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Living and Dying in Three-Quarter Time (Apologies to Jimmy Buffet) By Murphy Henry

Posted by caseyhenry on Wednesday, November 9, 2016

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Inner voice of a student learning to play Amazing Grace:

Oh, God, I know I’m gonna screw up. Now, how many G’s was that? Two? Three? Whoops, dammit, I missed the C. Now do I go back to G? Guess so. That’s seems right. Dang, there’s the change to D. How long do I stay here? Yikes, she’s in G again. Is there another C? Missed it again! Damn. Lost the roll? What was it again? Does it start on 3 or 5? I can’t remember! She’s not stopping for me! I’ve got to catch up. Damn. The song’s over. I really suck at this. Should I even be trying to play banjo?

Yesterday I taught Amazing Grace to six banjo students. Each lesson was different in its own way and I learned quite a lot about how to teach Amazing Grace. It was a good teaching day. I love developing new teaching ideas and I have never figured out a good way to teach playing in three-quarter (waltz) time. I’m closing in on it now, thanks to my Tip Jar Jammers. Expect a new Murphy Method DVD early next year!

Here is a glimpse of how it went yesterday, using my imaginary student Allie, who is more or less Baby Boomer age.

Me: I actually have a plan for the lesson today! We’re gonna start working on Amazing Grace. It’s in three-quarter time. We don’t do anything in three-quarter time.

Allie: What’s three-quarter time?

Me: You know it sounds like “boom, chunk, chunk; boom, chunk, chunk.” One, two, three. One, two, three. (I play that rhythm in a G chord on the guitar.)

Allie: Oh, okay. I don’t know if I can do that or not.

Me: Yes, you can. It’s not that hard. Just one roll.

Allie, looking skeptical: Okay...

Me: Now, first we’re gonna go over the chords. It’s just G, C, and D. I’ll sing it and you vamp along. Make a G vamp chord. Now when I play “boom chunk chunk” on the guitar (I do that), you do your vamps on the strums. We’re just gonna stay in the G chord for now.

We play G chord together several times, with Allie vamping. She does it just fine.

Me: Now, let’s do the same thing in C chord. Good. Now the D chord. That was great. Now, let’s see if we can do that same vamping to the chords in the song.

Allie, panicking: But I don’t know the chords! I’ve never played Amazing Grace before!

Me: You’ll do fine. You’ll be able to hear the changes. It’s just G, C, and D. Start in G and the first change is to C. You come in on “maze.” The “Uh” is a pickup note.

I start singing and playing very slowly and Allie starts vamping her G chord.

 A-maz-ing Grace, how [now change to C] sweet the sound [Now, back to G], That saved a wretch like [now D] meeeeeeeee……[Now, back to G.] I once was lost, but now I’m found [No, just one beat of C] Was blind [No, stay in G] but now [D!] I see. [No, not C, back to G!]

Allie: I thought you said “C” at the end.

Me: No, I said “see”—S-E-E. The last word in the line. Not C chord. The last chord is G.

Allie: Oh. I didn’t think that sounded right.

Me: That was good for a first pass. Let’s do it again.

We do it again and the chords are much smoother.

Me: That was good! Now, let’s see if we can do it with a roll.

Allie: I don’t know if I can do that.

Me: Yes, you can! It’s a simple roll. Let me get out my banjo and I’ll show you.

I get my Stelling out [product placement!], strap it on, and put on my picks.

Me: Here’s the roll.  

I play the roll—321512—a couple of times in open G, then tell Allie to try it.

Allie: Where does it start?

Me: On the third string. 3. 3215. You already know how to do that.

Allie plays the 3215 but then comes back with another four notes, 1231. This is a roll she plays a lot.

Allie: Is that right?

Me: Not quite. That last part, after the 3215, is just 1 and then 2. 321512. It’s just six notes and it ends on the second string.

I play the roll again for her since I realize that the numbers I’m saying probably don’t mean a whole lot to her. Or any of the students.

Me, saying each note as I play it slowly: 3 2 1 5 1 2

Allie, starts playing while I’m playing and gets ahead of me.

Me: Slow down! Let’s do it together.

We play the roll slowly together until she gets the feel of it.

Me: Good! Now let’s try that with the guitar.

I get the guitar out.

Me: Now we’re gonna play together. Ready go! [Which is how I count off since I suck at counting!]

I play the G chord in the “One, two, three, one, two, three” rhythm and Allie plays the roll with me just fine. Then we do the same thing in the C chord and the little two-finger D7 chord. No problems. We’re still not using the chord pattern of the song, but we’re heading that way.

Now we have all the parts: the roll, the chord pattern (more or less), and playing the roll in the chords. Now comes the hard part: fitting the roll into the chords for the first time while someone is singing. All this banjo-playing stuff sounds easy until you try to do it. Just ask my students.

Me: Alright, now let’s try the whole song with the roll.

I start singing and Allie starts playing. She still wants to stay in the C chord for two rolls (not one) and the quick change between G and D (one roll each) at the end is confusing, but basically, she’s got it.

Me: Good job.

Allie: It wasn’t bad. I’m still missing that C. And I wanted to put a tag lick at the end.

Me: The tag lick you already know won’t work in three-quarter time.

Allie: But it needs something. I can feel that something goes there. I can almost hear it.

Me: The three-quarter-time tag lick is too hard.

Allie: But it needs something.

Me: Dammit! Okay! I’ll see if I can figure out something easy to put there. [This really happened!]

I show her a really good ¾ time tag lick that I would actually use.

Me: What? You don’t like it.

Allie: It’s okay…

Me: You don’t like it. You’re not smiling. Let me try another one.

I work out another tag lick that sounds more like the 4/4 time tag lick. I show it to Allie. She learns it pretty quickly.

Me: It sounds okay but I still like the one I use better.

Allie: Show me that one. You didn’t show me that one. [Really happened!]

Me: Yes, I did. You said you didn’t like it.

Allie: Oh, yeah. I did. Well, show me again.

Again I show her the ¾ tag lick that I actually use. This time she likes it! (Go figure!) I show her how to play that one, but I tell her she can use whichever one she likes best or is easiest. (She’s recording the whole lesson on her phone.)

Allie: I think I like that one the best.

Me: Me too.

I’ll teach Amazing Grace again today but only twice. Then, we’ll play it in our Tip Jar Jam tonight. That’s where the real learning happens. No matter how much you practice a song at home, it’s different when you play it in the jam. Mistakes will be made for sure, but the students will recover from them in the moment and keep on trucking because that’s what jamming teaches you to do.

There will be “upgrades” to this simple arrangement of Amazing Grace. Slides, pull-offs, pinches. What I’m trying to do now is teach the students to play something if a three-quarter time song comes up in a jam. And I prefer that that “something” be tasteful and in time. I’m not looking for melody and I’m not looking for a flashy up-the-neck break. As I tell my students: No one can ever fault you as a player for keeping it simple and playing in time.

Next on the ¾ time list: In The Pines, Silent Night, That Was Before I Met You, and White Dove. And then we’ll see. Maybe All The Good Times Are Past And Gone.

And, hey, it’s November. Happy Thanksgiving, y’all. I’m thankful for my wonderful Tip Jar Jammers. God bless them everyone! (Mixing my holidays…!)

6 comments on “Living and Dying in Three-Quarter Time (Apologies to Jimmy Buffet) By Murphy Henry”

gospelman97 Says:
Wednesday, November 9, 2016 @10:21:47 AM

Great story! For the life of me I can't see why so many guitar teachers start students off with Amazing Grace in 3/4 time. I guess that's the only song they think that everybody knows. Doesn't help with the more typical 4/4 strum patterns though.

rodschwartz Says:
Thursday, November 10, 2016 @9:16:48 AM

That's amazing, Grace! I guess it's an age thing. Us "Old Timers" (no reference to playing style) are probably more comfortable in waltz time than you young whippersnappers! Try having them play quarter notes first and graduate to a normal roll.

rodschwartz Says:
Thursday, November 10, 2016 @9:17:32 AM

That's amazing, Grace! I guess it's an age thing. Us "Old Timers" (no reference to playing style) are probably more comfortable in waltz time than you young whippersnappers! Try having them play quarter notes first and graduate to a normal roll.

bart_brush Says:
Thursday, November 10, 2016 @1:29:56 PM

"Amazing Grace" can also be played in 4/4 time. Steel Bands play it this way, and I've seen a 4/4 arrangement for African drums. You simply hold the long notes for 3 beats instead of 2. Getting back to banjo, Roscoe Holcomb plays "Willow Garden" in 4/4 instead of the usual 3/4, and I'll bet there are other examples of 3/4 songs "stretched" to fit in 4/4.

n1wr Says:
Thursday, November 10, 2016 @4:34:51 PM

I'll tell you what got me squared away with three quarter time - listening/watching to JD Crowe play the Old Kentucky Waltz:

Listen to the bass - mostly just plays the one note. Note, two three, etc. Of course JD's backup is incredible.

pickn5 Says:
Friday, November 11, 2016 @5:17:46 AM

I'll be watching for the new DVD.

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