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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.