View Full Version : How far from the melody?

Apr-16-2004, 12:45pm
Many instrument breaks are technally great, but when played by themselves do not remotely resemble the tune being played and are in fact, a series of runs, fills, endings etc. What do you think about this? We know what Big Mon would think!

John Zimm
Apr-16-2004, 12:51pm
I'd say, as long as the break fits with the feel of the song, this is okay. It sure doesn't make for good playing when you are alone and want to play a solo song, which is why I have been playing a lot of classical lately. But runs, fills, licks, and whatnot are part of the game I think. I am no expert though.


Apr-16-2004, 12:53pm
I should preface this by admitting that I don't have a Bluegrass background and have no idea what Big Mon would think. What I find in my own playing is that if I am doing old-timey music I tend to stick to the melody. The other day I was fooling around with "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" and found I was more improvisational. I guess to me the song suggests the approach to take.

(I should also end this post by admitting that I don't play that well, either. #http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/wow.gif )

Ken Berner
Apr-16-2004, 2:06pm
I've played harmony breaks before on some songs; it breaks up the monotony somewhat. Who is going to shoot you for trying that; y'all might like it!

Apr-16-2004, 2:18pm
I tend to try to stick pretty close to the melody most of the time, because if you play the same licks runs, etc, for every break, they all run together (there're only 8 songs after all!). But I play mainly bluegrass, and I've found when I play some different styled tune (rock, etc) I can't cope nearly as well and probably more of a lick/run based solo might work better there...


Apr-16-2004, 2:21pm
a way to flush out a bunch of notes per second using familiar riffs? i don't know but it seems to be common at live performances......

Apr-16-2004, 4:48pm
One reason I've always liked Doc Watson is because you can hear the melody in his breaks, even buried in extra notes. You know that he knows what song he is playing. You can also do what many fiddle players do - play most of it pretty straight, then go nuts on the last line.

Michael H Geimer
Apr-16-2004, 6:29pm
When a player follows the melody, then you know that person really likes the song. A break that strays too far from the song is a sure sign of boredom in the player ... or a sign that they *think* they are boring their audience.

" ... (there're only 8 songs after all!) "

LOL I know a guy who claims there are only three! ... but, he doesn't really ever play a song's melody, so that's probably why he thinks that way. Allow to rephrase the idea ...

A typical Bluegrass melody is based off one of probably eight common chord progessions.

I think you get a lot more mileage and interest by keeping your break focused on the uniqueness of the melody first, and the supporting chord progression second, basically only when it's time to harmonize.

Without a good melody, I'm left asking, "Where's the beef?"

- Benig

Pete Martin
Apr-16-2004, 6:40pm
If you play the melody, all your breaks will sound different. If you don't play the melody, all of your breaks sound alike.

Most great players playing in a TRADITIONAL Bluegrass setting play quite a bit of the melody. Try it, you may like it:-)

Apr-16-2004, 11:02pm
Listen to Paul Williams or Doyle Lawson and you will find the melody nicely centered in the midst of some mighty fine playing. If you lose sight of the melody it is no longer a song. While one is not required to play JUST the melody, it must be there. First of all, the listener should be able to identify the melody in the midst of what one plays, and second, if you cannot play the melody it clearly indicates you probably don't know the song itself well enough to find the melody. If you keep the melody in the center and use your improvisational abilities to color and twist the melody without losing sight of it you will have exciting solo work.

Apr-16-2004, 11:47pm
Well said, Big Joe. A person ought to be able to just listen to your break and know what song you are playing within two bars... if not, something's wrong.

Apr-17-2004, 12:30am
I've met many players who say, "just start playing and I'll come up with something." However, they never learn the melody, which means they never really learn the song, and they really aren't much fun to play with in a band. I also think that learning the words to a song helps you learn the melody, which in turn helps you to really learn the song, even if you are not the lead singer.

Apr-17-2004, 1:08am
I also think that learning the words to a song helps you learn the melody, which in turn helps you to really learn the song, even if you are not the lead singer.

I find this to be the hardest part of learning a fiddle tune w/ no words...nothing to guide me but maybe a hummm or two.:(

Apr-17-2004, 8:31am
Ahhh, BigJoe, what a great post!!! I was in Nashville in December and came by to meet you and Charlie. Six o'clock in the evening ...you were both gone. Paul Williams and Doyle Lawson, two of the very best! But, seldom mentioned on Mandolin Cafe. Because he follows the melody, Doyle is one of my favorite guitar players too. I'm pretty sure he played guitar on several tunes with J.D. Crowe et.al.

Scotti Adams
Apr-17-2004, 8:49am
..yep..well said Joe..thats how I feel about it.. http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/biggrin.gif

Apr-17-2004, 8:54am
a listen to any Big Mon album will show he didn't always stick to the melody- many solos like "Heavy Traffic Ahead" come to mind; but it is cool when he uses the shape of the melody for a break, but not playing th emelody note-for-note- like "Rose of Old Kentucky".

I am way in favor of melodic variations on tunes rather than full-out improvisation on the chords, which usually winds up being "here's my G lick, and here's my D lick" so over the course off, say, 5 tunes in G, it's the same solos, more or less. I feel strongly enough about it to have written a book http://www.johnmcgann.com/books.html

Apr-17-2004, 10:21am
This is why I've always liked/enjoyed/appreciated Maybelle Carter. #Her breaks were as simple as simple can be, but she left absolutely *no* doubt about what song she was playing. #I really believe some of the "machine guns" could learn a lot from listening to her style.

Don Smith

diamond ace
Apr-17-2004, 3:44pm
it's nice to do be able to do the fancy stuff, but it usually impresses musicians not the average "crowd". It gets over there heads and they think you are lost. As a rule when I play a "show" I play pretty straight melody for the most part with my "hot Licks" toward the end after the melody has been established just for my own amusement and to keep it fun for me. if you play a "tune" and the person listing cant humm it when your done then you have done nothing. When your jamming with other musicians and just wont to show off your chops then let the improvising hot licks playing every note you know take over.(if your tring to impress some one). Some I know are not impressed at all with the flashy over noted playing at all. Again it is a personal preferance and ther is no right or wrong. Just have fun, if enough people hear you then SOMEBODY is bound to like you.

Apr-17-2004, 4:03pm
It doesn't have to be the melody as written on the sheet music, but I like to hear a bit of it in there somewhere. Sometimes you don't, though, and there have been times when people expected me to take a break on a song I had never tried before, so you fall back on a few licks. I did that once on a fiddle tune (no words to help me), and during the next break a guy said to me, "It sounded like you added a few notes to that tune." I said, "I did, because I didn't know the it, so I played all the notes I could, hoping some would be right." I did learn the tune by the next time we played, though.

Apr-18-2004, 9:35am
"If you play the melody, all your breaks will sound different. #If you don't play the melody, all of your breaks sound alike." #I think that is a true statement. #Adding your own twist on the melody (whatever the genre) expands your abilities 1000 fold. #In a pinch people fall back on formulas that have worked in the past, but it can be a bit monotonous if you only have a few tricks in your hat. I guess having lots of alternatives is the name of the game.

I think it is better to contribute something new and insightful each time you take a break. And really one doesn't have to break to every song. Playing a strong, grooving rhythm for other players is just as fun for me, and can really drive a tune to the outer limits.

I think that the statement by Petimar was simple, straight and true. One way to avoid it is to really play a variety of tune types. That is just my opinion and of course everyone is different-thank goodness!http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/tounge.gif

Michael H Geimer
Apr-18-2004, 1:14pm
"This is why I've always liked/enjoyed/appreciated Maybelle Carter."
- Don Smith

Her style is really cool. I often joke that she gives new meaning to the phrase 'Mountain Time'. She could twist around her phrasing and timing in ways that will refute anyone claiming her style is 'simple' ... all the while keeping the melody alive and holding the rhythm down.

Apr-20-2004, 10:46am
I think the concensus is that #most players like to hear the melody in a solo. Another benefit to using that approach, is that every time you learn a new melody, you are strenghthening your ear training (the ability to find what your mind can conceive). If #you have already played a melody break, and they hand you another one later in the tune, let the hot licks come out a bit there.

Michael H Geimer
Apr-20-2004, 11:22am
" ear training (the ability to find what your mind can concieve) "

Wow. I don't think I've ever heard it summed up so well.

Apr-21-2004, 12:55am
Thanks for starting this thread, Givensman. This tracks somewhat a question I posted many months ago and which I recently reviewed. (Sometimes I print out particularly helpful threads and then look them over from time to time). Anyway, my question at that time concerned what I, in my inexperienced way, refered to as non-melodic solos.

