Improvising on the banjo is not as mysterious or unreachable as it may seem. There are tangible things you can practice to become a great improviser like the players you look up to and in this post I’ll share with you 3 of my top tips for getting started.
This is no shortcut. Initially this approach will take you 3x longer than learning from tab, but the benefits in the end will be worth it. The challenge comes from actual changes happening in your brain and how it’s organizing the sounds you’re hearing and translating them into movements of your hands and fingers. First you’ll begin to easily notice original melodies and then gradually start to play them on the banjo. It’s a time consuming process initially, but you’ll start to notice the satisfying and positive effects of it soon after you make it a routine activity.
Slow it down:
There are many programs that allow you to slow down the recording without changing the pitch like, examples. is an amazing tool to help you start learning by ear. Take a recording you like, plug it in to the slow-down application, and start out learning each note one-by-one. It sounds time consuming but you’ll get better at it, and graduate to learning phrases soon enough.
Use YouTube: Learning from video is a fantastic way to ween yourself off of tab to start learning by ear because you’re getting both visual and auditory clues as to what notes you’re looking for. Look for a clear video with right and left hand cameras and crisp audio so you can easily see and hear what melodies are being played. There are also applications that will allow you to slow down video (youloop.io.)
A tried and true way for musicians to enhance their rhythmic feel. The greatest improvisers have complete control over their timing and rhythm and this is largely thanks to daily practice with the metronome. Once you feel comfortable playing in time with a metronome or backing track you can focus purely on improvising melodies.
There are lots of ways to mix up your metronome practice so it doesn’t become stale and boring. Here are a few things I recommend to keep metronome practice interesting:
Play really slow - It’s actually fairly difficult to play slow and feel relaxed. At slow tempos you can focus on lots of different things like breathing, improvising, technique, and dynamics. I like to warm up playing slowly because it helps me tune out thoughts and focus on the music.
Play fast - this is usually the most fun part of metronome practice, but also the sloppiest. Pay attention to your right hand’s tension level and the rhythmic evenness of your notes. In bluegrass, its especially important that you are consistent with your timing and rhythm.
You get better at what you practice and even though practicing improvisation may at first be challenging and uncomfortable (you may not exactly feel like the rockstar you want to be) it’s essential to get yourself into that space and run with it. Set a time limit or find a song you want to play with and dive in.
Here are some ways I’ve practiced improvisation:
Practice slowly with a familiar chord progression
Take a song you know extremely well, and play along to a metronome or backing track. Play the melody first, and then try to play something slightly different the second time around. Vary it even more the third time through the progression. Practice “hearing” what you want to play before you play it. Sometimes you have to slow it way down for that to happen. I find that singing what I’m playing gives me clarity as to what I should play next.
Learn chord tones and good voice leading
This is more of a jazz concept, but it works really well with bluegrass chord progressions. Chord tones are the individual notes in a chord. So a G chord would have G, B, and D as it’s chord tones and a C chord would have C, E, and G. Find where these notes happen all over the neck. A good place to start is with the familiar chord positions on the neck.
The reason that you learn chord tones is so you can train your ear to “aim” for these tones when you’re improvising. Say you’re playing a G chord and the next chord is C. Training your ear to hear the notes in the chord will lead to clearer and more foundational improvisation.
Want to learn more ways to practice improvising and learning by ear? Check out my free Melodification series on Youtube and join me for the Melodification Master Class, a four-week, live, online workshop starting August 13th, 2016!
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