Kickstart Your Jamming: A New Approach To Banjo Improv

Kickstart Your Jamming: A New Approach To Banjo ImprovFor years, Murphy Henry has been teaching banjo pickers all over the world, in private lessons, at camps and workshops, and with her Murphy Method lesson videos and DVDs. Throughout her focus has been to encourage students to memorize material by listening and repeating, as opposed to reading printed music.

Her roughly two dozen DVD programs cover everything from the first beginner lesson on through to advanced playing in the styles of Earl Scruggs and Ralph Stanley, with everything in-between. There are lessons on jamming, backup, playing up-the-neck, improvising, and fiddle tunes from a variety of instructors.

The newest project from The Murphy Method is one entitled Kickstart Your Jamming: A New Approach To Banjo Improv, which she says involves a process of building the student’s confidence using simple techniques they already know.

Murphy Henry“As someone who has been teaching banjo for 40 years (!) I’ve struggled long and hard to find a way to teach my beginning banjo students to improvise so they can jam. Finally, I have stumbled—one slow step at a time—onto something that actually works. My beginning students can now take improvised breaks to three-chord songs in slow jams. They are happy. I am ecstatic! However, unlike Archimedes, I don’t believe I will be running naked through the streets shouting ‘Eureka! I have found it.’

Here’s the basic outline of how it works, in case some of you teachers are interested. After experimenting with so much that didn’t work (don’t ask!), I finally landed on the one roll that works best for singing songs, a basic forward/backward roll: 3215, 1231. (That doesn’t count as tab!) The students use this roll in all three chords, G, C, D. As you can see, this is not a melody-based approach.

The first song I teach is Blue Ridge Cabin Home because the chord pattern is so easy: G, C, D, G / G, C, D, G, four beats in each chord. So the student has to remember only two things: the forward/backward roll and the ‘G,C,D,G’ pattern. I show the students the roll, we go over the chords, and then I play the guitar and sing, sing, sing while the student works on playing this break. Does it sound like Blue Ridge Cabin Home? Absolutely not! It sounds like a series of rolls played in the correct chords. But it’s a start.

Once the student can play this song, the trick is to follow up with a series of easy songs: Bury Me Beneath The Willow, Do Lord, I Saw The Light, Two Dollar Bill. Will they all sound pretty much the same? Yes! But the student can play these in a jam exactly because they are so similar.

Learning these songs with one roll sets the stage for the upgrades that will follow: slides, hammers, pinches, the ‘tag lick,’ the Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arm lick. These licks—added one at a time—will replace the basic forward/backward rolls. These work pretty quickly because the student already has a ‘feel’ for the song

There is so much more to say and if you are interested it’s all on our new Kickstart Your Jamming DVD. Teachers, if you’ve ever wondered, ‘How in the world can I help my students learn to improvise?’ this is the method that works for me.”

In this video tease from the DVD, you can see Murphy demonstrating some of these simple rolls and licks with her daughter, Casey, on guitar.


More information about Kickstart Your Jamming, and the many other Murphy Method instructional offerings for banjo, fiddle, mandolin, bass, dobro, singing, and more, can be found online.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.