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Thread: So I tried to improvise for the first time, live in a jam session

  1. #1

    Default So I tried to improvise for the first time, live in a jam session

    While I could pick the tunes, I couldn't improvise at all.

    I realized I don't know any bluegrass improv patterns, and my skills aren't up to the task of making them up on the fly, which for some reason I thought I would be able to do.

    So I found this guy calling himself BanjoBenClark, who for a small fee teaches an introductory set of improv licks, I gotta start somewhere.

    Here is one of his: https://banjobenclark.com/lessons/ba...-in-g-mandolin
    It's kinda canned, but enough to make you sound good, until your mates realize you are
    just playing the same licks over and over again. :-)

    Or I was thinking about taking up banjo, anybody can do that right? I'll be the next Scruggs, yeah, Cough...
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    Default Re: So I tried to improvise for the first time, live in a jam ses

    Nice, first time is scary but it gets easier. I have spent time studying scales, chord tones, arpeggios, etc rather than memorizing canned licks, I find now I can play over any chord progression without an issue and it evens sounds pretty good most of the time. Speed still eludes me but its coming, I have watched those BB videos and he's a very good teacher.
    Northfield F5M #268, AT02 #7

  4. #3

    Default Re: So I tried to improvise for the first time, live in a jam ses

    Learn to play the melody. Everything else is just fluff.

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    Fingers of Concrete ccravens's Avatar
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    Default Re: So I tried to improvise for the first time, live in a jam ses

    I agree with learning to play the melody.

    I do not agree that everything else is just "fluff." That would knock out 90% of the Bluegrass and Jazz music that I listen to. And rock, pop, soul, R&B solos, etc. etc. The exception would be old time music, but even there, the "just the melody" rule would not hold firmly.

    Certainly learn the melody before everything else. Then to get you to improvisation, follow bigskygirl's advice: learn scales and arpeggios. They are your "roadmaps" to know where to go when improvising. Until you get there, do not be afraid to just play the melody when your turn comes; also learn your pentatonic scales, maybe right after you learn the melody.

    Some people would look down on pentatonic scales as being too simplified, but when starting out, I can see no problem with using them. Plus you only need to learn 5 notes!
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  7. #5

    Default Re: So I tried to improvise for the first time, live in a jam ses

    I already got the melody, that's what I meant by I can 'pick the tunes'.

    I am not terrible with scales and arpeggios either, since I put in some work there. I thought that would be all I needed, but I simply was unable to play anything that didn't sound really lame, like a classical guy playing a few scales and arpeggios to a bluegrass back-beat.

    So I am hoping learning some basic vocabulary will enable me to develop my own style over time.

    My thinking is bluegrass styles are pretty well-known, it isn't like I'm inventing anything new here.

    I have listened to enough bluegrass to know that what I played wasn't it. :-)
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    Registered User Al Trujillo's Avatar
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    Default Re: So I tried to improvise for the first time, live in a jam ses

    I was pretty much a wreck for all the other first times in my life. I'm sure that going to a jam will be not different.

    BTW, Banjo Ben and his courses are really well done.

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    mandolin slinger Steve Ostrander's Avatar
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    Default Re: So I tried to improvise for the first time, live in a jam ses

    I was given good advice years ago: “when in doubt, stick to the melody.”
    I can improv on some songs at some times in some keys. Other songs at other times and other keys elude me. I am not a master, more like a hack, but when I play gigs people always remark on how good the mandolin sounds, so I must be doing something right. Stick with it, it will come to you in bits and pieces, but not like a stroke of lightning.
    Never say "bouzouki" to a TSA agent...

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    Default Re: So I tried to improvise for the first time, live in a jam ses

    I was listening to an old tape of Johnny Gimble and he explained that when he was a young player and he saw people improvising, he didn't know how they could do it.

    The advice he was given was to hum or sing an improvisation on the melody - then try to play what you hear in your head.

    Sounds simple, doesn't it?
    Bren

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    String-Bending Heretic mandocrucian's Avatar
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    Default Re: So I tried to improvise for the first time, live in a jam ses

    Improvisation is composition without the luxury of editting

    Here are some recommended steps for gradually leaning to play spontaneous breaks

    1. Learn The Melody
    2. Learn the Harmony (harmonies)
    3. Vary melody/harmony rhythmically, and/or embellish the melody with passing notes (inserted between melody notes)
    4. Play the melody, but start adding/substituting some alternative licks here and there
    5. Compose some pre-planned solos for some tunes. (Experimentation will show you what things work or not)
    6. Improvisation


    SING/VOCALIZE what you are playing in all previous stages (above) to connect your fingers to your ear!

    Niles H

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    Default Re: So I tried to improvise for the first time, live in a jam ses

    So, for all the "learn the melody" folks.... I'm not disagreeing with you about the importance of learning how to play melodies, but...

