Yet More About Improvising

Murphy Henry

As you can tell, I’m on an improvising kick, and today’s report is on Bob Mc. Normally Bob takes late in the evening about sundown, by which time he’s too tired to pick and I’m too tired to write! But today he came in at, gulp, 9 a.m. Fortunately, I’m somewhat of a morning person. Bob, on the other hand, is NOT a morning person and today this worked to his advantage because, as I’ve told him time and time again, I don’t want him thinking! Especially when we do improvising. I want his HANDS to do the work. We have been laying this foundation for 4 or 5 years, and now, it’s paying off!

Bob’s biggest problem all along has been hearing the chord changes which meant when he got lost in his break he couldn’t come back in. This was seriously affecting his ability to jam. So lately we’ve been hitting chord changes with a vengeance. And somehow, that has led us straight into improvising.

We started our re-learning chord changes with good ol’ Skip To My Lou. Two chords. Hard to go wrong. Still and yet, there were moments.....

We then moved on to You Are My Sunshine. Three chords. Harder but familiar. For each of these songs, I had Bob strum it on the banjo while he tried to hear the words in his head. Sometimes I would sing along, sometimes I would play guitar without singing, sometimes I’d sing while he strummed the banjo, sometimes I’d make him do it totally by himself. (I’ve decided that it is of utmost importance to hear the words to the songs in your head. So I’m really pushing that angle now.) And maybe, after all this time, he was just ready, but something started clicking. He was beginning to hear the words as he played!

So, one night he comes in with a break he has improvised to You Are My Sunshine! Following my improv rule, he is NOT trying to play the melody, he is playing licks that go with the chords. And he’s got a pretty good break, all but the D lick. So we work on that till he comes up with something. But, as often happens, by the next lesson, two weeks later, he’d forgotten his D lick. No big. Instead of trying to recreate what he had originally, I asked him to go with whatever his hands wanted to do this time. It took some work, but he came up with something else. And today when he came in, he could still play a break to the song. Yahoo! I figured we were ready to move on to This Land Is Your Land, chosen because Bob already knew how it went and it only has three chords.

First, I had him listen to me sing the chorus (which is the same as the verse) while I played guitar. Then I had him vamp to it. Which he did pretty well. So, then, because I didn’t think banjo strumming would be useful in this instance, I had him to the two-square-roll pattern (3251, 4251) while he was using the first position chords. We did it a bunch of times, but he had a little trouble with this. I asked him what the problem was. He said it was hard to keep the rhythm going and change chords.

I knew what he meant. It was hard to keep alternating the 3rd and 4th strings properly. Too much thinking involved. It’s amazing how something so seemingly insignificant can pose a problem. He suggested he just use the 3251 roll, and I said fine. He did much better.

So, now he’s using the one simple roll and playing through the chords. This is the Most Basic Improv Break you can take. You can even impress your friends and family with a break like this. But, of course, as Bill Monroe so wisely put it, “You won’t be satisfied that way.” No indeed.

Knowing that, I asked Bob to now add the tag lick and pinches at the end of the break. Piece of cake, I’m thinking. Not! Just making this one little change was hard. I asked him why. He said it was hard to get out of the rhythm of the roll he’d already established. He knew what he was supposed to do, he could hear it in his head, but it was hard to make his hands change the pattern he had going. He said he needed to practice it to get it in his hands. Good answer, good thought.

So we pulled out the last two measures of the song (4 beats D, 4 beats G) and played them over and over in a loop. Which is what you do if you’re trying to familiarize your hands with a new pattern. When we then added this back into the rest of the song, Bob could do it pretty smoothly.

Now, thinks I, we need to use that tag lick and pinches for every G measure in the song! (I’m just making this up as I go along, because I’ve never done This Land with anyone before.) So I told Bob to try that, and by golly, it didn’t take him long to make that happen. I guess once his hand got used to the pattern, it was no harder to put it in other places.

With the addition of 4 tag licks and pinches, Bob now had a pretty decent break. And one other interesting thing happened: as he was working up this last version, his hand started adding a different D roll! He was using the forward/backward roll instead of the square roll—completely without thinking about it. (This is a lick he already used in another song.) His hand was operating on its own! Which is what often happens when improvising. I was SO HAPPY. And Bob was happy. It was a good morning all the way around. I told him to go home and see if he could come up with some other licks for the C and D measures. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with. “This land was made for you and me....”

Zac report: At our last lesson he improvised breaks to Bury Me Beneath the Willow and Mountain Dew. It really, really helped that he had heard these songs many times at the Thursday Fruit Stand Jam.