Tag Archives: Improvising

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Our ever-expanding circle of pickers grew last night as we welcomed new jammers Janice, who takes banjo from Casey, and Tim, one of my guitar students, who recently learned the "boom, chunk, boom, chunk" bluegrass strum--off the Internet!  Janice plays solid and clean and after she got comfortable by playing a couple of tunes in unison with the other banjos, she was quite willing to take a solo break and even kicked off a couple of songs. Tim sat quietly all night long, hammering out some excellent rhythm while watching my hands to see what the chords were.

I was also delighted to see Kathy G back in the saddle again, now fully recovered from her painful encounter with a flesh-eating dishwasher which had taken a bite out of her index finger. As E.T. said, "Ouch!" For some reason, being away from the banjo for a few weeks had not hurt her playing. She made her debut as a lead singer, singing I'll Fly Away in the key of C. Nice job, Kathy! ...continue reading

Chris Henry

There are so many different musical situations in Nashville. Often times I find myself surrounded by the best of the world-class professionals, and many other times I like to jam with folks who just do it for fun. There is an event right outside of town called the Full Moon Pickin' Party, and it was a continuation of a party that got started in the 80's by our lawyer friend and bluegrass enthusiast, Ted Walker.

The party is located in a beautiful section of Percy Warner park and is attended by several hundred folks every full moon. They have a stage set up and bands play from about 7-11, but the main attraction for most of the folks that come is the jamming. It costs $20 for a regular adult admission, but only $5 if one shows up with a qualified musical instrument.

I rode with some friends and got to the park about 9:30 and walked in to see a whole lot of people had showed up as it was a very pleasant Friday evening with perfect weather and a huge Supermoon beaming beautifully overhead. I made the usual rounds and took in the lay of the land as it were.

Johnny Campbell, an ardent Bill Monroe style bluegrass fiddler was there with his dad, Bob, and we started off with "The Old Mountaineer". I rarely get to play those tunes and so that was fun. We then played "The Lonesome Old Farmer", a tune that I had learned off Johnny's brother, Jimmy's album that featured Monroe on the mandolin. Another fine moment.

My buddy Adam Olmstead, my favorite songwriter under 50, is visiting for a couple of months from New Brunswick, and we sang "Sweetheart of Mine". That was the first song we ever sang together one night at the Station Inn about seven or eight years ago. He usually sings lead, but this night I rendered the verses and sang lead on the chorus. Next, we did the Delmore Brothers tune, "Here Today, Gone Tomorrow", a good jam number that is easy to follow. Then I saw Ted Walker.

Ted and I visited and reminisced for a while until he said something to the effect of, "you better get back in there". One of the party's only drawbacks is that it ends promptly at 11pm and that's right when a lot of people are just getting warmed up. So I took his advice and came back to assume my position in the jam.

I took a mandolin break on whatever was playing when I got back - I can't remember. I dug in and played hard and loud and the crowd responded, and that was satisfying. We got through with that number and someone asked me to sing, so I thought quickly, then launched into the most recent tune I have learned, the Stanley Brothers' "Paint the Town".

I started the tune out by playing the verse and then I sang a verse and chorus to realize that it wasn't a number the folks were very familiar with, and so when the break after the chorus came around, I went into "Say Won't You Be Mine", which I thought would be more familiar. I've had good luck switching tunes at the blink of a hat recently with my band, and I was feeling confident that the switch could be made easily. Wrong!!

At these parties, not only is it a little raucous with jams going on every ten feet or so, but the adults of 21 years have the opportunity to consume four complimentary beers with the price of admission. So, folks weren't entirely sober to say the least. When I realized that half of the people were still playing the chords to the original song I had kicked off, I thought it would be a good idea to use my hands to show everybody what chords were in the new selection. Wrong!!

The first chord in "Say Won't You Be Mine" is a G chord. It's also what we call the "one" chord in the Nashville numbers system which is used on stage in tight spots but mostly in the studio to write chord charts for folks who have never heard or played the song being recorded before. When I raised my hand to communicate the "one" chord, two things happened: I had to quit playing the mandolin for a moment. and also, with my monodigital articulation, I inadvertently communicated to several that what I wanted was for people to stop playing, as in the one finger meant - "Hold on a second!".

So with half of the people in the jam stopping, the momentum of the song had ceased, the song was awkwardly and uncomfortably ended, and I had earned another lesson in what not to do in that situation. Next time I will most likely, A) Play songs that I am quite certain will be more accessible(Rollin' My Sweet Baby's Arms, How Mountain Girls Can Love, etc.), and B) Don't assume people are going to know what I am doing if I hold up a finger in hopes of communicating the right chords.

