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Backing Vocals and Harmonies

Discussion in 'Band Management [BG]' started by Jimmy4string, Dec 3, 2019.

  1. TB Nation,
    Getting back in the swing of things with the new band and I am wanting to improve on backing vocals and harmonies for my tool bag. Can you offer advice or direct me to a good Youtube or other sites.
    Thanks ahead of time.
  2. JohnMCA72


    Feb 4, 2009
    I believe that singing harmony is a lot like playing bass. You need to find a melody (i.e. a sequence of notes) that support the main melody, within the song's structure in terms of chord, scale, and rhythm.
  3. Thumper

    Thumper Supporting Member

    Mar 22, 2000
    Syracuse Ut
    Find out where your voice is in relation to the primary singer, e.g. same, higher, lower. Is there another singer? Where do their harmonies tend to fall? Who is the stronger singer (wider range)?

    If your voice is lower or higher than the lead, can you go a 5th or 3rd higher or lower (assuming someone else is not already there).

    And finally, do you have a slow down app? I always learn the bass part so that I can play it comfortably at full speed. To work out my vocal contribution, I use the Amazing Slowdowner to get the speed where I can sing without totally botching the bass, and speed it up as I improve. Over time you'll get better and the process gets easier.
  4. OH! A bit more info I am the Lead singer. I no longer play the bass -i am terrible.
    I have the wider range for sure. We do have some songs that others do however and i would like to contribute with the harmony without trying to take over.
    Thanks for advice @Thumper
    dkelley likes this.
  5. kevindahl


    Aug 21, 2006
    Vancouver, BC
    I don't know of any youtube sites. How is your theory? Do you have a good ear? Are you doing covers or creating harmonies for originals?

    Myself and the guitar player do most of our vocal arrangements. We play covers and just mimic, or try too, the vocals in the songs. Some harmonies are difficult to hear and if I can't hear specific melody lines I just use basic theory to figure out what notes work with the lead vocal part and the chords. Listen to the music you like, are writing, and what you are covering. The Beatles and the Eagles have some great vocal arrangements. There are a ton of options out there. Have vocal practices while playing at a low volume. I have played with people that can figure out and sing complicated harmonies very quickly. Other projects have been tedious when trying to get a 3 part harmony happening.

    Having said that I think these are important things to follow:
    1)Have a good monitoring system or at least wear earplugs. If you can't hear yourself well it's probably not going to sound good
    2)Have band members stick to the same vocal range that they are comfortable with. For example, in our band I sing below the lead, the guitar player usually sings the harmony above the lead, and the drummer sings on the top. Of course this would change if someone can not sing a part and play their instrument at the same time.
    3)Know when you are off pitch. Unfortunately this is not a inherent skill. In other words when performing live and you realize you are flat or sharp due to whatever reason just stop singing or correct it asap.
    4)Sometimes vocal arrangements just don't work with a certain group of players. You can do 3 things. Change or adapt the arrangement. Simplify it or have someone not do their part. Drop all backups completely. At this point the members have to decide whether or not to keep the song. In a cover band this is when the song is usually dropped.
    5)Timing is important. I find most musicians can start a vocal part at the same time but everybody wants to stop a different places. This is where you would discuss where the vocal part ends. ie 3 and
    5)Record Listen, Record Listen, Record Listen. There is no hiding from bad vocal arrangements when the are recorded
  6. JPaulGeddy


    Sep 19, 2007
    South Carolina
    This, 100%. It's far too easy to record yourselves cheaply these days.
  7. +1 for kevindahl. If you know music theory, then you can map out your vocal harmony - I often do that when I record my own songs. If you don;t know theory, then that's where I would start. It's not heard to learn.

    If the harmonies are difficult, then having some way to listen to the harmonies as a separate track is essential. I used to ask my BL in the folk group for solo harmony tracks so I could learn my parts on songs where the harmonies went all over the place (as they do in folk music).
    Mr_Moo likes this.
  8. LBS-bass

    LBS-bass Supporting Member

    Nov 22, 2017
    I have never been able to figure out how to teach someone to hear and sing harmonies if they can't already hear them. Most attempts are exercises in frustration. One band member truly believes he can hear better than the rest of us but he can't find his line and ends up doubling someone else without realizing it, whereas the rest of us know where our parts are and can find them without difficulty. It's maddening that he continues to insist on singing when he really just can't do it.

