Improvising: Hearing the Words

Murphy HenryAs I’ve been telling you, I’ve got several students who are working hard on improvising right now. And one of the things that has become even clearer to me lately is how important it is to hear the words of the song in your head as you are playing your break. You don’t need to know all three verses and the chorus but you do need to know the words to a verse or a chorus that go along with what you are picking.


Because if you don’t—and I’m talking specifically about learning the songs on the Improvsing DVD—you end up defining the songs by how many beats of G or C or D they have. I mean, you’ve got to remember these breaks somehow. And, yes, they do all sound alike! The licks are pretty much the same. That’s the point!

If you don’t know the words, then “Blue Ridge Cabin Home” becomes the song that has four beats of G, C, and D, in that order. And “Bury Me Beneath the Willow” is distinguished from “Foggy Mountain Top” by the fact that “Willow” has four beats of C and FMT only has two. So by the time you get to “Your Love Is Like A Flower,” which happens to have the same chord pattern as “Willow,” your head is a complete jumble of chord patterns--that you can’t remember!

But while these breaks are very much alike, the songs themselves are quite different. And what is this difference? The melodies and the words!

So now I am becoming quite insistent that the students LEARN THE WORDS to the break they are playing. And, yes, that does slow down the learning process in the short run, but it makes everything easier in the long run.

And the best way to learn words? Listen to the song and WRITE THEM DOWN. Bet you never thought you’d hear me saying that! Pulling them off the internet won’t do. Sure, it’s  easy, but that doesn’t help you learn them. It’s the listening over and over as you write them down that helps.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t improvise a break to a song you’ve never heard before if you are in a jam session. Of course you can. But in that case, you will be relying more on watching the guitar player’s hands and trying to find some way to remember—for the moment—the chord progression. If you wanted to learn a more permanent break to the song, you’d have to learn the words. And, hey, if you can learn a banjo break to any of the songs on these DVDS, you can learn four lines to a chorus! Start a notebook....

2 thoughts on “Improvising: Hearing the Words

  1. Martin Bacon

    Dear Murphy,
    Write something down?! As you know I am not ready to improvise, yet, But I have been writing down the lyrics in my notebook for months now and it helps me play the breaks (Me and my wife and my wife’s pap all going down to the Cumberland Gap seems to make CG sound more together in my head). At least my notebook won’t be confiscated now.


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