Tag Archives: Bob Mc

This is a guest post by Mark Heilman, one of Murphy's banjo students students.

I was invited to attend Bob Mc's Apple Blossom Jam that he has held annually for a number of years and I was thrilled to receive the invitation. The thought of being around other people playing the music I love was very exciting. That feeling never went away but it was only a few seconds before another feeling came over me. Oh my God, this is a jam with who knows how many people and I'm going to be in the spotlight at some point.

Most of my banjo playing is done in my basement (a.k.a. closet) after my family goes to bed. So from 9:30 to 11:00 every night I play my Murphy Method DVD's and try to perfect my playing. At one point I decided I needed to take lessons directly from Murphy and it still took me a few weeks to make the call. I told Murphy that my first lesson with her felt like a job interview because I knew the inevitable words would come out her mouth, "Play something for me." So with all that in mind, I debated whether to accept the invitation to Bob’s jam or not. Ultimately I accepted because I felt like I could do it and I hate the thought of fear preventing me from having fun.

The morning of the jam I was up early because the parking in Winchester during Apple Blossom Festival is scarce. I also wanted to get to there as early I could without being annoying in order to achieve some level of comfort. I definitely did not want to walk into a room full of people already playing. So, Stelling in hand, I arrived before the other musicians, except for Bob of course. As the musicians started to arrive, I made some small talk and started feeling pretty good about things.

At some point it became obvious that pretty much everyone but Murphy was there. Susan was itching to get going and broke out her banjo and started tuning up. Well, that was all it took and case latches started popping all over the place. I have to say that I was almost running to get my banjo out which was a little surprising to me. At any rate, the first song out of the gate was Cripple Creek followed closely by Lonesome Road Blues. This suited me just fine because I knew I had those covered.

Shortly thereafter Murphy arrived, uncased a guitar and took a seat next to me, and the jamming got going in full swing. Almost immediately tunes started coming out that I had never heard before. I took a crack at any break that was G-C-D. As far as I was concerned, I had already jumped off the cliff just by showing up so why not. I think that I played okay considering but not great. Several times I got lost in breaks that I know because my mind went blank. I had to jump back in at the next chord change. At last, the call came for Salt Creek. This has been a personal favorite of mine since I was young and rarely does a day go by that I don't play it. At Murphy's direction, I kicked that one off and I did very well if I do say so myself. I think the last song was Foggy Mountain Breakdown played slow and then fast. Thanks to everyone for making my first jam so much fun.

A note from your teacher: Thanks for the blog, Mark! I thought Mark did very well, although as he said, there were some “deer in the headlights” moments. I was especially proud of his improvising. There were, I think, 11 players in all, including 7 banjo players, 3 guitars, and a mandolin. In addition to the Murphy Method standards, we also did:

Sitting On Top of the World
Banks of the Ohio
Life’s Railway to Heaven
Swing Low Sweet Chariot
Somebody Touched Me/This Little Light of Mine/Jesus on the Mainline
Where the Soul of Man [or Woman!] Never Dies

And I probably could think of more but I have to go get ready to square dance! Got a new outfit! Whoo hoo! Allemande left with your left hand!

Murphy Henry

Remember that kids’ song/fiddle tune Old Dan Tucker? With the chorus Get out of the way for Old Dan Tucker / He’s too late to eat his supper?

Well, this blog only reminds me of that. It’s not about the song, nor is it about anyone named Dan Tucker, old or young. Nor is it about fiddling. (Your sighs of relief are audible!)

It’s about the banjo lesson Bob Mc had yesterday and how well he played Old Joe Clark. Bob has been playing Old Joe for three or four years now. And, as you know, that’s not an easy song. If you make a mistake while playing, it’s hard to get back into the flow, and it’s particularly difficult to come into the lead after the vamping. I think it’s fair to say that Bob has struggled with these issues. For years.

Well, Bob has got an Apple Blossom Festival jam session on the horizon and we’ve been working on tunes that are likely to be played there. Old Joe is one of them. So we were practicing it, me on guitar, Bob on banjo. He misfired a couple of times, and couldn’t get it off the ground. Then—miraculously it seemed to me—he found the groove and played it through several times without losing it.

So when I asked him what happened and why he was able to play so well he said, “I just got out of the way. I just stopped thinking about what I was doing and got out of the way.”


I’ve been trying to get Bob to do this for years, but I never thought of expressing it as eloquently as he did. The best I could do was to tell him to stop thinking so much. And while that is true, it’s not quite the same as saying “Get out of the way!”

So, I’m not exactly sure how he did it. (Maybe you could elaborate in a response, Bob.) He said that closing his eyes helped. But I do know that that’s the way it’s done. At some point—after much practice (and I stress that!)—you just have to let go and get out of the way.

Yes, it has to do with muscle memory, relaxing, hearing where you are in the song, and being able to keep steady time. But after all that, as Bob said, just get out of the way!

