A few notes on my own practice – Improvising

I’ve been so busy at work these past few weeks I’ve only just gotten caught up with things here at home! I’ve got a lot of banjo topics to blog on – I just need the time to sit down and write them.

 One thing I’ve been meaning to blog is what I’m currently doing with my own practice time. A lot of my practice these days concerns trying to improve my ability to get out of tight spots while improvising. Sooner or later, we will all have been there. I’m thinking mostly of the times when I know the chords fairly well already, but in the process of placing various improvised rolls and licks, I get lost. 

Maybe I’ve simply gotten my synchronization off by one or two notes. That’s more noticeable if I’m playing melodic than Scruggs style by it’s very nature. Or maybe I’ve missed the chord change because of concentrating too much on my left hand technique. Most often however, it’s due to getting my picking fingers, that is, my right hand technique, into a logistical logjam. It’s like when you have just picked down on the fifth string with your thumb and then realize too late: “hey, I needed that thumb to pick the next note, but now I can’t get it there fast enough!” 

Here’s a couple of things to remember with regard to improvising (for me to remember, also!)

1) A lot of this is simply expected territory as we practice improvising. It does get better with practice, which should come as no surprise. Practice (perfect practice, no less) sure seems to be the solution to just about everything, huh?

 2) Don’t think of this as a final cut. If need be, slow down and analyze the lick and your roll pattern. for that matter, let’s take a lesson from jazz, where improvising is the name of the game; live cuts are highly valued and readily accepted at face value. To that extent, improvisation is a true reflection of you as a player and as a person. Kind of scary, I know – all the more reason to practice!

 3) If it’s a lick you already know and use, then take the lesson you’ve just learned: licks and rolls don’t exist alone, but must be played in transition from one to the other. That means that some licks are going to be problematic in transition without an extra tweak of some sort. For instance, if you are playing a lick that ends with your index finger picking the 2nd string, and the next lick, perhaps well-known to you already, has always been played starting with the index finger on the 3rd string, then something’s got to give. In such a situation, I’ve not been able to look so far ahead that I can solve it on the fly. But the next time around, I’ll try to remember those two licks and what happens when they are used back-to-back. Maybe I’ll employ the thumb for the second initial note, although I’ll then need to adjust the next few notes to accomodate that change. If it seems the least bit difficult, then I’ll just mentally think of this as a new lick.

4) Build up a repertiore of available licks in different keys. A couple of books that I’ve found of great help here are Hot Licks for Bluegrass Banjoby Tony Trischka  and Hot Licks and Fiddle Tunes for the Bluegrass Banjo Player by Bill Knopf.

Part of the fun of trying new things, especially “real-time” is when you get it right. It’s certainly a challenge, so don’t expect perfection early on. But remember – good things do come to those who practice!

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About Phill Gibson

I'm from Huntsville, Alabama where I work as a Systems Engineer and part-time banjo and mandolin instructor. I've been playing various instruments since my teen years. I started mandolin at about age 17 and banjo at 20. I love just about all kinds of music. In terms of banjo styles, I play Scruggs and melodic and am working on becoming more advanced with single string. I'm also working on 4-finger banjo, which is way off the beaten path. I would like to see more jazz techniques integrated into bluegrass situations; counterpoint, especially. So long-term, that's what I'm doing. I'm also very keen on astronomy, ATM (amateur telescope making), birding, christian homeschooling, martial arts, organic gardening and about 30 other distracting hobbies to a (mercifully) lesser extent.
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