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5 Tips for Practicing Bluegrass Improvisation

By Bennett Sullivan on Dec 14, 2019


Creating melody variations and improvising is a skill required for playing any folk music including bluegrass at a medium to high skill level. Being able to improvise not only helps you express yourself but allows you to cover up mistakes and communicate with other musicians at a jam or show. It's also gratifying to create music on the fly. For some, this skill comes easy but for others a bit of practice is required.

Here are 5 tips to help you practice bluegrass improvisation:

  1. Slow down - This isn’t so easy for students of bluegrass because to many it seems counterintuitive but it’s the ultimate way to let your body assimilate new information. If you can play a lick slowly with great time and tone you’ll have a starting place for developing speed. In terms of improvisation, when you’re first starting out you need time to hear a lick or note in your head before playing it on your instrument. Try this - put the metronome on at 80 bpm and see if you can play Mary Had a Little Lamb. Too easy? Try "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" in G or E major (not a common key for the song). The difficulty here isn’t knowing the melody- You have that in your head. It’s learning to put what you hear in your head on your instrument and that takes time and lots of slow practice.
  2. Sing - As bluegrass musicians we hear lots of professionals playing with exceptional technique so we gravitate towards practicing those elements of music rather than what I’d argue are more important aspects like playing with intention and hearing music in your head before you play it on your instrument. When you sing before or while you play, you’re solidifying the connection between what you hear in your head and what you actually perform on your instrument. This is the skill required for thoughtful improvisation. I’ve heard improvising can come from 3 places - your head, your hands, and your heart. All are completely valid and useful and the master musicians we all look up to have honed their craft in all three of these areas. This is so they can access whatever they need to depending on their mood or need. Singing reinforces the sound you hear and can also lead to a better connection with your instrument.
  3. Isolate - If we are trying to improvise over an entire chord progression, that can sometimes be counterproductive. You may not actually improve because it’s too much to chew on. But if you can focus on and improve a very small section of the song, eventually that will bleed over into the rest of the chord progression. One of my favorite things to do when practicing improvisation is just take a look at the relationship between two chords. What are the common tones and how can I fluidly move between the chords? For example, a G chord and a D chord have one common tone - D - and the other two tones in each chord are different but not by much. How can I move from a G note to an A note, which is the 5th of the D chord? Can you come up with three G licks that lead you to a D chord and three for D to G?
  4. Learn by Ear - It’s essential for getting music in your head and understanding form, tone, vocabulary and more. With bluegrass being a folk music, it was traditionally sung by older generations to younger and in the Appalachian Mountains that practice is still being used today. Obviously, not all of us are able to be around the old-timers in the mountains but we have resources like YouTube, Spotify, and of course Tunefox. Next time you want to learn a tune find a couple recordings you enjoy and just listen to them for 10 min. Try to sing the melody out loud with the recording and then take a stab at learning it by ear. If you’re just getting starting with learning by ear. I recommend you use the “Hide Notes” feature on Tunefox.
  5. Visualize - Close your eyes and visualize a G7 chord on your instrument. Can you see it? How about that last lick you learned? Visualizing without your instrument is an undervalued practice technique. To a certain extent your brain cannot tell the difference between you holding an instrument and playing and just using visualization. Of course physical practice is necessary but combining that with visualization techniques can transform your playing. I used to take the subway a lot in New York City and one of my favorite things to do was close my eyes and improvise over fiddle tunes in my head. Sometimes I would get stuck and need to slow it down. It helped me both prepare for my next session and also understand what I needed to work on next time I practiced.

How do you practice improvisation and do you have any tips for your fellow student? Let us know in the comment section below.

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Bruce Gair, Haymarket, VA

12/17/2019, 10:48 AM

Right on! Re isolation. Yes some techniques require strange finger antis. This is especially true if you rely on the three chord shapes. The new fingering for a new lick needs to be practiced repeatedly by itself. David McLaughlin (Johnson Mountain Boys- remember them?) advocates isolation with the drum machine running and playing the isolated portion as a loop 50 times. Then do it again... and again. Listen to timing and tone. Once you have it reasonably well, put it in a tune. Think through the tune and figure where it “fits”. This works! As tedious as it may be, you will get it. Other matters mentioned in the article are also right on... visualization, knowing the words to the song, etc. All excellent advice!

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