Fast Bluegrass Rhythm For The Modern Player

Fast Bluegrass Rhythm For The Modern Player

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Every week I get lots of requests for videos on certain subjects, whether that be requests for work by certain artists (I swear I will make a Jerry Garcia video at some point), for obscure fiddle tunes that I’ve never heard of (let me learn it real quick then I’ll teach it to you), or for guitar subjects that have been taught to death on YouTube (I’m sorry but that dedicated pentatonic scale video will probably never happen). For one reason or another a lot of these requests remain unfilled, most of the time I just think they’d be better taught one-on-one in a real lesson. But that doesn’t mean that excellent requests don’t make it down the pipe.

For instance, this is an email that I recently received from a fan we’ll call ‘A’, he says:

"Love your channel! I was wondering if you might consider doing a video on your approach to rhythm guitar on uptempo bluegrass songs. How sparse is your playing for faster songs? Just the "boom chucks", or also some playing on the 16ths in between? What are the strumming patterns? Always alternating between root and 5th for bass strings? Does your technique change at all when you sing?"

'A'
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What am I supposed to know the answers to these questions?

Woah, so many good questions packed up in here. So it seems like we’re really trying to get at the intricacies of fast rhythm. But we don’t just want to know what people do, we want to know why people do it. In that vein, an important thing to consider is the foundational role of rhythm guitar and keeping that foundation stable at high speeds. You don’t want the guitar to be the stick in your bluegrass bicycles spokes. I know, I’m super good at metaphors. But that’s what a lot of this advice comes down to, get out of the way of the band and into a support role.

Up Strokes and Subdivisions, Yes or No?

Assuming that when we say upstroke we’re referring to strokes that fall off the beat. The most stable rhythm will have virtually no up strokes, and the up strokes that do happen feel almost accidental. If you were defending yourself to the Up Stroke Police you might say, “I was trying to reset my hand for another downstroke and I just happened to really lightly play this up stroke, I don’t know how it happened!” Otherwise you’re clouding things too much, you don’t want to be in the way. And if everyone is playing and feeling that 16th note slightly different that’s a crack in the dam. Better leave the soloist to play and define the 16th note while the rhythm players work on their role of the boom chuck.

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Visual representation of bad bluegrass rhythm.

Riding The ‘Boom’ or The ‘Chuck’

Players frequently try to give even weight to the boom and chuck when playing fast and most of the time that’s not necessary and probably detrimental to the bands stability and longevity at faster tempos. Not only because of your own playing endurance but because of any other instruments doubling your role and the discrepancies between the two of you. The easiest example of this is in a trio of say bass, fiddle and guitar.

  • If I’m taking a break: guitar is lead, bass is boom, fiddle is chuck.
  • If fiddle is taking a break: fiddle is lead, bass is boom and guitar is chuck. So I’m not going to choke my strings like a mandolin or anything but I’m going to put my weight on the strums, sometimes I stop playing bass notes entirely in a stripped situation like this. Because what’s the point, I’d be creating an imbalance of 2 boom sounds, 1 chuck sound and 1 lead sound. If I step off the bass role we’re at equality.
  • If a verse or chorus is being sung: vocals are lead, bass is boom, fiddle is chuck, and guitar can be both again. So lead from the vocals, 2 boom sounds and 2 chuck sounds. Equality achieved again.

Now imagine a top heavy scenario: Dobro is lead, Bass is boom, fiddle is chuck, mandolin is chuck, and banjo is chuck too. What does guitar do? Support the bass player on boom right, otherwise we’d have 4 against 1. 3 against 2 is much more balanced. So I’d strum less and accent the down beat with the bass player. This balancing job is something only us guitar players can do. No one else can be boom, chuck or both. For others their choice has to be should I play or not play. For instance if mandolin is chopping, the fiddle player doesn’t need to chop too so they might choose to not play.

If your fiddle player looks like this he should probably never be playing.

The Rhythm Push

If things feel like they’re becoming rickety, a hard full strum on beat one of a break, verse or chorus can be really powerful. It breaks the boom chuck for a second but it creates a point of reference for everyone to realign and guitar is the only person that’s really equipped to do it once again. This effect is wonderful when it’s aided by a fiddle player or mandolin player also accenting beat one but you can really feel the guitar player kick the band in the rump when this is dropped appropriately.

The last two questions our buddy ‘A’ asked were “(Are you) always alternating between root and 5th for bass strings? Does your technique change at all when you sing?” These are solid questions but I’ll tackle them another time. Bass walks and guitar independence when singing are big subjects on their own and this blog post will just get too long and boring, I promise.

If you’d like any of your questions answered please drop me a line at help@lessonswithmarcel.com!

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