A Beginner’s Guide to Bluegrass Improv
While bluegrass traces its roots to British folk music and African American gospel and blues, it takes its name from Bill Monroe’s seminal band, the Bluegrass Boys. In the late 1940s, Monroe, along with banjo player Earl Scruggs and guitarist Lester Flatt, defined and refined the bluegrass sound, recording such tunes as “Bluegrass Breakdown” (later rerecorded as the classic “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”) and “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” which was revamped by a young unknown named Elvis Presley in 1954 for his first hit.
The repertoire Monroe developed in those early days is ground zero for anyone interested in bluegrass. Other songs, like “In the Pines,” “White Dove,” “Mule Skinner Blues,” “Pig in a Pen,” “Uncle Pen,” “Sitting on Top of the World,” and “Walls of Time” are some of the most loved and covered songs in the genre. As George Gleason, an amateur picker and sound engineer from Central Square, New York, puts it, “Without knowledge of what Bill Monroe created, none of the rest has any root.”
However, Monroe’s voice and presentation can be difficult for a novice to embrace. Those interested in exploring bluegrass music might want to look first toward the new generation of pickers for inspiration. A good place to start is with the 1975 release Old and in the Way, the eponymous album from a bluegrass supergroup comprised of Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, Peter Rowan, David Grisman, John Kahn, and Vassar Clements. It is a mixture of traditional standards, such as Monroe’s “Pig in a Pen” and more contemporary tunes, like a bluegrass take on the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses.”
Aside from the solo work of masters such as Rowan and Grisman, other players to check out are traditionalists such as Del McCoury and Tim O’Brien, the more gospel-influenced Doc Watson, and the progressive sounds of Tony Rice, Sam Bush, Railroad Earth, and Chris Thile of Nickel Creek.
Pickin’ and Grinnin’ Chords
Bluegrass music, like many other traditional music, is simple in form but hard to truly master. The majority of songs feature I-IV-V progressions, and you should become familiar with the major chords and their relative minors, especially in the keys of G, C, D, and A. Rhythmically, beginners should concentrate on perfecting the “boom-chuck” rhythm, an alternating pattern where the single, root note of a chord is struck on a bass string (the “boom”) followed by the entire chord (the “chuck”), then another single note, this time usually the fifth note of the chord, and then the chord again.
A great beginning song (though not, strictly speaking, a bluegrass song) that puts all this together is “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” the Bob Dylan composition that The Byrds made their own on their classic 1968 country-rock album Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The G-Am-C progression is repeated throughout the song’s verse and chorus with the undulating “boom-chuck” rhythm driving the piece along (see image below).
Once these foundations are mastered, the fun can begin. Bluegrass, like jazz, is all about improvisation, and in a traditional bluegrass song everyone gets a turn at soloing and self-expression. To begin learning how to do this, master major scales in the first position in the keys suggested above, then move up the fretboard as you become more comfortable. But it is important to learn timing as well; novices often fall into the trap of fluffing over the pulse of a song by playing faster than they are able. Start slowly and practice with a metronome, gradually bringing everything up to speed.
Once you have perfected your chops, it’s time to begin jamming. If you’re not lucky enough to live near other bluegrass musicians, the best place to find like-minded musicians is at a festival. Small, local festivals abound, and you may be able to find one within a short drive of your home. There you’ll find impromptu sessions in parking lots and campgrounds.
For the more adventurous, however, a trip to one of the older and larger festivals may provide just the inspiration you have been looking for. Among the more well-known are Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in New York State, Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado, Minnesota Bluegrass & Old-Time Music Festival in Minnesota, and Merle-Fest in North Carolina.
If you plan on attending and picking with some new best friends, “Do your homework first,” Gleason cautions. “Get the essential mechanics of your instrument under your fingers.” It’s important to follow the unspoken etiquette of the bluegrass jam. For tips on jamming read the Making Music article by Gregg Raybin, director of The Jam NYC, found at the link http://makingmusicmag.com/10-tips-on-how-to-properly-set-up-for-a-jam-session/.
Above all, don’t be afraid to jump in and give it your best shot, because there’s much to learn from parking lot pickers. Gleason says you’ll probably meet “wonderful nurturing folks” who, he notes with just a hint of insider pride, “are always ready to help the beginner along.”
You Ain’t Going Nowhere