Tip Jar Jam: Playing In C Without A Capo

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

I interrupt my playing with Dalton to bring you this blog!

Our Wednesday night jam was really different this time. Of course, all jams have their own flavour (to use Brit spelling!) but Wednesday we started off with just two jammers, Diane on guitar and David on banjo. So, guess who I'll be talking about? [Editor's comment: Yourself?]

My job, of course, is to figure out how to make the jam work no matter how many people are there. (I just realized that I actually got a lot of practice doing this early in life while trying to figure out how to get my four younger sisters involved in whatever activity we had going on--and still keep me interested!) So initially I thought David could play his banjo tunes in G and then we'd go to C and Diane could sing and he could do Roly Polys. It only took one pass through Banjo In The Hollow for me to realize that there was no way this would work for me! Boring! (No disrespect to David's playing, but bluegrass jamming is all about taking turns, something else I learned in childhood! Not one of my favorite lessons.)

So I said, "Diane, have you got the chords to Banjo In The Hollow?"

She said, "Yes, I think so."

I said, "Okay, you are going to carry the rhythm while David and I trade breaks."

And, by golly, she did it. First time. All by herself. And she was solid!

After we'd finished Banjo In The Hollow, I said, "You know, there aren't many students I would entrust to carry the rhythm all by themselves. Letting you do that is about the highest praise I can give you." (Okay, I did NOT say "entrust"--who says "entrust" when they are talking?-- but it works on paper!)

Diane said, "I did mess up on part of it."

I said, "I know. But the important thing is you kept the rhythm going. You didn't get out of time. And you never got 'backwards' to the beat. That is, you never played the bass note when you should have been playing the strum. And if you missed a chord, you heard the mistake and fixed it the next time. It was great!" And it was.

So Diane carried all the rhythm while David and I traded breaks on G banjo tunes. It was only when we moved up to C for some singing songs that I got the guitar back out so I could support Diane while she and David traded breaks. I got her to do Blue Ridge Cabin Home first because she'd been working on the words during our lesson before the jam. I told her to kick it off, told David to take the second break, and then told Diane to take the third break. (I wasn't taking a break.)

After the song David asked a really good question, "How do I know when it's my turn to take a break?"

I said, "Well, in this jam, I line out the breaks so everyone knows when they are playing. But in a 'real' jam that doesn't have an instructor leading it, the person who is singing the song is the one who gives the nods for the breaks. So that means you have to be looking up at the singer at the end of the chorus to see if you are going to get the nod."

David said, "Then will she give me plenty of time to do my tag lick and get into my break?'

I said, "Probably not! She's thinking mostly about her words. It's your job to get in on time for your break no matter when she nods."

David, "Oh."

Me: "So one of the best things you can do is always do a tag lick at the end of the chorus so you are ready to go into your break if you get the nod. And if you don't get the nod, you can just go back to vamping."

David, "Oh."

Me: "But what I've found out after years of teaching is that most students who are learning to jam can't do this--they can't look up from their playing to see if there is a nod because they are too terrified! They've got so much to think about already that remembering to look up is impossible. And then if they miss the nod and screw up the entrance to their break then everything gets out of whack and the jam grinds to a halt. So, that's why I always line out the breaks."

David, "Oh."

Me: "Just like I did in this song. I told Diane to take that third break before we started."

David, "You did? I didn't hear you."

Diane, "Yes, she did."

David, "Oh."

(I may not have remember David's exact comments....!)

We had just started our second C song, Will The Circle Be Unbroken, when in walked Dan! He quickly took off his massive amounts of outerwear (it was cold!), uncased his banjo, put on his picks, and sat down. Luckily Circle has four verses so after the fourth verse Diane--bless her heart--looked up at me and I nodded to Dan--who was also looking back at me--to take a break. After his break, which he played in Open C (no capo!), Diane knew to go into the chorus so we ended "just like we rehearsed it" which is what we say when we get a good ending with NO rehearsal!

"Good thing I was in tune," said Dan.

As I've been telling you, Dan has been working diligently on playing in  Open C and it's been a real learning experience for both of us. I've actually made a list of the songs we've been working on because--guess what? I hope to get a new Improvising in Open C DVD out of this! So, I pulled out the list and we did several of those songs including Long Black Veil.

I looked at David and said, "You'll take a Roly Poly break?"

"Never heard the song," said David.

"So?" I said. "You'll take a Roly Break."

"I'll take a Roly Poly break," said David. (Quick learner!)

"Let's go over the chords," I said. "This one is a little different. It falls back to the four (IV) chord after the five (IV)."

We went over the verse, which is the break, and sure enough, David caught on to it quickly. And played his break beautifully when it was his turn. Go, David! (No pressure to perform at Intermediate Camp!)

Dan had been working on what to do for a lengthy C chord in open C. So for Long Black Veil (8 beats of C to start with), he used the two-finger C chords and the Foggy Mountain Breakdown lick all the way up the neck. (You Advanced Intermediate campers may see this in March!)

We also reprised Truck Driving Man in C, which I am working to gender-flip. (Apologies to writer Terry Fell.)

I stopped at a roadhouse in Texas

A little place called Sweetwater Pearls

I heard that old jukebox a-playing

A song about a truck driving girl.


Pour me another cup of coffee

For it is the best in the world

I'll put a quarter in the jukebox

And play the Truck Driving Girl.

David, who was on a roll Wednesday, said the chords were just like Bury Me Beneath The Willow. I'm never quite sure of things like that--because I don't hold chord patterns in my head--but I said I didn't think so. So, naturally, we had to stop and sort that out and it turns out that the first half is like Willow and the second half is like Blue Ridge Cabin Home. Which, to me, is useless information when it comes to improvising on the fly because you can't think about the chords pattern in that way AND STILL PLAY A BREAK. That kind of thinking will trip you up every time. [Editor's note: But this is how I think about all chord progressions. A phrase at a time, this phrase is like that phrase from this other song so you can play the same thing. Different strokes.]

Anyhow, I'm getting kind a long-winded here. We closed out the jam with another song Dan just learned, Prayer Bells Of Heaven. I love the song (recorded by Jimmy Martin with Gloria Belle singing high harmony) and it also has a very nice two (II) chord in it. Again, it has a long C (one) chord (12 beats, I just counted them!) so Dan was able to do his up-the-neck C chords.

I can see I've failed to tell you about David vamping Do Lord in Open C which Diane sang and picked it capoed at the fifth fret. As he so brilliantly put it, "The vamp chords stay the same no matter where the capo is."

I said, "That's true. But how do you know that?"

He said, "I learned it from your Capo, Chords, and Theory DVD!"

Me: "Wow! Be sure to mention that at camp!"

And so I will end on that note.

PS: For anyone still reading and for my own amusement: Thanks to Wikipedia I found out that there really is a fourth verse in the original recording of Truck Driving Man. "When I get my call up to glory/They will take me away from this land/I'll head this truck up to Heaven/ Cause I'm a truck drivin' man." I could see the gender flip as soon as I read it: "When I get my call up to glory/They will take me to the gates of pearl/I'll head this truck up to Heaven/Cause I'm a truck driving girl." Yee haw!

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