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For Banjo Players: Learning The Words! By Murphy Henry

Posted by caseyhenry on Monday, August 25, 2014

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I can hear you now: I'm a banjo player. I don't sing. Why in Earl's name should I be learning the words?

I have wrestled with the subject of asking students to memorize the words to songs for many years. Since I am a words person myself, learning words comes easily to me. If I hear a song sung enough times, I will automatically memorize the words. Admittedly, it takes longer now that I'm older. (Of course, everything takes longer now that I'm older!) 

I recognize, however, that many people are not "words" people. They don't know the words to many songs and learning words does not come easy to them. So, taking this into account, I've never asked my students to learn the words to the songs they are working on. 

Then two years ago, I started a weekly jam session. This led to a need for a faster way to learn improvising. And while improvising has always been one of the major goals of the Murphy Method (see our Improvising: The First Stage DVD), I've had to come up with a way to "kick-start" banjo improv. And, thanks to students Kathy, Tim, Julie, Ben, Kasey, and Dan, I have come up with a "by ear," on-the-fly way that really works. But that's a whole nuther blog. (Oh! I've already done that blog! It's at our Murphy Method blog site: Roly Polys: Entry-Level Improvising.)

Learning this new way of improvising--which is based on the forward-backward roll and three chords, G, C, D--is dependent on the student hearing the chord changes to the songs. You can't be counting the number of beats in each chord while trying to improvise, as many folks found out rather quickly! And since many of the early improv songs have similar chord patterns, how do you keep the songs straight in your mind? YOU LEARN THE WORDS. I put this in bold because there is no way around it. You have to learn the words to the songs. 

Hear, hear, now! Don't be having a hissy fit and yelling at your computer screen and saying stuff like, "Who does she think she is? Who is she to tell me what to do? Why does she think she knows it all?"

I offer this strongly-worded suggestion after much soul searching (so Baptist!) and after wrestling with the topic for almost 40 years. (Picture Jacob and the angel! Moses wandering in the wilderness! The Old Testament was so vivid! I saw all these Bible stories depicted on a flannel board in the Beginner Department of the Clarkesville Baptist Church!) But I digress....

Learning the words is not as hard as it sounds. You don't have to learn the words to the entire song. You just have to learn the words to the portion of the song that constitutes the break. Which, of course, is either the verse or the chorus. (What else could it be?). When you are in a jam (double entendre!), you can always ask which it is.

Many bluegrass songs have dead-easy words:

It takes a worried gal to sing a worried song
It takes a worried gal to sing a worried song
It takes a worried gal to sing a worried song
I'm worried now, but I won't be worried long.

(So much repetition!)

Do Lord, oh, do Lord, oh do remember me
Do Lord, oh, do Lord, oh do remember me
Do Lord, oh, do Lord, oh do remember me
Look away beyond the blue

(Again, so much repetition! If you were from north Georgia you sang that last line, "Look away beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains!")

I'll Fly Away

Some glad morning when this life is o’er
I'll fly away
To a home on God's celestial shore
I'll fly away.

You can easily see that this song has four lines, but the second and fourth lines are simply the title of the song! Come on, how hard is that?

But the main reason I've decided to actively start pushing students to learn the words is this: my jam students are doing it on their own! Granted, they have real motivation. They want to play these songs in the weekly jam. No one wants to sit on the sidelines vamping while everyone else is playing a break! Real banjo players don't want to vamp! We want to play! (We may vamp, but we don't like it!) And in order to play a break to ten sound-alike songs using one roll and three chords, you have to be able to distinguish between the songs in your head. How do you that? WITH THE WORDS! Do Lord and Worried Gal and Somebody Touched Me and I Saw The Light sound an awful lot alike EXCEPT FOR THE WORDS!

I realize that ALL CAPS means I am YELLING, but I'm trying to get the point across. Unfortunately, down through the years, I've had little luck in getting this point across to my own students. But that was before I started a jam. Now it's obvious to me how important the words are.

