Tag Archives: chord changes

Murphy Henry

Now we come to Bob Mc’s adventures in backtracking. Bob came to me about four years ago with absolutely no musical background. We’ve often remarked to each other that he started “below zero.” But tenacity he has. In spades.

After four years, Bob has lots of tunes that he can play well: All of Beginning Banjo Vol. 1, Old Joe Clark, the high break to Foggy Mt. Breakdown, and Lonesome Road Blues from Vol. 2, all of Misfits, all the Improvising songs, plus Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms, I’ll Fly Away, and When the Roll is Called up Yonder. That’s a lot of songs.

Now, as I told him at his Tuesday lesson, if he were taking banjo lessons from just about anybody else, he would be a Star Student. Would get an A Plus. Why? Because he can actually play the tunes.

But Bob is having problems hearing the chord changes to the songs. And because of that he has trouble with vamping, trouble with coming in for his break in a jam, and trouble recovering when he makes mistakes in his own playing.

And since my goal is to turn out students who can jam, Bob and I have been actively seeking a solution for this difficulty for years. I can’t tell you how much work we have done on vamping. I’ve had him try to do it by ear, I’ve had him try to do it by counting, I’ve had him memorize chord patterns. Frankly I thought if we just played the songs enough, he would just “get it.” It would all fall into place. The light bulb would come on. There would be joy in Mudville.

Alas, no joy. Because there was big part of problem that I wasn’t understanding.

Over and over I’ve told him Bob that when he’s vamping he he should be hearing the tune in his own head. But it’s taken me until recently to realize that he can’t keep the tune in his head when he’s away from the music. That was a bit of a shocker to me. I have no idea how he’s done as well as he has without being able to keep some version of the tune in his mind.

Finally on Tuesday, grasping at straws, I asked him if he knew the song Skip to My Lou. Yes, he seemed to recall it from grade school. There now, I thought, is a simple tune that he surely will be able to keep in his head. So I sat there and played guitar and sang the chorus over and over while he vamped. He picked up the chords fairly quickly, although that last measure gave him a bit of a problem. I asked him to then tell me what the chord pattern was. He was able to do that. We talked about how the last chord had to be G, since we were playing in the key of G. He wanted to know if that were true for all keys. I said yes. That was a revelation to him. He’d never thought of that before. He was extremely happy to been given that piece of information. It was like he had found another piece to this endless puzzle he is trying to put together.

I told him to sing the song, hum the song, think about the song all the way home. And to try to remember it in his head every day this week. And to try to vamp to the song he heard in his head. And, if he couldn’t recall it, to get out the Learning to Hear Chord Changes DVD and listen to it to refresh his memory. And if he dreams about it, so much the better!

I think we may be on to something. I can only hope so. I’ve got big plans for Bob and Skip to My Lou. I figure that we can start simple and then build up a repertoire of songs he can hear in his head. It may not be easy, but I do think it will work. There will be joy in Mudville!

P.S. I welcome suggestions from any of you who have dealt with this problem in your own playing.

murphybook_smallThis is the third in a continuing series of excerpts from Murphy's Banjo Newsletter Columns. This article appeared in October 1985 and is one of my favorites. You'll only have to read as far as the first sentence to figure out why! If you want to read the complete column, you'll find it in Murphy's book, ...And There You Have It!

Howdy! I am sitting here at the breakfast table, listening to my daughter practice the banjo. Did you get that? My daughter is practicing the banjo. I am, naturally, delighted, but I am also objective enough to know that it may not last once she gets back to school and her little cronies start whooping it up over Michael Jackson, Prince, and Cyndi Lauper. [Ah, those were the days...] Still, while she is at it, it will be an excellent opportunity to learn about learning, and, consequently, how to teach.

Casey is seven and a half years old, going into the second grade, and is practically perfect in every way (just like Mary Poppins). [Well, duh.] She has, of course, been raised on music---bluegrass, to be precise---with a good hefty dose of folksy kids’ songs thrown in on the side. But her interest in banjo had been almost non-existent until she met Stott.

Now, you don’t know Stott, who is also seven and a half, but he is the answer to every banjo teacher’s prayer. […] Actually, he is a born musician, whose passion is the banjo.

