Banjo Hangout Logo
Banjo Hangout Logo

Premier Sponsors

Banjo Lovers Online

Improvising: Can I Learn To Do This? By Murphy Henry

Posted by caseyhenry on Tuesday, October 29, 2013

like this

In answer to this question let me mangle the title of the autobiography of Sammy Davis, Jr: Yes You Can! You can learn to improvise on the banjo.

There are two beginning-level ways to improvise. The first is fairly simple--but effective--and you can do it with a basic knowledge of rolls. But you do need to be able to hear your chord changes! Hearing simple chord changes (G, C, D) is a must for improvising. There is no way around this. Fortunately, this too is a skill that can be learned. But that is a topic for another time! (What? Of course we have a DVD! Learning To Hear Chord Changes!)

So, if you can hear your chord changes, make the easy G , C, and D7 chords, and do a basic forward and backward roll (3215, 1231--whoops! Is writing that the same as tab? Nah, just using it to convey info!), then you can play a simple break to almost any three-chord singing song. And it will sound pretty good. Actually, it will sound fabulous to your non-bluegrass friends! If you can put pinches at the end of the G rolls you can elevate your break to an even higher level. And if you can add a "tag" lick in the middle of  the break and at the end, then you'll have a decent sounding break. (This is all much easier to see and hear in person.) Daughter Casey and I just spent the past weekend teaching this concept to 20 mature adults, all beginning banjo players, and, while it took a lot of repetitions, they all were able to play simple breaks to Blue Ridge Cabin Home, Bury Me Beneath The Willow, and I'll Fly Away by the time we quit in exhaustion!

I recently showed this concept to a 50-something student who can't play any banjo tunes yet, but who hears chord changes really well. We were working with a song she could already sing and chord, Mountain Dew. I showed her how to do the forward-backward roll and add the pinches and she totally got the concept. And, after a one-hour lesson in which she did played this song over and over with me chording the guitar, she was able to take this one idea into our student jam and play breaks on the tunes Lonesome Road Blues and John Hardy, in addition to all the singing songs! I was blown away!

That's the simplest form of improvising. But many students want to move beyond that to something that sounds more "bluegrassy" and this is where learning to play a core group of classic bluegrass tunes and songs becomes important. These numbers will provide the foundational "licks" you will use in your own improvising. Here are the songs and tunes (from our DVDs) that I think are essential for learning to improvise. (This list is in addition to the three starting tunes Banjo in the Hollow, Cripple Creek, and Boil The Cabbage Down. Those are just to get you going!)

  • I Saw The Light
  • Do Lord
  • Worried Man
  • Two-Dollar Bill
  • Foggy Mountain Breakdown
  • John Hardy
  • Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms
  • Lonesome Road Blues (low break)

Each of these songs uses classic Scruggs licks which you will later pull out of your own brain to create breaks to songs like Blue Ridge Cabin Home, Bury Me Beneath The Willow, Foggy Mountain Top, Somebody Touched Me, Mountain Dew, Your Love Is Like A Flower, Circle, and I'll Fly Away. These are all songs our students can improvise to.

When students are ready to improvise in this more advanced fashion, I usually start with Blue Ridge Cabin Home. I play and sing the song while they work out the chord pattern by ear. Then I help them pull out licks that they already know from the songs and tunes they have learned over the last year or so. Each student usually chooses a slightly different set of licks, so improvised breaks don't sound exactly the same. But as long as the licks fit the chord pattern whatever the student chooses is fine. If they get stuck I try to gently push them in the direction of licks that will work but I try hard not to make suggestions. These licks need to come out of their brains. Almost all of the students that I work with--if they have learned the core material--can catch on to this concept.

Now, you may be wondering about this one key point: What about the melody of the song? You haven't said anything about that! 

I'm glad you asked! At this beginning stage of improvising, playing the melody is not important. It is actually detrimental to the students' progress if they try to play the melody and I will not let them go down that path! They've got their hands full trying to remember the chords and come up with licks to fit the chords. And remember: in a jam session, even a slow jam, you will be doing this on the fly! There is not time to find the melody. The idea of improvising--at least this type of improvising--is not to work out a "improvised" break in advance rather it is to be able to create some sort of break on the spot in a jam when someone looks over and nods, "You take it!" You may tremble and shake and panic and sweat and flush and hyperventilate, but you'll do it! And, sure, you'll make mistakes but you'll find your way back in and you'll finish your break. And the next time it won't be quite as scary. Almost, but not quite! (Less hyperventilating!)

And then, unbelievable as it may seem, after you can do this amazing thing--improvising--you'll start complaining that all your breaks sound alike!!!! And then we'll have to start working on how to kick your breaks up to the next level But we'll save that discussion for later. Now, time to stop reading and play the banjo!

PS: We actually have an Improvising: The First Stage DVD. If this idea appeals to you, check it out at our website

6 comments on “Improvising: Can I Learn To Do This? By Murphy Henry”

a g cole Says:
Saturday, November 2, 2013 @7:17:34 AM

AMEN! AMEN! Practicing this concept--as taught by Murphy and Casey--led to a big breakthrough tor me.

Monday, November 4, 2013 @5:57:34 PM

I've started using Murphys's method to improve my banjo playing just recently. I live in Australia and had a number of the DVD's sent over. My enjoyment for learning has increased ten fold. In the last three weeks since I received the DVDs, my ability to hear the licks and chords has improved incredibly. Thanks Murphy I really enjoy your method and love hearing that accent of yours... It really adds to the fun. I'm starting to hear chords and licks in my sleep!

roadstar75 Says:
Monday, November 4, 2013 @6:05:44 PM

Winchester, VA that's sort of a coincidence. MY daughter will be in Winchester at a meeting with American Homemark there in town. Small world.

lindafhorton53 Says:
Wednesday, November 6, 2013 @1:24:08 PM

Hey Murphy, how are you? Hope you're doing great! Sure wish I could find the money and the way to get to one of your camps to have you help me work on this issue--I've been to two of the camps in Calif. where I was able to take several days of your instruction and I just think you are awesome!!
My question on this issue is: Since you don't approve of writing stuff down, can you tell me how to figure out fairly easily how many measures are in say, a song I haven't played much, or ever, so I'll know how many licks and/or fill ins I need to throw in??!! For instance in some of the songs you teach by ear, the tag lick uses 3rd, 1st, and 5th string as a fill in, some use only the 5th. If I'm in a jam and don't know the song how will I know how many cripple creek licks, FMB licks, or if there are enough measures for me to throw in the full Rollin in my Sweet Baby's Arms lick? How do you suggest that be done? Thanks.

hogan j Says:
Wednesday, November 6, 2013 @2:24:32 PM

I was one of those twenty " mature" students Murphy referred to an will attest to actually learning some things. It's now two weeks later and I won't say I've retained it all but it will come back. Thanks Murphy and Casy, it was a great weekend.

hogan j Says:
Wednesday, November 6, 2013 @2:27:47 PM

I was one of those twenty " mature" students Murphy referred to an will attest to actually learning some things. It's now two weeks later and I won't say I've retained it all but it will come back. Thanks Murphy and Casey

You must sign into your myHangout account before you can post comments.

More posts from caseyhenry

Newest Posts

More >  

Hangout Network Help

View All Topics  |  View Categories