    You're in a jam, the guy next to you calls a tune you've never heard...verse, chorus...then, since you're on his left, you're the first to get a crack at a break. I don't know about y'all, but I generally can't learn the melody to a song I've never heard in approximately one minute while still learning the chords. At that point, you're likely going to improvise in some way that isn't playing the straight melody unless you're someone who can hear one verse of a song and without ever playing it before, immediately pick out the melody note-for-note on your mandolin. That's a pretty awe-inspiring trick. For the rest of us, learning licks, working around with double-stops, running over scales patterns and arpeggios, using target notes, etc... will be the way we handle that situation, or, to put it another way, we'll improvise.

    Learning the melody ahead of time, and playing the melody you've learned and practiced ahead of time really isn't improvising. It's spending time on a tune, memorizing a break (even if it's the basic melody) and then playing that thing when the song is called. In my experience, when it comes to vocal numbers, that happens maybe half the time (at BEST) in most jams. More than likely you'll be hearing tunes you know in keys you haven't memorized a melody line in (though hopefully you can transpose well on the fly) or you're simply going to be presented with songs you've never learned the melody to.

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    Default Re: So I tried to improvise for the first time, live in a jam ses

    To be a little more detailed. Playing a CLEAN, well noted very simple version of the melody is a much better solo than a complicated one that loses most of the melody or is sloppy. Even if you do not feel like you are knocking it out of the park, everyone listening will like it better. Hitting a single or double 40 percent of the time will get you further than a home run one time in ten.

    The best lesson I had on improvisation was from the guitarist David Grier. He started with an ordinary, plain jane version of Wildwood Flower, just like any first year guitar student could play. He then said "Well I might change a couple of notes here, then replayed it, just two or three notes moved. Then he changed four or five more, then a line, then added double stops, then some floatie cross picking, changed some of the timing in a few places, etc. etc. When done he had played the song about fifteen different ways, all recognizable as Wildwood Flower even to my aunt who does not play. The point being, he made no radical changes at any one time, no stock bag of licks, no pentatonic noodling. He did not try to blow anybody away. It was one bit at a time, trial and error yet what came out at the end was beautiful and quite different from what he started with. He is perhaps the greatest improviser in this style of music today and that was how he showed his approach. I also suspect he could have played it fifteen more times each different, each recognizable.

    One approach to a tune you do not know is to play as much of the melody as you can, then crosspicking or strumming chords for parts you are unsure of. Strumming through the initial chord is a good way to find the first note. It is surprising how much you can pick up on the fly with practice. Many melodies in bluegrass have a lot of common parts to other songs you may know and on mandolin it is MUCH easier than guitar or banjo due to the tuning in fifths. Or if you cannot catch enough of the melody it is ok to pass. I have seen serious pros sit out a break on a song they did not feel they could execute.

    You WILL screw up breaks, repeatedly. Get back on and try it again if not this time on another day. The bad days are the price of admission to the good days.

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    Registered User Darren Bailey's Avatar
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    Default Re: So I tried to improvise for the first time, live in a jam ses

    Most weeks I have an evening playing with a friend. He pulls out songs I've never heard, but so long as I can figure out the key I play along using scales. This has always been the basis of improvisation for me, usually I have no idea what the chords are, but I use my ears. It's not noodling if you follow other players. All that theory stuff may suit some, but I don't think anything beats those flaps on the sides of your head.

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    Default Re: So I tried to improvise for the first time, live in a jam ses

    What I always say if asked about improvision is learn the fingerboard. This is not accomplished in a week month or a year it is ongoing but if you really know the fingerboard you can play 90% of the songs at a jam if you've never heard them. No you won't play melody note for note but you will be close and exact melody is not improvision anyway, neither is playing a bunch of arpeggios or runs over chords. As was noted this gets to sounding the same break after break. Monroe or Thile didn't take their first break at their first jam knowing every thing that they were able to do years later. It's a journey, enjoy it as you travel.

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    Mediocre but OK with that Paul Busman's Avatar
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    Default Re: So I tried to improvise for the first time, live in a jam ses

    I play mostly Irish music so solo improvisation at a session isn't a thing. I do admire the variations that great players of mandolin,banjo,or just about any instrument add to the music to keep it fresh, and I've been trying to develop that skill.
    What has worked for me is learning the tune, then "practicing" it all day,in my head or if appropriate by whistling (lips, not my penny whistle). I'm finding that little variations,perhaps from other players' examples,start creeping into the tune after a while. If I'm lucky, I remember those when I get back to my instrument of choice.
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    Registered User G7MOF's Avatar
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    Default Re: So I tried to improvise for the first time, live in a jam ses

    I must admit I don't know how anyone can be taught to improvise, If you're shown how to do it then in my eyes you're not doing it.
    I taught myself to hear the music by whistling a tune and playing along with it looking for a slightly off beat key if that makes sense.
    I never fail at anything, I just succeed at doing things that never work....


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    coprolite mandroid's Avatar
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    Default Re: So I tried to improvise for the first time, live in a jam ses

    as long as you come back to the tonic key at the head with the rest of the players..

    (Bluegrass heresy ?) Charlie Parker the piece in the solo..
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    Registered User Chris Bowsman's Avatar
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    Default Re: So I tried to improvise for the first time, live in a jam ses

    The term "improv pattern" seems kind of weird. If you're playing patterns, are you really improvising?

