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Rockin' In Rhythm

Bluegrass is group music. I've heard it described as hillbilly chamber music, each instrument contributing its own voice to the ensemble. Another comparison is with a New Orleans jazz band, with the mandolin and fiddle taking the role of the clarinet, the banjo replacing the cornet or trumpet and the guitar the trombone.

The newcomer to playing bluegrass music will probably not be overly concerned with such comparisons when first playing with other people. I still remember my first attempts at playing with a sympathetic guitar player - and he certainly needed to be sympathetic! When I launched into my star banjo break on "Jesse James" I felt as out of control as an inexperienced driver on a skid pan. My timing was all over the place. Timing? Well, I'd never really thought too much about timing when playing on my own, I was too busy trying to play the notes.

After this embarrassment I realised that I had to learn to listen for the beat of the accompanying instrument(s) - the bass notes of the guitar and later, when I graduated to a band, the reassuring 'thunk thunk' of the double bass. When practising on my own I used (and now cannot practise without) a metronome. Timing is the glue which holds everything together in a group. This applies as much to a jam session as to an organised band.

Consider the following jam session scenario. A singer begins "Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms". Most people recognise it and start thrashing excitedly on their instruments. An inexperienced banjo player launches precipitately into the first break and there is a hiatus among the accompanying instruments, who now cannot feel the rhythm. People stumble through the break somehow or other until the singer resumes, when everyone is now able to play along with the tune again.

In this situation it's clear that the supporting band is weak and cannot prevent the banjo player from causing havoc. What is actually happening is that everyone is following the singer's voice. Once he disappears from the mix and is replaced by a wild instrumentalist the timing of the melody is lost and all like sheep are gone astray.

What is required in this situation is some solid rhythm playing by experienced musicians. As it is, everyone is following whoever is singing and playing loudest, rather than listening for the underlying rhythm and timing. A good bass player and guitarist are needed, and they will have to work hard to impose their authority. Actually all the instruments should be contributing to the rhythm and timing. The mandolin player needs to be versatile with his rhythm playing. In a well-rehearsed band the offbeat chop may be all that is required but in a session I often find that more emphasis on the downbeat is helpful, and I like to put in a more rhythmic shuffle. Have you noticed how hard it is to play a solo if everyone around you is just hitting the offbeats?

Dick Staber many years ago described to me his experience of playing mandolin with Jimmy Martin. "I remember when I first started playing with Del McCoury, we were playing in a bar somewhere and Jimmy Martin came in. He got up and sang some with us. At that point I just went 'bonk, bonk' on the offbeat, and he turned round to me and said, 'Double shuffle, double shuffle!' I didn't know what on earth he was talking about! ... He had his own way of explaining stuff."

Sonny Osborne has recalled his first experience, as a young teenager, of playing on the Opry with Bill Monroe. The band opened with Raw Hide, and Bill played all sorts of syncopated rhythms in Sonny's ear during his banjo break to test the young musician's ability to stay on track. While this might be construed as the reverse of helping the soloist, it makes the point that staying with the rest of the group is a vital skill for the musician taking a break.

No amount of fancy lead playing is going to help the other musicians in your session or band if you cannot also contribute solidly to the rhythm. Jazz bands typically have a rhythm section dedicated to just this role, including drums, bass and piano. The lead instruments slide in and out, often not playing at all when they are not soloing. The big dance bands and western swing bands worked similarly.

The distinctive function of the rhythm section is obscured in bluegrass music by the fact that the mandolin, banjo, fiddle, dobro, guitar and even sometimes the bass also take solos (breaks). Notice that I say 'also' - the primary role of all the instruments is rhythmic. Make it your first job in a session to contribute to the rhythm and timing. If everyone else is doing likewise and the session is 'rockin' in rhythm', to borrow the title of a Duke Ellington piece, you will be able to take your solo breaks with confidence, carried along by the rhythm section (which is everyone else, at this point). As the Duke also reminded us, it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing!

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