Backtracking: Part 2

Murphy Henry

Now we come to Bob Mc’s adventures in backtracking. Bob came to me about four years ago with absolutely no musical background. We’ve often remarked to each other that he started “below zero.” But tenacity he has. In spades.

After four years, Bob has lots of tunes that he can play well: All of Beginning Banjo Vol. 1, Old Joe Clark, the high break to Foggy Mt. Breakdown, and Lonesome Road Blues from Vol. 2, all of Misfits, all the Improvising songs, plus Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms, I’ll Fly Away, and When the Roll is Called up Yonder. That’s a lot of songs.

Now, as I told him at his Tuesday lesson, if he were taking banjo lessons from just about anybody else, he would be a Star Student. Would get an A Plus. Why? Because he can actually play the tunes.

But Bob is having problems hearing the chord changes to the songs. And because of that he has trouble with vamping, trouble with coming in for his break in a jam, and trouble recovering when he makes mistakes in his own playing.

And since my goal is to turn out students who can jam, Bob and I have been actively seeking a solution for this difficulty for years. I can’t tell you how much work we have done on vamping. I’ve had him try to do it by ear, I’ve had him try to do it by counting, I’ve had him memorize chord patterns. Frankly I thought if we just played the songs enough, he would just “get it.” It would all fall into place. The light bulb would come on. There would be joy in Mudville.

Alas, no joy. Because there was big part of problem that I wasn’t understanding.

Over and over I’ve told him Bob that when he’s vamping he he should be hearing the tune in his own head. But it’s taken me until recently to realize that he can’t keep the tune in his head when he’s away from the music. That was a bit of a shocker to me. I have no idea how he’s done as well as he has without being able to keep some version of the tune in his mind.

Finally on Tuesday, grasping at straws, I asked him if he knew the song Skip to My Lou. Yes, he seemed to recall it from grade school. There now, I thought, is a simple tune that he surely will be able to keep in his head. So I sat there and played guitar and sang the chorus over and over while he vamped. He picked up the chords fairly quickly, although that last measure gave him a bit of a problem. I asked him to then tell me what the chord pattern was. He was able to do that. We talked about how the last chord had to be G, since we were playing in the key of G. He wanted to know if that were true for all keys. I said yes. That was a revelation to him. He’d never thought of that before. He was extremely happy to been given that piece of information. It was like he had found another piece to this endless puzzle he is trying to put together.

I told him to sing the song, hum the song, think about the song all the way home. And to try to remember it in his head every day this week. And to try to vamp to the song he heard in his head. And, if he couldn’t recall it, to get out the Learning to Hear Chord Changes DVD and listen to it to refresh his memory. And if he dreams about it, so much the better!

I think we may be on to something. I can only hope so. I’ve got big plans for Bob and Skip to My Lou. I figure that we can start simple and then build up a repertoire of songs he can hear in his head. It may not be easy, but I do think it will work. There will be joy in Mudville!

P.S. I welcome suggestions from any of you who have dealt with this problem in your own playing.

8 thoughts on “Backtracking: Part 2

  1. Martin Bacon

    This is very interesting because as you know vamping on the offbeat was so hard for me to learn but hearing chord changes not so hard. How about a book where he writes down the words to the tune and then sing the tunes in the shower (maybe when no one can hear you in my case:)) I think writing down the words helps hearing them and I can’t play a “singing song” without some words in my head. How about strumming the tune while chording and singing it in your head rather than playing the break or vamping. Also, as you say, “everything is ultimately Bury Me Beneath the Willow”. That is, there are only a limited number of general patterns for the chord sequences which you can practice hearing if you listen to the tunes played by others. It just has to work if you keep at it. Hope I can play with Bob sometime soon.
    If Bob wants to see how there are only a limited number of patterns to learn, he can go to BHO and search for “Kemo Sabe”. What will show up is an extensive list of tunes classified into about six different chord sequences.

  2. Ken Julkowski

    Hi Murphy. Thanks again for the time you took with me on speed and the necessity to have about twenty tunes memorized and be able to vamp them. I’m about up to 20, but still have to cheat on the chords. In the key of G, I’m pretty much ok, but other keys leave me out in the cold.
    I’m saved at a jam by being able to watch the guitarist’s hands, but I consider that a poor substitute for “getting it.” I’ve many of your CDs, but not the one on ear training.
    I’ve slowly developed the ability to pick a melody and am trying to work in the rolles to create an arrangement. I’m hoping finding the chords this way in songs I know will help.

    PS What or where is BHO that Martin cited? Thanks Ken

  3. Rick Anderson

    I have the same problem because I cannot keep a tune in my head at all. I have been trying to learn Banjo in the Hollow for a few months and can play every note but I have absolutely no rhythum because I can’t remember how it sounds, regardless of how many times I listen to it!

