People often try to make the concept of vamping more difficult than it needs to be. Vamping isn't really a set part of a song like an intro, chorus, or verse, but it's a small repeated phrase that can be from any of those sections of the song. As an example, you can vamp the second half of a chorus by repeating the last 4 bars, and you'll have a vamped section.
The most challenging part of a vamp is the fact that there is no set time to exit the vamp, and it is often up to the leader of a band to signal when to exit that repetitive section they've entered in. Take it from personal experience; the worst thing as a performer is to be stuck in a vamp that you don't know how to get out of seamlessly. But this is a great learning moment for how to signal to your musicians and also how to all be in tune with one another.
We can all be suckers for a repeated line in a song; that's why choruses are such a big deal, and songwriters love to make them so catchy. The idea of a vamp is similar to that of the repeated hook, where an important section of a song will be highlighted and repeated to get the listener very involved. Vamped sections also give musicians (instrumentalists and singers) the opportunity to freestyle or adlib their own melodic and rhythmic ideas while the vamped section repeats over and over.
With this section repeating and being a standout part of the song, you will often find that vamped sections can really bring out emotion in the listener and the performers. A vamp in a sad track can emphasize pain, during a vamp in an upbeat and happy track can really get the crowd moving and excited. A vamp in an aggressive track can make you want to tear the club up!
Not at genres often include a vamp, but it could work in almost any genre. The main styles of music you'll hear this type of repetition in are jazz, gospel, music theatre, and Latin fusion. I'm most familiar with vamping from decades of singing in baptist churches where the emotionally resonant sections of a song would often repeat over and over, often bringing up intense spiritual bliss in my heart and the hearts of my church family.
Riffs, runs, scats, and the like can be thrown into a vamped section of performance and take a song to entirely new heights with the creativity that talented musicians can pull seemingly out of nowhere. Music theatre pieces often vamp towards the end to give the performers a chance to show off their personality and energy for the role they are playing.
Jazz musicians often have most ad-libbed and improvised vamping sections because of the nature of freestyling in jazz. Vamps often give the opportunity for each instrument to shine and adlib through a few repeats, which is why jazz vamping is often the longest type.
Music theatre pieces sometimes vamp towards the end to give the performers a chance to show off their personality and energy for the role they are playing. More often, though, vamping is used to allow the stage performers to get from one place to another or give the vocalist some time to speak a portion of their lyrics while the musicians cycle through the same few bars repeatedly.
Vamping works best in live performances where there is a sense that anything can happen and a song will never be played live the same way twice. In a studio setting, you may not feel that type of freestyle energy as easily, and recorded songs are often made to be shorter and more commercial to match the attention span of most listeners. Studio-recorded songs rarely make it past 5 minutes these days, and a good vamp can take up around 2 minutes on its own.
But that doesn't mean that you should avoid vamping in your studio songs! Vamping isn't done enough in other genres like R&B, pop, rock, and dance, in my opinion. A vamped section can be as short as 20 seconds and can be crafted well enough to give that same emotional effect without making your track have too long of a runtime.
You may be wondering, at what point does a repeated phrase count as an official vamp? In many modern pop songs, the instrumentation often repeats every four or eight bars with slight variations, so is that considered vamping as well? Because in that case, almost all genres vamp. Especially genres like hip hop and R&B, where the instrumentation is often built on four, eight, or sixteen bar loops.
Some music experts will say that it all counts as vamping, but I think there are certain repetitious phrases that happen in certain styles of songs that make it a point to vamp and freestyle one section, and that is not the same as the chord progressions in most songs that repeat.
To make things less confusing, here is an example of a song with repeated chord progressions throughout, but the end has a standout vamped section that is short, sweet, and catchy section. The vamp also provides a moment for the singer to adlib sing, which will give a different final product each time this song is performed.
Notice at around the 5-minute mark, there is a repeated section where Dottie Peoples freestyle sings while the choir and instrumentalists repeat a small phrase over and over. The spirit really moves when a lead singer, choir, and church musicians emphasize a section like this. This often happens in live performances of gospel music!
As a session singer, writer, and producer that has worked with over 200 clients to provide high-quality jingles, singles, features, nursery rhymes, and DJ drops, she currently spends her time engulfed in creating and marketing new music and helpful resources for creators. Her most recent creative collaborations include work with PBS Sound Field, Tribe of Noise, and the National Black Chamber of Commerce. Check out Yona’s latest music releases on her Spotify, her Youtube and share the music if you like it!
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