Tag Archives: playing in C

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! ...continue reading

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Steve from Japan had some interesting thoughts in response to Casey’s comment about my original blog “Playing in C.” I thought I’d post them here, so I can add my two cents worth.

Hi Casey, I don't mean any fighting words here, but I disagree with your comment about students not needing to learn to play in open C. It's not that difficult to do and, here anyway, many of the Carter Family songs such as Wabash Cannonball, Wildwood Flower, etc. are played as instrumentals at jam sessions. Also, here in Japan there's a rather good balance of men and women (singers) in amateur bluegrass too. I'll be a student of the banjo for the remaining years of my life and I want to learn to play, as proficiently as possible, in the Key of C and D. I think you ought to encourage students to learn to play some in open C as soon as possible. It goes with the territory, so to speak. From the back of the classroom, the bad boy's 2 cents.

Steve, you do have a good point about women in jam sessions and the fact that most women sing in the higher keys of C or D. That’s why for beginners I suggest the use of the capo. Yes, even in D! And Carter Family numbers such as “Wabash Cannonball” and “Wildwood Flower” are typically played in C. (Although as instrumentals they could be played in any key.)

I think your operative words are “I think you ought to encourage students to learn to play some in open C as soon as possible.”

I agree with this. I just think our definitions of “possible” are different! I am always thinking of the students I see on a day-to-day basis.

Most of the students I see and have seen typically struggle with playing tunes in G for the first couple of years. At some point we start the usually tedious and difficult process of learning to vamp and learning to hear chord changes. Usually, the only playing they do with anyone is with me in the lesson. Most of them do not get out and jam. So their understanding of the banjo and banjo tunes and songs and even basic music theory is quite limited. For these folks, playing in C is, in fact, very difficult (did I mention the F chord?). And more than that, it is confusing.

This is why Casey said, and I agree, that until a student has considerable jamming experience and really needs to play in C because someone is singing in C or playing a tune in C, it is best to wait until the student’s skills are more developed. (Which will also make it much, much easier to learn and understand.) But, I totally agree with you that life-long banjo players do, at some point, need to learn to play in C and D (and maybe even E and F!) to become well-rounded players. That’s exactly why we devoted two whole DVDs to playing in C! Wildwood Flower and Soldier’s Joy.

PS (totally unrelated to the above!): I’ve not yet mentioned that I’ve been taking square dancing lessons since September and am now completely besotted with this mentally challenging activity. (So many new licks....I mean calls to learn: Load The Boat, Spin Chain the Gears, Relay the Deucy, Ping Pong Circulate.) It’s a lot like learning banjo and it’s so much FUN! Anyhow, I’d given our instructor Mike McIntyre one of my M and M Blues CDs, and he liked it and asked if he could use some of my music in a square dance call. I said Sure! So last night I had the mind-boggling experience of square dancing to “Hazel Creek” (the Murphy Method theme song)! I could hardly keep my feet moving in the right direction because I was listening so intently to the music. Mike had cut out the slow introductory part and had somehow spliced together the rest of the song to make it the requisite six minutes long for a dance. (He’d also slowed it down from something like 147 beats per minute to around 126. It was a bit strange to hear it so slow. Yet that was still fast to dance to!)  All the folks at the lesson were very complimentary about the music and I left with my head several sizes larger! Any other square dancers out there??

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Here’s a question from Susan: Could one or both of you (Murphy and/or Casey): talk about what you look for in a student's progress that signals the student is ready to learn to play in a different key, say C?

What Susan is talking about is, of course, playing in C without a capo. It’s not a big deal to capo to the fifth fret and play out of G position.

So, when is it time to tackle a new key?

Roughly speaking, I’d say after you’ve been playing a couple of years, have learned 20 or 30 tunes, and can improvise. In other words, you want to be totally comfortable in the key of G first. I would also add that you need to have some substantial jamming experience.

What do I base this on? I base it on the difficulty that some of my previous students have had in moving into the Key of C. And I also base it on the trouble I had myself. It’s not as easy as it might seem.

