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breakthrough to improvising bluegrass solos

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Apr 20, 2018 - 8:38:35 AM
70 posts since 3/21/2011

Everybody's journey is different, but I'm curious how different flatpickers 'broke through' to the level where they could improvise a break to a song that went beyond just playing the melody of a vocal verse, or a very practiced/rehearsed fiddle tune? So, I'm envisioning the intermediate play who: 1) has solid rhythm patterns including bass runs, fill licks, ending licks and has no problem holding that down for songs and tunes they've never heard before, 2) can easily jump to chord shapes/inversions all over the neck, and can play the major scale at that position, 3) can play fiddle tunes that they've worked out and can reproduce in a jam, and 4) who sitting on the front porch alone can quickly find the basic melody to anything they can hum.

So I'm talking about that person who is at a level where can pick the melody to, say, Fireball Mail without even trying, but can't put together a tasteful break as defined by the classic and contemporary bluegrass lead player.

What are the experiences of the people that have broken through to that new, exciting, productive level? In the last few weeks, I've experienced the early evidence that I'm 'breaking through' (after living at a plateau for several years) and can pinpoint the catalyst/knowledge, which I'll share. Just curious if others can point to a few big things, or if it was the steady accumulation of practice and theory. We're all different.

Thanks in advance.

Apr 21, 2018 - 4:48:50 AM

249 posts since 4/22/2009

One thing that helped me more than anything else in learning to play new songs on the fly was: jamming with others. Going to jams, listening, trying to work out a melody, taking the plunge and making mistakes, trying again and again.

I found there are "melody phrases" that work with numerous songs and once you get your repertoire of phrases, you can put them into a new song and have a pretty decent break.

The more you jam, the more you work at it, the easier it becomes.

Apr 21, 2018 - 5:19 AM

133 posts since 3/5/2010

Good question.

Here are two ideas for aiding an intermediate player in moving toward the goal of freely improvising a solo.

The first idea is to familiarize yourself with a series of small, modular licks and phrases, typically no more than one or two measures long. For bluegrass and fiddle tunes on guitar, the logical place to start would be to master a handful of phrases in G, C, and D. They don't have to be all over the neck — in fact, sticking to 1st position would be a good idea for starting out. Once you have a decent starter set of modular phrases mastered, you can start trying to substitute a measure or two of a basic melody you already know very well with one of these phrases, and then pick the basic melody back up in the correct place one the plug-in phrase is complete. The larger your learned library of licks and phrases is, the more options you are afforded when substituting parts of a basic melody. The trickiest bit here will be when a substituted phrase doesn't end on a note/string/position where it's easy to pick the melody you've already learned back up. Initially, this is a serious problem and the best answer is to limit the phrases applied to those you know that will work within the confines of a melody you already know. Eventually, however, you'll learned to take small leaps of faith and trust in your familiarity with scales and phrasings to make up some impromptu connective material in order to navigate your way back to where you need to be melodically.

The second idea is to learn multiple versions of an entire solo for any given tune, and then begin to experiment with combining parts of one version with another. I find this is especially effective for fiddle tunes. Once several variations on the same melody have been mastered, it's not so hard to start toying around with points in the solo where you might stop playing version A and start playing version B instead, for example. Unlike the first idea, the size of the substitutions isn't necessarily limited to a measure or two, and the learned material always comes from solos designed specifically for the song at-hand, so it's definitely going make melodic sense.

Now, I don't claim that either of these ideas is the be-all-end-all solution to learning to improvise, but it's a good start. A mixture of both ideas above will at least get you headed in the right direction. It will give your fingers and brain the exercise they'll need to transition from an intermediate player who typically plays the same solo from beginning to end, to a player capable of making some musical alterations to a solo in real-time.

There's obviously much more to advanced improvisation than the two ideas above (and I could blather on typing about it until my fingers fell off), but this should enough to point you in the right direction.

Pick on,


Apr 21, 2018 - 5:29:40 AM

440 posts since 8/26/2008

Modular licks are one tool and definitely worth your investment of time. Folded scales are the basis for many of those licks. More than that is just doing "it" with a streaming station or recording. Nobody to hear you crash and burn and you are more likely to take chances. Listen, make all the chord changes, let the music breathe, play some pieces of the melody then play the changes but not so that a listener can't still hear the melody lurking in your solo. When you can play what you imagine in your head you have arrived. R/

Apr 22, 2018 - 5:57:16 AM

70 posts since 3/21/2011

Those are very thoughtful answers and are much appreciated. All of them resonate with me (no pun intended) and to some degree I was working along those lines and making slow progress. Not because those approaches don’t work, they absolutely do!! For some reason things weren’t jelling for me.

