The Dreaded Count-In

By Wayne Erbsen

Perhaps you’re a lurker at the bluegrass jam or pickin’ session. Sometimes you’ve heard the musicians count at the beginning of the songs with “one, two, three” or “one, two, three, four” and wondered how and why they’re doing that. You may have been in a position of having to start a song in a jam, and you’ve dreaded having to do the count-in. In either case, read on.

When it’s your turn to start a song in a jam, the surest way to get the other musicians to come in at the right place is to count them in. To illustrate this, let’s take the song Footprints in the Snow, which starts with the words “Some folks.” If you start tapping your foot and then sing or think the words “some folks,” you’ll see that “some” starts on the first downbeat of the song. To count in a song like this, you would count “one, two, three, four.” The other musicians would come in on the next “one.“ Your challenge will be to count at the very same speed you want the song to be played at. You should practice the count-in at home before you try it at a jam.

Besides songs like Footprints in the Snow, where the lyrics start with the first downbeat of the song, you’ll find that many songs begin with several pick-up notes. A good example of this is Red River Valley. The first verse begins with “From this valley…” To count in this song, you would count “one, two, three” with the group coming in on “four.”

If you’ve got to count in a song in 3/4 or waltz time, the counting is a little different. Take a song like All The Good Times Are Past and Gone, which starts on the first beat of the song. In this case, you would count  “one, two, three, one, two, three.” The group would join you on the next “one.” Amazing Grace is an example of a song in waltz time that has a pick-up. In this case, the first syllable of “Amazing” is the pick-up note.  You would count “one, two, three, one, two.” The group would come in on the “three” with the first syllable of “Amazing.”

If you’re still confused by the counting, watch and listen how the more seasoned musicians do the count-in, and you’ll soon get the hang of it.

In writing this article, I made a random list of 60 bluegrass songs. Out of these 60 songs, only sixteen started right on the first beat of song, while 44 had pick-up notes at the beginning of the song. That means that almost three times more songs start with pick-up notes than start with the first beat of the song. Although this is a rough estimate, it’s useful information to know how the majority of songs will start.

Just for sport, here is my list of songs that start with the first downbeat of the verse:

Black-Eyed Susie
Cripple Creek
Don’t This Road Look Rough and Rocky
Down the Road
Footprints in the Snow
Handsome Molly
I’ve Just Seen the Rock of Ages
Long Journey Home
Mama Don’t Allow
Man of Constant Sorrow
Old Joe Clark
Pass Me Not
Paul and Silas
Pig in a Pen
Rocky Top
Shady Grove

Here’s the songs with pick-up notes at the beginning of the verse:
Amazing Grace
Angel Band
Back Up and Push
Banks of the Ohio
Blue Ridge Cabin Home
Bury Me Beneath the Willow
Cabin in Caroline
Cherokee Shuffle
Colleen Malone
Columbus Stockade Blues
Crying Holy Unto the Lord
Dark Hollow
Deep Ellen Blues
East Virginia
Hand Me Down My Walking Cane
High on a Mountain
Honey, You Don’t Know My Mind
House of the Rising Sun
I Am a Pilgrim
In the Pines
John Henry
John Hardy
Just Over in the Gloryland
Katy Dear
Keep on the Sunny Side of Life
Knoxville Girl
Little Birdie
Little Girl in Tennessee
Little Maggie
Lonesome Road Blues
Love of the Mountains
Midnight on the Stormy Deep
Nine Pound Hammer
Red River Valley
Red Rocking Chair
Rocky Road Blues
Roll on Buddy
Sittin’ on Top of the World
Take This Hammer
There’s More Pretty Girls Than One
When the Saints Go Marching In
Wildwood Flower
Will the Circle Be Unbroken
Working on a Building


Wayne Erbsen has been teaching banjo, fiddle, guitar and mandolin since dinosaurs roamed the earth (really about 50 years). Originally from California, he now makes his home in Asheville, North Carolina. He has written more than 30 songbooks and instructions books for banjo, fiddle, guitar and mandolin.

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