    I'm not sure how you would approach this. One thing I have tried in the past has been giving someone the harmony and having them sing the whole line repeatedly until it sort of turns into a melody for them. Then and only then you add in the actual melody to see if they can sustain the new line. 90% of the time they will start singing the melody again; only one person I ever worked with was able to learn harmonies like this. But there still needs to be someone there who can hear the harmony well enough to work it out for that person, or use theory to find all the harmonic thirds or fifths or whatever it is you want sung.

    I am guessing that a course in ear training would be the most helpful thing here, but I try to just bring in players who know how to do this already so I don't waste a lot of time and energy getting frustrated with it.
    pcake, grinx, jfh2112 and 8 others like this.
  9. Vinny_G


    Dec 1, 2011
    Gallia Celtica
    If you ask here, you will be recommended flatwound vocal cords. :)
  10. Unfortunatley, I have no music theory to bring to the table. I will look into it. I like @LBS-bass suggestions very much. Hopefully i come with the humble opinion i know nothing and so will not be frustrating people :)
    Also recording sounds like a good way to go as well.
    Engle and LBS-bass like this.
  11. Here’s a tip: when you sing back ups, back up from your vocal mic a few inches (easy to remember, back up for back ups) to give it some space. Otherwise you will over power the lead and it will sound like two lead singers. This also eliminates the proximity effect.
    Unless of course you have a FOH sound guy, then you should do what they say.
  12. I have very patient bandmates. I can often get a 2 part harmony quickly, but the 3rd parts give me trouble, especially when playing bass.
    When I finally do get it, it’s magical!
    I will sometimes record the other 2 parts to learn mine.
    It helps to have someone with a Masters Degree in theory working out the parts:thumbsup:
    Mr_Moo, Jimmy4string and LBS-bass like this.
  13. LBS-bass

    LBS-bass Supporting Member

    Nov 22, 2017
    Last night I was working on a song with two other singers; the other harmony singer had not done this song with us before and he went for the part I normally sing. It took a bit of brain work to sort out what I wanted to do instead because the part he took was so high that my instincts said there should be something between what he was singing and the melody. Then I realized that the leftover part was below the melody, so once I keyed onto that little fact I was able to find what I needed. It does take some work to find that third part sometimes, but the end results, as you said, can be magical .
    pcake and Jimmy4string like this.
  14. 210superair


    Sep 10, 2019
    Listen to the Andrews Sisters and pick out one part at a time. I learned to sing harmonies singing in my car to them, the Everly Bros, Simon and Garfunkel, Beach Boys. General theory knowledge definitely helps too...

    I actually consider my main job in the band harmony singing. If I only played bass they'd make me mow their lawns to stay with them.... Lol.
  15. Rip Van Dan

    Rip Van Dan DNA Endorsing Artist Supporting Member

    Feb 2, 2009
    Duvall, WA
    Beware about singing parallel fifths as harmony - you'll sound like Gregorian Chant (old time church chant) if you do. Parallel fifths meaning that you are matching the melody movement at either a 5th above it or a 5th below it. Fine to hit the interval but moving the 5ths in parallel really sounds bad UNLESS you are going after a Gregorian chant sound.

    Intervals of a 3rd are never a problem. If you are singing 5ths, move in the opposite direction of the melody and you'll be fine. That is - when melody goes up, your harmony part goes down. When the melody goes down, your harmony part sings an ascending line. That contrary movement works with any intervals you are singing.

    NEVER overpower the melody with your harmony part. Remember you are singing harmony back-up, not lead vocals.
  16. I'm confused LoL
  17. Gringo Basso

    Gringo Basso

    Aug 26, 2016
    I always had good luck with a band vocal practice - No drums, No bass, No electric guitar.
    Just an acoustic guitar and voices - the results should justify the time spent, and it'll be fun not having the distractions while your mates learn the vocal parts.
    Trying to get all of that tight during a normal band practice leads to bad harmonies. Give that a shot and tell us how it works!
    jeffbrown, Mr_Moo, EdO. and 2 others like this.
  18. GBBSbassist

    GBBSbassist I actually play more guitar... Supporting Member

    Nov 23, 2010
    I boiled my flatwound vocal chords in denatured grain whiskey, and now when I sing harmonies, it sounds like The Eagles.
    pcake, grinx, Quinn Roberts and 3 others like this.
  19. Dr. Love

    Dr. Love Supporting Member

    Nov 5, 2008
    Lubbock, TX
    I cheat and use my throat capo for Eagles harmonies.

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