The Roly Polys: Entry Level Improvising

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

One of the comments prompted by my last blog: "Can you give me a quick explanation of the Roly Polys?"

Well, you know me. I can definitely give you an explanation, I'm just not sure it will be quick! (We will have a DVD that demonstrates everything you want to know about Roly Polys coming out this fall.)

Short explanation: The Roly Polys are a series of banjo rolls I developed to give beginning banjo players (specifically adults) the ability to play banjo breaks to three-chord singing songs ASAP.

Using the Roly Polys, a student can join in a jam and play breaks almost immediately. In order to use the Roly Polys, you have to either be able to hear your chords changes (G, C, D) or else be really good at "reading" the chords from the guitar player's hands. Either way will work!

So, without using tab (!!!), let me try to tell you more specifically about the Roly Polys. They are really the very first level of improvising--"Entry Level Improvising."

Longer explanation: To start with we have three "sets" of Roly Polys, one for each basic chord. There is one for G (on the open strings), one for C (regular first-position C), and one for D7 (that little two-finger chord that's easy to make). Each Roly Poly is based on the forward-backward roll, 8 notes. I hate to even write the numbers down but here they are: 3215, 1231. The forward roll is 3215; the backward roll is 1231. (I don't use commas.) Please try NOT to think of the rolls with the numbers! Listen to the sound, listen to the cadence. Hear the music in the roll.

I almost always start off teaching the Roly Polys with the song Blue Ridge Cabin Home, which is a bluegrass classic and, more importantly, has the I, IV, V, I (G, C, D, G) chord progression with four beats in each chord. However, the Roly Polys work in any three-chord song, no matter what the progression. And I'm talking "regular" 4/4 time, not 3/4 time.

So in Blue Ridge Cabin Home, for the 4 beats of G we do one Roly Poly followed by playing "3, pinch, 4, pinch." I call this whole thing the "complete G Roly Poly." (And of course a "pinch" is playing the fifth string and the first string together. I hate writing this stuff down!)

For the 4 beats of C, we do two Roly Polys.

For the 4 beats of D, we do two Roly Polys.

For the next 4 beats of G, we do the same thing we did the first time.

Then we play all that again--starting with G--to complete the break which is the length of the verse. (As I told a Skype student today, playing two times through equals one break. As my grandson Dalton said about chess, "It's very confusing."*)
So, with these simple rolls, the student can play a simple break to most three-chord songs either by hearing the chord changes, or watching the guitar player or a combination.

After the student grasps this basic idea, many of the standard three-chord bluegrass singing songs are easy to play using the Roly Polys. Some of these require minor tweaks.

Bury Me Beneath the Willow
Will The Circle Be Unbroken
I Saw the Light
Do Lord
Worried Gal
Two Dollar Bill
Foggy Mountain Top
Your Love Is Like A Flower
Somebody Touched Me
Wreck of the Old 97

And on and on and on...... (...and "On and On"!)

Up till now, I think this explanation has been pretty clear. You might want to stop here and digest. Get your banjo out and try the Roly Polys.

This next part gets confusing on paper.

The "minor tweaks" that I referred to include:

If the song has six beats of C (as in I Saw The Light, Do Lord, Worried Gal, Somebody Touched Me) you do three Roly Polys in C and a set of pinches in G, on the open strings (3, pinch, 4, pinch). If the song has only two beats of C (Two Dollar Bill) you do one C Roly Poly and one set of pinches in G. My Roly Poly students and I discovered these little tweaks by a fortuitous accident!

Also, many songs stay in G longer than 4 beats. Some stay in G for 8 beats (which I call a "long G.") Lonesome Road Blues is one, as is East Virginia Blues. In that case you do two complete sets of the G Roly Polys, including the pinches on the end of both. The aforementioned Two Dollar Bill starts with 12 beats of G, which means you have to do 3 complete G Roly Polys before you go to C.

And many songs also have a "split" measure--two beats G, two beats D--as the next-to-last measure (before the lasts four beats of G). In that case you do one G Roly Poly (no pinches) and one D Roly Poly.

As you can see all this talk is perilously close to tab! Which I hate, but I am doing this as much for my own amusement (and edification) as for yours. So, if this doesn't make sense, don't despair! Roly Poly DVD coming this fall. Also, I will be teaching the Roly Polys at the upcoming Kaufman Kamp. And at our Women's Camp in July. And at our Beginning Camp in October. And you can always drop by for a Marathon lesson. Or we can do a Skype lesson. I'm getting pretty good at Skyping!

Keep in mind: I know all this stuff and can spout it off because I am a teacher! As Texas Tim keeps reminding me, I have been teaching for 40 years! (Thanks so much, Tim. Love you too!) And just so you know, I don't know all the numbers of beats by heart. To write this down for the blog, I had to play air guitar while I counted the beats to the melody of the song. So, to the tune of Two Dollar Bill I'm singing (and playing on my air guitar): "One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, Two Dollar Bill [which is where it changes to C chord]...." I do this BY EAR and I want you to do it BY EAR also. I do NOT want you to be able to tell me the number of beats or the chord progression of a song. I want you to be able to PLAY IT. Nuff said.
More about building on the Roly Poly foundation in the another blog. I figure this should hold you for a while!

"Roly Pole on, Buddy, Roly Pole on!" (Paraphrase of "Roll on, Buddy, roll on." Also a good song for Poly Rolys! Dammit, I meant Roly Polys! Writing this stuff down makes me crazy!)

* About Dalton saying chess is "confusing." He's only 2 and 3/4 and all he was doing was finding the chess pieces that looked alike and setting them on the board. I was naming the pieces as he put them out: pawn, bishop, castle, knight, king, queen. (Whoops, just realized that what I called the "castle" is really the "rook." Well, it looks like a castle!) Anyhow, when Dalton put the "knight" on the board, I said, "This is called a "knight" but it looks like a horse. It's very confusing." I said this because there is no way he can yet know what a "knight" is although he probably knows what "night" is. And to have a "horse" called a "night," well, as I said, confusing! I'm confused about a "castle" being called a "rook"! Anyhow, Red took a picture of us with the chess set and sent it to Casey. So when Dalton went home, she asked him about "playing chess with Gran." Prompting his reply, "It's very confusing." Too funny.)