Murphy blogs every month over on Banjo Hangout and we will be cross-posting these blogs so they'll be all here in one place. This was originally published September 25th, 2014.
I've been trying to figure out how to teach banjo students to improvise for almost 40 years. And it's only in the last year that I've finally figured out a teachable technique that works. As always, I used my own students for guinea pigs and now every week in our Tip Jar Jams I get to see them playing breaks to songs they've never even heard before. It's pretty fantastic! (I swear this sounds like one of those unbelievable, too-good-to-be-true TV ads! I feel like I should be saying, "And wait! If you order now, we will send you two of everything. All you have to do is pay additional shipping and handling!") But I digress....
Pause For Shout Outs: Before I go further let me give some shout outs to my guinea pigs: Kathy G, who challenged me to come up with something simple for her to play on the singing songs that she loved; to Julie for showing me that this technique would also work for instrumentals; to Tim for naming this technique the "roly polys," and to Kathy H, Kasey, Ben, Pam, Dan, Betty, Gregg, and Drew who almost never pass up a break to a song anymore! Why should they when they can make something up on the spot?
Naturally, I wanted to share this idea with the rest of the banjo world, so recently Casey and I sat down and captured it all for posterity in our newest Murphy Method DVD, Kickstart Your Jamming. We chose that title because this method of improvising is definitely a jamming technique. It's what you do when two or more are gathered together in Earl's name to make music. And that could be just you and your old banjo and a guitar player. All that is required is that one of you be able to sing! For this is a technique that works best for singing songs. (And as Julie proved, simple instrumentals.)
And the absolute beauty of this technique is that as you grow as a banjo player you can "upgrade" these simple breaks to more complex, Scruggsier-sounding breaks. In other words, as you learn more Scruggs-style banjo tunes, you can substitute bone-fide Scruggs licks for these simple rolls.
This technique opens up the world of jamming to all levels of banjo players. And, honestly, it wasn't until I started my Tip Jar Jams a couple of years ago that I realized how all-fired important it was for the students have some kind of break to play on most of the songs.
Before this, I figured that if students came to a jam and were able to play two or three beginning songs (Banjo In The Hollow, Cripple Creek, Boil Them Cabbage Down) they could then vamp along, as best they could, to the other songs that they didn't know breaks to. But, you know what? That's a LOT OF VAMPING. And vamping is not very participatory. You're not really part of what's going on if you're just vamping. You're kind of out of the loop.
Kathy G definitely did NOT want to be out of the loop! So I showed her some really simple rolls she could use on singing songs and she loved it. She caught on immediately. She didn't need for her breaks to be fancy, she just needed breaks! So now in addition to playing her "party pieces" (the songs she learns note-by-note from the DVDs) she can take breaks on almost every singing song we do in the jam.
But she is not resting on her laurels. Oh, no. She continues to learn more of Earl's breaks (Foggy Mountain Breakdown, Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms) and now she is "upgrading" her original simple breaks by substituting Scruggs licks from these songs. Of course, it's not quite as easy as I'm making it sound. It's taken time and when she's adding a new lick, she doesn't always get it right the first time. Or the second. Or the third. But eventually she gets it and once she understands how that licks fits into one song, she can pretty much add that same lick to all the singing songs she plays.
It really has been amazing to watch Kathy's breaks develop over the two years she's been jamming. The other night she took a break to Katy Daly, a song which she'd never heard and which stays in the D chord (key of G) FORFRIGGINGEVER and, by George, she got it! I was so proud of her!
So, now, thanks to Kathy and all the other students in the jams, I've been able to pull all these techniques together in this new DVD. And in the Murphy Method way, I've demonstrate everything step by step. I take 15 songs that we regularly do in our jams and I show you how to play the simplest break in the world to each song. It's basically one roll (forward/backward) and three chords (G, C, D). Then--and here's the fun part--I start showing you how to upgrade these breaks by using Scruggs licks that you've already learned from songs taught on our other DVDs.
ASIDE: I debated long and hard about reteaching these licks, but in the end, I decided not to. Why? Because if you are going to use these licks to improvise you have to have them in your muscle memory. This is jam session improvising, "deer-in-the-headlights" improv, the kind you do on the fly. This is what you play when someone in the jam looks at you and gives you the nod! No time to think!
So if you follow the DVD step by step, as you're supposed to (!!!!), by the end of the DVD, you should be able to play a pretty high-level, Scruggs-style improvised break to Somebody Robbed The Glendale Train, our four-chord piece de resistance and Tip Jar Jam favorite.
Kickstart Your Jamming is not a DVD to rush through. It is a DVD to be savored. Sipped, like a fine wine. Not guzzled like Boone's Farm Strawberry! (Whoops! My college peccadilloes are showing!) It's a DVD that tries to teach you techniquesrather than breaks. Although in order to demonstrate the techniques I have to show you the breaks. However, I don't want you to memorize my DVD breaks and play them forever and ever. I want you to use them as a way to get started. I want you to use them as a way to kickstart your jamming!
NOTE: The DVD Kickstart Your Jamming is completely recorded and is "in the can." We are hoping to release it early in November. We'll keep you posted! You can also keep an eye on our website or, even better, get on our email list.
FURTHER NOTE: Casey and I will be teaching these techniques in their simplest form at our upcoming Beginning Banjo Camp, October 24-26, in Winchester, Va. Check out our website for more info.