Let’s Talk About Improvising

Murphy HenryOkay, here we go! First of all, as I mentioned earlier, bluegrass is all about improvising. By its nature, bluegrass is an improvisational music. That’s part of its charm. In spite of the fact that banjo players like to “play it like Earl,” the beauty of bluegrass is that you really don’t have to play it like Earl. Or anybody else. You can play it like you! How boring would it be if everybody played all of Earl’s songs exactly like Earl all the time? Where’s the creativity? (Although don’t get me wrong! Learning Earl in the beginning is essential!)

And frankly, almost everyone wants to play with other people. There are few true closet players. So eventually this means one thing: improvising. Improvising is the skill that allows you to play along on songs you don’t know. It would be a mighty boring and one-sided jam session if it only included songs one person knew. And bluegrass would be a mightily tough row to hoe if you had to memorize the breaks for hundreds of songs! That’s where improv comes in. It’s sort of like a short cut to the whole bluegrass repertoire.

What exactly is improvising? In a nutshell, improvising is making up stuff out of your own head that fits the chord progression. So, how do you get there? First of all, there’s the learning by ear part. [NOTE: RANT AGAINST TABLATURE COMING UP.] The worst thing about tablature is that is does not lead to improvising. I have had plenty of non-believers come up to me and say, “I don’t have any problem reading tablature. I can read tab fine and play the banjo (or mandolin or fiddle or guitar). I can play twenty or thirty songs from tab. I even have them memorized, I don’t have to look at the tab anymore.”

Well, doubting Thomasina that I am, I almost never believe anyone who says this. Too often when I have heard a “tab eater” play, the renditions are choppy—starting and stopping—and out of time. No one could accompany them on a guitar.

But suppose someone could actually play a decent arrangement from tab. I confess, I’ve seen some of this too. But can that person trade off breaks with someone else who is playing the same song? Vamp (chord) while the other is playing the lead? Come back in appropriately when it’s time? Sadly, the answer is usually no.

And to ratchet it up just one more notch. Suppose a person could do all of the above. Trade breaks, vamp, and come back in. Could that player take a break on a song s/he didn’t know? A three-chord singing song? Probably not. No matter how well you play from tab, you are still confined to the tab. And that’s why I rant against it. [RANT OVER.]

Fortunately, improvising is a learned skill. And most people can learn it (if they just listen to me and do what I tell them! ) And the cornerstone to improvising is LEARNING TO HEAR YOUR CHORD CHANGES. Need I add BY EAR?

From the start you need to be learning to chord to the songs you are playing. This is one of the reasons I don’t like “Blackberry Blossom” as a beginning tune, as some of you may know. The chords are too hard! And I myself have given up on “Salt Creek” as a beginning tune. (Sorry if you’ve already learned it!) The chord changes are practically impossible for a beginner to even memorize, much less learn by ear.

Realizing that students were having great trouble in this area led to the DVD “Learning to Hear Chord Changes.” I was seeing way too many folks at camps who could play a few tunes but had no clue as to what the chords were. In a jam session, they were lost. Because if you can’t chord along, you can’t play with others. And let me tell you, in a jam session, you’re gonna be playing chords a lot more than you’re going to be playing lead!

Throughout this whole process of learning songs by ear and learning to hear chord changes by ear, it is essential (for improvising) to be playing with someone else. Hopefully, your teacher is in the habit of playing rhythm guitar with you. (If not, ask!) Your teacher should also be trading breaks with you or singing some songs so that you can practice your chording. I would venture to say that you can’t learn to improvise unless you are regularly playing with someone else. And don’t tell me you can’t find anybody. LOOK HARDER!

To sum up. You lay the foundation for improving when you:

Learn by ear.

Learn to hear your chord changes.

Play with other people.

I would also add that you need to be listening to lots and lots of bluegrass! And going out to see it live. Immerse yourself in it. Not only will you be supporting those gallant road warriors, the sounds that are going into your head will one day be coming out as improvs!

Next time: getting specific about improvising on the banjo.

12 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Improvising

  1. TamZeb

    Hi Murphy

    I am sure you must be aware the two hottestly debated subjects in the Banjo Hangout at this time are TABLATURE and THE MURPHY METHOD.

    I should be very interested to see the kind of response YOU would receive if you posted this article in the Hangout.

    You have a large number of loyal supporters who frequent the Forums in the Hangout and I have posted details about your new blog. I am sure many must be visiting your blog and it surprises me that no one seems to be posting any comments.

    Regards Tam

    Picking a Fender FB 58 and PROUD to describe myself as a Student of the Murphy Method

  2. jesanddeb

    Hi folks…. Like Tam here, I also have a FB58. Works for me. Any way, I have also been in a few online chats concerning banjo music. I mentioned you (murphy) and they simply came unglued. They wanted me banned. All I did was mention your DVD’s to a student. The student was in dire trouble. This student now has videos on YouTube because of your DVD’s. My wife plays guitar. She wanted to sell her guitar due to lack of interest and tab misery. I got her one of your guitar DVD’s and she simply loved it. She just ordered 3 more this last week. Yes, I can also improvise. (kinda) LOL …. Keep up the great work, Jesse

  3. gary caine

    First, I will agree I learn a lot faster with your method, but tab does have it’s place.

