Rich Stillman
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Bonus exercise, June 2013: Coloring your way to better breaks

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Abstract: You can make your banjo breaks more interesting by thinking about the melody.

The more you play bluegrass banjo, the more you realize that there's lots more to leads than just pushing out notes. A banjo break is an opportunity to showcase a melody, whether it's the melody the singer is singing or something you just made up on the spot. But banjo rolls, by themselves, aren't designed to showcase anything. Regardless of what the melody is, you'll most likely be playing  a string of notes that contains much more filler than melody. Your challenge is to help your listeners hear your melody through all the noise of those extra notes. Along the way, you'll see how banjo rolls make your melody interesting in a way that few other instruments can.

This lesson is designed to demonstrate how melody turns into a banjo break, and the break returns the melody to you in unexpected ways. We'll start in the middle, by finding the melody in a complete banjo break, and then use that knowledge to make any break sound more interesting and understandable.

Let's start with a yellow highlighter and the basic break of Pig in a Pen on page 20. I suggest you copy the page and write on the copy, at least until you've done this a few times. Also, you'll need to make one correction: the fifth note in measure 3, which is tabbed as an open third string, should be an open fourth string instead.

Hidden in the one hundred twenty-one notes on this page (yes, I counted them) are the forty-six notes (OK, that one's an educated guess) that you'd recognize as the melody of Pig in a Pen. You should already see the problem - fewer than half the notes you play are actually melody. The rest are just there to provide chord harmony and keep the melody notes from bouncing off each other.

So we're going to find the melody notes in this rendition of Pig in a Pen. Every time we see a melody note we can attach to a word or syllable of the lyrics, we'll highlight it.

To start, we should know how to play the melody by itself. It goes like this.

The first phrase - "I've got a pig, home in the pen" - looks like this

The notes for "I've got a" are all the same, played on the open third string.
"pig, home" are played on the open second string.

"in" is by itself, back on the open third.

"the" is the fourth string, second fret.

"pen" is the open fourth.

It's no coincidence that almost all of these notes are on open strings. The open strings are all part of the G chord, which is the chord that's played during this part of the tune. As you go through this and other songs, you should notice that more often than not the melody notes you find will be part of the chord that's being played at the same point in the song. There's a reason for this, and we'll cover it in a later lesson, but for now just take it on faith that the best place to start looking for a melody note is within the notes of the current chord.

So it's time to take out that highlighter and the copy of page 20, and start hunting melody.

The first measure of the tab is not actually part of the melody. Those notes are called pick-up, and are designed to let your jam-mates know when to come in. Sometimes, the words start on these pick-up notes, but in this case they don't. The first melody phrase, the words "I've got a", is sung on the first beat of measure 2. Those three notes fill the first two beats of the measure, and even though the note is only played once in the tab, it covers the entire two-beat phrase. Highlight that note in yellow.

The next word, "pig", is two beats all by itself. It's played on the open second string, and that note shows up in the middle of measure two. Highlight it too.

"Home" is on the same note, and it's played as the last note of measure two. Highlight it. This note is where things start to get interesting. Up to now, all the important melody notes have been on full beats - "I've" on 1, "got" on 2 and "pig" on 3. "Home", though, is played on a half beat, called "4 and" or "4+". Mechanically, this is because it's part of a forward roll that starts on the 4 beat. Musically, though, the offbeat melody note comes as a surprise and makes the note a little more interesting. Three-note rolls like the forward (TIM) and backward (TMI) are very good for creating this kind of musical interest - see the Teachable Moment in Cripple Creek, on page 6 of the book, for a fuller explanation of how this trick works. It's important because it gives bluegrass banjo a big part of its distinctive sound, but hearing it - and controlling it - come with a good deal of practice and listening. Listen to the difference between track 1 on the CD, which is Cripple Creek without this technique, and track 2, which uses it.

The next two notes of the melody, "in the", are played on the open third string, then the fourth string fretted at the second fret. These are the second and third notes of measure 3, or the 1+ and 2 beats of the measure. "pen" is the open fourth string (remember that note is misprinted as third string in the book). Highlight those three notes.

The way the phrase "in the pen" is played is also instructive. Say the words "home in the pen" to yourself. I'm guessing you put the words "in the" close together, then waited before saying "pen"  - "in the (pause) pen". This is the natural cadence of speech.

Banjo rolls allow you to duplicate that spoken phrasing. In measure 3, "in the" are an eighth note apart, while "pen" is played a quarter note after "the". Often, notes are played this way in banjo arrangements to mimic a singer. When Earl Scruggs was asked for an explanation of how he played the way he did, he often answered "I try to play all the syllables", or "I just play the words". This is what he meant. Look at the final two measures of this break, and you'll see the same technique applied, to mimic the words "feed (pause) him (pause) when I'm (pause pause) gone".This is covered in the teachable moment on the bottom of page 19.

Continue through the tune marking melody. Here's how "corn to feed him on" looks: "Corn" is the last two notes of measure 3, "to" is the second note of measure 4, "feed him" is the 5th and 6th notes of measure 4 (syllable phrasing again), and "on" is the first note of measure 5. The rest of measure 5 has no melody - the next line of the lyrics starts at the beginning of measure 6. See how far you can get, and email me if you get hung up anywhere.

When you get done coloring notes, you can check your work by playing only the highlighted notes. What you hear should sound like the melody of Pig in a Pen.

Now comes the interesting part. If you've already learned this break for Pig in a Pen, it's time to revisit it. If you haven't learned it yet, let's get started. Play the break, but don't just play the notes. Give those highlighted notes a little extra volume, a little extra energy. When you do that, and play the tune smoothly, the melody will jump out of that flow of 120-odd notes, and what you play will sound more like Pig in a Pen than ever before. This is how banjo players can make listeners focus on a melody, even one with exotic timing, while they play lots of extra notes that are meant to be ignored.

Interested in doing more of this? Several of the tabs in the book have melody notes highlighted with grey blocks (sorry, it's a black and white book). Use the same playing technique to bring out the melodies in these tabs:

  • Oh, My Loving Brother basic arrangement, page 14 (sounds just like This Land is Your Land)
  • Oh, My Loving Brother up the neck, page 16
  • Wabash Cannonball arrangements on pages 25, 26, and 27
  • Sunny Side of the Mountain, pages 31 and 32
  • My Home's Across the Blue Ridge Mountains, page 48
  • Oh! Susanna, page 72
  • Old Joe Clark, page 82

After using the highlighted notes to bring out the melodies in these tunes, you should be ready to highlight any tab you want using this technique. In fact, I recommend you do exactly that. Before you learn a new tune from tab, get out your highlighter and find the melody notes. You and your listeners will find that your breaks make more sense and are much easier to follow if you use this technique, and your improvised breaks, when you develop them, will sound a lot more like music.



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