Piano inspired blues comping (published in Banjo Newsletter)

Boogie Banjo – backup and comping (PDF tab transcription)

In adapting blues and boogie woogie piano music to the banjo, there’s no shortage of inspiration for melodic lead lines, but the elements of the style that I find most useful are the fresh ideas for backup playing and comping. Since the style is generally pretty swinging and syncopated, these ideas might not be best suited for straight ahead driving bluegrass, but they fit wonderfully in tunes like “Foggy Mountain Special” or “Salty Dog.” As with anything else, with some moderation and discretion you might find a place for them throw in in more straight ahead settings as a way of injecting some variety.

Example 1 shows the common blues shuffle pattern that is ubiquitous on guitar in blues, rock, and soul. It’s a simple pattern with the root note on bottom and the fifth and sixth degree shuffling back and forth above. It’s an easy position to move all around the neck, so feel free to take this out for a spin if you’ve never messed around with it before. A similar pattern to this one that’s very common to blues piano is an inversion that places the root note on top, and shuffles between the third and fourth degree below that. Example 2 shows this out of an “F”shape on the top three strings, while Example 3 shows the identical notes played out of a “D” shape on the lower three strings (note all examples are in the key of G). I find the latter to be a really useful shape to work with, as the lower strings produce a fuller sound that’s great for accompaniment and really stands out in a string band setting. I finger this by barring across the 8th fret with my index finger and alternating between the middle and ring for those notes on the fourth string. It’s good to get equally comfortable with both positions, as switching between them will allow you navigate I-IV-V progressions with very minimal movement as you’ll see in the later exercise.

When learning any new music, the best thing you can do to capture the feel is to listen to the great players of that style, so I’d suggest checking out some of the legends of boogie woogie like Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis, and Pete Johnson, as well as New Orleans blues players like James Booker and Dr. John. You’ll quickly notice that they rarely just play those swung eighth notes all the way through, but instead will find pockets of space to leave that really give the music a swagger. Example 4 shows one such common rhythmic approach that also adds a hammer-on from the minor third which gives it a bluesier tonality.

Example 5 shows another pattern that starts to incorporate a bit more melodic movement based out of a G7 with the dominant seventh (F) on the bottom of the chord. It’s essentially a repeating pattern that shuffles back and forth between a double stop on the higher strings (using that minor third again) and a bass note on the low string. I find it really helpful to picture the way a pianist would rock back and forth between their thumb and fingers as they would play this.

Finally, Example 6 shows how all these ideas might be combined into a 12 bar blues form. It starts with that “D” shape on the lower strings (from Ex.2), then switches to the IV chord (a C7 in this case) using that pattern from Ex.5 – you’ll notice right away what an economical movement this is. As we get to the V chord (D7), it starts with that same melodic pattern but then keeps ascending chromatically until you end up back at the root position on the 12th fret. It wraps up with a bluesy triplet line, and then a descending chordal line in which we hit a G triad on the lower strings on the12th fret, and the third and fifth degrees descend while the root stays the same; that motif then repeats but starting from a lower inversion of the root chord. It basically outlines G – Gdim – Am7, but in this context I just think of it as blues line that all occurs over the G chord. More on that next time…!

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