Aside: One of my (many) pet peeves as a teacher is hearing that other teachers are using “Reuben” as a beginning tune. Reuben, as you may know, is in the key of D and you have to retune the banjo to play it. Sure, the rolls are easy and are mostly the same ones you use in the key of G. But getting a beginning student to retune a banjo? I don’t think so! (Even with a tuner.) And then the sound that the rolls make in G are so completely different in the Key of D. “Reuben,” in my book, is an advanced tune. And how often does it come up in a jam session anyway?

So, why is it hard to play in the key of C? For one thing, you have to use the F chord! And while you’re holding the F chord down, you often have to move your ring finger down to the second string. Not impossible, just different. And you often are moving from the C chord (three fingers down) to the F chord (three fingers down) and that’s a lot of having to keep your fingers down! There is not so much of that nice open G chord or even the often open D chord. For another thing, the “tag lick,” which is so easy and automatic once you learn it in G, it much harder in C. There is also, generally speaking, much more movement of the left hand involved because you frequently have to go up to the fifth fret first string to get a melody note. And then there are a number of totally new rolls that you have to learn. None of this is impossible, it’s just hard.

Lastly, there is the whole issue of hearing and thinking in a new key, a key in which the G chord is now the V (five) chord, not the I (one), and C chord is now the I and not the IV (four). And then there is the F chord. Oh, I already said that. Well, it bears repeating. Then there is the F chord.

In short, you need to be a fairly competent banjo player in the key of G before you tackle C. There is no reason to make things harder than they have to be by trying to learn them too soon. In the mean time, use your capo!

Casey HenryToday my student Kyle came for his lesson. Kyle is sixteen and I've been teaching him for almost seven years. He's turning into quite a good player and he's recently joined a band with some other young pickers, something I've been telling him he needs to do for at least two years. Being in this band is stretching him in just the ways I hoped it would. There is a girl in the band who does some singing, which challenges Kyle to play songs in alternative keys, like "Head Over Heels" in D.

At a recent gig she sang "Sunny Side of the Mountain," which they had practiced in maybe A or B---a key where he was playing the break out of the standard G-position. Just before performance time, however, they changed it to D, which meant he either had to capo up to the seventh fret or find a new way to play the break. He chose to capo at the second fret and play out of C-position.

He said he had just cobbled the break together, but he played it for me at the lesson today and I was delighted to hear that he was playing melody! All those breaks I made him learn in C, all the improvising and making him pick out his own breaks to songs, as painful as it was at the time, really did sink in! We tweaked it a little bit to get a hair closer to the melody, but the break that he came up with all on his own was excellent. I was so proud!


One thing I’ve been thinking about lately is improvising in C position---that is, playing in the key of C without capoing or re-tuning. One thing I noticed in leading the slow jams at Kaufman Kamp was that standard three-chord bluegrass songs become exponentially more difficult for banjos when you sing them in the key of C or D, which is where I usually sing them. Not so much if you just capo up five or seven frets, but some of my more intermediate students are wanting to be able to play the breaks open, and it becomes a pain in the butt to do all that capoing.

I’ve started working with one of my students on this skill and I’m trying to approach it like I approach teaching improvising in G. I start out teaching a bunch of three-chord singing songs to build up a repertoire of licks. All the licks are different in C---even the tag lick---and it takes some mental adjustment to get used to starting and ending on your C chord instead of with the good old tag lick in G. For students who use the videos, working through the two “Playing in C” volumes would be a good place to start. (“Playing in C Volume 1”, re-titled “Wildwood Flower” will be out on DVD in a month or so…)

Once you have those C licks in your fingers (which could take months---don’t try to rush this process!), you can apply the same method to working out breaks in C as you did in G. First, figure out the chord progression for the song (this is always the very important first step). Then figure out what licks you already know will fit into the spot. You’ll usually start out with eight or so beats of C, then go to F for four, or six, beats, then back to C. Then to G and end in C. Or some variation on that theme. You have the licks; just plug them into the spots. (For more on improvising see Murphy’s posts on the subject.) It’s a simple concept. Not easy, but simple, and definitely a cure for those of you who complain that all your breaks sound the same. Everything sounds fundamentally different in C, and is more challenging. Tired of “Blue Ridge Cabin Home” in G? Try it in C!