Banjo Newsletter

February 2006: It's All About Licks
By Murphy Henry

Greetings from Georgia! By the time you read this (in the birthday month of Ralph Stanley and Pete Wernick) I'll be back in Winchester, Va., getting ready for the banjo cruise with Ross Nickerson. Right now, however, I'm down in Clarkesville visiting my parents. We've just finished a rousing round of Pinochle which ended with my dad and me (May birthdays) tied two games to two with Mama and my daughter Casey (January birthdays). And that's all you're going to hear about anything non-banjo related because this year I've made a resolution to-hang on to your thumbpicks-write more about banjo playing in this column! No, my demise is not imminent, and no, I've not given up the fiddle. I just thought it was time to get back to basics.

Why this sudden change of heart? It was prompted primarily by a comment forwarded to me from one of those online banjo chat places. Someone had posted that my method of teaching-which I describe as "by ear"-isn't really by ear at all because (1) I don't do "interval training" (whatever that is) and (2) my students are simply parroting back what I have told them to do. Okay, I'll admit I do know what interval training is but I can't imagine its relevance to Scruggs-style banjo playing. The Gospel According To Earl is all about licks. Hearing licks. You might call it "lick training."

And yes, to start with my method of teaching-let's call it the Murphy Method-does have an element of parroting. For folks just beginning to play the banjo-let's call them beginners-there is a certain amount of "monkey see, monkey do." Only it's really "monkey hear, monkey do." And that's what makes all the difference. Naturally, to begin with I'm going to have to say stuff like "five, two, one, five." That's the first roll in Banjo in the Hollow, still my favorite first banjo tune after all these years. But when I teach, I'm saying it and playing it. And like the Hokey Pokey, that's what it's all about. It's about hearing the way that a particular group of notes sounds. It's about hearing the way that a roll sounds. It's learning to think not "five, two, one, five" but learning to hear those notes as one lick.

Hearing notes as licks is not going to happen the first time you play those notes. It may not happen the first ten times or the first twenty times, but eventually-since you're learning "by ear"-your brain will make the shift from hearing four separate notes to hearing one lick. The same thing happened when you learned to read-your brain figured out how to turn letters into words. "O" and "H" became "OH." "Oh, oh. Look, look. See Spot run."

Why does this not happen when you learn these same four notes (or any notes) from tab? It's because you can't HEAR the notes. It's the hearing that leads to the grouping. The printed "five, two, one, five" (or whatever) never gets translated into a lick with its own particular sound.

Some of you may be thinking, can't I do the same thing with my tablature? Can't I identify the licks somehow, maybe circle them on the paper and learn them that way? No. Sorry. It doesn't work like that. You'd be leaving out the crucial element: hearing.

The beauty of Scruggs-style playing is that the licks repeat so often. Even if it's not exactly the same notes that repeat, the roll pattern itself repeats. So, in Banjo in the Hollow, we do "five, two, one, five" up the neck in a G position, and then we do it down the neck in a C position but we're still doing that same old "five, two, one, five." (Reminds me of the Homer and Jethro song: "Rich girl lives in a brick house, poor girl does the same, my girl lives in the county jail but it's a brick house just the same!")

The whole song Banjo in the Hollow is composed of only three licks. Just three licks. Okay, three licks and a couple of pinches. What could be easier? And with your mind freed from memorizing a bunch of different licks, you can concentrate on other aspects of banjo playing such as actually hearing what the song sounds like as you play it. And keeping the song going when you make a mistake.

And that same roll comes up in other songs. Your brain may not remember that you played that roll in Banjo in the Hollow, but your fingers don't care! They have that amazing thing called muscle memory. Thumpkin, Pointer, and Middle Man (or Woman) will simply play the roll and move on. They're ready to tackle something new, something harder. "Five, two, one, five? That's easy! Bring on the hard stuff. Bring on the Cripple Creek lick! Bring on the Cumberland Gap hammer-on lick! Bring on the tag lick! Bring on the Foggy Mountain Breakdown lick!" All those licks will get committed to your muscle memory. And once you input these licks this way-by ear-they are retrievable from your brain (and fingers) as licks. When you learn songs in licks, then you learn to think in licks, and eventually you learn to hear new songs-songs you don't already play-in terms of licks. Now you can call on them for improvising.

For some reason, this doesn't seem to happen when you learn songs from tab. I think it's because you don't input the songs lick by lick to begin with. You might be able to pull out the whole song, but you can't pull out individual licks that are in the song. And it's the licks that you are going to need in order to improvise.

Ah, yes. Improvising. Where everyone wants to get to (to use bluegrass grammar). In addition to having a stockpile of licks to draw on there is one vastly important, nay, critical ingredient that we've not talked about. This is the most important piece of the puzzle: hearing chord changes. Licks mean nothing without being able to hear chord changes. It's probably because I'm in Georgia but First Corinthians, Chapter Thirteen just came to mind. I'm paraphrasing of course:

Though I play with the speed of angels and hear not chord changes, I am become as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal (or a jam buster). And though I know Blackberry Blossom and Whiskey Before Breakfast and all manner of hard tunes and understand all about intervals and keys and minor chords and dominant sevenths and have no trouble reading tablature or learning from it and hear not chord changes, I am nothing...And now abideth these three things: tone, taste, and timing, but greater than these is hearing chord changes.

Hearing chord changes is so important I'm going to devote the whole of my next column to it! (As soon as I figure out how to write in words about something that has to be done completely by ear!) I'll expect you to be waiting with bated breath. See you on the cruise! "Galveston, oh, Galveston, I can hear your sea wind blowing…"