Murphy Henry

As you can tell, I’m on an improvising kick, and today’s report is on Bob Mc. Normally Bob takes late in the evening about sundown, by which time he’s too tired to pick and I’m too tired to write! But today he came in at, gulp, 9 a.m. Fortunately, I’m somewhat of a morning person. Bob, on the other hand, is NOT a morning person and today this worked to his advantage because, as I’ve told him time and time again, I don’t want him thinking! Especially when we do improvising. I want his HANDS to do the work. We have been laying this foundation for 4 or 5 years, and now, it’s paying off!

Bob’s biggest problem all along has been hearing the chord changes which meant when he got lost in his break he couldn’t come back in. This was seriously affecting his ability to jam. So lately we’ve been hitting chord changes with a vengeance. And somehow, that has led us straight into improvising.

We started our re-learning chord changes with good ol’ Skip To My Lou. Two chords. Hard to go wrong. Still and yet, there were moments.....

We then moved on to You Are My Sunshine. Three chords. Harder but familiar. For each of these songs, I had Bob strum it on the banjo while he tried to hear the words in his head. Sometimes I would sing along, sometimes I would play guitar without singing, sometimes I’d sing while he strummed the banjo, sometimes I’d make him do it totally by himself. (I’ve decided that it is of utmost importance to hear the words to the songs in your head. So I’m really pushing that angle now.) And maybe, after all this time, he was just ready, but something started clicking. He was beginning to hear the words as he played!

So, one night he comes in with a break he has improvised to You Are My Sunshine! Following my improv rule, he is NOT trying to play the melody, he is playing licks that go with the chords. And he’s got a pretty good break, all but the D lick. So we work on that till he comes up with something. But, as often happens, by the next lesson, two weeks later, he’d forgotten his D lick. No big. Instead of trying to recreate what he had originally, I asked him to go with whatever his hands wanted to do this time. It took some work, but he came up with something else. And today when he came in, he could still play a break to the song. Yahoo! I figured we were ready to move on to This Land Is Your Land, chosen because Bob already knew how it went and it only has three chords.

First, I had him listen to me sing the chorus (which is the same as the verse) while I played guitar. Then I had him vamp to it. Which he did pretty well. So, then, because I didn’t think banjo strumming would be useful in this instance, I had him to the two-square-roll pattern (3251, 4251) while he was using the first position chords. We did it a bunch of times, but he had a little trouble with this. I asked him what the problem was. He said it was hard to keep the rhythm going and change chords.

I knew what he meant. It was hard to keep alternating the 3rd and 4th strings properly. Too much thinking involved. It’s amazing how something so seemingly insignificant can pose a problem. He suggested he just use the 3251 roll, and I said fine. He did much better.

So, now he’s using the one simple roll and playing through the chords. This is the Most Basic Improv Break you can take. You can even impress your friends and family with a break like this. But, of course, as Bill Monroe so wisely put it, “You won’t be satisfied that way.” No indeed.

Knowing that, I asked Bob to now add the tag lick and pinches at the end of the break. Piece of cake, I’m thinking. Not! Just making this one little change was hard. I asked him why. He said it was hard to get out of the rhythm of the roll he’d already established. He knew what he was supposed to do, he could hear it in his head, but it was hard to make his hands change the pattern he had going. He said he needed to practice it to get it in his hands. Good answer, good thought.

So we pulled out the last two measures of the song (4 beats D, 4 beats G) and played them over and over in a loop. Which is what you do if you’re trying to familiarize your hands with a new pattern. When we then added this back into the rest of the song, Bob could do it pretty smoothly.

Now, thinks I, we need to use that tag lick and pinches for every G measure in the song! (I’m just making this up as I go along, because I’ve never done This Land with anyone before.) So I told Bob to try that, and by golly, it didn’t take him long to make that happen. I guess once his hand got used to the pattern, it was no harder to put it in other places.

With the addition of 4 tag licks and pinches, Bob now had a pretty decent break. And one other interesting thing happened: as he was working up this last version, his hand started adding a different D roll! He was using the forward/backward roll instead of the square roll—completely without thinking about it. (This is a lick he already used in another song.) His hand was operating on its own! Which is what often happens when improvising. I was SO HAPPY. And Bob was happy. It was a good morning all the way around. I told him to go home and see if he could come up with some other licks for the C and D measures. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with. “This land was made for you and me....”

Zac report: At our last lesson he improvised breaks to Bury Me Beneath the Willow and Mountain Dew. It really, really helped that he had heard these songs many times at the Thursday Fruit Stand Jam.

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Bob Mc gets his own (long) blog today, because he had such a great lesson on Tuesday that I just have to tell you about it.

You know how I’m always talking about improvising and lick substitution? Well, Tuesday night Bob and I started working on having him substitute the Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms lick into a bunch of songs he already played. It worked like a charm.

This is especially gratifying to me because Bob and I have a long history with “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” that goes back to the days when I was still giving lessons at Brill’s Barber Shop.

I forget now how Bob and I first got together, but I distinctly remember Dalton, who owned the shop and cut Bob’s hair, telling me, “You’ll like him.” And I did. Immediately.

