Vamping - the absolute basics

Vamping is the art of providing rhythm back up for dancing. This page is to help someone get started who can play a bit of classical piano but is unfamiliar with what to do for dancing.

Peter Barnes has written a wonderful book, Interview with a Vamper. The examples are based on his first chapter. It will just about get you started, but if you weant to go on, you should certainly buy his book. It's fun, it's clear, and it's inventive. Barnes is one of the best backup pianists around for country dancing and contra dancing, so he knows what he's doing. You can order the book directly but you can also get it from folk shops.

Barnes's book is aimed at the piano. Guitarists will have to adjust as needed.


The philosophy: rhythm comes first

You may think you're a pianist, but you're really a drummer. You are providing a rhythm to help the dancers. Keep that in mind, because it means that the emphasis is different from playing classical piano. Wrong notes don't matter. Wromg timing is a disaster.

Of course, right notes are better than wrong notes, but that's just a bonus. Dancers can dance to anything as long as it's giving a strong rhythm. So, when you're playing, if you get stuck and can't think what you ought to play next, just play something, anything, as long it's on the right beat.


The basic pattern for reels

Here is the basic style for reels. What the pianist sees is the top line; the bottom two lines show what's actually played by the pianist, while the melody instruments take the actual tune.


This is boom-chick, boom-chick style.

Work on left hand first. Left hand plays on the beat (the boom). Play the root of the chord then the fifth (e.g. for a D chord, play D, then the fifth, which is A). If possible, double the bass notes in octaves to accentuate the downbeat.

Right hand plays the offbeat (the chick). That gives punch with a strong upbeat to help the dancers, and fills out the harmony. Depending on how confident you're feeling, play a two-note chord or a three-note chord. Place the chords round middle C as a rule, to leave room for the melody instruments. You've forgotten the chords? See bottom of this page.

Don't hold the notes too long, says Peter Barnes ("one of the commonest mistakes that beginning backup pianists make"). Holding them too long makes the sound muddy. "Make your notes staccato, short and swift. And loud!"


The basic pattern for jigs

Same idea but in 6/8. Incidentally, Barnes's example shows how you can choose NOT to use the root note in the right hand as the first beat, but to play the 5th first, then the root. In bar 2, the left hand starts with A, which makes it sound more melodic -- the first notes of the left hand go G, A, G, C, G.

Bordeom is the father of invention: bass runs

When you can do the boom-chick reliably you'll want to do something different. Bass runs make walking transitions between chords.

The bass run starts on the downbeat and arrives at its destination just in time to accentuate something - a new phrase, a new harmony, or a transition between sections of the tune. It's especially good to use a little bass pattern when the tune ends and is going to restart.

The commonest are three-note ones like these:


You can also do much longer bass runs. Examples in his book.


Rhythmic effects

Another kind of variation to keep things interesting. The simplest rhythmic effect is to stop playing for a bit - a 'rhythm break'. "Just play a swift, staccato left-and-right block chord at the beginning of a phrase, then let the melody people take it by themselves, for a A part, two A's, or even a whole time through the tune. Barnes says he often leads into a rhythm break with a dramatic bass run or by diminishing volume.

This is very effective and as he says, it sounds wonderful when you start playing again.


Basic chords

The right-hand chords are usually built from the root, the 3rd (major or minor), and the 5th. When the chord name has a 7, then the chord includes the 7th. Thus, the chrd of D is D-F#-A; the chord of D7 is D-F#-A-C (note that it's C natural, not C#). If possible, don't play them in 'root position', which means, don't put the root at the bottom; put one of the other notes at the bottom.

To main page for Minimal Ceilidh Tune Book

last updated December 20, 2003

page by Thomas Green