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Thread: Book/s on how to improvise on Old Time tunes???

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    Default Book/s on how to improvise on Old Time tunes???

    Does anyone know of books or a YouTube that gives tips and help on how to vary/improvise on Old Time fiddle tunes, on mandolin of course? The book can be about fiddle, that's not a problem. Some tunes I can vary, but most I just play the same thing over and over again.

    Stringalong

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    Mando-Accumulator Jim Garber's Avatar
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    Default Re: Book/s on how to improvise on Old Time tunes???

    Not sure if there are actually books or videos specifically on that topic. However there are a few ways to approach this.

    First of all, how do you learn your tunes? Do you play in jam sessions with other old time players? I often pick up variants (which is I think what you are talking about) from listening to others playing. If you can't do that on the spot then maybe record others playing, maybe even asking them after a jam to play their version for you to record.

    You can also find multiple versions of a tune on youtube or from recordings. I like to hear different people play a tune, even if I already have my version under my fingers for years. You can always find someone who might put in different bowings/pickings, use drones or double stops, or differently accented notes in variants. In reality, no one plays the same tune exactly like someone else.

    I also try to sing the tune to myself and maybe fool around with the phrasing, the same way you would do with singing a song with words.

    You can also try to play the melody on one or more parts in the lower or upper range depending on if you don't run out of notes.

    Also, there is nothing truly wrong with playing the tune the same way each time. In reality, I am guessing that there are very subtle differences in the way you vary your repeats and you may not be aware of that.
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    Default Re: Book/s on how to improvise on Old Time tunes???

    There are books on improvisation like this one

    And this one: https://www.melbay.com/Products/9855...dle-tunes.aspx

    But nothing takes the place of learning your scales, arpeggios and how to use them.

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    Default Re: Book/s on how to improvise on Old Time tunes???

    Thank you Jim and Bob, for your replies. Jim, I am not at present jamming with anyone. My boyfriend is a lifelong violinist but has not played for quite a while. We are talking about starting an Old Time group, with him at the fiddler. He says he plays by ear, as well as reading, and I believe him because he's a very musical person. Bob, I know my scales and arpeggios, but have no idea how to use them with the chord progressions. I think this is a big part of my improv problem. I was doing some improvising today on a tune called The Lilting Banshee. Beautiful tune, and I've come up with quite a few variations. Bob, I have just ordered the second Mel Bay book you referenced above. It looks great!! I know I'll have a wonderful time with this book!

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    Default Re: Book/s on how to improvise on Old Time tunes???

    Good advice on improvising, I listen to various versions of tunes on YouTube or at jams and if I hear a phrase I like I try it out. I have the McGahn book and itís full of helpful examples.

    One thing I do with improv is just vary the order of the notes say instead of playing 1,2,3,4 I might try 1,3,2,4 or go past the note and come back 1 6 5 4 and see how it sounds Iíve found as long as Iím beginning at 1 and ending on 4 (most likely the melody notes) it sounds pretty good, or I lift something from a similar tune, itís a challenge just getting things into a tune.

    Lately Iíll just noodle around on say Home Sweet Home, Old Joe Clark, or some other tune and see what happens. You said you know your scales so see how they might fit into something, itís just you in your practicing space so donít worry about sounding ďbadĒ only you get to judge that so donít be too hard on yourself. Iím finding it quite fun to just play and not worry about how it sounds.
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    Mando-Accumulator Jim Garber's Avatar
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    Default Re: Book/s on how to improvise on Old Time tunes???

    I am absolutely sure that the McGann book is excellent. He was an amazing musician and teacher. However, I was keying off the OP question from an Old Time perspective and i would guess that JM was working within more of a bluegrass or even jazz framework. Of course, if you are only using OT tunes as a basis for improvising then that is fine though it probably takes it outside of the realm of old time music. And there is nothing wrong with any of thatómusic is music. Perhaps I misread the OP's intention.

