Better Solos through Playing Backup

When most people think about blues harmonica they often think of the cool solos they have heard. Maybe this is what got you into playing as well? It was certainly of of the things that drew me to the instrument many years ago. However the more I play the more interested I get in playing backup. The training I have received by David Barrett has really opened up my eyes on this topic. In this article I will highlight how playing backup can make you a better soloist.

Types of backup

When you are playing backup you can choose a number of different approaches. These types are generally categorized something like this:

  • Hooks
  • Riffs
  • Sonic
  • Rhythmic
  • Horn lines
  • Bass lines

A hook is a riff that gives a special character to a song, something that needs to be there for people to recognize the song. A good example is Hoochie Coochie Man, I think we can agree that if you take that out the song lose too much.

Playing riffs that are not hooks is another way often used, the key then is to match the complexity of the riff with repetition. You can use complex/busy riffs if they are repeated over and over again. The riffs also need to work beneath the vocal lines without disturbing them.

A sonic approach is when you play long droning sustained chords that sound a bit like organ chords.

The rhytmich approach calls for ghost chords that add rhythm without too much pitch sound. Kind of like hand percussion.

Horn lines are riffs that sound very much like the stabbibg lines horn sections often play.

Bass lines are what we are going to be focusing here, they are riffs based mainly on chord tones that follow the chord progression closely. Think of it as what the bass player would play.

The magic of bass line for playing backup

The reason bass lines are so great for making you a better soloist is that they are music theory in practice as David Barrett puts it. Bass lines form the outline that the rest of the music can rest in. Since bass lines also both follow the chord structure and rely heavily on chord and scale tones, where to find these tones will become engrained into your mind. When you instinctically know where the chord tones are you can easily adapt your playing to the chord the band plays. Also, the chord tones should make up the bulk of the notes you use in your solo to sound professional. If you play too many outside you notes you will sound original but also very weird.

Other benefits

Other benefits of using bass lines for backup is that you learn to communicate with the band, especially the bass player. You will tighten up your sense of rhythm which is always good. And last but not least, if you get into the habit of playing backup you will play more during the songs and when it is time to solo you will be more into the groove. This last thing is true for when using the other approaches as well and has become super important to me.

Do it!

I hope I have inspired you to start playing backup (or more if you already do some) and now I want you to go and learn more about it. Let me know how it goes and don’t hesitate to send me any questions.

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