Tag Archives: Improvising

Murphy HenryAs I’ve been telling you, I’ve got several students who are working hard on improvising right now. And one of the things that has become even clearer to me lately is how important it is to hear the words of the song in your head as you are playing your break. You don’t need to know all three verses and the chorus but you do need to know the words to a verse or a chorus that go along with what you are picking.


Because if you don’t—and I’m talking specifically about learning the songs on the Improvsing DVD—you end up defining the songs by how many beats of G or C or D they have. I mean, you’ve got to remember these breaks somehow. And, yes, they do all sound alike! The licks are pretty much the same. That’s the point!

If you don’t know the words, then “Blue Ridge Cabin Home” becomes the song that has four beats of G, C, and D, in that order. And “Bury Me Beneath the Willow” is distinguished from “Foggy Mountain Top” by the fact that “Willow” has four beats of C and FMT only has two. So by the time you get to “Your Love Is Like A Flower,” which happens to have the same chord pattern as “Willow,” your head is a complete jumble of chord patterns--that you can’t remember!

But while these breaks are very much alike, the songs themselves are quite different. And what is this difference? The melodies and the words!

So now I am becoming quite insistent that the students LEARN THE WORDS to the break they are playing. And, yes, that does slow down the learning process in the short run, but it makes everything easier in the long run.

And the best way to learn words? Listen to the song and WRITE THEM DOWN. Bet you never thought you’d hear me saying that! Pulling them off the internet won’t do. Sure, it’s  easy, but that doesn’t help you learn them. It’s the listening over and over as you write them down that helps.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t improvise a break to a song you’ve never heard before if you are in a jam session. Of course you can. But in that case, you will be relying more on watching the guitar player’s hands and trying to find some way to remember—for the moment—the chord progression. If you wanted to learn a more permanent break to the song, you’d have to learn the words. And, hey, if you can learn a banjo break to any of the songs on these DVDS, you can learn four lines to a chorus! Start a notebook....

Casey HenryToday my student Kyle came for his lesson. Kyle is sixteen and I've been teaching him for almost seven years. He's turning into quite a good player and he's recently joined a band with some other young pickers, something I've been telling him he needs to do for at least two years. Being in this band is stretching him in just the ways I hoped it would. There is a girl in the band who does some singing, which challenges Kyle to play songs in alternative keys, like "Head Over Heels" in D.

At a recent gig she sang "Sunny Side of the Mountain," which they had practiced in maybe A or B---a key where he was playing the break out of the standard G-position. Just before performance time, however, they changed it to D, which meant he either had to capo up to the seventh fret or find a new way to play the break. He chose to capo at the second fret and play out of C-position.

He said he had just cobbled the break together, but he played it for me at the lesson today and I was delighted to hear that he was playing melody! All those breaks I made him learn in C, all the improvising and making him pick out his own breaks to songs, as painful as it was at the time, really did sink in! We tweaked it a little bit to get a hair closer to the melody, but the break that he came up with all on his own was excellent. I was so proud!

Murphy HenryI had the best experience a banjo teacher could have yesterday.

My sixteen-year-old student Logan Claytor (he said I could use his name) was in for his lesson. Logan has been taking from me since he was twelve and lately he's really ratcheted his playing up a notch. But like many teens (and adults too) he doesn't practice as much as I would like. Of course he always has some good excuse. So lately, as soon as he sits down, I've been asking him to give me his excuses before we start, so we can get them out of the way. This week it was homecoming.

Then I asked him if he'd learned the low break to "Amazing Grace" that I had recorded last week. No, he had not. But just as I was getting ready to chew him out (not!), he said, "But I did sorta learn a high break to 'John Hardy'."

"Let's hear it," I said.

So he procedes to play this most EXCELLENT up-the-neck break to "John Hardy" which he had made up out of his own head! Now, Logan can do simple, first position improvs to almost any three chord song but he's never done any improv up the neck. So for him to make up this break was simply mind boggling. I was SO proud!

Naturally I asked him how he did. I was thinking maybe he'd worked it out lick by lick while he was practicing. But no. He said the whole break just came to him---in his head---while he was sitting in class thinking about playing "Foggy Mountain Breakdown." Amazing.

I told him I was going to steal one of his licks for my own break. And I meant it! It is something I'd never thought of doing before. (Too bad we don't do tab here or I'd show it to you!!) [TOO BAD WE DON'T DO TAB? Who are you and what have you done with my mother??]

So, way to go Logan! I hope your story inspires some other pickers to go and do likewise!

Thursday I'm heading over to Nashville for the IBMA World of Bluegrass, joining Red, and Casey and Chris who are already there. I'll be at the FanFest Saturday and Sunday. If you're in the neighborhood, drop by and shake and howdy!

