Tag Archives: Zac

Murphy Henry

As you know we have a DVD titled Improvising: The First Stage. And when I first concocted that DVD (many long years ago) I had a fairly clear idea of what the second stage would be. However, that thought obviously did not pan out and furthermore I’ve completely forgotten what it was! Still and yet, as more students are beginning to improvise I’ve been wondering lately what the second stage might be. And I think Zac is guiding me down that path!

If you’ve been reading these blogs, you might remember that Zac, who just turned 16, started improvising a month or so ago. He’s been playing about a year and a half, went regularly to David and Linda Lay’s Fruit Stand Jam last summer and fall, and, of his own volition, is playing at nursing homes two or three times a month. (With his band of Susan and Bill Morrison and his dad.) All this to say that learning to improvise is a whole lot easier if you immerse yourself in the music and—this is a biggie—play a lot.

Zac is getting the idea of three-chord-singing-song improv down pretty well. So the other day, just on a whim, I thought I’d try him out on an instrumental. No words to cue on. I trotted out Daybreak in Dixie. (I actually teach this note-for-note on the Ralph Stanley Style DVD.) It’s a great tune, and while it does have a banjo “hook” (a signature lick that Ralph uses in the B part) it can easily be played with generic Scruggs licks.

Zac’s ever-supportive dad Todd was at the lesson playing guitar, so the first thing I did was show Todd the chords so he could accompany me while I played the tune for Zac on the banjo. It has a basic three-chord progression (I, IV, V, not in that order!) and Todd had no trouble picking it up. So Zac got to listen to us practice on that. Then I told Zac to vamp along while his dad and I played through the tune a couple of times. And I gave him this word of advice: “I wouldn’t ask you to try to play this tune if I didn’t think you could do it. I’m not trying to trick you. You can do this.”

And by Jove, he got it! Since he’s been improvising so much, he now has a standard G lick that he automatically goes to to start with and he also has a standard C lick. And, thanks to When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder (on the Amazing Grace DVD), he has added Ralph’s most excellent D lick which happens to fit perfectly in Daybreak in Dixie! (Which is where I learned it!) Now I’m not saying Zac played the tune perfectly the first time. It took several passes through before he cobbled something together. But he did end up with a really good version of Daybreak in Dixie.

So at the next lesson we tried Bluegrass Breakdown. (Which I teach note-for-note on the Rawhide DVD, just in case you’re interested!) Again, Todd accompanied me on the guitar and Zac listened and vamped. Bluegrass Breakdown is not hard, but.......it does have an F chord it in, which Zac recognized early on. So before he tried to make up a break, he played through Old Joe Clark to see what he used for the F lick there. Then he used something similar (simular, as we say here) in BG Breakdown. It worked! Good thinking, Zac!

After we’d played it a few times and were taking a rest, Todd said the most amazing thing. He said, “Isn’t Bluegrass Breakdown just like Foggy Mountain Breakdown with an F chord instead of the E minor?” BINGO! It sure is. Then he continued, “And isn’t the part that has the C in it just like Lonesome Road Blues?” BINGO AGAIN! That’s one thing that makes this whole improvising thing work. The songs all sound alike! (See, I can say that, but them’s fighting words if someone else says it!)

As I told Todd, I was just fixing to show Zac how to substitute the up-the-neck break of Lonesome Road Blues for the last section of BG Breakdown. After a false start or two (no pinches after the tag if you’re going up the neck), Zac laid that break in there as pretty as you please. As he was leaving, I reminded him (not so gently!) that for our next lesson I still wanted him to learn the low break to Lonesome Road Blues from the Improvising DVD so he could add that C lick to his bag of tricks. Er, bag of licks! (Got ‘er done yet, Zac???)

So, do I have the beginning of Improvising: The Second Stage? Only time will tell, but perhaps just knowing Zac is doing it will inspire you to go and do likewise!

Murphy Henry

So, Marty came for his Marathon Lesson, and as I mentioned, I arranged for some of the other students to come pick with him for an hour or two. Zac, Logan, Chick, and Bobby all showed up, bless their hearts, and we had a fine time. Four banjos and two guitars with Bobby switching to bass on songs he didn’t play a lead on.

Speaking of that.....when we started in on Blue Ridge Cabin Home I asked Bobby if he could play a lead guitar break. (He’d already taken a lead to Cripple Creek and I Saw The Light.) He said no, but he had a smirk on his face, so I figured he was, as we say up here, “storying” to me. I called him on it and said, “Play a lead anyhow.” So he did, having learned down through the years that it’s best to just do what I tell him. (If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.) He, of course, wasn’t satisfied with his playing because it wasn’t perfect but I thought he did a good job.

Shift your thoughts now to Zac. Zac has been working on his singing lately, so he’ll have something besides instrumentals to play at his nursing home gigs. I am flabbergasted that a teenage boy, who has not previous to this been a singer, would be brave enough to learn to sing in front of an audience. I salute you, Zac! Knowing this, I offered Zac a chance to sing a song at the jam. He declined, gracefully, and I said, “Thanks for your honesty.”

Whereupon Bobby pipes up and says, “What about my honesty?”

To which I replied, in the immortal words of Rhett Butler, “Frankly, my dear.......” etc., etc. Which elicited a good laugh from him and everybody else.

And then there was Chick. We were playing Lonesome Road Blues as an instrumental, with everyone taking two pieces for their break (low/high, high/low, low/low, or high/high). We had established a pattern of taking two breaks each with Marty taking a third and last and ending the tune. Since it was his lesson. Well, when it came to Chick’s second turn, he took a high break and tacked on the ending lick. I kept the guitar going and said to him, “You can’t end the tune!” And then said, “You are so going to get blogged about!”