    If you are headed in that direction, then you might listen to Bruce Molsky and his cohorts like these folks: Brittany and Natalie Haas and Joe Walsh.



    Or these folks also taking off on a mťtis (Canadian) tune:



    In any case, I am very interested in that McGann book and might order it. Thanks, Bob.
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    Default Re: Book/s on how to improvise on Old Time tunes???

    A DVD you might find helpful is Carl Jones Old Time Mandolin: Tunes and Tips. You can buy it direct from Carl Jones (he would appreciate it) or from Elderly Instruments.

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    Default Re: Book/s on how to improvise on Old Time tunes???

    Jim, thanks so much for these great videos! It's really early as I read the latest tips from people on this thread. So I just turned on the first one on "whisper" so I don't wake my apartment neighbors. I'll listen to the rest of them later. I don't know what you are referring to with the acronym ? OP and JM????

    - - - Updated - - -

    Thanks, Jon. I will order the DVD you recommend!

    Stringalong

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    Hello, bigskygirl. I love your ideas. I will certainly try them out!

    Stringalong

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    Default Re: Book/s on how to improvise on Old Time tunes???

    Quote Originally Posted by stringalong View Post
    I don't know what you are referring to with the acronym ? OP and JM????
    OP = Original Poster or Original Post

    JM = (in this case) John McGann, the author of the book that Bob recommended.
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    Default Re: Book/s on how to improvise on Old Time tunes???

    Quote Originally Posted by stringalong View Post
    Does anyone know of books or a YouTube that gives tips and help on how to vary/improvise on Old Time fiddle tunes, on mandolin of course? The book can be about fiddle, that's not a problem. Some tunes I can vary, but most I just play the same thing over and over again.
    A curmudgeonly comment follows, that is probably not news to anyone, but I cannot seem to overcome my baser instincts and leave this alone.

    What I absolutely love about old time music is that we get to play the same thing over and over again. The whole culture of old time music is is centered on a kind of worship of the tune itself, and not on showing yer chops or musical stars or heroes. I love getting hypnotized into a tune played 982346347 times. I just crawl in there and travel that path.

    That doesn't mean one should not improvise. Not at all. It means, in my admittedly prejudiced mind, that improvising an old time tune is taking it out of an old time context. Makes it more bluegrass, or jazz, or blues, or something. What one is doing is no longer old time. To the extent that is important or not.

    Ultimately is doesn't matter, its all good, a ton of great music is created that way. My point is that for tips on improvisation one cannot really look to the old time tradition because there really isn't an old time tradition of improvisation.

    OK, got that out of my system.

    So, to answer, I like (love) very small ornamentation of old time tunes. Much like traditional Irish, where one doesn't depart much from the tune but adds little "thingies" here and there to decorate and pay homage to the tune. In my mind like flowers put next to a framed picture of a favorite ancestor. I often like to play an appropriate harmony to a strong lead fiddle, for example. I love coming at a phrase in a slightly different but not wholly unpredictable way, just to watch the smiles on the other jammers faces. Kind of making small musical jokes or amusements, within the context of the established tune.

    Please forgive my rant. Hope that helps.
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    Default Re: Book/s on how to improvise on Old Time tunes???

    In performance, as opposed to jamming, I prefer that someone bent on innovation mess with the arrangement of the old time tune, perhaps even the chord choices, rather than change the tune. The tune is sacred, the chords and arrangements have some wiggle room.

    Like Jean Redpath said about Scottish music - the tradition has a real integrity to it, and when in doubt, one cannot go wrong sticking to the tradition. I feel like old time music is the same way.

    I contrast this with other kinds of music, blues and country music in particular, where the chord progression is the sacred part, and the melody has the wiggle room.
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    Default Re: Book/s on how to improvise on Old Time tunes???

    Quote Originally Posted by JeffD View Post
    Ultimately is doesn't matter, its all good, a ton of great music is created that way. My point is that for tips on improvisation one cannot really look to the old time tradition because there really isn't an old time tradition of improvisation.

    OK, got that out of my system.

