You Have to LISTEN Before You Can PLAY

Red HenryWe recently received a question from a guitar student who wants to learn to flatpick in jam sessions. Here's part of his note to us:

“I've been playing guitar for a bit over 40 years... I can play rhythm without batting an eye and play totally by ear... Bluegrass is my all time favorite and the one thing that I want to do more than anything else is to learn to flatpick. I have your guitar flatpicking CD but still cannot get the hang of filling in between the melody notes. I've read where you do not advocate the use of scales. What is the secret then to filling in between the melody notes? ...”

---and this was my reply:

Thanks for your note. In answer to your question (and as you've found out), flatpicking is a complicated skill. We try to set people on the road to it with our flatpicking DVD, but Murphy can only teach so much material on one DVD.

The way most bluegrass flatpickers learn to play lead is by sitting down and picking out the melodies to a lot of tunes---fiddle tunes may be best, since they have such well-defined melodies. This is because those tunes have a lot of great licks in them that can be played against particular chords. When you have a large enough vocabulary of licks built up to use in different chords, and have gotten the hang of putting them into a break when you need them, then you can assemble a guitar break to any tune you need to play. But the most important first step is LISTENING.

Before you can learn to play lead, you need to do a lot of listening. The best "input" is to listen to great lead guitarists (people who actually do play melodies and good musical licks) such as Doc Watson or Norman Blake, and also guitarists such as George Shuffler and Bill Napier, who played lead guitar with the Stanley Brothers. The more of the sound of good lead guitar you can get into your head, the more of it you can learn to play yourself!

We do not recommend that you listen to many modern bluegrass guitarists to learn this, since many of them concentrate on playing hot "jam" licks instead of the melodies to songs and tunes. However, if you are able to pick up some licks from them, more power to you! This goes for using scales too. Listen and learn any way you can.

Posted in By Red, Learning By Ear and tagged , on by .

About Red Henry

Began playing mandolin, guitar, fiddle, and banjo in 1967-69. I married Murphy in 1974. We led the Red & Murphy bluegrass band, playing professionally, from 1975-87. Since then I've handled the technical side of Murphy Method cassette, videotape, and DVD production. When you call I usually answer the phone, and I'm normally the one who sends out the orders.

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