People love to sing. You probably do too and I am no exception either. There’s just something about expressing your emotions through language and music that gets to people. Song is a way to preserve feelings and traditions through poetry and rhyme and it is a way to use the vocal instrument we all possess to make music that is pleasing to us.
That vocal music can take many forms. It can be solo a cappella. It can be Tibetan throat singing using “false” vocal cords that few of us think about. It can be singing in unison with a choir. There are many variations but usually any group of singers will gravitate toward harmony eventually because the blending of voices sounds so good.
More than perhaps any other musical genre, bluegrass music is the home for harmony. Great harmony singing defines an authentic bluegrass band every bit as much as the machine gun rolls of a hot banjo picker or the energy of a great fiddler or any other instrumentalist in the bluegrass band.
Without a doubt, singing good harmony is just as important as playing that instrument you practiced for thousands of hours when it comes to making good bluegrass music. The harmony doesn’t have to be complicated to sound good. The traditional three part harmony consists of a tenor part above the lead singer and a baritone part below but there are other notes that might sound good especially over funky chords like diminished chords for example.
For most harmonizers, especially jammers, finding the harmony note is intuitive. Unless you’re singing lead, just find a note that nobody else is singing and if it sounds good don’t worry if it’s tenor or baritone or a funky note. Just sing it loud enough and well enough to make good bluegrass!
I think bluegrass music might differ from some other genres which have harmony in that bluegrass harmony accompaniment is often pretty loud versus the lead singer. Much of bluegrass harmony has roots in gospel singing. Shape note singing was popular after the turn of the century and many people learned to make harmony by following the do re mi of symbols.
In simple terms, the tenor harmony is the chord note above the melody and the baritone is the chord note below. For example, if you’re in the key of C and the melody note is a C, then the tenor harmony is an E above and the baritone note is a G below. Most people can find the tenor note pretty easily. The baritone is more difficult to find and as a result that’s the harmony lacking in most impromptu bluegrass jams. A trick I learned (helpful perhaps to only boomers like me who remember the movie) is to think of the theme song from Born Free (a sixties film about a lion named Elsa). The first two notes of Born Free give you the correct interval for the baritone part. But the baritone part doesn’t necessarily have to be below the lead. And the tenor can be below the lead. The Osborne Brothers made some great harmonies with their unusual harmony stacks for example. A good sound has no restrictions.
I am a veteran of many Grass Valley music camps, and I can attest to the fact that singing classes are a welcome relief from your struggles to learn one of the fretted instruments. My singing class with Keith Little several years ago was mind bending. By the end of our class he had every student singing lead and every harmony part in the small groups he divided us into.
It can be difficult refining bluegrass harmonies to get just the right sound but it could be worth it for you whether you’re in a band or just having fun. Listen to some two part “brother” harmonies. The Louvin Brothers were masters at it. They knew just where to put the right harmony even if they slid back and forth from tenor to baritone. Our local PBS station just ran a documentary about the Everly Brothers. Same deal.
Here are some resources that might help your harmony singing: