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Reprise: I Don't Have Twenty Years! By Murphy Henry

Posted by caseyhenry on Monday, November 17, 2014

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kickstart your jamming coverI know you don't. Not to worry. Help is on the way!

Back in June I talked about Baby Boomers wanting to learn to play the banjo as fast as possible because I kept hearing so many adults saying, "I don't have twenty years!" I offered the best suggestions I had at the time. Now I can now offer something more substantial: a technique that will get you playing as fast as possible. 

Before we get started: I realize that the rest of this blog is going to sound like shameless self promotion for our new DVD, Kickstart Your Jamming. I own that. But that's the way I work: I come up with an idea, teach it for a while with real students, and then I get excited and make a DVD.

Back to the blog: 

Adults learning the banjo are, indeed, hampered by the time factor. We learn slower. Our hands don't work as well. And we have constant interruptions in our lives that range from health issues to family obligations. Even if you are learning by ear, the best steady success rate you can hope for is about one song a month, or twelve songs a year. What adults need, then, is a way to play more songs faster. Which means adults need to learn to improvise almost as soon as they start playing banjo. This was a revelation to me.

Teaching banjo students to improvise has been a long-time goal of mine. I've struggled with it for years. But now I've found something that actually works. I know it works because I see my beginning students improvising on songs they've never played before in my Tip Jar Jams. Songs like Blue Ridge Cabin Home, Will The Circle Be Unbroken, and I'll Fly Away. Intermediate students are even improvising to instrumentals like John Hardy and Lonesome Road Blues. These are Baby Boomers, not kids. How are my students (and Casey's students) doing this? Two words: Roly Polys. Let me explain.

Although the term "Roly Polys" is new, the concept on which they are based is not new. Improvising by taking banjo licks and playing these licks in the chord pattern of the song is a technique that is as old as the Carolina hills that Earl, the Father of Bluegrass Banjo, came from.

But my way of teaching improvising is new. It is a carefully thought out, step-by-step process that relies, initially, on one banjo roll and a specifically selected group of three-chord bluegrass songs which are taught in a certain order. 

Question: What do you mean when you say "improvise" on the banjo?

You improvise on the banjo when someone in a jam session sings a song you don't know and you manage, when it's your turn, to play something on the banjo. It doesn't have to be a fabulous break. It doesn't have to be Earl's break. It just has to be A BREAK.

Question: How in Earl's name do you do this? It sounds, to quote the Cowardly Lion, imposserous.

It is not imposserous! My students are doing this! The trick is to start out really simple. One roll, three chords. Easy songs. A beginning improviser needs slow, serious, step-by-step guidance. And a teacher to keep saying, "Not so fast, Frank. Not so fast!" Meaning you can't go whipping though this material too fast or you will totally NOT GET IT.

Here's what the technique boils down to:

You need one easy banjo roll that will work--and sound decent--in all three of the basic chords, G, C, and D. [I use the two-finger D7 chord to start out with. I insist on it.] After much experimentation on real students (none were harmed!), I found out that the forward-backward roll works best. Now, this ain't tab, but just to show you what I'm talking about: 3215, 1231. The roll works perfectly in the C and D chords. The G chord, however, needs a slight modification to make it work more easily on down the line. (A slide, a fretted note, and pinches at the end.) That's too much trouble to explain on paper but you can see it in the sample clip on our website.  

Let me be perfectly clear: This forward and backward roll is what I call the "Roly Poly." When you do the roll in G, it's the G Roly Poly. When you do the roll in C, it's the C Roly Poly. When you do the roll in D7 it's the D Roly Poly. 

Okay. So far, so good. Nothing new here, except confining students to the ONE ROLL.

Here's where the new stuff comes in: I get the students to use this one roll, this forward and backward roll, in 5 to 10 carefully-chosen, 3-chord songs. A hit and miss approach will not work. "Oh, just choose any old song and try it." There are too many pitfalls. I want total control of the process. (No surprise there!) 

Too Much Information: (Mostly for other teachers. Students can skip this.) I always start with Blue Ridge Cabin Home because the chord pattern is so regular: I, IV, V, I/I, IV, V, I. Then I follow that with Bury Me Beneath The Willow, which uses a different chord pattern--I, IV, I, V/ I, IV, I, V, I--but one that is extremely common in bluegrass songs. Other carefully selected songs follow these first two. Some have exactly the same chord pattern. (I never tell the students that, I let them discover it.) Some offer a slightly different chord pattern, but one that is standard in bluegrass. For instance, a song like Do Lord with 8 beats of G to start out with.

