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Opening the Door to Other Keys: Improvising in Open C

Posted by caseyhenry on Thursday, March 22, 2018

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In my January post I mentioned that we would have a new DVD coming out soon that teaches how to improvise in the key of C without using a capo. I am happy to say that that DVD has now been recorded—by my favorite daughter Casey Henry—and will be available as soon as Red, now known as Gwandaddy, can get the editing done. It will also be available as a download.

So, what’s the big deal about playing in C? you ask. Don’t you just capo up 5 frets and play out of G position?

Well, yeah, you can do it that way. I did that all the time when I was a newbie and didn’t know how to play in C any other way.

When I think of this subject, I always remember my banjer-picking buddy Jim Fee, from Orlando, Florida, via Harlan, Kentucky. Red and I were playing at festival at Otter Springs, Florida, one year. Jimmy was running the sound board out in front of the stage so naturally he heard our set. I think he also liked to watch me play. I was pretty cute back then!

So after the set I’m talking to him and he says, “Murph. Why’d you play that ‘Just Because’ way up there?”

Meaning why did I play the song “Just Because,” which Red sang in the key of C, capoed up to the fifth fret. Now I thought I had a damn good break worked out in the G position. I was hitting it solid and getting the melody with some bodacious Scruggs and Crowe licks. It sounded good!

Now, Jimmy’s way of talking to me about my banjo playing never hurt my feelings because there was no jealousy or meanness involved. He could play rings around me and he knew it and I knew it. Out of earshot, I knew he bragged on my playing which always got back to me and made me feel ten feet tall.

So when Jimmy asked “Why’d you play ‘Just Because’ way up there?” I gave him a straight answer: “I thought it sounded good there.”

Then he said, in his blunt Kentucky way, “You orta play it open. That’s where the sound is.”

It hadn’t even occurred to me to play it open (meaning not capoed) because I didn’t know how to improvise a break in open C. I had my hands full with improvising in G! But eventually I got around to it which also led to playing in those “other” keys: D and E and F. (Later on Casey became a big inspiration to me. She usually chooses to play “open” even in D, E, and F!)

Until I started my Tip Jar Jam, however, I had never thought about teaching students to improvise in the key of C without using a capo. But when we started capoing up to C so that the women could sing that I started thinking, “There’s gotta be a better way!”

Thus began my foray—and Casey’s--into teaching students to improvise breaks in open C so they wouldn’t have to put on “that damn capo,” as one student said. (I think it was Peg.)

Playing in Open C (no, you don’t have to retune the banjo) is quite a bit different from playing in G. The same tried and true licks that fall so trippingly off your fingers in G, don’t work well in C. So, while you’re not quite back to square one, you do have to learn to think in different patterns.

And the most important thing you have to be able to do is “simple”: you have to be able to hear your chord changes. So, if you’ve skipped this part in an effort to learn really hard songs in G because you like the way they sound, then you are going to be SOL. (Sorta outta luck.)

But if you can hear your chord changes (just the simple ones, 1, 4, 5) then the door to improvising in the key of C is wide open because in the beginning you use only one roll: the Foggy Mountain Breakdown Roll, 2121, 5215. And you play this same roll in the “two-finger” chord positions of C, F, and G7. With those tiny pieces of information you can create a solid “starter” break for any three-chord song.

But that is not all, no that is not all! (To quote the Cat in the Hat!) That is just for openers. Once you become comfortable playing simple breaks using one lick and three chord positions, you can add “upgrades” to your breaks, the “C tag lick” being the most important. After that, you can use different two-finger positions that go all the way up the neck. Simply by changing positions—and keeping the same roll--you can make your break sound infinitely more sophisticated! And once you can comfortably move between the different two-finger chord positions (it’s so linear!) then you can add the “Doug Dillard walkdown” which sounds great and is always impressive.

In our new DVD we’ve outlined this—and much more—in our step-by-step Murphy Method fashion. We always start simple and work our way up to hard. And these ideas have been tested and tweaked on the Tip Jar Jammers. So many thanks to Dan, David, Kathy, Becky, George, Gregg, Betty, Kasey, and our Murphy Method campers who were guinea pigs for some of these ideas!

BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE! “I know some good games we can play,” said the Cat.

Playing in Open C also opens the door to playing in those “other” keys: D, E, and F. If you’ve been in jams that include country music, you’ll find that a lot of men, as well as women, like to sing in the key of E. If all you can do now is vamp in E, learning to play in C will open the door to playing a break in the Key of E. Yes, you will have to use a capo. Yes, it’s terribly confusing. Yes, Casey explains it all on the new DVD. Yes, it’s currently untitled but we’ll get there. We are taking pre-orders now on our website.

And once you have learned to play in C (and D and E) you can say:

“Look at me! Look at me! Look at me NOW! It is fun to have fun, but you have to know how!”

[Thank you, Dr. Seuss! Can you tell I have a two-year-old grandchild? I actually wanted to name the new DVD “On Beyond Cebra” but Casey vetoed it!]



2 comments on “Opening the Door to Other Keys: Improvising in Open C”

carlb Says:
Friday, March 23, 2018 @5:24:58 AM

I'm a clawhammer player and play all C tunes in open C. Chords for this tuning can be found in pictures of my chord chart on my home page.

SimonSlick Says:
Sunday, March 25, 2018 @6:41:51 AM

I've never had a banjo lesson in almost 60 years, but if I ever do if will be from you all.

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