    So, to answer, I like (love) very small ornamentation of old time tunes. Much like traditional Irish, where one doesn't depart much from the tune but adds little "thingies" here and there to decorate and pay homage to the tune. In my mind like flowers put next to a framed picture of a favorite ancestor. I often like to play an appropriate harmony to a strong lead fiddle, for example. I love coming at a phrase in a slightly different but not wholly unpredictable way, just to watch the smiles on the other jammers faces. Kind of making small musical jokes or amusements, within the context of the established tune.

    Please forgive my rant. Hope that helps.
    JeffD, I definitely agree to an extent, however, I do see today's version of OT music as having evolved some and modernized to an extent. No player (even of old time music) lives in a vacuum and has not been exposed to other genres. Here is an example of Roger Netherton, a young virtuoso OT fiddler improvising on one tune. You can get an idea of how someone can do it and still maintain some integrity within the genre. I would also say that this is modernized perhaps but not so much as the Berklee players I posted above who really take to the tune into other worlds improvisationally. Also, Brian Slattery is playing banjo here and he does some amazing variants in rhythm on a fretless instrument.

    Last edited by Jim Garber; Feb-10-2020 at 12:19pm.
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    Default Re: Book/s on how to improvise on Old Time tunes???

    Quote Originally Posted by JeffD View Post
    What I absolutely love about old time music is that we get to play the same thing over and over again. The whole culture of old time music is is centered on a kind of worship of the tune itself, and not on showing yer chops or musical stars or heroes. I love getting hypnotized into a tune played 982346347 times. I just crawl in there and travel that path...
    So, to answer, I like (love) very small ornamentation of old time tunes. Much like traditional Irish, where one doesn't depart much from the tune but adds little "thingies" here and there to decorate and pay homage to the tune. In my mind like flowers put next to a framed picture of a favorite ancestor.
    I'm with Jeff on this. However, bands with a goal of making money often feel that they have to offer something apart from what the regular musicians in their area do, e.g., outstanding playing or improvisation. Someone defined on another thread the difference between music and entertainment, something along the lines of: playing a sensitive, moving fiddle tune is music; playing it on a unicycle is entertainment. It's often hard to go professional without moving away from the aesthetic of the group you started with. Depending how far you take this, you may be entering or pioneering another genre of music -- there's no clear line when you get to the border. Still, I know when the wild Canadian Metis tune, "Whisky Before Breakfast" has become relatively complex but easy-listening music that many Metis people would find hard to tolerate. Whether playing old-time, zydeco, Cape Breton, or Metis music, musicians often lose the hometown audience when they push the limits of tradition to the point where their music is popular with people who have no grounding in the tradition. There are no easy answers to how one handles this, but, be warned, if your improvisation gets complex, it may not go over that well at your local old-time session. You'll have to work it out for yourself.

    In the spirit of what Jeff says, while playing Cape Breton fiddle, I may add and subtract "thingies" -- double-stops, cuts (playing a note a number of times rapidly, rather than as a sustained note) and grace notes -- all of which make the music more interesting and less predictable, but are within the Cape Breton tradition. I'm not a professional trying to make money while entertaining people two thousand miles from Cape Breton though.

    Regarding "getting hypnotized into a tune," I knew a traditional Ottawa Valley fiddler, born about 1908, who had no concept of a medley. At a dance, he said he'd play one tune for twenty minutes, which I would imagine would really focus everyone. As long as he was getting the beat right, the dancers would be in the moment and not thinking about him and his playing. In his youth, he sometimes played all night, then walked home to milk the cows. He said that he'd occasionally jerk awake in his chair at the local hall, only to find his hands still playing and the dancers following the music. Still, that approach to playing is not what everyone is looking for.

    A good video, along the lines of what you're looking for is Fiddle Improvisation with Cam Neufeld, available online. It's fiddle oriented but he explains well what he's doing, if you're able to translate it from fiddle to mandolin. Good luck with your journey.
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    Default Re: Book/s on how to improvise on Old Time tunes???