These are a couple of lessons that I am surprised I had not fully comprehended and put into practice, but it just goes to show, that in the thick of things, it's easy to forget simple things that help avoid getting into a jam within a jam!

Murphy Henry

Now that I’ve told you about content of the Harmony Singing DVD, let me tell you about the fun stuff! I picked Janet Beazley and Chris Stuart up at the airport on Saturday night about 7:45. I’d originally told them I’d meet them curbside, but of course by the time I’d made the almost two-hour trip (primed by a Starbucks Tall Americano and oatmeal cookie!) I needed the visit the “loo” as they say in Jolly Olde England. So I met them inside at baggage. I’d told them they could use our instruments, so all they had was two suitcases. (“And no merch!” as they both exclaimed.)

When we stepped outside the terminal, they were both stunned by the cold (22 degrees) which was made even colder by the brisk wind which was making the flags stand straight out. Yikes! We didn’t waste any time getting in the car and cranking up the heat.

I figured they would want to eat something so I told them they had three choices: eat junk food at the airport, eat fast food when we got to Winchester (about an hour’s drive), or wait till we got home and eat some of the food I had fixed. Bless their hearts, they opted to eat at home.

With Janet in the front seat, she and I talked all the way home, with Chris occasionally chiming in from somewhere in the back. She and I had met (and bonded) a few years ago at Mid-West Banjo Camp over a beer at a local tavern and the book Eat, Pray, Love. Deeply engrossed in conversation, we didn’t realize a huge summer thunderstorm had arisen and that we were due back on campus to perform real soon. The only thing to do was to make a dash for it through the pouring rain with lightning flashing all around and “thunder roaring, bursting in the clouds.” We arrived at our dorm drenched to the skin and looking liked drowned rats. We had just time to towel our hair day and change clothes before jumping on stage to sing Love Come Home as a duet. It sounded great. We’ve been buddies ever since.

Arriving back at the house, I warmed up bowls of a slow-cooker roast/stew I had concocted based on my friend Robyn’s recipe which included dumping in a bottle of beer and ¼ cup of brown sugar to the roast and adding onion, carrots, apple, apricots, prunes, and cranberries. By the time I’d added all that there was no room for the sweet potatoes! So it goes. They said it was yummy and I had to agree! (Could have used a tad more salt...)

Meanwhile Bill Evans was making his way to the house in his rental car. (He’d flown in earlier in the week to visit his sister in Richmond and to do a banjo workshop.) I called him and he said he’d be there at precisely 10:26. So of course, at 10:27 I called and told him he was late! He had a good excuse: he was almost in sight of the house when he found the road blocked and a “blue light special” (police cars) surrounding a truck which had run off the road and had “fetched up” with its front tires in the lake. The cops had rerouted him up the mountain which was taking longer than he had expected. I was aghast at the police cars because Chris and Janet and I had passed that same truck on our way in. (No police cars at the time.) I had laughed about it because there was a can of beer sitting by the truck and had said, laughingly, “Welcome to our hillbilly subdivision!” The truck looked abandoned and I certainly didn’t think anyone was in it. (And I hope to goodness I was right). But still, I realized as Bill was telling the story that we should have stopped to make sure.

Anyhow, Bill arrived safe and sound, and joined us in our evening meal and conversation. We batted around a few ideas for the DVD, talked about what time we’d like to start filming (11ish) and then....what do you think we four banjo pickers did? Did we rehearse? Did we break out four old fives and get down with some Earl? Some Ralph? Some Sonny Osborne (one of Bill’s favorites)? No, we did not. Sad to say, being the Baby Boomers that we are, we all went straight to bed. (Okay, Bill probably stayed up a while and did Facebook and email from his bedroom.) But, maybe, being Baby Boomers, we just realized that we had work to do tomorrow and that the RESPONSIBLE thing to do, was get a good night’s rest. I prefer to think of it that way!

And now, as my grandmother would say, “Mouse is run, my story’s done.” At least as much as I can tell now. Now it’s time to go record a few extra introductory clips for the DVD. When you get the DVD, you can check closely to see if you can tell which ones I added today! The clothes will be the same, the earrings and necklace with be the same, but the hair never turns out the same way twice!

Red Henry

I'm just back from Hiawassee, Georgia, where I was one of the judges at the Georgia State Fiddlers Convention. There were contests for fiddle, banjo, guitar, mandolin, Dobro, and other instruments, so we did probably 15 hours of judging over two days.

The judges, along with contest MC Barry Palmer and friends, played a set of music each day-- after all, since we were judging the contest, we needed to show that we could play! Our Saturday set went real well (no surprise, since the five people on stage probably had 150 or 200 years of professional musical experience between them), and afterwards I was talking with Chuck Nation, another of the judges, about how much fun our set was. Chuck expresses himself very well, and he commented about playing in a band: "The difference between amateurs and professionals, is that amateurs are competing with each other, and professionals are helping each other." Well said!