Murphy Henry

From an anonymous banjo student who was trying to remember how to play the first position break to "Lonesome Road Blues" from our Improvising DVD.

Murphy: "That's some good improvising you're doing there...."

Student: "I'm not improvising, I'm just screwing up!"

(S/he finally remembered the break from the DVD, but, really, the improv was good!)


One thing I’ve been thinking about lately is improvising in C position---that is, playing in the key of C without capoing or re-tuning. One thing I noticed in leading the slow jams at Kaufman Kamp was that standard three-chord bluegrass songs become exponentially more difficult for banjos when you sing them in the key of C or D, which is where I usually sing them. Not so much if you just capo up five or seven frets, but some of my more intermediate students are wanting to be able to play the breaks open, and it becomes a pain in the butt to do all that capoing.

I’ve started working with one of my students on this skill and I’m trying to approach it like I approach teaching improvising in G. I start out teaching a bunch of three-chord singing songs to build up a repertoire of licks. All the licks are different in C---even the tag lick---and it takes some mental adjustment to get used to starting and ending on your C chord instead of with the good old tag lick in G. For students who use the videos, working through the two “Playing in C” volumes would be a good place to start. (“Playing in C Volume 1”, re-titled “Wildwood Flower” will be out on DVD in a month or so…)

Once you have those C licks in your fingers (which could take months---don’t try to rush this process!), you can apply the same method to working out breaks in C as you did in G. First, figure out the chord progression for the song (this is always the very important first step). Then figure out what licks you already know will fit into the spot. You’ll usually start out with eight or so beats of C, then go to F for four, or six, beats, then back to C. Then to G and end in C. Or some variation on that theme. You have the licks; just plug them into the spots. (For more on improvising see Murphy’s posts on the subject.) It’s a simple concept. Not easy, but simple, and definitely a cure for those of you who complain that all your breaks sound the same. Everything sounds fundamentally different in C, and is more challenging. Tired of “Blue Ridge Cabin Home” in G? Try it in C!

Murphy HenryAs you know from my last blog on improvising, my approach is licks not melody. Especially for beginning improvisers. This is a way different approach than many banjo teachers take. Their idea is to first find the melody notes of the song and then build a break around those. To try to work those melody notes into banjo rolls.

The problem with this approach is two-fold. When it works at all, most of the songs end up being played with forward rolls. Then the songs tend to have a sameness about them. There is none of the pizzazz and variation that you hear in, say, Earl’s banjo playing. That’s because Earl uses a variety of rolls, including the all-important backward roll.

But the bigger problem is that each song has to be worked out individually. Not only do you have to find the specific melody notes but then you have to work out a roll that uses these notes. It’s like you’re having to create banjo playing from scratch. It’s like reinventing the wheel. But there’s no need for that! We’ve got Earl! He’s already given us a ton of great licks. Licks that are tried and true. Licks that work well in practically every bluegrass song that’s ever been sung. The “Cripple Creek Lick.” The “Foggy Mountain Breakdown Lick.” The “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arm” lick. The “Tag Lick.” The “Choke Lick.”  And a whole bunch of other great licks that don’t have names! These are our tools. We just have to learn to use them. And with a few simple licks at your fingertips (pun intended!), you can play most of the three-chord bluegrass songs that have ever been sung.

It’s only when you have a fairly decent grasp of improvising at this basic level that you will be ready to move on to the next level where you DO try to incorporate more melody into your playing. And even at this level your improvising is more about phrasing than it is about playing an exact melody. It’s about developing “banjo ears” that allow you to hear words in terms of banjo licks.

When you catch on to this idea of licks not melody, it’s often like a light bulb going off in your head. Can it really be this easy? Yes, it can. I hope you’ll give it a try!

By the way, this Friday we start shooting a new DVD, “Picking Up the Pace: More Slow Jamming with Murphy and Casey.” Our friend David McLaughlin, mandolin player for the Johnson Mountain Boys, will be uncasing his 1923 Lloyd Loar (serial number 73481) for the taping. And Malia Furtado, who appeared on our first Slow Jam DVD, will be reprising her role on fiddle. Red will be in his familiar role behind the camera, capturing it all for posterity and making sure all our screwups remain on the cutting room floor, metaphorically speaking. We might, however, keep a few for a blooper reel! We’ll see. We’re looking forward to some good picking and a fine time. I love my job!

Murphy HenryFirst of all, thanks to all of you who posted replies to my first blog on improvising. I hope to reply to some of those specifically in a future blog.

But now for today’s subject: improvising on banjo. I usually start my students on improvising after they have learned between 10 and 15 songs (by ear) and can play the chords on them and exchange breaks with me. These skills form the foundation for improvising. And you gotta have that strong foundation.

So you can do that. What next? How do you start improvising? Okay, here is the key: you play licks that you already know when you encounter a song that you don’t know. Licks that fit the chords of that song. LICKS NOT MELODY. It’s this idea of licks not melody that enables banjo players to take breaks on songs that they’ve never heard before.