    Quote Originally Posted by JeffD View Post
    A curmudgeonly comment follows, that is probably not news to anyone, but I cannot seem to overcome my baser instincts and leave this alone.

    What I absolutely love about old time music is that we get to play the same thing over and over again. The whole culture of old time music is is centered on a kind of worship of the tune itself, and not on showing yer chops or musical stars or heroes. I love getting hypnotized into a tune played 982346347 times.........
    As a curmudgeon, I have to say I find that notion incredibly tedious.

    I'm happy for the folks who enjoy themselves with it.
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    Default Re: Book/s on how to improvise on Old Time tunes???

    Thanks, Jim!

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    Default Re: Book/s on how to improvise on Old Time tunes???

    Wow! So many replies and viewpoints, I can't answer each one individually.

    Ranald wrote: "There are no easy answers to how one handles this, but, be warned, if your improvisation gets complex, it may not go over that well at your local old-time session. You'll have to work it out for yourself." That's so true.

    When I used to play with a lot of different OT musicians in Santa Barbara, California, in the 1970s, we would often play a tune for maybe 15 minutes without stopping. I love this! I really get mesmerized AND AT THE SAME TIME think up some variations because of the repetition. Where I live now, in Portland, Oregon, the musicians I happen to know best get very tired of repetition. This is very disappointing to me, and it's all I can do to get them to play a tune five times in a row.

    Now for an opinion of my own: Personally, I don't believe we should "worship" "the tradition," or what any individual believes is "the tradition." I say this: musical people will do what musical people do. I personally doubt that way back when some supposedly traditional person/s said "no improvising allowed." I think tasteful improvising/variations within the genre/spirit of a tune have likely always been done by people who were able to do that. Others would play the tune over and over without improvising, but I'm also guessing that many "traditional" old time musicians in the olden days would copy variations/licks from other jammers. That's just the way musical people DO THINGS.

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    Default Re: Book/s on how to improvise on Old Time tunes???

    I’m about a 12-year beginner at old-time fiddle, and I still can’t “improvise” very well, but here are some of the things I do to try to play a tune “my way.”
    1. I try to listen to tons of different versions of a tune to get a sense of the “consensus sequence.” (Molecular biologists will get that metaphor.). The danger, if you play a new tune that you learned from a single source, is that that source may turn out to be a version that NOBODY else ever plays. And once you learn the tune that way, it’s really hard to unlearn it. This is where playing in a big jam is helpful. Everyone plays it their way, and what you end up with in your ears and brain is a consensus.

    2. At least when I start on a new tune, I tend to play a ridiculously simplified, skeleton version—lots of quarter notes that capture just the essence of the melody. For one thing, that helps me keep up in the jam, because playing lots of notes at a crazy fast tempo (at least for me) doesn’t work. The other thing that lets you do is gradually introduce little embellishments or details. And that happens as both your physical skills improve and as your ear develops and starts hearing details of the tune that capture your fancy—little things, like anticipating (or “pushing” as David Bragger calls it) a new phrase on the upbeat of the last note of the previous phrase.

    3. The tunes that I learn best, and have the most fun playing, are the ones I learn by ear rather than from paper. Admittedly, if you are a beginner, this can be REALLY hard. It took me several years before I could learn a tune by ear. But it’s a skill worth working on even from the beginning. I’m not ashamed to admit I’m addicted to Amazing Slow Downer (the iPhone version is fantastic). When I start learning a tune, I break it up into individual parts, phrases, and even sometime sub phrases in ASD. I loop them and play them REALLY slowly, and gradually speed them up. But you can even learn tunes from scratch in a jam setting. At first, I’m lucky to catch a couple notes. The next time through, I’ll keep those notes and add a few new ones. in a big jam, it doesn’t matter that you’re getting 80% of the notes wrong—nobody can hear you anyway, and they don’t care. That’s how everybody learns. After 10 minutes playing the tune, I still don’t have it all, but it’s amazing how much I have retained when the tune comes around at a jam weeks or even months later.

