Playing Backup on the 5 string Banjo – Vamping

Most banjo players learn how to play their first few songs in the Scruggs style, this style sounds great – lots of slides, hammer-ons, and pull-offs. What if you need to play backup, then what do you do? One solution is to use a technique that Earl Scruggs calls vamping. Vamping is characterized by a percussive sound and chords that are muted. To get started we’ll learn a couple of vamps using F position and D position chords.

Let’s try a vamp with a G chord, form a G chord (F position) and were all set up for this exercise. If you need a reference, the chord diagram is included below. First pick the 4th string with your thumb – next pick the 1st, 2nd and 3rd strings at the same time – with your thumb, index and middle fingers. To give our vamping a percussive sound, just lift your fingers off of the fretboard while keeping your fingertips on the strings.

To get a nice full sound play with your right hand up close to the neck of the banjo, if you want a sharper sound you can play more towards the bridge. Repeat this exercise over and over until you can play it smoothly. That’s all there is to it, you just play this pattern over and over.

G Chord (f Shape)

Listen to the G vamp here:

Try the same idea with a D position chord – let’s do a vamp using an F chord. For your reference here is the F chord diagram.

G Chord (f Shape)

Listen to this vamp here:

Another way to vamp is playing with the chord formed, holding the strings down and not touching the fretboard with your fingertips. This technique is great for driving a strong backup, it is more of a percussive sound with little tonal value. Play up close to the neck and you should get a nice, full sound. Try a G chord (F position) at the 15th fret for this next exercise.

Here’s a G chord vamp using this technique:

Experiment with backup techniques, sometimes it sounds great to play rolls, other times a vamp does the trick. Remember that backup work is just as important as playing a wicked lead break. If you want to keep your backups fun and interesting, add a few slides, hammer-ons and pull-offs to spice it up.


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