I've talked about it before on this blog, but Chuck's comment really put it down plainly where we can understand it. If you're playing in a group-- on stage or off-- are you listening? Are you trying every second to help the BAND (not just yourself) sound as good as possible? Are you playing so as to support the other musicians, not just to make yourself sound good? Your level of proficiency doesn't matter, and plenty of people who can play well don't play in a professional manner, in this respect!

You may be an amateur player, but you can play in a professional way. Think about it.


Red Henry

Last weekend I went over to Nashville for the International Bluegrass Music Association convention. During the day I helped Casey with our Murphy Method booth, but both nights I went over to my uncle John's house to pick. John Hedgecoth is a banjo player with long-standing credentials including a stint in Bill Monroe's band in the 1970s. He can also play ANYTHING on a banjo, from bluegrass ro jazz to classical, so it was good to pick with him. He invited a few other folks over, and we played a whole lot of tunes. We picked quite a few Bill Monroe numbers. We played lots of traditional tunes. We also played some entertaining numbers like 'Sweet Sue,' 'Baby Elephant Walk,' and "When I'm 64." John played them all on banjo with aplomb. Nothing could be easier than picking with him, and it was all good.

Then last night, back here in Winchester, I went over to the weekly Thursday Night Jam. Playing music there was a different situation. About 15 local musicians were playing for an audience of about 50, inside a greenhouse. (It wasn't any stranger than it sounds, but the acoustics were not the best.) There were about 7 guitar players, three mandolin players, two each playing banjo and fiddle, and (thank goodness) a string bass. So I got near the bass player and played firm rhythm on Randy Wood #3-- a mandolin with unexcelled projection-- and the rhythm was there. Not great rhythm, but adequate. The on-beat was there from the bass and the off-beat was there from the mandolin, and everybody hung together adequately. And everybody had a good time.

Congratulations to Murphy's student Zac, who won the banjo contest at Burlington, WV last Sunday! Way to go! We had him play 'Foggy Mountain Breakdown' at the jam, and he did quite well with both the low break and the high break. Good picking--

Red Henry

Last Saturday I had a good time playing music with family and friends in the gazebo. And, you may ask, just where is that particular gazebo? Well, it's some distance from here. It's on the town square in Clarkesville, Georgia. And, in spite of some rain, we all had a good time.

The band for this occasion included, along with myself on mandolin, my old friend and now brother-in-law Mike Johnson, on banjo; Murphy's #3 sister (and Mike's wife) Argen Hicks, on bass; Murphy's #4 sister, excellent singer/songwriter Nancy Pate on guitar; and our friend, multi-instrumentalist Barry Palmer on fiddle. What did we do? We just played music. Well, we did run over some numbers at Argen and Mike's house beforehand. That was fun, too. Then we went over to the middle of town and set up at the gazebo and played our first set.

Now, I've talked before about how good it is when people are really playing together. This can happen immediately, as is did at that party I talked about a few days ago, or it can happen because everybody listens and adapts. On this particular day we had a group that hadn't ever played together before, and I think we all played with slightly different natural rhythms. When we started practicing back at the house we sounded a bit loose, but by the time we started up at the gazebo, we sounded pretty tight. So how did this happen? It happened because everybody there was a very experienced performer and knew what to do. Everyone was listening and adapting to everyone else, one song after another, and in a short time we were really playing together well.

You don't have to be a professional picker to do this. You don't have to have played for 20 (or 30, or 40) years to listen to everyone else and adapt to their rhythm and play what sounds good.

As soon as you are able to play in a group, you can start listening to the other pickers (in fact, those two things go together). You can start listening to the other instruments and to the vocals, and follow your ears in trying to play (or not play) things that help the whole group sound good. If there's a banjo or guitar player drowning everybody out you usually can't help that, but if that player is YOU, then you can. Whatever instrument you're playing, try to play steadily and supportively to the others. (Sometimes this means scarcely playing at all, during other leads or vocals.) When it comes time for you to take a lead, think about it ahead of time-- stop playing for a few beats if you need to, to set up your hands and brain to start playing the break at the right time-- and then keep listening to the rhythm while you're playing your lead. That way, whether you're playing lead or backup, you'll be playing together with the others. And that can help them do the same thing (more on that later).

Happy picking!


Red Henry

The title for this blog may seem strange, but it's pretty important. As I mentioned before, Christopher and I played a party Saturday night before last, and we had two fine musicians with us-- Mike Munford and Ira Gitlin. All four of us fit together perfectly, and our band dynamics-- making the instrument leads stand out, putting the vocals out front, adapting the backup every moment to make the lead sound its best-- were excellent.

