Uncle Bob's Guitar Lessons
Lesson 9 - Playing Backup
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These are just some random thoughts I have about playing backup for someone else. While it may not seem like a glory job, it's an important one. That being said, here are some things that you should keep in mind when accompanying someone...
Don't screw up!!!
Okay, maybe that seems blatantly obvious, but it's a known fact that if you get lost you will drag the other person down with you. Remember, you're generally playing backup for someone to make them look good.
I've played backup for a lot of people over the years, and tempo is a difficult thing to control when playing live. It is often your job as the backup to keep the beat rhythm of the song going, but not bludgeon the person you're playing backup for into your personal interpretation of the song. (This tends to make them mad...) But you need to make sure that you don't rush the song in all the excitement of a live performance.
There are times when you simply have to bite the bullet and do something drastic. For example, when I was playing backup for a vocalist, the vocalist suddenly decided to add long dramatic pauses to the song. (This is a fine to add to a song, but only when rehearsed.) I had to alter what I was playing completely or the song would crash, so I fell back on strumming half notes for an entire section of the song. This allowed the vocalist the musical freedom to change the timing completely, and allowed me to anticipate where the vocalist was going and bring in the accompaniment at the right time. In the end, it all worked.
It's a good rule of thumb to play with someone several times before venturing out into public. This gives you both a chance to learn how the other person thinks musically. That way, if something should happen to go different when playing live, you'll both recover from it. (I've been in many situations where a song completely fell apart when performing it live and the audience never knew.)
If you are playing too complex a backup rhythm for someone that is playing a complex melody, the melody can get lost in the wash. It's better to scale back your approach to the song and let the melody speak for itself.
When learning a song, listen to a song carefully to get an idea of what you might do with it. While it's your job to backup someone else, you should still find something of yourself in everything you do.
When rehearsing the song, listen to make sure that what you're doing with the song actually works. If it isn't working, come up with another approach - pronto. (No sense wasting a good rehearsal on a bad idea.)
When performing the song, listen to how it's going. Some songs tend to evolve a little when being performed, and you make to make sure what you're doing stays in line with where the song is going.