    Sometimes I just can’t figure out a lick I hear, and tab can help.

    Also if I happen to forget how to play a portion of a song it’s a lot faster to take a quick look at the tab than it is to go back over that part of a dvd.

    If people are having the problems you stated they are using tab the wrong way.

    You need to listen to the song and apply the breaks in the tab and then play the song, not just the notes. In fact I’ll often substitute my own breaks.

    So what I’m saying is that if you use tab as a sort of road map to a song you don’t know and actually listen to what the breaks sound like you will eventually be able to recognize them when you hear them.

    I still have a real hard time finding the right breaks for a song that I’m trying to come up with my own arrangement with, but I don’t think it’s because I’ve used tab, it’s because I haven’t worked at improvising enough yet.

  4. TamZeb

    Hi Murphy

    It’s great to see more of your students taking the plunge and venturing to post messages on your blog.

    I’d like to suggest that you consider setting up a help forum where students of the Murphy Method can interact and share their learning experiences with the occasional guidance from your good self.

    The one thing I have noticed about the Banjo Hangout is that those banjo players who use tab tend to steal a thread (i.e. Change the subject) when a question has been asked about the MM as a result the subject matter often gets buried under a whole batch of ‘I use the Murphy Method’ comments. A war of words so to speak.

    A Forum devoted to the Murphy Method would also give you feedback on how well or not you are getting your message over to your DVD student’s.

    It would also served as a vessel for gathering ideas and information to help you decide what tunes and lessons to teach in the future…

    Best Regards Tam

    Picking a Fender FB 58 and PROUD to describe myself as a Student of the Murphy Method

  5. admin

    Hi Tam,

    Thanks for that good suggestion. We’ve always had that in mind to do, but we’re only three people, none of whom is terribly web conversant. At the moment it’s all we can do to keep adding content to this new blog, in addition to sending out DVDs, teaching at camps, and making new DVDs. A TMM forum is definitely in the plans for the future, I just can’t say when!

    Students should feel free to email us with questions (themurphymethod@gmail.com or through our website) and we try to post some common ones on the “Ask Murphy” page of the website.

    Happy PIcking!

  6. Pingback:

    The Murphy Method Blog » Blog Archive » Improvising on Banjo: Licks, Not Melody!

  7. TamZeb

    Hi Casey

    I understand what you saying when you write ” but we’re only three people, none of whom is terribly web conversant. ”

    Setting up a Forum is not for the faint of heart but it is not overly complicated either if you are up for a challenge and there are a lot of experts out there willing to offer free help and advice to get your Forum up and running.

    The link below will take you to phpbb version 3 perhaps the best open source forum software on the world wide web today and what’s so great about it is you can tailor it to your own website design and better still, it’s absolutely FREE.

    The software comes with excellent documentation, but if you are not too comfortable with PHP, MySql, Apache and online servers, I feel sure you will have close friends who are a wiz with computers and can help you to set it up. It may seem very complicated at first but like learning to play the banjo with a little trial and error and a lot of perseverance you’ll get there in the end.

    The whole concept of a Forum is for the users to help each other, in your case Murphy’s student’s would share their learning experience with the next generation of students with you guys on hand to add expert advice from time to time but not to the point where it dominates your life.

    The phpbb site has it own Help Forum with experts around the world on hand to give advice and in my experience of using it I found that any calls for help I made were on average replied to within five or ten minutes day or night… I know that may seem hard to believe but it is true.

    I took me about two weeks to set up a forum from scratch. I got bogged down trying to learn PHP, MySql and Apache so I downloded the forum software and had a look at how it was structured, I then began to tailor it to suit my needs and added a few security mods to keep the spam bots from taking over > this is important to note < as spam bots have a tendency to leave behind links to unsavory websites..

    That said here’s the link http://www.phpbb.com/

    Alternately you might care to ask Eric Schlange the Banjo Hangout Webmaster for some advice on how to go about setting up a Forum

    Happy Blogging

    Best Regards Tam

    Picking a Fender FB 58 and PROUD to describe myself as a Student of the Murphy Method

  8. admin

    Thanks for all the good advice and references! We’ll keep them in mind when the time comes…


  9. David Raleigh Arnold

    May I quote your “rant against tablature” on my site, with full
    credit of course, in my document against tablature? Click
    on “tab” near the top of my web page to see the document
    to which I would like to add your rant. I was really shocked
    to be unable to google any such rant but yours. “poisonal”
    in the subject is necessary to get past my filters. Regards, daveA

  10. admin

    Hi David,

    You may certainly do so, but please be sure there is a link back to this site. Thanks!

    Casey Henry

  11. Steve (in Japan)

    The above entry “Let’s Talk About Improvising,” by Murphy is a text book in its self.

    As for a forum, elements of that could start right here and now thru your comments to each new entry. Your comments would leventually lead to changes and improvements to meet demands and needs. Just start thinking of the MM Blog as the MM Hangout (your new hangout).

    Oh, and folks don’t forget to work out with and /or review the “IMPROVISING: THE FIRST STAGE” DVD.

  12. Steve (in Japan)

    In reference to comments above, I’m making a plea to my fellow MM friencs and students. (There’s a typo in “eventually.” Gomennasai!)

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