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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 (www.homespun.com). 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.

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Bluegrass Music Bluegrass vocals Singing

Bluegrass Harmony Singing Part 1: Either You Have It, …, Or You Can Learn It!

This blog is a few days early due to commitments that I have this weekend.

I wrote a blog about bluegrass vocals last year (https://luegra.design.blog/2020/01/13/the-lost-art-of-bluegrass-singing/), and wanted to elaborate a bit more on the subject. I still feel very strongly that the art of bluegrass singing, especially when it comes to harmonizing, is wrongfully ignored by the jammers, yet so very much admired by audiences. Even if the lead singer is on target, it seems that most of the harmony singing is lost or unrepairable. Being off-key is the main culprit, but there is also timing and proper vocalization of consonants.

If a band is looking for a new player, say a mandolin player, a great ear and voice for harmonies can be just as influential on getting the job as fretboard flash.

I had recommended the video Vocal Techniques for Old-Time Mountain Music with Cary Fridley, put out by Homespun Videos, in that previous blog. Well, Cary has also set up a YouTube channel where she does a lot of instructing of Appalachian music, including singing leads and harmonies, as well as some instruments and other styles of music. Many of these videos were made for her lecture work at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, as well as the Junior Appalachian Musicians organization. Be sure to at least check it out at https://www.youtube.com/user/cfridley.

Pete “Dr. Banjo” Wernick is probably the biggest supporter of bluegrass jam sessions. Aside from his banjo and jam camps, he also posts a number of helpful essays on his website (http://www.drbanjo.com/). In one of his essays, he briefly explains bluegrass harmony theory by remembering the three notes of a chord as well as knowing the diatonic pattern of the key the song is in (https://drbanjo.com/ask-dr-banjo/jamming/161-bluegrass-vocal-harmony/).

That thought is really the first big step in working on bluegrass harmonies. If the song is in the key of G, then you should know that the three notes for the G major chord are G, B, and D. Now let us say that the lead singer is singing his/her lyrics and hitting the D note. One can easily harmonize with that lead singer while still staying in the proper key by singing on a G or B note, and depending on the vocal range of the harmony singer, singing lower or higher than the lead vocalist.

Of course, rarely does a lead singer stay on one note throughout a verse, let alone a whole song. As the lead voice travels up and down with notes, the harmony singer has a musical responsibility to work with what will sound best to make that lead vocals sound even better. Let us say that the lead singer is following a vocal note pattern of D-D-E-E-F#-E-D, and the verse is staying in the key of G. The harmony singer can take one of two approaches:

  1. He/she can stay on the same note of G or B on all seven notes, since the lead singer is not singing either of them.
  2. He/she can walk up and down with harmony notes just like the lead singer, concentrating on relative notes to the key/chord playing (example: G-G-A-A-B-A-G, or a variant of G-G-G-G-B-G-G). This, of course, requires more thought and a keener ear to hear what works.

Moreover, rarely does a song stay with one chord. Typical bluegrass (as well as country, blues, folk, and traditional roots music) songs work with two- and three-chord arrangements. So, staying in the key of G, and the lead singer follows a vocal note pattern of D-D-E-E-G, with that last note moving into a C chord, the harmony singer has to do some musical thinking of a good harmony pattern. First, he/she needs to remember what the three notes for the C chord are (C, E and G). Then, especially if the harmony was staying on G and doesn’t want to sing the same G note as the lead vocalist, he/she may do a pattern such as G-G-G-G-C. Again, it take a keen ear and lots of practice.

When I was in bluegrass bands, the idea of practicing vocals alone had mixed reaction. One band I worked with was keen on it, and we would concentrate about one-fourth of our practice sessions just on vocals. Another band was apathetic, and it showed in our public performances. Harmony singing, especially with bluegrass, gospel, country, and folk music (although other formats relate as well) require either a very, very good ear, or determination to work hard to make it sound good. My situation has always been somewhere in the middle. I can hear a good harmony right off of the bat in some cases, while in others, I need to sit down and work with that lead vocal to find a good path for the harmonies.

This information is just the start, and in another blog, I will talk a bit about timing and phrasing. In the meantime, check out videos and websites dedicated to harmony singing. Also become more familiar with some music theory, such as chord structures and the “Circle of Fifths.”

Chew on it and comment.