Stott and his parents came over to the house a few months ago, to buy his first banjo. Casey met him then, and he couldn’t play a lick. Then, just two months later, they were back again, consulting about the purchase of an RB-250 they had found. Stott just sat there on the couch, and calmly played through four banjo tunes, including "Cumberland Gap" complete with the up-the-neck break. It made quite an impression on Casey, and she requested banjo lessons immediately after their departure. [Nothing like a little competition to get me going!]

Well, I did not get all excited. I mean, I’d shown Casey things on the banjo before, and I’d shown her lots of things on the piano, but never did she practice for more than one day in a row. But, since I am a marshmallow, I said, yes, I would give her a lesson. Tomorrow. I was pretty sure that by tomorrow she would have forgotten. She did not forget. So, tomorrow found me scrounging around the house, looking for little banjo picks. We already had a little banjo---a 1925 Gibson TB-2 pot assembly, with a 10 1/2” rim, and a short, 18-fret neck that Red had made. When it is tuned up, it comes out pitched in C (just like putting the capo on at the fifth fret of a regular-size banjo.) So I put my capo on, and after the usual preliminaries about picks, hand position, and string numbers, I showed Casey some rolls---forward, backward, and square. She didn’t have too much trouble with them, so I sent her off to practice, and told her we’d have another lesson sometime, IF she practiced a lot and learned her rolls.

[…] Time went by, as it does in the summer, with vacation, swimming, movies. Several weeks passed, and then Casey said, “Can I have a banjo lesson?” “May I have a banjo lesson,” I said. “You haven’t been practicing very much.”

Casey: Sad Face

Me: “Well, okay.”

So we set up for our lesson in the studio. Casey does her rolls for me, but they are merely adequate.

“Casey,” I said, “if you were one of my real students, I would tell your mother that you needed to practice more.”

Giggles and tee-hees. “But you can’t because you’re my mother!” More giggles and tee-hees.

“No, but I can tell you, and I’m telling you that I’m not going to give you another lesson until you have practiced more. Now,” said the marshmallow side of me, “I’ll show you something new. We’ll learn a C chord.” [What is that if not a lesson? Marshmallow, indeed.]

I show her where to put her fingers, and tell her to press down hard, so the strings won’t sound muted.

“It hurts,” she says.

It hurts. Lord, how many times have I heard that? But never has it sent an arrow to my heart like it does now. Those tender little hands have never felt anything as rough and cruel as an old banjo string across the tips.

“I know it hurts,” I said, “but before long you’ll get (showing her my fingertips)…”

“Callouses,” she said. (She and Christopher have always been impressed and intrigued by Red’s huge mandolin callouses.)

“Don’t worry. We’ll quit when your fingers start to bleed,” I said, being jocular. She is not amused.

The C chord does not come easily, and it will definitely give her something to work on. [But at last, after all these years, I can FINALLY make a C chord! 😉 ] I am about to end the lesson now, when it pops into my mind that we should try "Polly Wolly Doodle", since we’d been singing it a lot recently. After all, it only has two chords, G and D7. So I show her D7, and make a mental note that it is easier for her than the C. Then I tell her (and show her) that we will just do a strum with the thumbpick on the open strings. I tell her that the first two words, “Oh I . . .” are pick-up notes, and that we don’t start strumming until the word “went.”

[Blah, blah, blah, she teaches me to strum the song…]

The next day, as I am listening to her practice, I am curious to know if she can play the song all by herself---that is, find the correct pitch, and remember where to change chords. Sure enough, when she starts singing the song, she’s not exactly on pitch, but she soon eases into it. And, sure enough, she misses the D7 once or twice, but I hear her saying, “Ugh. That doesn’t sound good.” But she keeps strumming and singing and trying the D7 in one place and then another, until it does sound right. [These days Murphy would never, EVER use the word "but" in two sentences in a row!] Then she plays it through the right way a few times. Inside I am ecstatic! She’s doing it!!

Now, this singing on pitch and changing chords is the very thing that so many people say is intuitive, but now I have seen first hand that it is not, not intuitive, but it is LEARNED. Sure, some people will learn faster than others, but still and yet it is learned.

And this one song, "Polly Wolly Doodle", with its two chords, will become the basis for learning the chords to other songs. It will be the groundwork; it sets the pattern for learning to change chords, which is a huge stumbling block for so many aspiring pickers.

[And so began the ideas that eventually culminated in the Learning to Hear Chord Changes DVD. Apparently, not only did the Murphy Method teach me how to play, but I taught the Murphy Method now to teach! {Ha! Just kidding!} "Polly Wolly Doodle" is still one of my all-time favorite teaching songs. I betcha I'll sing it every day for the entire two weeks I'm at Kaufman Kamp.]