But why not try to play the melody, you ask? Isn’t Scruggs-style playing all about melody? Well, in a way it is, but that comes later. Right now, as a novice improviser, playing the melody is too hard. You don’t have the skills. But playing licks not melody will get you there.

Alright. To get specific. I usually start out with "Blue Ridge Cabin Home" because the chords are so simple (G, C, D). I play and sing the song with the guitar, while the student chords along. Then after we’ve done a few verses I say, “Now, play something!” At this point they usually give me that deer-in-the-headlights look. And everything falls apart. So we stop and I again I say, “Just play something. Anything that comes to mind.” And believe it or not, something usually DOES come to mind. Remember, these folks have been playing probably a year or more, learning everything by ear. If they are absolutely blank I might say “Try some Cripple Creek licks” or “Try a forward and backward roll.” And this is the fun part for me, seeing what they come up with. Everybody does it a little bit different.

So again I sing softly while they play and pretty soon they’ve got their four beats of G down. And then we move onto C and then onto D. (If they get stuck in D, I usually say, “Use that last lick from Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” A lovely fit!) And before long they’ve made up a whole break to "Blue Ridge Cabin Home" all by themselves. And it doesn’t have one bit of melody in it. If they played it for you and didn’t tell you what it was, you wouldn’t know. It could be any song with that same chord pattern. But the point is, they played something. Something they made up themselves.

After "Blue Ridge Cabin Home" (which we play for weeks before we move on), we continue with more simple three-chord bluegrass songs. (See our Improvising DVD for a complete list.) And because these songs are so much alike, the students begin to use the same licks over and over, which is TOTALLY the point. (Of course they hate this, because as they all say, “Everything sounds alike!”) But the idea is for each student to create a body of their own “go to” licks, licks that are comfortable for them to use, licks that will come flying out of their fingers in a jam session (even when their mind remains frozen!) when someone says, “Take a break!”

So yes, improvised breaks do tend to sound alike at first, but as I keep telling my students, “At least you can play something.” And that is a start.

More to come later about why I don’t advocate trying to play the melody at first. Right now, Red and I are heading for Waxhaw, North Carolina, to play with my sister at her church. “You go to your church and I’ll go to mine, but we’ll walk along together...”

Murphy HenryOkay, here we go! First of all, as I mentioned earlier, bluegrass is all about improvising. By its nature, bluegrass is an improvisational music. That’s part of its charm. In spite of the fact that banjo players like to “play it like Earl,” the beauty of bluegrass is that you really don’t have to play it like Earl. Or anybody else. You can play it like you! How boring would it be if everybody played all of Earl’s songs exactly like Earl all the time? Where’s the creativity? (Although don’t get me wrong! Learning Earl in the beginning is essential!)

And frankly, almost everyone wants to play with other people. There are few true closet players. So eventually this means one thing: improvising. Improvising is the skill that allows you to play along on songs you don’t know. It would be a mighty boring and one-sided jam session if it only included songs one person knew. And bluegrass would be a mightily tough row to hoe if you had to memorize the breaks for hundreds of songs! That’s where improv comes in. It’s sort of like a short cut to the whole bluegrass repertoire.

What exactly is improvising? In a nutshell, improvising is making up stuff out of your own head that fits the chord progression. So, how do you get there? First of all, there’s the learning by ear part. [NOTE: RANT AGAINST TABLATURE COMING UP.] The worst thing about tablature is that is does not lead to improvising. I have had plenty of non-believers come up to me and say, “I don’t have any problem reading tablature. I can read tab fine and play the banjo (or mandolin or fiddle or guitar). I can play twenty or thirty songs from tab. I even have them memorized, I don’t have to look at the tab anymore.”

Well, doubting Thomasina that I am, I almost never believe anyone who says this. Too often when I have heard a “tab eater” play, the renditions are choppy—starting and stopping—and out of time. No one could accompany them on a guitar.

But suppose someone could actually play a decent arrangement from tab. I confess, I’ve seen some of this too. But can that person trade off breaks with someone else who is playing the same song? Vamp (chord) while the other is playing the lead? Come back in appropriately when it’s time? Sadly, the answer is usually no.

And to ratchet it up just one more notch. Suppose a person could do all of the above. Trade breaks, vamp, and come back in. Could that player take a break on a song s/he didn’t know? A three-chord singing song? Probably not. No matter how well you play from tab, you are still confined to the tab. And that’s why I rant against it. [RANT OVER.]

Fortunately, improvising is a learned skill. And most people can learn it (if they just listen to me and do what I tell them! ) And the cornerstone to improvising is LEARNING TO HEAR YOUR CHORD CHANGES. Need I add BY EAR? ...continue reading