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Banjo Lessons: Improvisation

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wanna talk some more about improvisation
right now.
I've touched on it in various places on
this site but
I really wanna start moving you in that
Of everyone to the barricades and.
Breaking down those barricades in your
mind and in your fingers and
just start playing instead of what's on
the written page exactly.
Try to come up with things that are coming
out of you.
And because that's when you really start
experiencing the joy of playing music.
I mean, it's really fun to nail a tune and
have it really worked out perfectly and
have it all in time and good tone and all
And that's really wonderful.
And that's one of the ways you learn.
In fact, Sonny Osborne once said,
if you learn every single solo that Earl
Scruggs takes on Foggy Mountain Banjo,
by the end of that you'll be able to play
Scruggs style.
Because you'll start, you'll start making
You'll see that the two to three slide.
Is in Cripple Creek.
And it's in other, lots of other places.
Not just on foggy Mountain Banjo but in
Shucking the Corn.
That lick recurs all over the place, and
it's all over this site, and so you learn
these certain licks or this D lick.
Which can go into
all sorts of different D chords if not a G
So, but rather than just talking about
playing certain licks that are bluegrass.
I wanna take you away from that for a
moment and
just start really having no preconceptions
at all.
Not trying to work into a style, which I
think can be tricky because
Scruggs has beautiful and it's his whole
Just like the bebop vocabulary of jazz.
But I want to kinda get past that even,
for the moment.
Because you can be improvising just
changing one note if you know
something like Boil Them cabbage Down.
If you go.
Instead of hitting a quarter note for that
and then two forward rolls, you can go.
You just added a note.
Instead of having a quarter note on the C,
and two forward rolls,
you can hit the second string with the
And then the middle on the the first.
That's an improvisation.
You're, you're trying something different.
To they casual listener, they might,
not notice that.
But I'm saying, just changing one note.
Is, is a, is an improvisation.
And if you're only beginning,
if you're only at the beginning of your
improvisatory journey that's a big deal.
And so, don't feel like, oh, I've got to
change every single note in the entire
solo and make it completely different.
You don't.
one of the most important things is you
have to be willing to sound bad.
You have to be willing to fail.
And that's really what the hard thing is.
Cuz I've taught improvisation to people
and tried to get them to do it.
And I've had people almost in tears
because they'll only want to play
it one way.
Cuz they're just afraid to break out of
And some of you might be in that same
You're just so locked in to doing things
in a certain way.
But I want you to start thinking about
accepting the possibility of I can do
something different.
But to start with, I want you to do some
free improvising.
This is something that, is done a lot in
A guy named Keith Jarrett, this amazing
jazz piano player, has done that.
In fact he just did a concert at Carnegie
I saw him do this in the 70's.
And he'll just get out there and play with
no preconceived notions.
And of course when you're doing that
you're gonna, you have your things.
You have certain licks you might do.
But the thing is you just your hands go in
different places that you don't expect.
And I've done quite a bit of this over the
Just pick up the banjo and just start
playing and see what comes out.
And for the beginning I don't want you to
even think about.
Chords or rhythm or anything.
Just start playing notes.
And I'll just do it myself and
we'll see what comes out.
All right.
That was completely off the top of my
I had just been playing a little bit of
Danny Boy in the key of D so
I think I was sort of gravitating towards
D but then I got a little out there.
And there are things that I just did I've
done before.
Things like.
I'm not even sure exactly what I did but.
there was some thirds and some sixths and
whatever, so it's.
It's not like I'm just inventing all new
music that I've never played before,
even though Miles Davis once said, play
what you don't know,
which is really a great thing when you're
thinking about improvising.
But, you know, I've never played that
exact thing and
I wasn't playing necessarily in time,
there were places where there was sort of
a rhythm to it, and other times.
When it was just more of a rubato rhythm,
which means not really in time but kind
of, you're slowing down,
you're speeding up, you're just taking
liberties with the time.
So I wasn't being bound by anything.
I wasn't worrying about chord progressions
or anything like that.
So I really would like you, right now, to
just click stop on this for a moment and
just go off and, and start playing your
banjo, and do anything you want.
Anything your brains and fingers and.
Heart can can see above.
And just be free.
Have no preconceptions.
That you don't have to be playing in time
or out of time or
even in tune if you don't want to be.
Although that's nice.
So just give it a shot now.
Just do some free improvising.
You can play for ten seconds or you can
play for ten minutes.
Anything is fine.
There are no rules at all.
So try that and then come right back and
we'll continue.
Now that you've
returned from your free improvisation I'd
like you to try another improvisation.
And this time we're just gonna add just a
little bit of definition to things.
And I want you to play with kind of a
groove, in time.
You can do this with a metronome.
That's sometimes nice to play with a
metronome when you're free improvising
cuz it keeps you locked into the time.
And maybe gives you a little more freedom
even though it's kind of, even though you
have a little less freedom right now
because in the first improvisation,
I said anything.