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    Default Re: Book/s on how to improvise on Old Time tunes???

    Hello, wormpicker. Your ideas are so interesting, and I know they really work. I, too, tend to play a skeletal/outline version of many tunes, and enjoy adding a few notes here and there at a time. I re-learned to play by ear as an adult on the piano. When I started to play Mandolin, after years as a classical pianist, I read the notes on the mandolin, but then one time I went to a jam (the first jam I ever went to!) and suddenly was able to play Redwing on the mandolin after only hearing it once or twice played by a fiddler. After that, I played everything on the mandolin by ear and didn't read any more till more than 20 years later. BUT to learn to play by ear on the piano took me 10 years. I was a natural ear player as a child, but had the misfortune many piano students have, of having a piano teacher who forbade ear playing, and my parents backed her up. Gawd, what a terrible teacher she was, and I took from her for 9 years. When I realized how easy it was for me to play by ear on the mandolin, I figured I wanted to re-learn ear playing on the piano, and so I did. It's a big psychological HURDLE. Because I had to learn chording, too, of course. I spent one full year not playing the piano except to play the examples in books I was teaching myself music theory from. But I was never a natural music READER. Ear playing is so much more fun than reading, in my experience. It's so FREE and FREEING. Thanks for writing, wormpicker.

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    Default Re: Book/s on how to improvise on Old Time tunes???

    Quote Originally Posted by stringalong View Post
    Does anyone know of books or a YouTube that gives tips and help on how to vary/improvise on Old Time fiddle tunes, on mandolin of course? The book can be about fiddle, that's not a problem. Some tunes I can vary, but most I just play the same thing over and over again.

    Stringalong
    As the old song goes: " ... must master it by practice, 'cause it ain't wrote out in a book". In other words, listen, transcribe, analyze, explore and experiment. Mark O'Connor started out in Texas contest fiddling, which is largely about developing your own variations on traditional tunes, and at least one of his albums (I forget the title) is devoted to that style of playing.

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    Default Re: Book/s on how to improvise on Old Time tunes???

    Quote Originally Posted by JeffD View Post
    A curmudgeonly comment follows, that is probably not news to anyone, but I cannot seem to overcome my baser instincts and leave this alone.

    What I absolutely love about old time music is that we get to play the same thing over and over again. The whole culture of old time music is is centered on a kind of worship of the tune itself, and not on showing yer chops or musical stars or heroes. I love getting hypnotized into a tune played 982346347 times. I just crawl in there and travel that path.

    That doesn't mean one should not improvise. Not at all. It means, in my admittedly prejudiced mind, that improvising an old time tune is taking it out of an old time context. Makes it more bluegrass, or jazz, or blues, or something. What one is doing is no longer old time. To the extent that is important or not.

    ...
    Please forgive my rant. Hope that helps.
    Some tunes call for your own variations, e.g., Sally Goodin, Old Joe Clark, and Leather Britches (just check a few transcriptions on the internet). Others are so full of detail that I at least play them fairly straight the way I learned them from records. Examples: Brilliancy, Rutland's Reel, and High Level Hornpipe (all from Howdy Forrester's Fancy Fiddlin' Country Style)

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    Default Re: Book/s on how to improvise on Old Time tunes???

    MandoLessons has YouTube videos of him playing fiddle tunes from simple to complex. He’ll play the simple version as he teaches it on another video, then each iteration he will change things - adding slides and double stops, adding or taking away notes, changing rhythm, etc., explaining what he’s doing as he goes.
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    Default Re: Book/s on how to improvise on Old Time tunes???

    Quote Originally Posted by stringalong View Post
    Where I live now, in Portland, Oregon,
    OK, I have no first hand experience, but I've heard the Portland Old Time scene is very active. You've missed the Portland Old Time Gathering in January this year, but just the first search I did turns up what appears to be weekly jams at the Hostel Cafe. You can go tomorrow!