Bob, who is somewhere in the middle of his life, came to me with no previously musical experience but with great determination. “You’ll have to kick me out,” he said more than once. “I won’t ever quit.” I haven’t kicked him out for three or four years now.

Now, learning the tunes themselves did not pose much of a problem for Bob. His hurdles were learning to hear the chord changes and getting back into the break if he made a mistake. The one tune he had trouble with was “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” which we first tackled a couple of years ago. For some inexplicable reason, Bob made a mistake when he learned that beginning phrase, the one I call the “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arm” lick and he practiced it wrong all week. At his next lesson, I pointed out the error and we practiced it correctly many times. I was certain he understood the lick when he left. When he got home, however, he backslid bad and practiced it wrong. So we were back to square one. This happened a number of times.

Finally I said to Bob, “I’ve got a suggestion that I think you’re not going to like.” Bob, in his friendly, smiling way, said, “Try me out.” I said, “I think we need to leave ‘Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms’ alone for a while. If I ask you NOT to practice it, do you think you can? Will you promise me?” And good-hearted soul that he is, he agreed and stuck to his word. We left it alone for two or three months. When we finally got back to it, he was further along with his playing and was able, with some hard work, to finally play it right.

Fast forward two years. Bob’s been taking lessons steadily, an hour a week, he’s been practicing as much as he can, he’s been jamming with the Misfits, and he’s been listening to lots of bluegrass. He’s also learned “I’ll Fly Away” and “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder,” both of which use the “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” lick. Chord changes still present a challenge, but he is beginning to be able to come back in more often when he makes a mistake.

So recently he had this song he wanted to learn. It is called “Keeper of the Door” by the Gillis Brothers. (I like the Gillis Brothers a lot because they sound so much like the Stanley Brothers.) There’s no banjo break on the song, so I just made up something consisting of licks that Bob already knew. I did have to show him a short (two-beat) D lick. He learned the break easily and I recorded it the old-fashioned way: onto a cassette! Then, at this week’s lesson, we played it again, and lo and behold, he had used the Ralph Stanley D lick out of “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder” as the short D lick. I was very impressed. Way to go, Bob!

I guess it was his own substitution that sparked my idea to have him try using the “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” lick. I could hear the lick so clearly in my own head, that I didn’t even realize that we would be playing it against a C chord and then a D chord. It’s a little unorthodox to do that, but, hey, it works.

So I explained what I wanted him to do, probably saying something like, “Just put it in on that last line.” He immediately wanted to know how many beats were in the lick. Well, that’s not the way my mind works—I don’t think in beats—so I had to figure out how many beats it was (eight if you count the tag lick as part of the lick, which I do). I said, “It will take the place of your C lick and your D lick.” Then, because I wasn’t being clear, he thought he would have to do two tag licks. I said, no, the tag lick that is part of the “Roll” lick will take the place of the tag lick you’re already doing. I think I even said that one would be “superimposed” on the other. (We just don’t have the language to talk about this stuff! But Bob and I are used to our occasional miscommunications, so we just keep trying till we figure out what the other person is trying to say!) We finally got things untangled so that he understood that there would be just one tag lick.

So, with me backing him on guitar, off we went, and by golly, after all that talk, he laid that lick right in there. It was perfect! So we did that a couple more times just to make sure the lick was solid. It was.

Then I said, “Let’s try that same lick in some other songs you know.” So we went through the low break to “Lonesome Road Blues,” “Worried Man,” “John Hardy,” and even “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” Bob hit them all pretty much the first time. We had a little problem with “John Hardy” in that, after he did the “Roll” lick, he automatically went to the pinches afterwards. Well, that screwed up the entrance to “John Hardy” which, as I’m sure you remember, has all those pickup notes. So I said, “You have to learn how to get back in if you play those pinches. So where you want to hit it is on the down beat. It’s in the first C lick.” (I might have played it for him, I’m not sure.) But by golly, he understood what I was saying—understood where the down beat was—and hit that C lick every time. I was flabbergasted. I was pretty much sitting there, playing the guitar with my mouth open. Bob was clicking on all cylinders and I felt so happy to see him playing so well. It was like he had broken through a mental barrier, a playing barrier, and all of a sudden could “hear” what we’d been working on for so long. I was so proud of him. I think he was even proud of himself. And maybe a little bit surprised.

I reminded him of all the trouble we’d had with learning “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” to begin with. He hadn’t forgotten! And now he was just throwing that lick in right and left, as if he owned it. Which he did! And when you get to this stage, when you can “hear” lick substitutions, it makes playing so blessedly simple. You hear a lick, you play it. And nobody sees or knows about all the hard work that has gone before.

I might have kept going longer than our appointed hour, but as a Christmas present Bob had brought me a tin of one of my favorite confections, homemade buckeyes—the candy that looks like, well, buckeyes, and has a chocolate outside wrapped around a peanut butter filling in the middle. YUM!

So thanks for the excellent lesson, Bob. Moments like this make me realize how much I love my job. I’m looking forward to more breakthroughs like this. And who knows? Maybe it was the buckeyes that set everything in motion. Bring some more the next time and we’ll test that theory!