You can play rubato time, just, you know,
slowing down, speeding up, it's all fine.
This time we're gonna try to bring a
little more.
Structure to things.
You're, you're just gonna play in time.
You can still play any key, any style, it
doesn't have to be bluegrass,
it can be anything you want or can be.
Or it can be a fiddle tune kind of feel,
some melodic licks, anything you want,
just chords, but do it in time in a
certain rhythm.
And so I'll do that right now.
And let's see what happens.
Okay I've mentioned fiddle tune, and it
must have gotten into my head cuz I just,
you know, this is nothing starkly and
startlingly original.
But it's just something I made up using
some melodic licks and
positions I've already played in.
Like, you know.
Whatever I was doing there.
I can't remember exactly.
But doing.
That's the position I use for
Blackberry Blossom.
So it's, that's a very familiar position
to me so I just gravitated towards that.
I did some melodic things around here
which I like.
And then I did some.
And I've never done that exactly probably
but close to it.
Again, I don't
remember exactly what I played so but I
was pushing the boundaries a little bit.
There was a little out of my comfort zone.
Not way out by any means but a little bit.
So I want you to try that now.
I'll do one more improve just so you can,
it doesn't have to feel like exactly that
in G.
Let me just try something else.
Let's do something in E.
I could go on.
I could go on for a long time just doing
That was not the most successful thing in
the world.
And I was kind of floundering a little bit
on this section.
And that's what happens when you
improvise, you don't always succeed.
But you, you just go for it.
And that's really what this is all about.
But again, this was all in certain rhythm.
A certain time.
So now I want you to do that.
I want you to take a break from this
lesson and, and just go off.
And start playing something.
But this time instead of completely free I
want you to do something
with a little rhythmic structure.
So there's a little rhythmic under pick,
pinning to everything.
In your playing in time.
And it can be slow.
It doesn't have to be fast.
And in a lot of way it's easier to play
something slowly.
And maybe for starting out playing slowly
because then you can think a little bit
more easily.
You can think where you wanna go next.
But again, try to play stuff you've never
[LAUGH] played before or, you know,
maybe the positions you've used before but
maybe use a different roll.
And maybe all you're gonna do is use right
hand stuff.
It could just be.
Maybe you've never did this sort of
thing before.
Maybe you never played backward rolls.
Start doing some backward rolls.
It can just be the right hand, I don't
Whatever level you're on.
I mean, I've been playing for, at this
point, 48 years or
49 years, whatever it is.
So I have a lot of material to draw on in
my subconscious.
If you're just a beginning player and you
have very little,
you could just do rolls and maybe just.
Install backward rolls and
then you can fret the first string and go
up the scale of some sort.
And then go out of the scale.
And skip certain notes and jump around.
Or do forward rolls and
move around on the third string.
Things like that.
Just simple rolls and
just change one note.
You don't have to fancy like I did.
But keep a steady roll.
That was a three four kind of a thing, or
six eight kind of a thing.
Or you could go
One, two, three, four, and two, and.
And one, and two.
And one and two.
And one and two.
And one and two.
Just keep the timing going.
So that's your assignment right now.
Just sign off here for a second.
And just go and see what you can do with
your improvisation.
And I would like to see some video
exchanges coming
from you folks with some of these
I think it's really going to open things
up and
you don't even have to learn a tune to do
You can just sit down and turn on your
camera and start playing and
see what comes out.
And you could do five or six of these and
pick the one you like the best.
Cuz I really want to see some
improvisations coming from you folks.
So we'll tune into the next lesson.
We're gonna just keep moving this along.
In this direction, so please right now
start improvising with a steady rhythmic
underpinning and go from there.
Good luck.
to part three of our improvisation
fandango here.
So we've had the first improv lesson,
where you were just playing absolutely
freely, no strictures what so ever.
The second one, I gave you the assignment
play with at least a rhythmic under
pinning, where you're feeling a grove.
Some sort of you know?
Steady rhythm, playing in rhythm.
But still absolutely free in terms of note
choices, and
chords and keys anything like that, but at
least there was a rhythm to it.
Now I wanna kind of tighten things up a
little bit more,
we're going from absolutely free to just a
little more structure as we go along,
and now we're going to get the structure
of chords.
And we're gonna just deal with a very
simple chord structure,
which is Boil Them Cabbage Down, which is
one of the very first lessons here,
on the site in the beginning zone.
[SOUND] And the way I have it in the
tablature it goes
And that's great, and
that's one way to play it.
Now, with the video exchanges I've had
many of you people sending in Boil them
Cabbage Downs, many cabbage downs.
And for almost all of them not every,
every one perhaps,
but almost every one, I've come up with a
little different thing,
just to make it a little different for
So if you want, you could go back and
just look at some of those video exchanges
on Boil them Cabbage Down.
Go to the video exchange library, and look
at those and, and
you'll have a lot of different ideas in
there for ways to change this around but
I'll just do a little bit of that right
now in this lesson.
