Tip Jar Jam: Improve Your Improv

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Our ever-expanding circle of pickers grew last night as we welcomed new jammers Janice, who takes banjo from Casey, and Tim, one of my guitar students, who recently learned the "boom, chunk, boom, chunk" bluegrass strum--off the Internet!  Janice plays solid and clean and after she got comfortable by playing a couple of tunes in unison with the other banjos, she was quite willing to take a solo break and even kicked off a couple of songs. Tim sat quietly all night long, hammering out some excellent rhythm while watching my hands to see what the chords were.

I was also delighted to see Kathy G back in the saddle again, now fully recovered from her painful encounter with a flesh-eating dishwasher which had taken a bite out of her index finger. As E.T. said, "Ouch!" For some reason, being away from the banjo for a few weeks had not hurt her playing. She made her debut as a lead singer, singing I'll Fly Away in the key of C. Nice job, Kathy!

Rounding out the circle were long-time jammers, Dan, Kathy H, and Bob Mc (sans wig!), intermediate pickers all.

As I looked around the room trying to come up with some sort of picking plan that would include everyone, I could see that we had a solid split between intermediate beginners and intermediate intermediates. (Don't ask me for a definition, I just make this stuff up on the spot.) So, I decided that we would alternate tunes: we'd do a slower-paced beginning-level tune (Banjo In The Hollow, Cripple Creek, Boil Them Cabbage, I Saw The Light) and then we'd do a faster-paced intermediate tune (Lonesome Road Blues, John Hardy, Foggy Mountain Breakdown, Daybreak in Dixie). That actually worked out rather well. I still couldn't sing much (damn this cold!) so we ended up playing a lot of instrumentals.

However, with Easter being just around the corner, I had to sing Purple Robe because I love Kathy H's tenor singing and I love picking it on guitar. It was in the middle of my kickoff that I first really noticed Tim's rhythm guitar playing. Somehow, his notion of where the beat was matched my notion of where the beat was so our timing had that exquisite, in-the-pocket bluegrass feel. We were in synch. I think everyone in the jam noticed, but in reality everyone was probably admiring their own vamping or trying to figure out how they were going to play their break! I liked the sound of the two guitars so well, that I took an extra break at the end of the song. That was a jam highlight for me.

While we were there in A, I asked Kathy H if she would sing Glendale Train. She graciously said yes and immediately began refreshing her memory as to the words, which can be confusing since we have two versions. In the original version the engineer, Charley Jones, is male, as is Amos White the baggage man. In our new, improved version Charlie Jones is the female engineer, Amy White is the baggage girl, and all the "bad guys" are girls! "Girls on horses, girls with guns..." As I've told you before, it's too funny!

Anyhow, Kathy had worked on Glendale Train in her lesson before the jam and had made an improvising "up-grade." The break consists of four long phrases which all start with 8 beats of G. Originally Kathy was using two G "roly-polys" to start each line. Which is a perfect first improv. Kathy, however, is always on the lookout for different licks to add to her bag of tricks. (She's already "stolen" a D lick from Bob Mc and a C lick from Dan!) So during the lesson she tried the Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms lick in place of the roly-polys and, by Jove, it worked! As she put it, "One Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms lick equals two roly-polys!" That one substitution kicked her improv break up a notch and made it sound, well, more Scruggsie.

ADVISORY NOTE: Kathy had been playing Glendale Train for months before she tried to "improve" her improv. If you try to move away from your initial improvs too soon, you will land yourself in a heap of trouble. You want your first improv stuff to be simple, simple, simple.

So Kathy kicked off Glendale Train and used her new improv stuff and it worked fine. Then when Bob Mc took his break, also an improv which he had played before, he came at it from a completely different angle. He started with Foggy Mountain Breakdown licks and they, too, sounded great. Dan was up next and he had yet another way of approaching the break. He used the beginning lick from Two Dollar Bill, which includes a long slide on the 4th string. Again, a solid improv.

So, there in that one song, we had three different ways of playing the break, devised by three different people, and all three sounded good! I was as pleased as Punch! And, from a this-is-too-much-detail standpoint, I personally found it interesting that Kathy's break started on the third string, Bob's on the second, and Dan's on the fourth. They covered all the bases.

But it all started with the roly-polys--and thanks to Texas Tim for that remarkable term! And thanks to Kathy G who was one of the first people to understand that she could take the roly-polys and use them to play virtually any three-chord bluegrass song. Hearing her do that was a Great Inspiration to me. I'm currently in the planning stages of a DVD that will teach the roly-polys. I'm just waiting for Kathy H to show me some more upgrades and I'm hoping I don't run into any copyright issues from Tim!

We'll be jamming next week April 22 and 23. Y'all come!

10 thoughts on “Tip Jar Jam: Improve Your Improv

  1. A Ragamuffin

    I, being in sound mind, herby bequeath the term “roly-polys” to my most excellant teacher Murphy, for the princely sum of two ataboys.

  2. Don Burgess

    Murphy, Is it possible, to show the cords on a inset while you are picking( Banjo In The Hollow) It would be easier for me to learn the banjo if you could

  3. admin

    Hi Don,

    We do show the chords on all of our slow jam DVDs, but not on the instructional banjo DVDs. We can’t go back and add them, but maybe if we ever re-record them!!


  4. Don Burgess

    Thanks, I will be ordering one of the slow jam dvd’s.
    Enjoy your method of teaching.
    wish I was near to attend one of the jam sessions.
    Thanks again,

  5. Murphy Henry

    Also, Don, I go over all the vamp chords to Banjo in the Hollow and ALL on the Beginning Banjo DVDs, Vol 1 and Vol. 2 IN GREAT DETAIL in our Vamping DVD. I really think that is a great DVD, and is probably under-used. Good luck!

  6. Don Burgess

    I have been using the Beginning Banjo Volume 1 and it’s very helpful.
    I ordered the slow jam DVD today and looking forward to getting it soon.’
    Now to learn how to change chords while picking a tune.
    Thank you

  7. Betty Fisher

    OK. A couple of thoughts from a beginner. First of all, Casey advised me to get the “Slow Jam” DVD so I could practice vamping and trading off breaks. I told her today that I thought that would have been even more helpful when I was more of a beginner just to play along with. Having someone to “play along with” is like having your own jam session at your house. Super helpful. I am loving it.

    Also one of the things I have liked most about the jam sessions IS hearing to how each person plays the break the same, yet differently. Each player has their own unique way of playing a break and I learn by each one.

  8. Murphy Henry

    I usually say you should spend ONE MONTH on a new song. That may seem like a long time, but folks who try to go faster usually end up with a log jam of songs they can’t quite play. And absolutely NO MORE THAN TWO SONGS A MONTH. Especially if you are learning the vamping, as you should be.

    I’ve seen too many train wrecks from folks who try to move too fast thru the material. There is nothing to gain and everything to lose by going too fast.

    And as you add songs to your repertoire, you will need the practice time to keep up with them all. NEVER NEGLECT YOUR OLD STUFF!

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