This thread has helped me to understand much more about what's going on with solos.

Apr-21-2004, 11:31am
I've always felt the lick guys, or "cut and paste" players lack an emotional attachment to the song. Leaves me flat. How far I go out on a break depends what has gone on before me in the song/tune, how the other breaks went. There are plenty of great examples by Big Mon and others of "extensions" of the melody that fit. I play with a guitar player who tends to do Tony Rice licks so I usually have to remind us all what we are playing with pretty straight melody most times though.

Apr-22-2004, 6:55pm
I think its kind of cool when different players do different things in the same song, maybe the first break is improvised, and then the next is closer to the melody. it takes away from some of the monotony of just hearing the melody over and over. I think mandolin lends itself better to playing the melody more than say the dobro, whih sounds cool improvising a solo, and is also limited in what melodies it can play. Blackberry Blossom on Manzanita is a good example of this.

May-06-2004, 1:19pm
Great post, wish I woulda seen it earlier.

I am a "working" bass player (learning the mando), and for me it is very important to hear the melody in a lead in order to anticipate (and then cue, or lead in to) the chord changes for the rest of the band. #It isn't always that easy to just count beats on the bass, even when a song is very simple

A couple of things that are interesting here, I think:

-"Splitting" the break (like 1/2 for mando, 1/2 for banjo (curses!)) sounds great, and can sometimes add "punch" to the melody.

-A lead "turnaround" or ending phrase should be easily recognized by the band, but it shouldn't just be pasted on to the end of a lead that had no melodic line. #


May-07-2004, 6:18am
I had this same discussion with the Mandolin Player of the Year Adam Steffey at last year's IBMA. My questions was what do you do when you don't know the song that you're playing. His response was that he "diddles around" in the key of the song using licks that he feels fit the song. Of course when you're as good as Adam these are pretty impressive "diddles." http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/mandosmiley.gif

May-09-2004, 9:40pm
I must admit to being a "diddler" for most of my musical life. I always thought it too droll or boring to "just" play the melody for a break. Anyone can do that, after all, i thought, it takes real talent to cough up a killer imrovised break every time and to heck with the melody... let the singer worry about that.

Well, in my old age and wisdom (ha) i've come to realize just how totally bass-ackwards that is. Only in recent history have i come to realize how difficult it is and what true talent and inspiration it takes to craft a meaningful break using the melody. The melody is indeed the signature of the song and without it you're just riffing. Does that mean you have to play the melody note-for-note every time and should never deviate from it? Heavens, no. The real skill comes in expressing that melody in a new, compelling way without totally obscuring it... unless that's your intention, of course http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/smile.gif

There is certainly a place for stock licks and i love love improvising over changes. But that get's old in a big hurry. Very handy also for songs you don't know very well, yes. Learning a song's melody really does make you one with it, also. Riffing thru it does not. I know.

May-10-2004, 12:49am
I prefer to hear melody based breaks, however I find playing the melody much more difficult than improvising licks that fit a chord progression.

Also, I find that sometimes breaks that are based around the melody playing in my head come out as harmony notes on the mandolin. Perhaps this is because I'm a harmony singer and am more naturally gifted at hearing harmony lines than melody lines.

Peter Hackman
May-20-2004, 10:52am
Starting with Monroe, he isn't that faithful to the melody,
including his own; as for fiddle tunes he tended to simplify
them and you don't hear much of the melody in, e.g.,
Turkey in the Straw. If he sang a blues in B
the mandolin break would be *the blues in B*,
not *that* blues tune. And that's the trouble
with running the changes on limited material -
different songs in the same key tend to sound the

My attitude has always been to improvise, whatever the style
or material.When I write a tune I try to give
it an identity harmonically, rhytmically and melodically
always asking, what can I do with it, what
are the possibilites in this composition? And
when I don't hear anything beyond the composition
I play it straight.

A very good example from jazz is pianist Thelonius
Monk. He certainly improvised, but almost always
used fragments of the tune,
rhythmic references, etc. One LP compilation
had two blues songs, Blue Monk and Straight, No Chaser,
both in B flat,
next to one another and you could drop the needle
in the middle of either song and identify it within
one bar.

That is, the ideal is to use the WHOLE
song when soloing, not just the chords.