So rather than doing this.
You can change it around by just doing,
you can just play simple chords, which is
one of the things I have as
you're building up to this you can just go
Forward backward roll instead of this
just forward backward roll
And then do the rest the same.
And then every time you do G.
Just do that.
And then.
Forward backward roll and then do the C.
And then finish with.
Or you could do.
You could do a forward backward roll,
with a slide to start off.
Two, three into the chord, backward roll.
And do the same thing here.
And then the rest are the same.
Or you could do.
This is the three, zero, two lesson,
that's in the intermediate zone before
Black Mountain Rag and you could learn
this lick.
3rd fret of the 3rd string,
it's a forward roll.
It's a forward backward roll actually, but
you're gonna start with the middle on the
3rd fret of the 2nd string and index on
the 2nd fret of the 1st string, and do a
forward roll with the open 2nd string.
Open backward roll and.
So it would be for just the G.
Or you could go
So I had three different elements there, I
started with the regular way, the two,
two to three slide with two alternating
thumb rolls.
And then the C and then the, this three,
zero, two lick the next time.
And then D seventh.
then the slide of the forward backward
In and out.
So again you'd have.
So for the G, the two measures of G,
I'm sorry, the one measure of G each time
I did a different thing.
So that's, just, those are just some
examples of things you can do, and then I
haven't even gone to the C chord, and done
something different with the C chord,
so you could go
Instead of.
I'm hitting the second string as a quarter
note, and
then bringing the middle finger over to
the second fret of the third string, open
third string, and then on the second fret
of the fourth string all quarter notes.
You should get used to the idea,
of having the middle finger free to jump
around like this, cuz
And that kind of stuff, it's right there,
or you could go.
So you could go.
And do a quarter note there instead of
hitting the first string, cuz you wanna
start the C on the first string.
And you're not playing a C chord, you're
doing just a little bit of it.
Index on the second fret of the first,
[SOUND] Ring on the fourth fret of the
[SOUND] And do an Osbourne roll.
[SOUND] Middle index middle thumb,
and then index on the first fret of the
second string and do a backward roll.
First second fifth first,
and then back to this
in D seventh, so it would be.
so those are just some of the things you
can do.
Or a.
that would be on the D chord, you could
I'm playing the bottom part of a D chord,
I have the fourth fret of the fourth
the second fret of the third string.
[SOUND] And I'm doing inside forward roll,
fourth, third, second, fourth,
[SOUND] I'm sorry, fourth, third, second,
then bring the thumb over to the second.
Let me start again, forward roll four,
three, two those are the strings.
Thumb, index, middle, then bring the thumb
to the third string, and
then a backward roll on the first three
First, second, third, first again you have
the open first two strings with index on
the second fret of the third, ring on the
fourth fret of the fourth, you've got
And now your index is there on the second
fret of the third string, so go back to
the slide with the index
The first time.
And then I would go back to the middle
So I'm going Okay,
those are just some ideas I could go on
awhile, but let's stop with that and
I'm gonna just improvise a little bit
just freely on Rolling My Sweet,
I'm sorry, on Boil them Cabbage Down.
And as soon as I'm done with that, I'd
like you to try.
You can use some of these ideas, and plug
them in, but
I'd like you to see what ideas you can
come up with too.
And, and don't just kinda play a couple,
you know, a couple of measures and
then stop and try to think of something.
Just push yourself to keep going, turn on
the metronome and, and
see what you can do.
But before we do that im just gonna jam a
little bit more on boil them cabbage down.
now again
I'm not
to show
off here,
it's just
this is,
this is my
that I'm
And again, this is after playing for 48
I've got all this stuff that I can do.
And, and I'm, I kinda muff some things
here and there.
There are a few squeaky things in there
I would have liked to have had better.
But it just, it's what happens when you
improvise, and
the more you do it the better you get at
So, your assignment now is to do whatever
can do on that chord progression, of Boil
them Cabbage Down.
And it can be much slower than that,
it can be.
Whatever tempo you're comfortable at.
You can do it at this speed if you want.
And you can do the Foggy Mountain
breakdown roll.
So again, I mean there are rules now,
you're playing in time,
you're playing with a chord progression.
We've gone from absolutely free working
through adding some rhythm, and
now we're adding a chord progression.
So we're kind of tightening things up here
a little bit, but
I wanted to start with you really freely
and then work you into this zone here.
So, see what you can do with this, and
like I say I'd like,
as many of you as want to, to send in your
improvisations as video exchanges, or
put them on your student pages.
And we'll post them,
and it will be really exciting to see what
you're coming up with.
So, between this and then looking at the
Nine Pound Hammer improvisations,
those concepts for improvising where it's
a little more straight ahead Scrugg style,
and you're just taking certain licks and
plugging them into various measures.
Hopefully those, this'll get you moving
more and
more into the level of improvisation that
you haven't had before, so good luck.
Take care.