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Backing A Singer

Updated: May 13, 2020

Backing A Singer

Becoming a good backup musician depends on knowing where the “holes” are located. We either pad or layout until those holes appear. The spaces between the lyrics are our only shot, and the simpler we play, the more we get hired. The old cliche “Less is More” is key.

These are the tools I take to work everyday in the studio. I create very short things to go from a 1 chord to a 4 chord ,for example – that’s my “Fill Library“. All licks played for a 1 to 4 will also work as 5 to 1’s or 2 to 5 or 3 to 6 or 4 to b7 etc. I am always using the intervallic improvisation concept to create two to four notes to fill a 2 to 3 beat space or “hole” between lyrics.

I always keep it simple. As for switching styles per song – that depends on what I listen to and how deep I listen to everything on the bandstand or a recording I am studying. Guitarist Brent Mason attacks his strings differently from Reggie Young. The same is true going from one steel style to another. I accomplish that by using the very “Basic” practice: Take three notes and to get a Ralph Mooney sound, pick it hard and bounce the pedals. For a Lloyd Green approach, I play it smoothly and with a precise vibrato.

Listening deeply to players styles and their signature musical ideas, and practicing “How I can vary my touch?” is exactly how to accomplish that skill. Try to recognize the subtle stylistic choices your favorite players use, and try them yourself when you want to get a similar sound. As for soloing, in a “round-robin” situation, that is “why and how” we apply the “Diatonic Harmony” to our walks and solos.

Arpeggios and Approach Notes are my main tools, studying them will be time well-rewarded. What I have done in the Method is to break everything down into tiny bits so you can memorize the systems that create the licks, not the licks created using the systems.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s a simple Hank Williams song or a song from Broadway, the exact same tools are used. Way too many players get “lost in the workplace” wondering what to play because they bypass – and even dismiss – studying “The Basics“.

If they would take the additional time to analyze the chord structure into short moves like a 1 to 4, 4 to 5, 5 to 1…and then during practice time create their own vocabulary, they would be well on their way.

They should not forget to apply all of those basic skills, using all of the emotional playing skills (volume pedal, pedal squeeze, vibrato, etc) and placing everything in the “holes” (phrasing and groove).

That’s the best way to sound like a pro player.

Backing a singer is the simplest thing we can do, yet no two songs are alike. The only “one size fits all” approach that works is to apply all of the elements I explained above. The more you listen to how it’s done –  while studying and memorizing the Lessons in The Method – is key to acquiring the skills you want.


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