  4. Martin Bacon

    Dear Ken,
    I was referring to Banjo Hangout ( As far as vamping in other keys than G, the Nashville Numbering system should solve that for you and as long as you know the I chord (the key you are playing in), finding a IV and V chord is pretty straightforward. I’m thinking Murphy explains those rules on “Capos, Chords, and Theory). I would be happy to explain the *rules” but I’m betting she does a better job.
    It was an immediate revelation when she explained how to find chords though. Playing breaks in other keys than G (without a capo) is still above my paygrade but I really want to learn to play out of the C position since then I think I could play breaks in A, B, C, D, and G.

  5. Ken Julkowski

    Good morning, Martin! Thanks for your comment. I appreciate the BHO note. I do use the site, just didn’t think of the abbreviation.
    Unfortunately, “hearing” a IV or V chord change just isn’t straightforward for the I modestly try to inspire to “keep at it.” It is only within the past couple of years that I’ve gained skill enouth to be fairly sure I’m singing in the same key I want to play a tune it. With various tunes I hear, I can memorize the words and melody fairly easily, but where the chords change is still a stretch.
    Songs in the key of D are getting easier for me due to the drop in pitch from first position D to G, but if it is a 4 (or more) chord tune, my playing defines “fumbling” quite well.

    Again, thanks for the comments. Best, Ken

  6. Tam

    Hi Murphy and Y’All

    Great topic. I thought I’d add my two penny worth (we don’t have cents here in the UK)

    For those of you who don’t know me I have been a student of the MM for over two years and although I am amazed at the progress I have made I too have problems hearing chord changes when vamping & playing back-up.

    I think the reason I struggle so much is because I don’t live in an area where Blugrass Music is the norm and therefore there arn’t many people I can go to, to ask for help and advice. I didn’t get into learning vamping until about a year into my learning curve. The reason. Murphy’s Vamping DVD was not available here in the UK. In fact I always thought the banjo player played the tune and everyone else played back-up. Doesn’t every banjo player think like that.

    Ok, now don’t you go taking notes Murphy I don’t want you writing any of this down just make a mental note.

    So here I am in my third year as an aspiring Novice ( I no longer consider myself a beginner) still going back over basic stuff. Why ???

    Good question. It’s certainly not down to any fault on Murphy’s part. The fault lies in my approach to learning. In my eagerness to learn every lick and every lesson in Murphy’s bag of tricks I skipped a few fundimentals.

    1. Chord Progression – I heard/read about this but I didn’t really understand what it meant.

    2. I was further confused by the Nashville Numbering System – Rather than helping me it confused me more.

    3. When I asked the folks on the BHO about these and got a bunch of differing opinions well lets just say I have learned who to take advice from and who to ignore.

    I guess the breakthrough came when I switched to tunes in the key of C. Soldiers Joy DVD. My favourite MM teaching aid openned up a new horizon. Suddenly I started to hear chord changes and a whole bunch of new sounds. ie. the F Chord.

    The Key of C has interesting tonal sounds that switched on certain senses in my head. Switching back to the the G tuning I found the two finger D7th chord lacked any definative soul but the full D Major Chord makes you sit up and listen. And there lies the KEY…. Learn to LISTEN more.

    Lately I have been working a lot with Geoff Hohwald’s lessons on Chords, Rhythm & Back-Up Rolls. (Geoff’s approach to teaching banjo is similar in many respects to Murphy’s teachings) In his coverage of Rhythm & Back-Up Rolls it was like Geoff turned on the lightbulb to all I had learned from Murphy & Casey.

    The one element where I wasn’t making progress with was with my back-up which was hindering my overall progress. My tunes were incomplete, I couldn’t seem to fit in with any of the tunes my jam buddies were playing. I lacked confidence and my fingers just wouldn’t work when I was asked to play, but these last few months I have started to relax and gradually take a more active part in jam sessions.

    Learning to play back-up and listen for chord changes is now my number one priority and I can’t wait to get my hand’s on Casey’s new Back-Up DVD which by all accounts promises to be a winner.

  7. Dee

    Hi Murphy,
    I was having a lot of trouble with chord changes so I had to focus on the key word to change chords. I’ve been working on the Misfits dvd with I saw the Light. I grew up with this song but couldn’t remember a lot of the words. Believe me “remembering” some days takes work. Another thing that helps me is that I travel a hour each way to work on a mountainous country road and over the last ten yrs every morning & evening the residents know when I come though just by the sound of bluegrass long before they see me. It’s kinda funny, the drive doesn’t seem as long, the deer freeze, I even seen one older fellow in my rear view mirror dancing in the road. I had people at work tell me someone asked them: who is that woman with the loud bluegrass music? I heard bluegrass over my tractor the other day. is she deaf? I’m learning the words, and chord changes, hopefully nobody can hear me singing. It’s not unusual to see me pickin my steering wheel on the way to work. Mom always said I take the long way around the barn instead of going though it. But that’s the way I learn and everybody’s different.

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