Bluegrass Banjo For Dummies
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Although the picking‐hand moves are relatively straightforward in vamping on the bluegrass banjo, there’s quite a bit of fancy fingerboard work involving movable chords and muting techniques that will keep your fretting hand more than busy with this new playing technique.

Picking the basic vamping pattern

Play the fourth string with your thumb, followed by a pinch on the third, second, and first strings played with the thumb, index finger, and middle finger, striking the strings at the same time. Then repeat! Believe it or not, that’s all there is to it for the picking hand.

When vamping, you’ll want to position your picking hand away from the bridge, striking the strings over the banjo head close to the neck in order to pull a mellower tone from your banjo.

Positioning the picking hand (a) close to the bridge for lead playing and (b) close to the neck for
Credit: Photographs by Anne Hamersky
Positioning the picking hand (a) close to the bridge for lead playing and (b) close to the neck for vamping.

Fretting and muting with vamping patterns

Vamping patterns are used almost exclusively with movable chords and are characterized by fretting‐hand muting techniques that give a percussive, snare drum-like sound to this technique. These muting techniques are the same as what mandolin players play when they provide backup to the banjo in a bluegrass band. (Mandolin players, being the individualists that they are, call this chopping.)

Getting the desired muting effect in vamping is a bit like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time — there’s a bit of coordination required between the picking and fretting hands to get the sound you want. Just after playing the pinch, lift your fretting fingers off the strings just enough to mute the sound of the chord. Keep your fingers in contact with the strings, because they’ll be needed to press down and fret the same movable chord position once again to play the fourth string, which is always fully sounded when vamping.

As you move from one chord to another along the fingerboard, keep those fretting fingers in touch with the strings and in position for the chord you’re about to fret. You’ll then be able to more quickly fret the new movable chord when you’ve arrived at the appropriate fret.

Some players like to let the notes of the chord ring for just a moment before muting with the fretting hand; other banjo players time this effect to occur just as they play the third‐second‐first‐string pinch pattern, giving an even more percussive sound to vamping.

Playing the basic vamping pattern with G, C, and D chords

It’s time to try a basic vamping exercise with movable F‐shape major‐chord positions for the G, C, and D chords. You use the same movable shape for all three chords, moving the position up the neck from the G chord to fret the C and D chords. Your fretting‐hand middle and pinky fingers will fret the fourth and first strings at the 5th fret for the G chord, the 10th fret for the C chord, and the 12th fret for the D chord.

You’ll need to coordinate both hands to get the percussive effects you’ll want when vamping. Then check out the example below to get the hang of the basic vamping technique.

Basic vamping pattern using F‐shape movable position for G, C, and D chords.
Basic vamping pattern using F‐shape movable position for G, C, and D chords.

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Bill Evans has helped thousands of people to play the five-string banjo through his instructional workshops, music camps, DVDs, books, and recordings. He has performed on stages all over the world, his recordings have topped folk and bluegrass charts, and he has mentored many of today's top young professional players. Bill shares the shortcuts and secrets he has developed in more than 35 years of teaching to help all banjo players sound their best.

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