Playing Backup

From “Harmonica World” Oct-Nov 2011

Many harmonica players focus on blues, diligent ones study the great solos. Little Walter played many classic ones, an excellent book by Tom Ball “Sourcebook of Little Walter/Big Walter Licks for Blues Harmonica” has the details. Likewise the original recordings. Getting these solos just right, adapting them to modern settings, evolving new blues styles are tasks for players of today. It’s all about the solos.

Actually, not quite. Great players play great backup as well. This article examines harmonica backup, for first blues, then for bluegrass.

A blues band is an ensemble, where focus shifts between the singer and soloists. Good harmonica backup stays in the background, supporting the singer and the solos while keeping out of the way. There are several styles.

The first backup style is playing none at all. That is, solos only. This can be hard, particularly in a blues jam where stage time is strictly limited. However, simple well executed solos and nothing more can be the best approach, particularly for emerging players.

The next step is adding “fills” between gaps in the vocals. Good players share fills equally, so everyone shines. Players who steal all the fills at blues jams are rarely popular.

Backup means playing behind the singer or another soloist. The support you add makes their job easier. Good backup is often not noticed until it stops, and the band sounds the weaker for it. The best location for your backup notes is the offbeat. Let’s examine it.

An early music development stage for me was identifying the offbeat (or back beat), then using it for guitar and harmonica parts. I remember it being hard, then easy once the penny dropped. If you’re not sure where the back beat lies, try the following exercise.

Get a metronome (google “online metronome” for a free one). Set it to 60 beats per minute. Clap in time with the beats. Now clap on the offbeat, the exact halfway point between each beat. Easy? If not, practise until it is. Finding the back beat is a fundamental music skill.

Now try a harmonica note on the back beat, with the metronome still at 60. Just play a 2 draw (2D) note, keep at it until you can hit the offbeat (or back beat) in a precise and relaxed way.

Note: The TAB system is 2B = blow 2 hole: 3D = draw 3 hole. ‘ indicates a half bend, ” means a full bend.

Actually, a 2D note on the offbeat is a good starting point for backup playing. It fits nicely with the I and the IV chords (if you’re not familiar with roman numeral chord numbering, then visit here )

A simple blues backup part can just be the 2D on the offbeat for the first 8 bars, a 1 D for a bar (the V chord), a 1B for a bar (the IV chord) and 2 bars on the 2D to finish. Often a piano or guitar will be playing the offbeat as well, usually with a short chopped chord. Try to get your harmonica to blend perfectly with the other back beat instruments. You’ll stay in the background, the band will sound better.

Now try the same pattern, holding off for the first 4 bars, coming in on the IV chord.

Now try the same back beat pattern, this time with the 1D 2D notes together for the I chord, the 1B 2B notes together for the IV chord and just the 1D note for the V chord. Again, keep these notes short.

The above is a start to blues backup playing, there is clearly much more. Listen to Little Walter with Muddy Waters, or Dennis Gruenling on the “Up All Night” album to hear masterly blues backup harmonica behind vocals.

Now for bluegrass. Players in a bluegrass “pick” each take turn at the tune, a bit like jazz. Bluegrass backup has set rules, providing support while keeping out of the way. Similar to blues. Harmonica is not common in bluegrass, and is sometimes not welcome. Harmonica fits bluegrass very well, if the player develops similar techniques to the string players.

Bluegrass backup is based around the offbeat. In particular, mandolin backup playing is usually an offbeat chord, known as a “chop”. Listen to the mandolin in just about any bluegrass, you’ll hear the offbeat chop. A distinctive sound, that’s where your harmonica backup need to land.

The key bluegrass backup tool for harmonica players is the tongued octave, the 3B 6B for the I chord, the 1D 4D for the I chord and the V chord, and the 1B 4B for the IV chord. Played on the offbeat, these octaves blend perfectly with the mandolin chop, building the sound while keeping. out of the way of singers and soloists.

Go to YouTube, enter “The Best Of Bluegrass – Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms”, get your octaves working, find the mandolin chop and play backup with the bluegrass hall of fame.

And, be sure to keep out of their way.