As you know we have a DVD titled Improvising: The First Stage. And when I first concocted that DVD (many long years ago) I had a fairly clear idea of what the second stage would be. However, that thought obviously did not pan out and furthermore I’ve completely forgotten what it was! Still and yet, as more students are beginning to improvise I’ve been wondering lately what the second stage might be. And I think Zac is guiding me down that path!
If you’ve been reading these blogs, you might remember that Zac, who just turned 16, started improvising a month or so ago. He’s been playing about a year and a half, went regularly to David and Linda Lay’s Fruit Stand Jam last summer and fall, and, of his own volition, is playing at nursing homes two or three times a month. (With his band of Susan and Bill Morrison and his dad.) All this to say that learning to improvise is a whole lot easier if you immerse yourself in the music and—this is a biggie—play a lot.
Zac is getting the idea of three-chord-singing-song improv down pretty well. So the other day, just on a whim, I thought I’d try him out on an instrumental. No words to cue on. I trotted out Daybreak in Dixie. (I actually teach this note-for-note on the Ralph Stanley Style DVD.) It’s a great tune, and while it does have a banjo “hook” (a signature lick that Ralph uses in the B part) it can easily be played with generic Scruggs licks.
Zac’s ever-supportive dad Todd was at the lesson playing guitar, so the first thing I did was show Todd the chords so he could accompany me while I played the tune for Zac on the banjo. It has a basic three-chord progression (I, IV, V, not in that order!) and Todd had no trouble picking it up. So Zac got to listen to us practice on that. Then I told Zac to vamp along while his dad and I played through the tune a couple of times. And I gave him this word of advice: “I wouldn’t ask you to try to play this tune if I didn’t think you could do it. I’m not trying to trick you. You can do this.”
And by Jove, he got it! Since he’s been improvising so much, he now has a standard G lick that he automatically goes to to start with and he also has a standard C lick. And, thanks to When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder (on the Amazing Grace DVD), he has added Ralph’s most excellent D lick which happens to fit perfectly in Daybreak in Dixie! (Which is where I learned it!) Now I’m not saying Zac played the tune perfectly the first time. It took several passes through before he cobbled something together. But he did end up with a really good version of Daybreak in Dixie.
So at the next lesson we tried Bluegrass Breakdown. (Which I teach note-for-note on the Rawhide DVD, just in case you’re interested!) Again, Todd accompanied me on the guitar and Zac listened and vamped. Bluegrass Breakdown is not hard, but.......it does have an F chord it in, which Zac recognized early on. So before he tried to make up a break, he played through Old Joe Clark to see what he used for the F lick there. Then he used something similar (simular, as we say here) in BG Breakdown. It worked! Good thinking, Zac!
After we’d played it a few times and were taking a rest, Todd said the most amazing thing. He said, “Isn’t Bluegrass Breakdown just like Foggy Mountain Breakdown with an F chord instead of the E minor?” BINGO! It sure is. Then he continued, “And isn’t the part that has the C in it just like Lonesome Road Blues?” BINGO AGAIN! That’s one thing that makes this whole improvising thing work. The songs all sound alike! (See, I can say that, but them’s fighting words if someone else says it!)
As I told Todd, I was just fixing to show Zac how to substitute the up-the-neck break of Lonesome Road Blues for the last section of BG Breakdown. After a false start or two (no pinches after the tag if you’re going up the neck), Zac laid that break in there as pretty as you please. As he was leaving, I reminded him (not so gently!) that for our next lesson I still wanted him to learn the low break to Lonesome Road Blues from the Improvising DVD so he could add that C lick to his bag of tricks. Er, bag of licks! (Got ‘er done yet, Zac???)
So, do I have the beginning of Improvising: The Second Stage? Only time will tell, but perhaps just knowing Zac is doing it will inspire you to go and do likewise!