During our first set break, Ira commented on this. He knew how rare it is for everybody in a band to be paying attention and always playing so as to make the lead instrument or vocal sound its best. He knew how very often, even with good musicians, the guitar player will be showing off his fancy bass runs, or the harmony singers will pay little attention to the lead singer, or the lead singer will be drowned out by a banjo player who's playing lead all the time, all over everybody else's vocals and instruments. But the four of us were playing TOGETHER-- not just playing the same song at the same time, but listening to each other and playing together. And it was good.

You can pay attention to this too, whenever you're playing music with other people. Is someone else singing a song? Make sure you're not the one drowning him (or her) out. Is somebody else playing a lead break? Listen to that person, and play some gentle backup as appropriate to make the lead sound good. LISTEN all the time, and do whatever your ears tell you to, to make the music always sound as good as it can. That way, you won't be just playing the song at the same time-- you'll be playing it together.

Red Henry

Yesterday evening I went out to a local weekly jam session. This event started a couple of years ago and has turned into an informal outdoor concert, with a dozen or more pickers and a hundred or so listeners every week. The players are all local folks, and I enjoy playing music with them. But every so often something will happen to make the music hard to play.

When I arrived and joined the session yesterday evening, a person was playing bass and doing well with it. She knew all the songs, and played solidly on the beat. This really helped the jam session hold together.

After about an hour, though, she needed a break, and was replaced by another player. He got through the first number, though a little shakily. Then when a fiddle player kicked off the next tune (Golden Slippers, in G), the bass player started playing his notes on the off-beat, and stayed there.

Now, bass players play their notes on the ON-beat, not the OFF-beat. When a bass player is playing on the off-beat instead (like a mandolin's rhythm), it makes the music sound pretty weird. This time, it seemed as if half the players stayed with the fiddler's rhythm, and the others were wandering a bit between the fiddle and the bass. It was a pretty diffuse sound. I stopped playing after the first few beats of the tune, and decided it was time to pack up and go home.

I applaud all the folks who want to come out and play, but it's better when the bass player just plays on the beat. It's easier for everybody!

Red Henry

Red Henry

Have you ever been in a jam session, and were taken by surprise by something? Maybe the other pickers asked you to play or sing a song. Or perhaps while the group was playing, you suddenly had the tune passed to you--and you didn't know what to play!

If you're new to playing in jams, things like that can take you by surprise. If it's all you can do to watch a guitar player to find out the chords, figure out where they are on the banjo, and then vamp or play some simple backup, it's hard to do anything else at the same time--such as think about a break to play before it's your turn. But you can have a plan of action.

Think ahead, and know ahead of time what you're going to do. If the chords to the tune are pretty familiar and you can use some of your familiar Scruggs licks to build a break, start planning for that as soon as you have the chords figured out. If, on the other hand, you don't know the tune and don't want to make a leap into nowhere with your banjo break, just tell yourself ahead of time that if the tune gets passed to you, you'll just nod to the next person and pass the break off before it's time to start playing. Whichever you do, the tune will go on smoothly, and you'll be more confident and better prepared for the next time.

"Be Prepared."


Red Henry

Red Henry

Folks, we've discussed practice several times on this blog lately. Some of my own entries have had to do with how to keep up with your practice when you don't have much spare time available. But there are other aspects of practice to talk about, including "What's the easiest way to practice?" and "What kind of practice is best?"

In my own case, I discovered in 1967 (about a week after I started playing) that for me, picking with others was the easiest and best way to practice. It's that way for others, too. When you are playing with other people, (1) you don't have to provide all the musical energy-- energy circulates around the group (even if it's only two or three people) and comes back to help you; (2) practice time passes so much more quickly that three or four hours playing music with others make seem shorter than one hour at home; and (3) it's a lot more fun. And you sure learn a lot, painlessly. This is why Murphy says over and over at the end of our videos, "Find some people to pick with!"

Now, I know that in some parts of the country (and the world) there are few other players of bluegrass, country, folk, gospel, or other similar material whom you can get with. For example, I spent a year at an Air Force base in Del Rio, Texas, and didn't find any other musicians that year. Nowadays, of course, things are a lot better: we have our Murphy Method Slow Jam and Picking Up the Pace DVDs, and you can have a jam session any time right in your house!

So as I said, when you're picking with others, you not only have a better time than in solo practice, but you learn faster. You also begin improvising, and backing up other players, in a live setting where people are having a good time. Playing in almost any kind of group is not only the easiest kind of practice-- but the best.