Later Chick said he hadn’t ended the tune on purpose, that his hands had gone into the ending lick of their on volition. I understood that, so all was forgiven. Sometimes your hands just do what they want to do. When you’re improvising, that’s great!

Logan, I must say, was playing exceptionally well. His playing has solidified in the last year and he’s doing all these really cool timing things that he is totally unaware of till I point them out. In the jam, he had added one additional note to Cripple Creek and it sounded fantastic. (Okay, okay. Here’s what he did. There is a pinch of one and five halfway through the A and B parts. Logan changed the pinch to two notes, 5 and 1, which made the first string a “bump” note [grace note] to the upcoming Cripple Creek lick. One tiny change which to my ear made such a big difference!)

And then there was Marty. In spite of what he will tell you, he played well. He can vamp consistently on the off beat now (a real accomplishment!), he can come into his breaks from the vamp, he hears the words to the singing songs in his head and can improvise to many, many songs.

The problem we ran into in the lesson was that Marty—who is a Very Good Boy--adheres too well to my rule “never stop playing, even when you make a mistake.” When I formulated this maxim, I was going on the assumption that the student would be aware of the mistake and could adjust and come back in. But what if you make a mistake and don’t know how to fix it? What if you don’t realize you’ve made a mistake? The end result is the same: you end up playing out of time. And believe me, nobody in a jam is going to adjust to you!

So after wrestling with this dilemma in my mind for some years, I’m thinking now that the best thing to do if you realize you are out of time is to stop playing (heresy!) and see if you can find a place where you can get back in. One easy place to come back in is the “tag lick” at the end of most breaks. And the only way you’re going to know if you are out of time is to LISTEN, LISTEN, LISTEN to the rhythm section. Make sure you are with them. This may take some time, make take some concentrated effort on your part, but in the end, it will be worth it. You might be able to play out of time occasionally in a jam (after all, your break only lasts 30 seconds or so), but in the long run, people are not going to want to play with you if you can’t stay in time. Timing is everything!

One more word about the jam. Zac and Logan, our teenagers, were so good about playing slow and vamping quietly. Good going, guys! I’m proud of you for that. Of course, I had to let them burn off some of that testosterone with a couple of REALLY FAST songs, Foggy Mountain Breakdown and Earl’s Breakdown. Which they blistered! Bobby switched to bass for these, which helped keep us all together.

Final word: We played, we vamped, we sang, we laughed. A good time was had by all. One of my favorite songs from the Limelighters is called “Move Over And Make Room For Marty.” In which there is the line, “We’ll always move over for Marty...” Absolutely! You are most welcome at any of our jams, Marty! Come back soon!

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

I am always so excited when students learn to improvise because improvising is, in the long run, what the Murphy Method is all about. Learning all those songs from the DVDs is just the starting place.

Soooooooo, when Zac improvised his first tune Thursday (Blue Ridge Cabin Home, of course!) I called Casey to say, “It works! The Murphy Method really works!”

As always, I feel compelled to tell you about the careful foundation that was laid that led to this breakthrough. And it’s not just me doing my thing, it’s also Zac (and his devoted parents) doing their part.

Zac is fifteen and has been taking almost a year and a half now. He has followed the basic Murphy Method program: Beginning Banjo Vol. 1 and 2, Misfits, Jam Session Standards, and a couple of gospel tunes from Amazing Grace. He has learned to vamp to these tunes. So, that’s my part, setting him on the right path and only occasionally kicking his butt.

His part, which his parents facilitate, has been playing at the weekly Winchester jam sessions at Linda’s Mercantile, playing regularly at a local nursing home (with Murphy Method students Susan on banjo and Bill on bass and his dad on guitar), and attending numerous bluegrass concerts and festivals. He is even—and this just blows me away—learning to sing so his nursing home shows will not just be an unending string of instrumentals. And did I mention that he entered a banjo contest and won first place?

So it’s not too surprising that he caught onto improvising so quickly because, with this much playing under his belt, that’s the way it’s supposed to work! Still and yet, the gratification for me is ENORMOUS.

This is how it went down: We have about ten minutes left at the end of the lesson, so I say, “Let’s try some improvising.” Fortunately, Zac had heard Blue Ridge Cabin Home and could already easily chord to it. So I give him my standard improvising spiel and say, “All I want you to do is play licks that fit the chords. This is NOT about playing the melody.” He obviously understood because during his first pass through the break, he came up with a great G lick, most of a C lick, and then got stumped on the D lick. But we kept trying and pretty soon he had something that fit the D chord.

As I also told him, “There is no wrong way to do this as long as you play a lick that fits the chord and you stay in time. It may not be the greatest sounding break in the world, but we’re not looking for great, we’re just looking for something. This is where we start. We’ll get to great later.”

Pretty soon he had a very creditable break. And I could have left it there. But we still had a few more minutes so I said, “For that D lick, you could also use the D lick in Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” And just as I was saying that he was saying, “I could also use the Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arm lick.” Oh, yes, you can, Zac, you clever boy!

I had him play through his break using the Roll in Arms lick, then I had him play it using the FMB lick, and then—and I loved that he could do this—I had him play it using one of these licks for the first D and the other for the second D. His choice. He came through with flying colors. I was, to use a bluegrass phrase, sitting on top of the world. And I think Zac was pretty pleased with himself, too.

It will be interesting to see where we go from here. I’ll try to keep you posted.