Banjo Newsletter

August 2006: Improvising!
By Murphy Henry

Just back from three wonderful bluegrass camps and have landed long enough to write this column, do my laundry, work out, and leave again for another camp. Oh, yeah, and see the movie X-Men: The Last Stand with Red. (We both love Ian McKellen who plays the evil mutant, Magneto, and who played Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.)

I've been spreading the gospel of learning to hear chord changes and I'm starting to realize the value of having the students SING the songs together first. (I'm sure Pete Seeger could have told me this long ago.) We had a wonderful men's chorus going at Kaufman Kamp when we sang Worried Man in the key of G. That was worth getting up for!

I had asked the men to help me sing because G was way too low for me. Of course the other women in the class couldn't sing in that key, either. And, as I told them, since I am the oldest of five sisters and have a primal need to make sure everyone is included, I felt uncomfortable with this. So I decided on the spot to do some of the songs in the key of C, so the womenfolk could sing along. I'd always shied away from the key of C, because the F chord is so hard to make on guitar and banjo, but this turned out to be a great idea! I think some of the gals were surprised to find how easy it was to sing bluegrass, once they were in a key that suited their voices.

So ladies, remember: If the guys are singing a song in the key of G, most likely you will be able to sing it comfortably in the key of C. Or maybe even the key of D. Try it. You'll like it!

Which brings us to the whole idea of strumming in the key of C. If you've been following this column for the last few months, you've learned to chord several songs, all in the key of G: Skip to My Lou, Polly Wolly Doodle, Go Tell Aunt Rhody, and You Are My Sunshine. You've become acquainted with the Big Three of bluegrass: G, C, and D. This month I want you to take those same four songs and play them in the key of C.

Scared? No need to be. You've done the hard work. The changes occur in the same places. You'll be starting in the C chord. Strum that to get your pitch. In the two-chord songs, when you hear the change, go to G chord. So in the key of C, the Big Two are C and G. When you get to You Are My Sunshine, you'll add the F chord and you'll have three chords to deal with: C, F, G. (Use the F chord in the first position, the one that uses all four fingers. If this is impossible right now, you can lay a finger across all the strings at the 10th fret. That's also an F chord. But you need to learn to make the other one.) See, it's not so hard. And we didn't say a word about transposing.

The other thing I had fun teaching was beginning improvising. I stressed the idea that, at first, improvising is nothing more that playing licks against chords. Many people think you learn to improvise by first finding the melody notes to a song and then building rolls around those. I disagree. That's way too hard. Plus, you'd have to painstakingly learn each song one note at a time. Furthermore, if you do it this way, most of the songs end up using all forward rolls and they sound very simplistic.

I demonstrated a forward-roll-version of You Are My Sunshine and then I played it using Scruggs licks. Smiles and nods indicated that everyone liked the Scruggs version best. I pointed out that when I was playing Scruggs style there was no discernable melody and that they knew what it was only because I had told them. If someone had walked in and heard me playing, they probably would have not known the song was You Are My Sunshine. And that's good! Because if you can play a song in licks, then you can play almost any song that's thrown at you-whether you know it or not-as soon as you can figure out the chords. So, you can see that improvising lies on the foundation that we've been building: hearing chord changes.

Actually, I hadn't intended to teach a whole song, I just wanted to show the students how to add the "tag lick" and pinches to the end of a song and to point out that this could be done with almost any bluegrass singing song. So we started there and everyone seem to catch on with ease. (I already knew most of them could play Foggy Mountain Breakdown where several of these licks were coming from.) So then I said, now let's add that D lick from Foggy Mountain Breakdown, the one that starts with the open D string. I played it to show them what I meant. Again, they caught right on. I told them it didn't have to be that exact same lick, it just had to fill the space. (What Hub Nitchie called "D noise" or "G noise.") I then showed them how to hook those two licks together. The fit is seamless and a no-brainer.

So all of a sudden we had a great big hunk of song that was easy to plop in. We were using Blue Ridge Cabin Home to start with, but then I showed them how to plop those two licks into any song that ended with four beats of D then four beats of G. (Worried Man, Lonesome Road Blues.) I also showed them how these licks worked even when the next to the last (4-beat) measure was two beats of G and two beats of D. (Circle, Bury Me Beneath the Willow.) It's all so tedious on paper!

But I was excited because by the end of class, we had worked up an entire break to Blue Ridge Cabin Home which also fits The Prisoner's Song and a remption of other songs which have the same chord pattern. But remember: there is NO MELODY. It's all licks. So the question was asked, "What do you do when someone says, 'That doesn't sound like Blue Ridge Cabin Home' " (Or whatever song you are improvising.) After first explaining that the comment itself was arrogant and overbearing and showed a complete ignorance of banjo playing, I offered a variety of comebacks: it sounds like Blue Ridge Cabin Home TO ME; can you do any better? (not nice and plus that you don't want to be giving up your banjo in case they say they'd like to try!); and finally, the clincher, I like the way it sounds. How can anyone refute that? Unless someone is paying you good money to play in their band, you can play whatever you like. Bluegrass is a very democratic music. That's one reason I like it so much!

So keep working on that foundation of hearing chord changes, because as you can see-and the Hokey Pokey says it best: That's what it's all about!