Stuart Ryan reveals the acoustic approach of singer-songwriter Sarah Jarosz.
A guitarist, mandolinist and banjo player, Sarah Jarosz is a superlative singersongwriter and multiinstrumentalist who can often be found in the company of bluegrass superstars such as Chris Thile and Jerry Douglas.
Sarah was born in Austin, Texas in May 1991 and grew up in Wimberley, Texas. Her musical journey started with the mandolin at aged 10 and incredibly by the time she was in high school she signed a recording contract with leading bluegrass label Sugar Hill Records aged just 16. After school she studied at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, graduating in 2013.
It’s humbling to know that at such a young age she has already released three albums: Song Up In Her Head (2009, featuring a Grammy nominated track, not bad for a debut!), Follow Me Down (2011) and Build Me Up From Bones (2013). These albums feature the absolute cream of modern bluegrass musicians – the aforementioned Thile and Douglas appear alongside banjo genius Bela Fleck, guitarist and singer Dan Tyminski from Alison Krauss’s Union Station, and Shawn Colvin.
Jarosz often appears in a trio format with cellist Nathaniel Smith and fiddler Alex Hargreaves, and it’s fascinating to watch her in this format either on guitar or her Fletcher Brock octave mandolin to see how she fills the register in between cello and fiddle. Being a mandolist as well as guitarist means that Jarosz is adept at both plectrum and fingerstyle. For this issue’s study we’ll focus on the fingerpicking
Her albums feature the absolute cream of modern bluegrass musicians, such as Chris Thile, Bela Fleck, Dan Tyminski and Shawn Colvin.
approach with a specific emphasis on the very traditional use of the alternating thumpicked bass line. The key with this style is to get the thumb completely independent from the picking hand fingers – the alternating bass line pattern is usually derived from picking the sixth and fourth strings, athough string five often comes into play as well. This bass line provides the beat around which the first, second and third fingers (‘i’, ‘m’ and ‘a’) can weave accompaniment on the third, second and first strings respectively. Take care to balance the volume and dynamics of the bass notes against the other strings – Travis pickers will usually palm mute these strings to keep them in check, but singer-songwriters often keep them un-muted and so use a lighter attack on the thumb to even things out. Another major technical aspect is being comfortable with syncopation: the even rhythms of the bass notes often contrast with the off-the-beat upper-string notes, as you’ll see in this month’s example.
Jarosz is a wonderful musician and writer and well worth checking out – UK readers can catch her on her summer tour this year!ERIKA
Sarah Jarosz with her lovely Fletcher Brock octave mandolin