Bluegrass Music Bluegrass vocals Singing

Bluegrass Harmony Singing Part 2: You Gotta Work On It To Be Good!

Last week’s blog talked a bit about harmony vocals in bluegrass music. It truly is one of the best facets of bluegrass music, yet is the one that is worked on the least by amateur and semi-professional bluegrass musicians.

There are a few video resources available for purchase out there. One of the first videos that concentrated on bluegrass harmonies is The Nashville Bluegrass Band: Vocal Harmony Workshop, available through Homespun Video ( While it is great to hear and “see” (via the included booklet and if you can read music) the harmonies from this fantastic bluegrass vocal group. The downside is that there is not real instruction on “how” to get to those harmony notes.

Homespun also puts out two videos on bluegrass singing by the best in the field, Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent (Bluegrass and Gospel Duet Singing and Dailey & Vincent Teach Bluegrass and Gospel Quartet Singing). I have not seen either of these videos, so I cannot critique them as yet. Unfortunately, Homespun has made most of its videos as download-only. Call me old-fashioned, but I like to have the DVD so that I can play it on my TV with the bigger speakers and not on my laptop.

Of course, YouTube has its share of videos covering harmony vocals. Likewise, most of them seem to talk about what to sing without discussing “how” to get there. Once recent video put out by bluegrass producer/engineer Stephen Mougin comes about the closest to good instruction for harmony singing in bluegrass. He talks about having to know the melody before attempting a harmony (good point!), and he has the harmony singers (actually himself cut into three images on the screen) to move their fingers up and down to the melody so that the harmony follows the same pattern. However, this video, along with all of the others that I have seen on YT, take for granted that the harmony singer has a good enough ear to immediately follow along in whatever key the song is played. Still, this one is worth watching for some pointers.

There are also a number of book/CD/audio download resources available as well. I have not checked out many of them, so I cannot be a judge to their pros and cons. I guess what I can suggest is that, if you can afford to purchase one or two of these resources, go ahead. I do have tons of instructional books and videos at my house covering various musical instruments and such. My logic has always been affordability-meets-availability. That is to say, many of the videos that I have secured I got on the cheap either through clearance or used. Yeah, I have a few heavy metal guitar videos that I got for a buck. I probably watched them once and never again. But I figured that for the cost, I may actually pick up a pointer or two to transfer to my regual guitar playing. You can never learn too much.

Getting back to bluegrass harmonies, there is a need for video instruction to show ALL aspects of the learning process. Along with knowing the melody and paralleling the melodic pattern, the instruction should also cover some bit of actual theory. I covered this a bit in the last blog, but here it is again. If singing in the key of G, one should know the three notes that make up that tonic chord (in this case, G, B, and D). If the song has more than one chord (as it most likely will), one should know the three notes of each of those chords. Moreover, one should also know the diatonic notes for the key that the song is in. In the case of the key of G, the seven notes that will work with the song with that G chord are G, A, B, C, D, E, and F#. Same goes for the other chords within the song. And this is not even going near the variations of those chords, like 7ths, diminished, major 7ths, and so on (way too much to throw in here!).

One concept that is rarely covered (do I dare say, never?) is the idea of vocalizing hard consonants while singing harmony. You may hit the right note when harmonizing the vowel “ah,” but if that word ends with a T, and all of the singers come down on that consonant at different times, even milliseconds apart, it will sound like an accident instead of an artistic moment. For singers working together years and years, that technique of coming down on that consonant at the same time becomes natural. But it takes time, lots of it, to get there. In the meantime, I always suggest that harmony singers allow the lead singer to stress the hard consonants (B, D, G, K, P, Q, T). If harmony-singing a word with one of those consonants, perhaps approaching it softly, or not enunciating it at all (instead of singing “darling,” sing “arlin” and let the lead singer hit the D and G) may come across better to the audiences’ ears.

The best way to fully get to know how to sing harmonies is practice, practice, practice! In videos discussing bluegrass harmonies, they will say that there are the lead, baritone, and tenor singers. Concepts like that are not as important as having a good ear, knowing what note to hit, and where to go with the next note. Find a recording of a song with a lead singer, learn the key and what notes to work with as a harmony, and record yourself singing along to that recording to analyze the results. Sweet harmonies take a lot of work, but the audience will appreciate it.

Chew on it and comment.

By Matt Merta/Mitch Matthews

Musician and writer (both song and print) for over 30 years. Primarily interested in roots music (Americana, bluegrass, blues, folk). Current contributing writer for Fiddler Magazine, previous work with Metro Times (Detroit), Ann Arbor Paper and Real Detroit Weekly, as well as other various music and military publications. As songwriter, won the 2015 Chris Austin Songwriting Contest (Bluegrass Category, "Something About A Train," co-written with Dawn Kenney and David Morris) as well as having work performed on NPR and nominated for numerous Detroit Music Awards.

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