Casey and I both start teaching the Roly Polys early, usually after the first three or four beginning banjo tunes. One reason we do this is that the Roly Polys are much simpler than even the simplest beginning banjo tunes. The other reason we do this is that the students don't want to be left out in the jam. They want to play! 

Once the students catch onto the concept of the Roly Polys, I lose total control! And I love it! They inevitably start trying to take Roly Poly breaks on every singing song in the jam! Do they crash and burn? Absolutely and often! But these crashes don't seem to invoke the same sense of "failure" that forgetting a "pre-learned" break does. The students just laugh, dust themselves off, and get back on the banjo!  

Also in the jam, the students learn from each other. If one student plays a Roly Poly break, all the other students actively listen and try to copy that break! It is truly amazing to watch. Then they often talk about it afterwards! "I stole that lick from you!" Or "I saw you putting in that new C lick! I want to learn that!"

Okay, so that's the first stage of improvising. Jam students usually stay here for several months. Next come the "upgrades." This is also a carefully structured, step-by-step process. This stage draws on the teacher-taught, Scruggs-style songs that the students continue to learn. These give the students a growing cache of Earl licks. 

The first Earl lick we use as an upgrade is the "Tag Lick." That's the G lick that comes at the end of the low break of Foggy Mountain Breakdown and is the last lick of most banjo breaks done Scruggs style. As I tell the students, "The tag lick is a direct substitution for the G Roly Poly. It always works at the end of the song and it often works in the middle." Take out one lick, put in the other. This "simple" substitution immediately makes all the breaks sound Scruggsier. In time, we add other "upgrades" to the C and D Roly Polys. Often the students figure these out themselves. And that's where I really wanted to get to: students making up their own breaks. It's happening!

I'll close with a quote from Tim, the student who named the Roly Polys. Tim attended our Beginning Banjo Camp in October 2013, got bit by the bug, and has been attending Tip Jar Jams ever since. Tim says:

"The great thing about the Roly Poly Method is that once I had the three (G, C, D) easy rolls learned, not only could I play along with just about any G, C, D song, I could use this method anytime a new song got thrown at me during a jam."

Thanks Tim! And thanks to all the Tip Jar Jammers who helped in the development of the Roly Polys: Kathy G, Julie, Tim, Pam, Kathy H, Betty, Ben, Kasey, Bob Mc, Gregg, David, Drew, and Dan. I am so proud of all of you!

You can find the new DVD right here: Kickstart Your Jamming

3 comments on “Reprise: I Don't Have Twenty Years! By Murphy Henry”

banjofann Says:
Tuesday, November 25, 2014 @6:50:15 AM

I have been jamming for several years, more so in the last two years since I retired. Many of the jams are more country than bluegrass. Most of the songs are in E, D or F. I learned to just jump in and play different rolls in the cord progression. Many bluegrass songs are in the open cords as G, A, etc. If you don't know the tune, you can do the Roly Poly method is great. They, for the most part don't care if you can play the melody. Many times I can pick out many of the melody notes and come a with a good break. Throw in some slides and pull offs and you are on your way. Don't be afraid. Most jammers are great people, and will ask you to take a break on every song. Just jump in and make some noise, HA HA


lindafhorton53 Says:
Tuesday, November 25, 2014 @11:06:51 AM

I ordered Kickstart Your Jamming the MINUTE the announcement came to me AND I LOVE IT!! Wish I'd had it a lonnnnnnggg time ago. Thank you Murphy!

pickn5 Says:
Wednesday, November 26, 2014 @5:30:02 AM

I'm currently up to learning the low break of Foggy Mountain Breakdown using Murphy's Beginning Banjo Track. I started the track in April of 2014. A couple of times I have drifted off to the Vamping: Beginning Banjo Backup and the Slow Jam DVD's. Would this new DVD be appropriate for me at this point? Am I on track with my learning? I do feel that my progress is faster with the Murphy Method compared to the 2 1/2 previous years learning from tab. I really like the Murphy Method. Keep picking.

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