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Old 08-20-2009, 04:19 PM
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LisaMcC LisaMcC is offline
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What’s the Big Deal About String Band Guitar?

Every year the world eagerly anticipates the annual GRAMMY Award ceremony for music, where Pop and Rock icons cross their fingers for their coveted launch into superstardom.

In an annual parade of scant spandex and skin tight jeans, who could have dreamed that it would be the straw hats and coveralls sweeping the venerable music awards ceremony in 2001?

The soundtrack to the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou features bare bones rootsy acoustic music performed by such artists as Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss. Much to the astonishment of music critics and fans alike, this old-time-style string band soundtrack seized five awards, including the treasured Album of The Year.

This shocking victory proved that American Roots string band music strikes a much deeper chord than anyone expected.

What is String Band Music?

String band music evolved in North America from a mixture of influences, principally the British Isles and Africa. Traditionally, a string band consists of a mix of melody instruments, and instruments which focus on rhythm and bass.

The tradition of playing a cyclical repetitive melody on a stringed instrument, such as a fiddle or a mandolin, goes back centuries in British and Celtic music. The banjo, on the other hand, traces its roots to Africa. Early American banjos were made from gourds, and gut strings.

As these diverse musical traditions crossed paths in young rural America, they blended and gave rise to a new sound in folk music, now known as Old Time, Roots Music, or String Band style. Later refinements led to the development of Bluegrass, Swing, and Country genres.

What is a String Band?

The traditional string band is an all-acoustic affair. It may be as modest as a simple fiddle and guitar duet, or it may include a banjo, mandolin, dobro, upright bass, or any number of other acoustic stringed instruments.

There is frequently no percussion instrument per se, nor are you likely to find keyboards or wind instruments in the lineup. Traditional string band music tends towards exactly what it sounds like: a band of stringed instruments, playing traditional folk melodies and songs.

Every Instrument Has its Job.

In a traditional string band, each of the various instruments is tasked with fulfilling specific roles in the mix. There are three essential elements that need to be covered: namely, the melody, the rhythm, and the bass.

In order to understand the job of the guitar, it is helpful to first take a look at the role being played by the other instruments.

In most cases, the fiddle, mandolin, or banjo will take the job of playing melody. Typically, they will take turns being the featured melody instrument during one repetition of the tune.

For instance, if the fiddle plays the melody in the first run-through of the tune, the other melody instruments may hang back and play a bit more quietly and rhythmically, allowing the fiddle it's moment in the spotlight.

In a subsequent repetition, a banjo or a mandolin may take up the melody, as the fiddle hangs back.

What is the Guitar's Unique Job?

The guitar has two important roles to fulfill in a string band lineup.

As the higher-toned instruments are covering the melody, the guitar inherits the important job of holding down the other essentials in the mix: namely, the rhythm and the bass. The guitarist does this by playing the chord progression that accompanies the repeating melody.

As for the rhythm, the guitarist maintains a bold and steady beat using a strong hit of the bass note of the chord, followed by a hit of the remaining strings in the chord. This style of guitar playing is sometimes referred to as "Boom Chick" strumming.

To create interest and movement in the bass end, the guitarist will also frequently link the chords together with "Bass Runs" a short series of connecting notes leading from one chord to the next.

By taking responsibility for emphasizing and reinforcing the rhythmic and bass-end components of the music, the guitarist creates a solid foundation on which the other instruments can weave their melodic magic.

What Skills Does Playing String Band Guitar Require?

Basic string band guitar is a fairly accessible style, and not all that technically difficult. If you are an advanced beginner to intermediate player, you can learn to play good steady back-up guitar in a string band.

A majority of string band music is played in the keys of G, A, D, and C, so you should be comfortable with playing the chords in a keys.

You'll want to have a handle on the concept of "Boom Chick Strumming", a strongly rhythmic technique that singles out the bass note of the chord, followed by a hit of the remaining strings. Typically, this pattern would be played twice in one measure of music in 4/4 time.

For extra flavor and fun, learn to play bass runs that connect one chord to the next in each key.

With those basic skills, along with the ability to follow a chord chart or memorize a sequence of chords, you should be in good shape to play string band style guitar.

by Lisa McCormick

Try your hand at Stringband Guitar here on Guitar Tricks:

Stringband Guitar 1: O Brother, This is Fun!
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