February 24, 2002

#20: Playing while singing

John from Arkansas writes:

I have a problem singing and trying to play at the same time. Except for simple strumming, I cannot play the banjo while I am singing. Do you have any advice?

Hi John,

It's ok not to roll, and in fact some of our best singer/banjo players, Ralph Stanley and Alan O'Bryant, often play little or nothing when they sing.

If you want to hear a roll, a basic TITM keeps the rhythm nicely and requires minimal concentration.

Most people, though, do a "chunk", which means holding an F-shape version of whatever chord you're on (F-shape at the 5th fret = G, 10th fret = C, etc.), and picking 2 or 3 strings on the offbeats, then muting them with the left hand slightly releasing the strings. For a more regular feel, the "boom-chunk" is the same thing, but adding the right thumb hitting the 4th string (boom) on the downbeats. That right hand boom-chunk pattern becomes quite natural, and if the left hand gets handy with making the F-shape and moving it to the right fret at the right time, it's another good way of providing good rhythm and the sound of the chord while not distracting yourself too much.

Try it!

Pete Wernick

140 Classic Songs!
The only book with instruction on bluegrass singing, including bluegrass harmony, and many pages of tips from the all-time greats.