Improvising on Banjo: Licks, Not Melody!

Murphy HenryFirst 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...”

4 thoughts on “Improvising on Banjo: Licks, Not Melody!

  1. TamZeb

    Hi Murphy..

    I have not quite reached the stage where I am ready to start on improvisation but I am making steady progress with my lessons and trying to build a library of licks in my head so that when the time comes to start improvising I will have a good foundation from your video lessons.

    Unlike some of Casey’s students who appear to be shirking off lessons (See Come to your lessons July 29th) I just can’t seem to put down the banjo even when my wife calls to say that food is on the table going cold.

    This week I have been Working on ‘Will the Circle be Unbroken’ and I have noted that when you are playing the Vamp on this tune and on I’ll Fly away you play a ‘twiddlie bit’ when you are vamping in the G Chord. It happens ever so quickly so it is hard to see what exactly it is you are doing but it is very effective and breaks the monotony of repeating the G chord.

    My question is: What exactly are playing in that chord?

    Regards Tam

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

  2. jesanddeb

    Hey Hey…. Wondered if there may ever be any info on Banjo Picks. When I started banjo I used regular picks but found them alien to my fingers. Which is normal since they were not there when I was born. Anyway, I bought some Ernie Ball picks and they felt better. Really not sure if they are better. Hand position gave me fits for about a year also. A lot of my banjo problems may stem from the fact that I have never met another person who played a Banjo. When I bought mine, I bought all they had at the store.. I have never even physically seen another banjo other than the two I own. I have been playing for five years. I use no tab anymore. Only your Method Murphy. My daughter wants to play some banjo. She asked me for a mandolin also. If I tell her wrong then I have done her a dis-service. She is eleven. Problem is that I am afraid to tell her much about picks. Need some help…… Jesse in Illinois

  3. admin

    Hey Jesse,

    Maybe we’ll blog about picks in future but for now, a short answer. Mostly everyone finds picks alien to their fingers for the very reason described! But by using them regularly, you get used to them, so they feel “normal”. As you’ve probably found out. I don’t personally favor the Ernie Ball picks because I don’t like the tone they give. Too thin for my ears. So I usually steer my students away from them. However, if they are working for you, don’t change!!!!!

    I’ve always used Dunlop finger picks. I just like the way they feel. The Nationals never did it for me. I use a clear Dobro thumb pick.

    Bummer about not seeing any other banjo players. Perhaps you should check out some of the camps or go to some live shows. (The Murphy Method is sponsoring a weekend camp in Nashville at the end of September! Casey is teaching.) I really think you’d learn a lot from that.

    And regarding your daughter. If you’re worried about steering her wrong, you might consider just letting her use either the Banjo or Mandolin Murphy Method beginning DVD and see how she does. She’ll probably do fine. Kids generally have an easier time than adults!

    Hope these short answers help!

    Good picking!

  4. Steve (in Japan)

    Your “Improvising: The First Stage” DVD is excellent and has helped me tremdously! I like the way you teach us to use the same licks, the same ones the pros use, over and over again because you re-order them, split them and make them “just speak the words” according to each song you teach. You put a lot of hard work and lots of time in making all those videos (and Red too). All I can say is, “Wow!”

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