    I also want tunes to last a long time, and not everyone wants to do that, but be assured you are not the only one.

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    Default Re: Book/s on how to improvise on Old Time tunes???

    Thanks all, for your latest responses to my queries about improvising. Ralph, the McGann book has a downloadable audio with all the variations he has created, 4 variations on each of a large number of Old TIme standards. A 4, the Hostel Cafe jam is very, very fast most of the time and I can't follow the tunes that the hot shot fiddlers play. They don't announce the names of the tunes, either. The first time I went there I had a blast because there were not so many hot shots and I was able to play the tunes. But that jam has tunes I've never heard before. It's also hard for me to get to via public transit at night. When the days get longer I may try it again.

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    Default Re: Book/s on how to improvise on Old Time tunes???

    I have done a lot of thinking about this exact subject. I'm a transplanted R&R guitar player. In the guitar world, a solo works like this: blues progression in E minor, an eternity between the chord changes; play a G major scale (which works over E/A/B); find a grove; rely on sustain when you accidentally play a chord tone to make it appear you know where you are.

    Fiddle music (which it what Old Time and Blue Grass, not to mention Irish/Celtic, all flow from), usually follow and A/B melody -- 8 bars of A, repeat; then 8 bars of B, repeat.

    1. Learn the melody. Some prefer by ear. I prefer written music, having discovered the hard way I can miss a lot of nuances by thinking I'm hearing everything.

    2. Learn the chord progression. This is incredibly important. As a guitarist turned fiddler turned mandolinist (I'm playing with two killer fiddlers and it was just embarrassing to try to compete ... though now the mandolin is my true love), I NEVER CARED ABOUT THE CHORDS. I just wanted to know how to play the "Red Haired Boy" melody REALLY FAST. And this got me pretty far as a semi pro/gigging amateur, but you can't begin to meaningfully solo in the acoustic idiom unless you STAY WITH THE CHORD CHANGES. (I'm not yelling. I'm using caps for emphasis.)

    3. Do not start out trying to model your playing after genius virtuoso space alien trick soloists. You know who I'm talking about. It's anybody whose videos you watch playing "Red Haired Boy" (or some other tune you know and are trying to play), and you have NO IDEA what it is they are doing. Some of these folks (not all of them) I think of as Trick Players. They're not as interested in the tune as they are in conquering the universe with their AMAZING playing. And some that is fine. Even admirable. But, as somebody famous once said to me after I played an especially "impressive" solo, "You were doing pretty good there, till you forgot what song you were playing."

    4. At least in the beginning pay close attention to tasteful players (that's my value judgement) who stick pretty close to the melody and chord changes. You know these folks because you can watch them on YouTube and say: "Hey! I know that song! It's 'Red Haired Boy'. And I can see what they're doing right there with the A section. Hey! I could flat that 3rd the way they are and make it sound bluesy!" Joe K. Walsh, video above, John Reishman (with emphasis) and about any of the teachers at Peghead Nation play this sort of way. (Note: You can play with control and restraint and still be an accomplished soloist.)

    5. Slowly, deliberately, working in sections, work out some variations yourself. Write them down even in musical notation. Or just memorize them. For example: Decide you're going to take the first four bars of the A section of "Red Haired Boy," and come up with your own variation. You might used a lot of the same notes but put them in a different order. Or you might just decide to slow some of it down and play more quarter or half notes or something. The first measure is over the A, the second over the D. The second measure goes up and down and then back up to a D, resolving to the chord tone. Maybe you decide to start on the A note on the E string and come down the scale, one note after the next, to land on the D. (And you don't have to know what a flat 3rd or chord tone is, but that's just by way of illustration. All of this can be worked out by ear without any terminology.)

    6. Preparation and practice -- that's where it starts. You hear somebody jamming or improvising and wonder how they're doing that on the fly. Maybe they are. Or maybe you're hearing what they worked out at practice. If they are improvising, what they're doing is using strategies they at some point worked out in practice, and their brain is now plugging it in. This stuff may seem like it comes out of nowhere. It doesn't. It comes out of practice.

