You Got Questions, I Got Answers

I was planning on talking about improvising today, but we got such a nice response to my first blog, asking how I learned to play that I thought I could justify taking off on that side road for a bit.

So thanks for asking! Here we go....

“How did you get into Bluegrass and who taught you to play the banjo? Did you learn to play by ear or did you dabble in tab? Be honest now, were you ever tempted to take down any notes?”

I got into bluegrass courtesy of the great Gamble Rogers. In the early seventies, I was attending the University of Georgia, in Athens, where instead of concentrating on my pre-med studies, I was spending large quantities of time at a club called the Last Resort, watching Gamble pick his guitar, Merle Travis style, and spin tall tales. One night Gamble told the crowd that there was a bluegrass festival in nearby Lavonia, Georgia, and that we should all go. He was going. Well, if Gamble had said we should all jump off the Tallahatchie Bridge, I’d have been the first one in the water.

My friend Paula Lane (where are you now Paula?) and I went and not only did I see my first live bluegrass, I also met my future husband, Bryan “Red” Henry. Gamble introduced us around a campfire. Red was drinking something out of a Mason jar that looked suspiciously like water. He didn’t remember me, but I remembered him!

Shortly after that, I got my first banjo and commenced learning to play. My friend Buddy Blackmon showed me a few things but mostly, at first, I tried learning from the Earl Scruggs Book. Yes, I was using tablature. That’s why I know it doesn’t work! And, hey, I had a musical background. I could read music enough to play church piano, could play guitar by ear, and had taken a year or so of violin. I was not musically ignorant nor slow on the uptake.

Still I hadn’t heard much bluegrass and I didn’t know what the songs were supposed to sound like! So I struggled with the tab, circling eighth notes because they lasted longer, and trying to make some sense of the music. (You should see my Scruggs book. It’s all marked up!) The results were pitiful.

Eventually I began slowing down records (vinyl LPs) to learn. I’d work as hard as I could to get it “right” and then I’d often compare what I heard to what Bill Keith had tabbed out in the Scruggs book. I was usually pretty close. (Okay, sometimes I was pretty close!)

But as I was learning this way, by ear, I never scribbled any notes or hints that I remember. Somehow I understood that it was only by listening over and over and trying to play it again and again that I would learn the song. It was sorta like memorizing as I went. And, as I keep telling you, Earl uses a lot of the same licks in different songs, so things got easier as I learned to recognize those licks. But I’ll be honest, it was never easy.

By then I was playing bass in a real, live bluegrass group, Betty Fisher and the Dixie Bluegrass Band, so I was hearing lots of bluegrass. And we had a really good banjo player, Tommy Jackson, who loved Bill Emerson and J.D. Crowe, so most of the early banjo sounds that I was absorbing were from these great players.

I was also out jamming—on the banjo--at every opportunity. So soon I was able to begin improvising. By the time Red and I married in 1974 (I had been playing banjo for just about a year), I was able to step into the banjo slot in the band he was playing with in Charleston, S.C., replacing a really good banjo player named George Delporto. (The band was called Lowcountry.)

One of the biggest surprises I had about learning from records was this: I had spent all afternoon working on Earl’s up-the-neck break to “Salty Dog.” It’s pretty hard, with lots of backward rolls, but I finally got it down and must say I was pretty proud. And we all know what pride goeth before, at least if you’ve been raised Baptist.

Lowcountry had a gig that night at a fish camp and I was looking forward to playing my new break to “Salty Dog.” Well, when it came time for me to play, nothing came out. I couldn’t remember my break! Luckily I was able to fake through a low break (rolls and chords) but those painstakingly learned notes above the 12th fret were gone, gone, gone and crying wouldn’t bring it back.

Of course, later—off stage—I was able to remember it, but this was an important lesson for me. Just because you “know” it at home, doesn’t mean you “know” it on stage. I should have at least practiced it with Red on guitar before trying to play it on stage. That’s why I really do have a lot of sympathy when my students say, “I can play it at home!” Bless your hearts, I know you can. Of course you can! Still and yet, you gotta be able to do it when the pressure’s on, when the chips are down, and when your banjo teacher is looking you right in the face. Luckily, at least when you take lessons from me (or Casey!), you’ve got a friend.

4 thoughts on “You Got Questions, I Got Answers

  1. Harold Sanders

    Holy Michael Why didn’t you tell me this 15 years ago Murphy?
    I’m 80 and shouldn’t be scared but some times it just won’t come out without sounding like I’m scraping all strings at the same time and off key when I’m with a pretty good group OR a good banjo picker is listening!!!!! All soooo true.

  2. MarkZ

    Hi, All — I’m new to banjo, and to the MM Blog, but I’ve been taking lessons with Murphy in Winchester VA for about a month now, and I’m completely sold on learning by ear and on the MM DVD’s. I’m having a blast playing with the Slow Jam video — being able to play with other folks is exactly why I took up the banjo in my semi-retirement days. My wife has just started guitar lessons with Murphy, and we can’t wait to able to play together.

    Murphy Rocks………………

  3. Molly Jo

    Just today while practicing, I realize what you mean by: “playing by ear.” Previously I had been concentrating on where to go next (hand position), how many roll times….etc., and I was very slow with pauses in-between. Then I thought, “Why not just hum the tune while playing?” Viola…no more pauses, no more consciously thinking of how many times this, how many times that. Thank you, Murphy.

  4. Steve (in Japan)

    In reference to paragraph 5, what’s so suspicious about water in a jar. Wait, isn’t there a song that tells us why the folks on Rocky top can’t grow corn and they have to get their corn from a jar? Okay, I get it now, but, Red, corn syrup tastes best when poured oover a stack of pancakes.

    Murphy, thanks for sharing a little more history of a living bluegrass legend. That’s you!

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