptable activity, and is great practice. In general, I always play along for a while as I size up the jam session. Many bluegrass jammers love to get involved with new people and are very friendly, but if you look like you want to be left alone, they will generally leave you alone.
After you have sized up a jam session and decided how you might fit in, offer to get involved either by suggesting a song on which you can sing or play lead, or by making eye contact. If I am ignored (which can be because I am not wanted or because the other jammers dont yet know how I can fit in), I will often jump-in one time. This means that I will step forward and take a break when I get a chance, even though I have not been invited. This immediately shows the others what I can do, and makes my offer to participate very clear. Usually, after I jump-in, I am included in the session. If I am still ignored, I go somewhere else and find a better deal.
Another thing to watch out for is that after you are included in a jam session, you should not hog the session. This is all too easy to do, since often you have been waiting sooooo long and you can do sooooo much. Good jam sessions are good for everyone, so if you are having a good time, try to make sure the others are as well. This is not always possible, of course, because sometimes the available pieces simply cannot be fitted together. However, one of the most wonderful things about bluegrass is the deep sense of community and even love which is shared by the participants. Be considerate and open, and you will inevitably be welcomed to that community.
This article Copyright, 1997 by the SouthEastern Bluegrass Association.
The author would like to extend special thanks to Selwyn Blakely for his valuable input, and to Scott Woody, Mike Flemming and Gerald Hooke for their valuable comments.