Improvising: My Two Cents

Murphy Henry

I’ve been reading with interest the comments about improvising on this blog, and thought I would try to outline my thoughts. I won’t try to answer the questions raised point by point, but maybe I will accidentally hit a few of the high spots.

I do remember the question “Is improvising an advanced skill?” That, as ever, depends on what you mean by “advanced”! What is hard to some people is a piece of cake for others.

At the most basic level, improv (on banjo) is simply playing rolls over the chord progression. The kicker here is that you have to be able to hear the chord changes. You don’t have to hear them all perfectly but you do have to be able to hear something—and to change at the appropriate time, all on the fly.

And that reminds me of another point: is it improvising if you create a break to song ahead of time? And then memorize that break? To me, that’s not exactly what we are talking about here. That is what I would call “composing.” A useful skill, perhaps, but not so much in the context of a bluegrass jam, which is where improvising is important.

(And, need I remind you, that if we played off of sheet music there would be no need to improvise! In fact, it would be frowned on!)

So, I guess we’re closing in on a “definition” of improvising. Making up a break on the spot, while under the pressure of a jam, slow or fast.

Again, I will reiterate (don’t you love that word?): an improvised break, at the simplest level, can be one roll—just one roll, the same roll—played over the chord progression. You could play Blue Ridge Cabin Home using nothing more than the Cripple Creek lick. Or a forward/backward roll. Furthermore, if you do this in the privacy of your own home, while humming the tune in your head, that’s improvising! And let me point out that if you play rolls against chords for non-bluegrass people—especially if someone is singing—they will love it! They will think you are great!

But already, even at that basic level, you run into the problem of hearing the chord changes. If you can’t hear the chord changes, then you can’t improvise. So, is hearing chord changes a basic skill or an advanced skill? If you can’t hear them, it seems advanced. If you can hear them, then it’s as easy as falling off a log.

In my own teaching it took me years to realize how important hearing chord changes was. Seems obvious now. It took me even longer to figure out how to teach that skill. (Still refining that!) What I do know is that it can be taught. Although sometimes, it ain’t easy. And it requires a lot of hard work from the student.

So hearing chord changes is fundamental. It’s the most basic building block for improvising. Is it an advanced skill? You be the judge!

Still and yet, most students are not happy doing basic rolls while playing the chords. It doesn’t sound like improvising to them! So that’s why I teach improv using licks. Which moves it up to a slightly move advanced level. Because then you have to know some licks!
Which is where the whole “by ear” thing comes in. Short version: in order to “retrieve” licks for improvising—from your own brain--you have to input them by ear. If you learn them by ear, you can get them back out by ear. This—by and large—does not work with tablature. As many of you know. And I’m not gonna say anymore about that!

So that brings us to the basic Murphy Method roster of tunes, found on the Big Three DVDs: Beginning Banjo Vol. 1 and 2, and Misfits. Oh, yeah, and the songs Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms and When the Roll is Called Up Yonder. With these tunes under your belt (and chord changes!) you can begin to improvise.

So there’s the second piece: basic Scruggs licks, learnt (as we say here) by ear.

Now, the thing I’m beginning to realize (duh!) is that even those two pieces are not enough. You can’t learn to improvise in a vacuum. (Hmmm...that’s seems important!) You have to have some jamming skills. You have to take your tunes, the tunes you’ve learned by ear, and play them in the company of other people. You have to learn to trade breaks, to play what you know on the fly, without thinking.

But that is not all, no that is not all! (Dr. Seuss.....Cat in the Hat.)

Honest to Pete, you do have to be listening to lots of bluegrass music. I used to assume (yeah, I know....) that most people had at least a passing acquaintance with some of the more familiar bluegrass singing songs that might have crossed over into Popular Culture: Worried Man/Gal, Mountain Dew, Do Lord. (I do realize now that not everyone was Raised Baptist and knows I’ll Fly Away and When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder.) Most people do have some familiarity with You Are My Sunshine, This Land is Your Land, and Amazing Grace but that’s about it. And while those are good chording songs, they are not the greatest for banjo breaks.

So, you do have to do a little bit of Marty’s “total immersion” plan. Listen to bluegrass, go to bluegrass shows, seek out jams, start a jam, or do like I did and pay someone (my son, Chris) to play with you!

OK, I’m out of steam on this subject. I will say one more thing. I think playing the melody of a song while improvising is definitely an advanced skill. That’s why, to start with, I encourage using generic licks. That will get you going and provide the foundation for playing melody later. Questions? Comments? Bring ‘em on, y’all.

PS: If you’re really interested, I cover this topic extensively in my book And There You Have It. You can practically watch me develop my ideas on jamming and improvising and teaching chord changes. me! <Grin>

8 thoughts on “Improvising: My Two Cents

  1. Tam

    Hi Murphy

    Thank’s for the two cent’s the teacher has the final word.

    So the question arises is there another DVD in the planning stage or were you just dangling a carrot to see if we would stop by.

    Thanks again for helping me realise my goal.

  2. Richard Dress

    Haven’t read any better explanation of jam improv. Good article.

    I’m not so big on licks and chords but then I am not trying to make a living either. You gotta give people what they crave.

    Keep up the good work.

  3. Augie Augburn

    Hi Murphy,

    I believe that I understood every word of your post. It drives home the fact that I got a long way to go. I hope to live long enough to get good.

    Thanks for being the mother hen for all us chickens.

  4. Steve Fehr

    Think left and think right and think low and think high, oh the thinks you can think up if only you try! (Dr. Seuss)

  5. Clay

    OK Casey – you could add some comments here about our discussion (and practice) from Saturday’s session.

  6. Dave Eisenhuth

    What a great post! As alway the explanations are wonderful and opens up your mind to trying the improve. In my case now I can say when I screw up a phrase or lick and add in a roll or some notes I can tell my friends and family I am improvising. LOL

    Just kidding Murphy/Casey/Red …really just kidding. Please don’t thr

  7. Dave Eisenhuth

    What a great post! As alway the explanations are wonderful and opens up your mind to trying the improve. In my case now I can say when I screw up a phrase or lick and add in a roll or some notes I can tell my friends and family I am improvising. LOL

    Just kidding Murphy/Casey/Red …really just kidding. Please don’t throttle me. 🙂

    You guys are the greatest

Comments are closed.