    7. Be happy with small results. You don't have be able to wail and shred your way through a tune you know. Start with figuring out how to make one little phrase your own, and play it that way every other time you get to it, or whatever.

    8. Timing. OMG is this a big deal. I can play a ton of fiddle tunes really fast (I love working with a metronome.) But then I would hear somebody like Jake Workman playing a little bit of "Clinch Mountain Backstep," and it sounded like an infinitely better version. Why was that? Part of the reason is the blue notes (flatted 3rds and 7th) and little improv things he throws in. But also super important is he is NOT playing the song as written to the strict beat of a metronome. His phrasing breathes. It has life. I was playing everything with a rhythm that is as straight and lined up as a highly starched dress shirt. That might be the way somebody's 7th Grade violin teacher wants it, but it's not what most people want to hear (or play). Relaxing the rhythm and playing with the phrasing might not be what you think of as improvising (as in "a bunch of notes that sound impressive"), but it IS a variation from the music as strictly written, and it gives it life. Jake Workman:



    9. Remember that it's really about the tune, meaning the melody, and the supporting aforementioned supporting chord changes. We listen in awe to virtuoso players, and they do some amazing things. But it's really about the song. Are you honoring the song? Are you adding your own little bit of heart and soul to it? Because that should be the point. Here's Bill Monroe playing a simple and very old tune, "Goin' Across the Sea." The variations are subtle and, I would argue, sublime. He never loses sight of the basic tune.



    I know the original question was about a book. I'd start with McGann, which I haven't seen. I'm the sort of person who tends to think that a book or course or a few lessons from this or that person is the answer. All of that can be a help. I think, though, that ultimately it really comes down to sitting in the kitchen with a cup of coffee and doing the work, a phrase at a time, and being content to start out with small pieces of progress that over time build into something bigger.

    Sorry if this is preachy but it's become my passion lately to pick the same lock you want to open.
    Last edited by Mike Romkey; Feb-26-2020 at 10:59am.
    '09 Gilchrist Model 1, ďJuly 9Ē Red Diamond F-5, '12 Duff F-5, í24 A2-Z, í24 F-2, '13 Collings mandola, '19 Pava Player, '82 D-35, Gibson Keb Mo.

  29. The following members say thank you to Mike Romkey for this post:


  30. #25

    Default Re: Book/s on how to improvise on Old Time tunes???

    Hello, Mike Romkey,

    This is all very good advice!!!! Thank you so much for taking your time to write all about your experience and ways to learn to improvise.

    I'll listen to your two YouTubes today.

    Stringalong

    Quote Originally Posted by Mike Romkey View Post
    I have done a lot of thinking about this exact subject. I'm a transplanted R&R guitar player. In the guitar world, a solo works like this: blues progression in E minor, an eternity between the chord changes; play a G major scale (which works over E/A/B); find a grove; rely on sustain when you accidentally play a chord tone to make it appear you know where you are.

    Fiddle music (which it what Old Time and Blue Grass, not to mention Irish/Celtic, all flow from), usually follow and A/B melody -- 8 bars of A, repeat; then 8 bars of B, repeat.

    1. Learn the melody. Some prefer by ear. I prefer written music, having discovered the hard way I can miss a lot of nuances by thinking I'm hearing everything.

    2. Learn the chord progression. This is incredibly important. As a guitarist turned fiddler turned mandolinist (I'm playing with two killer fiddlers and it was just embarrassing to try to compete ... though now the mandolin is my true love), I NEVER CARED ABOUT THE CHORDS. I just wanted to know how to play the "Red Haired Boy" melody REALLY FAST. And this got me pretty far as a semi pro/gigging amateur, but you can't begin to meaningfully solo in the acoustic idiom unless you STAY WITH THE CHORD CHANGES. (I'm not yelling. I'm using caps for emphasis.)

