First of all, thanks to all of you who posted replies to my first blog on improvising. I hope to reply to some of those specifically in a future blog.
But now for today’s subject: improvising on banjo. I usually start my students on improvising after they have learned between 10 and 15 songs (by ear) and can play the chords on them and exchange breaks with me. These skills form the foundation for improvising. And you gotta have that strong foundation.
So you can do that. What next? How do you start improvising? Okay, here is the key: you play licks that you already know when you encounter a song that you don’t know. Licks that fit the chords of that song. LICKS NOT MELODY. It’s this idea of licks not melody that enables banjo players to take breaks on songs that they’ve never heard before.
But why not try to play the melody, you ask? Isn’t Scruggs-style playing all about melody? Well, in a way it is, but that comes later. Right now, as a novice improviser, playing the melody is too hard. You don’t have the skills. But playing licks not melody will get you there.
Alright. To get specific. I usually start out with "Blue Ridge Cabin Home" because the chords are so simple (G, C, D). I play and sing the song with the guitar, while the student chords along. Then after we’ve done a few verses I say, “Now, play something!” At this point they usually give me that deer-in-the-headlights look. And everything falls apart. So we stop and I again I say, “Just play something. Anything that comes to mind.” And believe it or not, something usually DOES come to mind. Remember, these folks have been playing probably a year or more, learning everything by ear. If they are absolutely blank I might say “Try some Cripple Creek licks” or “Try a forward and backward roll.” And this is the fun part for me, seeing what they come up with. Everybody does it a little bit different.
So again I sing softly while they play and pretty soon they’ve got their four beats of G down. And then we move onto C and then onto D. (If they get stuck in D, I usually say, “Use that last lick from Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” A lovely fit!) And before long they’ve made up a whole break to "Blue Ridge Cabin Home" all by themselves. And it doesn’t have one bit of melody in it. If they played it for you and didn’t tell you what it was, you wouldn’t know. It could be any song with that same chord pattern. But the point is, they played something. Something they made up themselves.
After "Blue Ridge Cabin Home" (which we play for weeks before we move on), we continue with more simple three-chord bluegrass songs. (See our Improvising DVD for a complete list.) And because these songs are so much alike, the students begin to use the same licks over and over, which is TOTALLY the point. (Of course they hate this, because as they all say, “Everything sounds alike!”) But the idea is for each student to create a body of their own “go to” licks, licks that are comfortable for them to use, licks that will come flying out of their fingers in a jam session (even when their mind remains frozen!) when someone says, “Take a break!”
So yes, improvised breaks do tend to sound alike at first, but as I keep telling my students, “At least you can play something.” And that is a start.
More to come later about why I don’t advocate trying to play the melody at first. Right now, Red and I are heading for Waxhaw, North Carolina, to play with my sister at her church. “You go to your church and I’ll go to mine, but we’ll walk along together...”