I was planning on talking about improvising today, but we got such a nice response to my first blog, asking how I learned to play that I thought I could justify taking off on that side road for a bit.
So thanks for asking! Here we go....
“How did you get into Bluegrass and who taught you to play the banjo? Did you learn to play by ear or did you dabble in tab? Be honest now, were you ever tempted to take down any notes?”
I got into bluegrass courtesy of the great Gamble Rogers. In the early seventies, I was attending the University of Georgia, in Athens, where instead of concentrating on my pre-med studies, I was spending large quantities of time at a club called the Last Resort, watching Gamble pick his guitar, Merle Travis style, and spin tall tales. One night Gamble told the crowd that there was a bluegrass festival in nearby Lavonia, Georgia, and that we should all go. He was going. Well, if Gamble had said we should all jump off the Tallahatchie Bridge, I’d have been the first one in the water.
My friend Paula Lane (where are you now Paula?) and I went and not only did I see my first live bluegrass, I also met my future husband, Bryan “Red” Henry. Gamble introduced us around a campfire. Red was drinking something out of a Mason jar that looked suspiciously like water. He didn’t remember me, but I remembered him!
Shortly after that, I got my first banjo and commenced learning to play. My friend Buddy Blackmon showed me a few things but mostly, at first, I tried learning from the Earl Scruggs Book. Yes, I was using tablature. That’s why I know it doesn’t work! And, hey, I had a musical background. I could read music enough to play church piano, could play guitar by ear, and had taken a year or so of violin. I was not musically ignorant nor slow on the uptake.
Still I hadn’t heard much bluegrass and I didn’t know what the songs were supposed to sound like! So I struggled with the tab, circling eighth notes because they lasted longer, and trying to make some sense of the music. (You should see my Scruggs book. It’s all marked up!) The results were pitiful.