    3. Do not start out trying to model your playing after genius virtuoso space alien trick soloists. You know who I'm talking about. It's anybody whose videos you watch playing "Red Haired Boy" (or some other tune you know and are trying to play), and you have NO IDEA what it is they are doing. Some of these folks (not all of them) I think of as Trick Players. They're not as interested in the tune as they are in conquering the universe with their AMAZING playing. And some that is fine. Even admirable. But, as somebody famous once said to me after I played an especially "impressive" solo, "You were doing pretty good there, till you forgot what song you were playing."

    4. At least in the beginning pay close attention to tasteful players (that's my value judgement) who stick pretty close to the melody and chord changes. You know these folks because you can watch them on YouTube and say: "Hey! I know that song! It's 'Red Haired Boy'. And I can see what they're doing right there with the A section. Hey! I could flat that 3rd the way they are and make it sound bluesy!" Joe K. Walsh, video above, John Reishman (with emphasis) and about any of the teachers at Peghead Nation play this sort of way. (Note: You can play with control and restraint and still be an accomplished soloist.)

    5. Slowly, deliberately, working in sections, work out some variations yourself. Write them down even in musical notation. Or just memorize them. For example: Decide you're going to take the first four bars of the A section of "Red Haired Boy," and come up with your own variation. You might used a lot of the same notes but put them in a different order. Or you might just decide to slow some of it down and play more quarter or half notes or something. The first measure is over the A, the second over the D. The second measure goes up and down and then back up to a D, resolving to the chord tone. Maybe you decide to start on the A note on the E string and come down the scale, one note after the next, to land on the D. (And you don't have to know what a flat 3rd or chord tone is, but that's just by way of illustration. All of this can be worked out by ear without any terminology.)

    6. Preparation and practice -- that's where it starts. You hear somebody jamming or improvising and wonder how they're doing that on the fly. Maybe they are. Or maybe you're hearing what they worked out at practice. If they are improvising, what they're doing is using strategies they at some point worked out in practice, and their brain is now plugging it in. This stuff may seem like it comes out of nowhere. It doesn't. It comes out of practice.

    7. Be happy with small results. You don't have be able to wail and shred your way through a tune you know. Start with figuring out how to make one little phrase your own, and play it that way every other time you get to it, or whatever.

    8. Timing. OMG is this a big deal. I can play a ton of fiddle tunes really fast (I love working with a metronome.) But then I would hear somebody like Jake Workman playing a little bit of "Clinch Mountain Backstep," and it sounded like an infinitely better version. Why was that? Part of the reason is the blue notes (flatted 3rds and 7th) and little improv things he throws in. But also super important is he is NOT playing the song as written to the strict beat of a metronome. His phrasing breathes. It has life. I was playing everything with a rhythm that is as straight and lined up as a highly starched dress shirt. That might be the way somebody's 7th Grade violin teacher wants it, but it's not what most people want to hear (or play). Relaxing the rhythm and playing with the phrasing might not be what you think of as improvising (as in "a bunch of notes that sound impressive"), but it IS a variation from the music as strictly written, and it gives it life. Jake Workman:



    9. Remember that it's really about the tune, meaning the melody, and the supporting aforementioned supporting chord changes. We listen in awe to virtuoso players, and they do some amazing things. But it's really about the song. Are you honoring the song? Are you adding your own little bit of heart and soul to it? Because that should be the point. Here's Bill Monroe playing a simple and very old tune, "Goin' Across the Sea." The variations are subtle and, I would argue, sublime. He never loses sight of the basic tune.



    I know the original question was about a book. I'd start with McGann, which I haven't seen. I'm the sort of person who tends to think that a book or course or a few lessons from this or that person is the answer. All of that can be a help. I think, though, that ultimately it really comes down to sitting in the kitchen with a cup of coffee and doing the work, a phrase at a time, and being content to start out with small pieces of progress that over time build into something bigger.

    Sorry if this is preachy but it's become my passion lately to pick the same lock you want to open.

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