How Do You Improvise on the Banjo?

By Ross Nickerson

Learning how to improvise on a banjo often develops first when you lose your place in an arrangement and recover without stopping and “fill the space” with something else. That’s when you begin to realize that as long as you do not stop or drop the rhythm that its hard to miss on a banjo when the timing stays steady and solid. The trick is to develop skills that you can use in lots of places so if you meant to zig, you can still zag your way out of it.

Using Banjo Licks
The trick when plugging in licks or improvising on banjo in general is not to get too far from the melody or not to stray from the song so you are playing uncontrollably. The danger you run with constant experimenting and improvising is losing the listener’s interest and tolerance for your constant “noodling.” A good rule of thumb in Bluegrass banjo playing is to keep your innovations within the context of the song and tasteful. There is nothing wrong with a few hot licks or inventive original moves but it’s best not to get too carried away in the middle of a song.

One of the things I enjoy when I’m watching a band that has players with a lot of ability and who could literally improvise endlessly, is when they devote a portion of the show to letting themselves go on and on with no boundaries. The audience responds well to this and it seems to be more tasteful than getting too far off on a tangent during the show in all of their songs.

Improvising Using Chords

You could literally get by in many musical situations by simply playing rolls in time and playing the correct chords of the song. It might not be the best way to play a particular song, but it wouldn’t sound bad. In fact, as backup, it would probably blend pretty well. What if all you knew were all the major, minor, and seventh chords in the different inversions, a mastery of 5 banjo rolls, and how to slide, hammer-on, choke, and pull-off? That would be enough to improvise all night long, that’s what. Get to the bottom line with our banjo playing. Play in time, know your chords, learn good right-hand and left-hand technique, play without tab, and learn to recover from mistakes. Chipping away at these basics will help get you on your way to improvising and becoming a musician.

The chord structure of the song is the floor, the bottom, and the earth from which the song is built. Next is the rhythm and then the melody. Everyone, however, wants to learn the melody first because that is normally what they associate with the song and the most obvious when looking at tablature. Start with chords and rhythm and build on that, particularly in improvising. There is a great way to learn more on improvising with chords and being able to improvise using chords in other keys which is detailed more in Chapter 14: Playing in Different Keys and Using a Capo.

Writing Your Own Arrangements and Playing Songs You Have Never Heard Before

Playing by chords and creating your own chord progressions is not only fun but also will teach you a lot and help your ability to play by ear. This will also help you in your ability to follow and play along with a song that you do not know.

What if you were jamming and you were asked to play a song you had never heard before? That would certainly be a form of improvising. You would have no choice at that point but to improvise.

In a slightly different way and context from what was used before, knowing the commonly used chords in different keys will help you to predict or even make an educated guess at what chords are coming up.

Playing by ear on a song is normally the combination of musical knowledge, ability, and developing your ear to “hear where the music is going” so you will be able to follow the music as it comes to you and improvise. This goes back to preparation and arming yourself with ability, knowledge, and enough desire to give it a try. I explore some of these things in more detail in Chapter 12: Jamming with Others.

Learning to Play Without Tablature

Playing without tablature is covered in the memorizing lessons in Chapter 4: Practice Habits, but I’d like to add something to that in the context of improvising. Without a doubt, you will learn to improvise if you play without music in front of you, especially when you are playing music with someone else. I suggest that when you practice without tab you use a metronome or rhythm track background CD to help keep you moving, which will force you to begin recovering from mistakes.

As mentioned earlier, recovering from mistakes may be your first experience with improvising. As you learn to keep the music going without stopping, you will, without a doubt, begin improvising to fill the space where you forget what to play and even to begin to change ways you play certain things to something that feels more natural to you

Experimenting with visualizing yourself playing the banjo without actually doing it will help your ability to improvise. These are a few suggestions that may help; I encourage you to try them and also come up with some of your own. Anything you can do to get away from tab and play by ear or memory will be helpful to you in improvising and, even more importantly, improving your attention to other details important to your overall ability.

Cautions when Improvising

Improvising without detail to proper technique and respect to timing and chord structure is not improvising, it is changing a song so drastically that you aren’t playing the song anymore. To avoid this, try the following:

* Learn to count measures or any other way you can learn not to omit beats in the song. If, when deviating from a song or improvising, you inadvertently omit a beat or two that causes you to arrive at the C chord before anyone else does, for instance, you have a problem. It will probably occur and your ability to recover quickly from this type of mistake will come into play there.
* After a short time of practicing chord progressions and playing with others, you will develop a sense of where the measures start and stop by ear and feel. Add this in the list of priorities to develop when improvising and jamming with others.
* With respect to technique, if you are improvising with poor technique, for example, double thumbing on eighth notes, you will be digging a hole you would rather not jump into.
* Mastering good technical skills, as outlined in Chapters 2 and 3 on right-hand and left-hand technique, should allow improvising with good technique to come naturally. You will be more likely to notice if you aren’t correct when you do make technical mistakes when improvising, particularly if you work hard on those chapters.
* Again, knowing where you are in the song in relation to the chord structure will help you to keep your place and play notes that fit the chord, even in the most basic forms of improvising.
* Write down variations of a song you know in tablature or in written text notes. This could help you to teach yourself to improvise. You could start by trying to make a variation of a song you already know. Pluck out a section, phrase, or measure and then try to pluck out a variation. Jot it down in tablature and then record yourself playing your variations to see if you like it. This is one of the ways I write banjo songs and have created some of the arrangements I’ve used in this book.

Importance and Joy of not Using Tablature

Chances are your goal or inspiration in the beginning was to be picking your banjo without a care in the world on the proverbial back porch. Your vision of making music on an instrument you liked enough to take the initiative to learn to play probably did not have a music book in the picture, so please don’t lose sight of that.

Tablature, CDs, and videos make it so much easier and quicker to learn, but they are aids that should only be used to achieve your goal of playing by ear.

If you do not give playing without written music a try somewhere along the way in the learning process, you may never try it and may have then convinced yourself you can’t, and that would be a shame.

Here I am writing a book and telling you over and over to close it, but this may be the perfect place for you to be reminded. Use all the learning aids to their full advantage, but make sure they are a percentage of the process. I recommend making it a point to leave those tools behind for awhile every day and playing by memory and by ear.
The Banjo Encyclopedia , Bluegrass Banjo from A to Z by Ross Nickerson

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Playing Banjo By Ear and Using the Chords by Ross Nickerson