Okay, 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?
From the start you need to be learning to chord to the songs you are playing. This is one of the reasons I don’t like “Blackberry Blossom” as a beginning tune, as some of you may know. The chords are too hard! And I myself have given up on “Salt Creek” as a beginning tune. (Sorry if you’ve already learned it!) The chord changes are practically impossible for a beginner to even memorize, much less learn by ear.
Realizing that students were having great trouble in this area led to the DVD “Learning to Hear Chord Changes.” I was seeing way too many folks at camps who could play a few tunes but had no clue as to what the chords were. In a jam session, they were lost. Because if you can’t chord along, you can’t play with others. And let me tell you, in a jam session, you’re gonna be playing chords a lot more than you’re going to be playing lead!
Throughout this whole process of learning songs by ear and learning to hear chord changes by ear, it is essential (for improvising) to be playing with someone else. Hopefully, your teacher is in the habit of playing rhythm guitar with you. (If not, ask!) Your teacher should also be trading breaks with you or singing some songs so that you can practice your chording. I would venture to say that you can’t learn to improvise unless you are regularly playing with someone else. And don’t tell me you can’t find anybody. LOOK HARDER!
To sum up. You lay the foundation for improving when you:
Learn by ear.
Learn to hear your chord changes.
Play with other people.
I would also add that you need to be listening to lots and lots of bluegrass! And going out to see it live. Immerse yourself in it. Not only will you be supporting those gallant road warriors, the sounds that are going into your head will one day be coming out as improvs!
Next time: getting specific about improvising on the banjo.