How do you learn the words to so many songs? Take it one song at a time and write the words down. It's best if you listen to a recording (iTunes!) and then write down what you hear. But even if you pull the words off the Internet, rewrite them yourself. I have a guitar student who wrote down the words to Will The Circle Be Unbroken ten times while he was trying to memorize it! And it worked. He came back the next week and sang all four verses to the song. (With just the tiniest bit of prompting--by one of the other students!) But of course for the purpose of learning the banjo break you only need the words to the chorus or one verse. Singing the songs is also good. However singing along with someone else hardly helps at all. You think you are learning the words, but when you take way that other voice you are left with a big, fat goose egg.

Aside: If you are familiar with the Murphy Method and my own hard-and-fast rule of "no tab" and "write nothing down," you may find it surprising that I would advise you to write the words down. But this is one area where writing stuff down really helps!

One word of caution: Don't get obsessed with making the words match the banjo rolls note for note. That way leads to madness. It's way too hard, and beginning banjo players play way too slow for this to work. You want to keep a general idea of the words in your head, but don't go all Monk on me.

By the way, this idea of learning the words applies to all banjo breaks to singing songs, not just banjo breaks to improvised singing songs. 

I hope you don't find this idea too intimidating. That's the one thing that stopped me from shoving words down the students' throats. (Nice visual there!) I always thought that learning to play banjo was hard enough without the additional task of learning words. But once you move into improvising, hearing the words to the song in your head becomes essential.

By the way, Casey and Red and I are recording a new DVD that will teach this "kick-start improv" using (initially) one roll and three chords. Of course, that's just the foundation. The real fun comes when you start adding "upgrades" like the Tag Lick, and the Foggy Mountain Breakdown lick and the Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms lick to your basic breaks. That's when you start sounding like Earl! So stand by! 

Earl, Earl, Earl
You know you're such a pearl
If we learn your banjo licks,
We won't sound like banjo hicks,
We will sound just like a bunch of "scruggs"

Note: The word "scrugg," with a lowercase "s," was the term the Flint Hill Flash, writing in Banjo Newsletter, used for anyone who wanted to play like Earl and was a devoted student of His Playing. Thus, I am a "scrugg." Casey is a "scrugg." And we are trying to make you all "scruggs"!



4 comments on “For Banjo Players: Learning The Words! By Murphy Henry”

lindafhorton53 Says:
Monday, September 1, 2014 @4:24:38 PM

Can't wait for your "kick-start improv" DVD! Hurry up, okay?! ( :

dpdevendra Says:
Monday, September 1, 2014 @4:52:51 PM

I picked up my banjo after 20 years. The biggest difference in my learning is knowing the words. I started learning the words using the Homespun instructions. I continued the practice with the Murphy Method instructions especially the misfits dvd. I have found this the key to my learning. I just went back to learn the cripple creak words. Did not know that Bill Monroe has such interesting words. Not sure you can sing those in church, bbut fun to learn and sing.

pickn5 Says:
Tuesday, September 2, 2014 @6:59:59 AM

I'm currently using your beginning banjo track and working on Do Lord. Your suggestions on the DVD's to hear the words has made a big difference for me. Thanks, I really enjoy your teaching method.

gclaunch Says:
Tuesday, September 2, 2014 @7:37:02 AM

Hi, Gerald Claunch here, from Richardson, TX. I've come across the Murphy Method rather late in life, I was, however in your intermediate class at Kaufman's acoustic camp last June....in class, you and I discussed Bury Me Beneath the Willows, my version was somewhat different than what you were demonstrating, BUT, I had worked it up almost exactly how you describe in your blog....and you were tremendously complementary and encouraging...THANKS, I certainly was nervous about speaking out. Anyway, this is just a testimonial of someone else who is a firm believer of learning the words first. Things really began to fall into place for me when I began doing that...good info in the blog.
By the way, a plug for your book...I bought it at the camp and had you sign it to my wife. We both read it ...OUTSTANDING! It was supper table conversation for quite some time......"you go, girl!"

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