[I should also add that it, in fact, did NOT last. It was another seven and a half years until I actually started playing the banjo for real. I wonder if it lasted for Stott?]

Murphy HenryFirst: Christmas Gift! As we say down in Georgia. (Since I said it first, that means you each owe me a gift!) Also, Happy Hanukkah, a joyful Solstice, and hope you’re having the best holidays ever, no matter how you are celebrating. (And I know my friends in Portland are celebrating with snow and ice! Thinking of you, Patty and Claire!)christmas tree 2008

Now, just a quickie, so I can get on with unwrapping my presents!

Today I want to revisit the gargantuan task of learning to hear chord changes and the pitfalls of COUNTING the number of beats of G, C, or D. (Instead of learning to hear the changes by ear.)

The unnamed culprit, he of the pointy picks (which I am happy to say he has abandoned!), came in yesterday and played a bee-yoo-ti-ful, flawless version of “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms.” So, since there wasn’t any further work to do on the break, we moved to the vamping.

The first two times we played it through, the vamping was perfect. But as we continued to play, the vamping completely fell apart. At first I couldn’t figure out what in the world was wrong. How can a person go from precision vamping, with all the changes in the right places, to staying in the G chord too long and changing to C at the wrong time?

Then, like a lightening bolt, this thought occurred. “Are you COUNTING?”

Sheepish grin. “Yeah.”

“BUSTED! You lost the count, didn’t you?”


“That’s why counting doesn’t work. If you lose count, you are....well, you’re in a pickle!

So, we went back over the song with him not counting, and honestly, it wasn’t that hard. I mean, you’ve only got three chords and he had vamped to other songs before. If you get lost, you just go back to G and stay there. Everything always comes back to G!

As he and I discussed later, you can’t possibly memorize the chord changes to all the songs you’re gonna be playing. You just have to learn to do it by ear. One song at a time. I can pretty much promise that this works. And I can almost guarantee that counting doesn’t! So, if you’re a counter, make that leap of faith, go back to the two-chord songs, and start learning to do it by ear. In the long run, it’s so much easier!

Thoughts on improvising are on hold yet again. I just got in from teaching and I am zoned out! I did pick up one tidbit from a student that I want to pass along. Mark has been taking lessons for a couple of months now and is doing well on the current BIG THREE for beginning banjo students: Banjo in the Hollow, Cripple Creek, and Boil Them Cabbage Down, low and high breaks. He is also going great guns on his vamping, which is something I try to introduce as early as possible now so that students will have the necessary tools to play in a jam session. (If you can vamp, you can jam!) Once he learned to make those awful four-finger chord shapes (OUCH!), he really put in the hours of practice. And one of the tools he was using was our new Slow Jam DVD. He’s been playing along with that a lot.

So we’re jamming today at the lesson, both on banjos, trading breaks. S-L-O-W-L-Y of course. Mark is doing great but he keeps having trouble with the chord changes in Cripple Creek. I am concerned. I ask him what he’s doing differently from what he does when he plays along with the Slow Jam DVD. He thinks a minute and then says, “I usually watch Casey’s hands making the guitar chords.” (On this DVD we have one of those little inserts, that little screen-within-a-screen, so you can always see the guitar chords that Casey is making.) [Editor's note: Through the magic of video editing, the hand in the box is actually Murphy's.]

Aha! I think. He’s not really listening to the chord changes, he’s just changing when he sees Casey change. He was thinking the same thing. “I think it’s becoming a crutch.” You’re darn tootin’! And furthermore, it seemed to me that he might actually be COUNTING the number of beats for each chord. (Always risky because what if you get lost? And you will get lost, you will!)

So of course I told him to stop counting and to START LISTENING! And because he really does have a good ear for the chord changes (he plays some guitar), when he started listening, he did much, much better. It wasn’t perfect, but he could tell when he missed the chord and the next time through was more likely to get it right.

The moral of this story? Don’t let watching the guitar player’s hand become a crutch for you. Even on a DVD! Use it to get your bearings, but then stop. And start using your ear. I don’t call it learning by ear for nothing! Listen, listen, listen. (See Mark, I warned you. Everything is now fodder for The Blog! Tell Ellen heads up! Next time I might talk about Beginning Guitar!)