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  25. #18

    Default Re: So I tried to improvise for the first time, live in a jam ses

    Thanks folks for pointing out that embellishing the melody is a great way to start 'improvising', so I've been practicing that this week.

    And, I got some tools to help:

    - I bought band in a box, haven't gotten too far into it yet, but it seems like what I am looking for.
    It seems the cheapest way to get into it is buy the pro version, and buy the a-la-cart bluegrass packs from their site for $29 each.
    - Signed up for Banjo Ben Clark's stuff, just listening and watching him play the various lessons is priceless. I read his bio and stuff, I think I like this guy, will be happy to help support him financially for a while.

    I also looked around for local jams, and there is a monthly one in the bay area:

    https://www.fiddlers.org/jams/
    Trinity College TM325 Octave Mandolin (converted to 4-string tenor guitar).
    Eastman MD-605SB, MD-604SB, MD-305, all with Grover 309 tuners.
    Eastwood 4 string electric mandostang, 2x Airline e-mandola (4-string) one strung as an e-OM.
    DSP's: Helix HX Stomp, various Zooms.
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    Default Re: So I tried to improvise for the first time, live in a jam ses

    Quote Originally Posted by mandocrucian View Post
    Improvisation is composition without the luxury of editting

    Here are some recommended steps for gradually leaning to play spontaneous breaks

    1. Learn The Melody
    2. Learn the Harmony (harmonies)
    3. Vary melody/harmony rhythmically, and/or embellish the melody with passing notes (inserted between melody notes)
    4. Play the melody, but start adding/substituting some alternative licks here and there
    5. Compose some pre-planned solos for some tunes. (Experimentation will show you what things work or not)
    6. Improvisation


    SING/VOCALIZE what you are playing in all previous stages (above) to connect your fingers to your ear!

    Niles H
    This is good. I'd add one thing: find different versions of a tune you know.
    Learn several versions and be able to substitute sections between them.
    The sections can be 2,4,8 bars. This process of blending melodies together
    will teach you a lot about improv. Youtube or Amazon are good places to find music.
    After a while you will be able to play a tune in an intuitive original way.

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  28. #20
    Dave Sheets
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    Default Re: So I tried to improvise for the first time, live in a jam ses

    Quote Originally Posted by Chris Bowsman View Post
    The term "improv pattern" seems kind of weird. If you're playing patterns, are you really improvising?
    Good question- a lot of people incorporate "stock phrases" or "improv patterns" into improvised parts- listen to enough jazz solos by an individual and you'll hear a lot of repetitions. Most languages have stock phrases, we use these all the time when we make small talk- it sorta gets things moving, and you can build things (good solos, interesting conversations) around the stock phrases. There is also a certain level of familiarity that listener have with these phrases that may make the improv more understandable or relevant.

    Maybe it's not whether you use stock phrases, but how many you use. Too many sound cliched, that's definite. No stock phrases and no references to the melody will sound pretty odd to most people. I think this probably holds for conversations and stories as well as jam sessions or solos.
    -Dave
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  30. #21

    Default Re: So I tried to improvise for the first time, live in a jam ses

    Lots of great advice to which I will only add:
    Go do it! Don't wait until everything is perfect. We learn by doing.

    Luckily, people don't spontaneously combust after hearing a bad improv. I would have left a long trail of ashes over my 20 years of playing. Have fun and get to it!
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  31. #22

    Default Re: So I tried to improvise for the first time, live in a jam ses

    I think Matt Flinner does a good job of breaking down a basic melody and showing many different ways to vary it using a variety of tools (scales, arpeggios, double stops, blues licks, etc.) in his online classes. Definitely worth the price for the amount of content he gives you. This is the essence of improvising a bluegrass break in my opinion. Take a classic melody, keep important structural bones that help identify the tune (target notes) and then just vary how you get to each target note using the tools in your toolbox.

  32. #23
    Doc Ivory Doc Ivory's Avatar
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    Default Re: So I tried to improvise for the first time, live in a jam ses

    Banjo Ben Clark is an excellent teacher.
    Its amazing what he can teach you in "canned" lessons.
    Doc Ivory
    -Play loud, live long..

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    Default Re: So I tried to improvise for the first time, live in a jam ses

    Yes Ben has come a long way. He's added alot of material to his site, and even the set pieces contain lots of nuggets you can use elsewhere. Those build-a-break lessons are particularly helpful for someone trying to learn to improvise. I think the OP's premise was all wrong, that line about 'patterns' was especially revealing. You're not going to watch a handful of videos and think you're just going to start flying all over the fret board. Anybody that can make it look effortless is either a savant, or more likely, they have put in a ton of thought and work into getting there.

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    Innocent Bystander JeffD's Avatar
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    Default Re: So I tried to improvise for the first time, live in a jam ses

    Quote Originally Posted by CarlM View Post
    Learn to play the melody. Everything else is just fluff.
    Yes.
    Indulge responsibly!

    The entire staff
    funny....

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