How to Play D-Shape Backup Licks on the Bluegrass Banjo

By Bill Evans

One set of up‐the‐neck backup licks that bluegrass banjo players love to play are those based around the D‐shape movable chords. These D‐shape licks can be used any place along the neck where you find yourself fretting one of these chords.

Playing the basic D‐shape lick

Many of the up‐the‐neck backup licks you play are based around chord positions where you move one or more fingers to get the notes you need, while keeping the chord fretted with your other fingers. With this basic D‐shape backup lick, you’ll want to keep your index finger, middle finger, and pinky finger fretting the third, second, and first strings while moving the ring finger from the fourth to the third string and back again.

This tab introduces you to this lick by first getting you accustomed to moving the fretting‐hand ring finger in measure one. Measure two presents the basic lick, which is a favorite of the great bluegrass banjo player and singer Ralph Stanley. The fretting‐hand fingering is indicated above the tab staff.

The basic D‐shape lick.
The basic D‐shape lick.

Playing D‐shape licks just like J. D. and Earl

After getting acquainted with the basic D‐shape lick, you can move on to some of the classic phrases played by J. D. Crowe and Earl Scruggs. Both of these licks involve some unusual picking‐hand moves, so take a look at the tab carefully before diving in. If you use the suggested finger choices, you’ll get closer to the sound you’re looking for with these licks.

Earl Scruggs’s D‐shape lick.
Earl Scruggs’s D‐shape lick.

These examples are based on licks played often by Earl Scruggs and J. D. Crowe. In the key of G, these backup phrases work equally well for both the G and D chords.

J. D. Crowe’s D‐shape lick.
J. D. Crowe’s D‐shape lick.

Combining D‐shape and “In the Mood” licks

A great way to start an up‐the‐neck backup sequence is to use a D‐shaped lick for the I chord.You can also combine licks when moving from a V chord back to the I.

This tab shows you how this is done for the chord progression to “Blue Ridge Cabin Home.”

Using basic D‐shape and “In the Mood” licks together.
Using basic D‐shape and “In the Mood” licks together.

Things get really exciting when you use D‐shape licks to create an attention‐getting up‐the‐neck backup sequence. Check out the tab below to get a taste of what the pros play when it’s time to step forward with their backup.

Combining more advanced D‐shape and “In the Mood” licks.
Combining more advanced D‐shape and “In the Mood” licks.