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For Baby Boomers: Three Chords And A Roll By Murphy Henry

Posted by caseyhenry on Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Student, at new slow jam, looking around at all the stuff in the Murphy Method studio: “Isn’t that Goofy Grape sitting up there?”

She’s pointing to a purple plastic child’s drinking mug, now showing signs of age, perched on a speaker.

Me: Yes! That is Goofy Grape! We’ve got Choo Choo Cherry around here somewhere. I’ll try to find her and set her up there next time.

Murmurs from all the students: “I remember those! Wasn’t there an Orange one? Or maybe Yellow?”

[Absolutely! Google tells me there was Jolly Olly Orange and Lefty Lemon along with Rootin’ Tootin’ Raspberry, Loud Mouth Lime, and Freckle Face Strawberry.]

If you remember these 1960s Funny Face characters from packages of powdered drink mix (pre-sweetened with cyclamates!) you are in the same age bracket as my new group of Slow Jammers. Almost all of us are Baby Boomers. Would we like to be sixteen again and know what we know now? [Jimmy Martin song!] Maybe. Sometimes. But on the whole, we seem to be a contented lot, and the students are happy to be playing the banjo at this point in their lives. And I am proud of their progress.  

This New Slow Jam was a wild hair of mine, started because I wanted other students (outside the Tip Jar Jam) to have the benefit of a slow jam that would give them some tools for playing the banjo right now—not two years down the pike. As Snuffy Smith (the one from the funny papers) used to say, “Time’s a-wastin’!”

I remember giving a lesson to a beginning banjo student out in Portland, Oregon. She was a Baby Boomer, too. She said to me, “I don’t have a lot of time left. What’s the fastest way to learn to play the banjo?”

I didn’t know the answer to that question then because I hadn’t started my Tip Jar Jam which has taught me so much about how to teach the banjo. All I could tell her was to keep working at it “one song a month.” I now I have a better answer.

You’ve heard the saying, “Three chords and the truth.” [About country music.] And “Three chords and a capo.” [About bluegrass music.]

Well, my answer to the question “What is the fastest way for Baby Boomers to learn to play the banjo?” is this: “Three chords and a roll.” [A banjo roll.]    

Will you sound like Earl Scruggs? No. Will you impress your friends and neighbors. Yes. Will you be happy with your playing? I think so. Is that all there is? No. But it’s a starting place that will enable you to play with people ASAP.

And what is that Magic Roll? I call it the roly poly. It’s a simple forward and backward roll (3215, 1231) and you use it in all three chords, G, C, and D7. This allows you to play a simple “break” to any three-chord song in regular, bluegrass time as long as you can “hear” or figure out the chord changes.

I can use my new Slow Jammers as an excellent example.

Through the eight months that we’ve been jamming now, we’ve progressed from the foundational Big Three (Banjo in the Hollow, Cripple Creek, and Boil Them Cabbage Down, which were the prerequisites for coming into the jam) to playing singing songs using roly poly breaks.

In the past, I’ve stuck closely to the hardcore bluegrass repertory of singing songs but lately I’ve been including songs that people are more likely to know right off the bat: You Are My Sunshine, This Land Is Your Land, and Swing Low Sweet Chariot.

I’m using these songs because if you’ve heard the song somewhere along the line and have retained even a slight memory of it, it makes hearing the chords easier. Because when you come right down to it, playing bluegrass music is based on hearing the chords to the song. It’s great if you know the notes to lots of songs—from Cripple Creek to Foggy Mountain Breakdown—and I applaud the effort you’ve put into learning those notes. But unless you can hear the chord changes, it “profiteth you nothing” as the Good Book says.

Well, not exactly nothing because you can still sit home and play your tunes and that is fun, no doubt about it. But once you open that front door and step out of the house, banjo in hand, to head for a jam or a camp, then hearing the chord changes becomes essential. That’s what makes it possible to play with other people.

This basic roll—this Magic Roll—is just for starters. Later on, students can learn to substitute Scruggs-style licks for the simple rolls. That’s why my students continue to learn Scruggs-style breaks to simple singing songs because that’s where we’ll get the licks that we will use to “upgrade” the roly poly breaks.

That’s already happening in the New Slow Jam. Early on, we were working on the roly poly break to Blue Ridge Cabin Home and when we got to that four-beat D chord, one of the students, who had played before but had put her banjo under the bed for a couple of decades, slipped in a Scruggs lick. (Hammers 2-3 on second, hammers 2-3 on third) Eyes and ears pricked up all around the jam circle. Everyone wanted to do what Jane had done. So, because they all already knew some form of that same D lick, all I had to do was show them where to put it in. Voila! Everyone now had a Scruggsier sounding break.

Later on, they were able to use the lick in Bury Me Beneath the Willow, You Are My Sunshine, and This Land Is Your Land. All these songs got a tremendous “upgrade” courtesy of that one lick. And when you use a lick that much, you begin to “own” that lick and you start to “hear” it in other songs. It really is a bit like magic.

If this sounds too simple and too basic, remember: it’s just a starting place. But “three chords and a roll” will enable you to play something as fast as possible and it will get you a seat in the jam.

Now the Slow Jammers are asking about playing in the keys of D and E. I said that hopefully in January we can start working on the C roly polys, which open up the keys of D, E, and even F!

I’m excited about this New Slow Jam and all the learning that is going on. If you’re interested, shoot me a text (540-533-9685) or an email

Casey and I will be teaching the roly polys, along with vamping, using a capo, and how to trade breaks, in our Beginning Banjo Camp, October 26-28, in Winchester, Va. See our website for details. (And prerequisites!)

NOTE: We teach the basic G roly polys on Kickstart Your Jamming and the C roly polys on Key of C & Beyond. DVDs or downloads.

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