As a banjo player who decided to expand to guitar I found playing out of chord positions for solos to come easy, and of course Scruggs style is very much pattern and lick based so I went that route too, but not enough. Carter-style soloing wasn’t hard for me but I couldn’t break out. Scale-based approaches were a little foreign to me and I although I could recite major and major pentatonic scales I could not translate those to tasteful sounding solos on-the-fly. But in the last two months here are two things that are breaking me through and jelling my playing. First I learned the major blues scales for positions up and down the neck for G and now C, and especially connecting across positions in different ways (working vertically on the neck). That broke me out of only chord based arpeggio soloing and worked in those flatted thirds and sevenths everywhere on the neck so they starting coming naturally. Those major blues patterns also were easy to break apart and reassemble. The next thing I did was start acquiring lick patterns that work in different common I, IV, V settings/transitions (keys of G and C again). I stumbled on Orin Starr’s old Oak Publications book from the late 70’s(?) called Hot Licks for Bluegrass Guitar or close to that. Basically a mini-encyclopedia of licks without ever referring to any music theory (which I know well enough). Sort of reminds me of Janet Davis’ backup banjo thesis! Maybe I was just sufficiently primed and was ready, but those two things seemed to launch me to the ability now to improvise, and play what I’m hearing in my head, up and down the neck. Maybe not at hot speeds, but that will come. I’m still a melody based player but now I have the tools to work around the melody. Throw in double stops using harmonized scale theory and floaties (open strings out of closed patterns up the neck) and my improvising is becoming more fun and less work. Now I’m hearing things that are Doc-like in a most basic sense, etc. The coolest thing is now when I’m listening to recordings of the greats of flatpicking I’m starting to ‘feel’ it in my left hand just where they are on the neck - snippets here and there. Except Tony Rices’ weirder modes. And David Grier can certainly get to some strange paths also (love em both but not feeling them yet).

Sorry for the long posts but the last month of wood shedding has been the most satisfying and productive since I first grabbed a flatpick, and thought I’d share.

Apr 22, 2018 - 4:45:44 PM

5 posts since 3/28/2018
Online Now

All good advice above. Like you (op), I am coming from the banjo and trying to become a more proficient guitar picker, but I don't think I'm quite as advanced as you are. Also like you, however, I have a lot of trouble working scales into usable phrases or solos. One thing that I think has helped me (but hasn't been mentioned here, yet) more than anything is that I have listened to a LOT of music which either includes or is entirely flatpicking guitar over the years (Tony Rice, Bryan Sutton, Kenny Smith, Mark O'Connor, etc, etc) so I have come to be able to hear in my head - usually from the playing of others - what will work over just about any progression. I can't play it on the fly, but I am usually able to work it out into a decent solo. For some reason, I can do this better on the guitar than I ever could on the banjo, even tho I have been at the banjo much longer. For the banjo, I still have to slow down some phrases/solos I want to work out, from recordings (especially in the melodic style) or even refer to TAB in some cases; but with guitar, for some reason, I have never had to do that. I can just work thru them, once I know the key, without ever going back to any recordings, for both melodic and non-melodic breaks. While I'm putting things together, however, I can see how they work into the scale positions. So in my case, it seems I am working backwards, if you will, but that seems to be working for me...

Edited by - bleugrassboy on 04/22/2018 16:52:44

Apr 23, 2018 - 5:30:21 AM

70 posts since 3/21/2011

Can't agree more on the need to listen to as much flatpicking as you can. Can't play it if you can't hear it in your head. Try learning the major blues scale (also called country blues) in the first position. It's the major pentatonic with the flatted third and third, plus flatted seventh. Here it is in G. It's quickly apparent that lot's of bluegrass G licks are combinations of these notes. Same for C major blues and D major blues scales. For me this has been one of the 'keys to the kingdom', and now it's just fun 'cause I see where all of the famous licks come from plus you get an intuitive feel of the 'safe' frets. It worked so well for me in the first position that I couldn't wait to learn these in the higher positions and start linking them. Orin Starr's book of licks made complete sense because I could see the pieces of the major blues scales. Adding back in other notes outside these scales becomes easy then (e.g., as melody demands). 

I'd say learning the 2nd position G major blues was even more important (closed position scale). Here's a link for major blues scale in G at 1st-4th positions:

 The fun was not simply running up and down the scale, but breaking it apart and reassembling it in different combinations of phrases because just about every phrase I came up with sounded like a bluegrass lick!  Then start connecting the first and second (and more) positions along different paths and you have the tools for moving both horizontally and vertically on the neck.  Then I went back to solos I'd worked out for both tunes and songs, and found it was easy to break out on-the-fly from what I'd laboriously worked out previously.  I'm still crashing and burning (melodically), but since we know the chord progression for the song (always, always, always) we recover without breaking time (we can get away with melodic breakdowns - but we can't get away with rhythmic breakdowns, right?!).  

Edited by - kjcole on 04/23/2018 05:46:46

Apr 23, 2018 - 6:07:11 AM

70 posts since 3/21/2011

My bad - major blues just adds the flatted third. 

For those more into the theory:  For me I ran through pentatonic, minor pentatonic, minor blues scale - but the major blues scale seemed to get me there quicker.  Soloing over pentatonic scales seemed gimmicky and predictable (you don't hear the solo, all you think is 'they are just messing around a pentatonic scale).  Minor blues and major blues are same intervals from different starting positions (if you know about relative minors of keys you understand this), so they'll both get you there, but the major blues seems to map onto bluegrass in major keys more intuitively for me.  Right now I'm burning in the C and D major blues scales at positions 1-4 and improvising my own 'tunes' in typical I, IV, V progressions in the key of G.  Then it's an easy jump to a lot of bluegrass standards.  It's still early in this journey for me but the progress is so much faster now.

Edited by - kjcole on 04/23/2018 06:19:23

Apr 23, 2018 - 7:14:16 AM

5 posts since 3/28/2018
Online Now

I'm chuckling a little, because it looks like my breakthrough came in almost the exact same way. Only different. Haha. I had a little trouble with the minor pentatonic scales. I learned all five positions, but nothing I tried to work out from them seemed to sound natural in the context of bluegrass. And nothing I heard anybody play really seemed to fit in the context of straight minor pentatonic scales. Then, I noticed something about the solo I had worked up for Turkey In the Straw. Both the melodic and non-melodic solos I came up with in G were almost entirely out of the 1st position pentatonic scale 2 frets down from 1st position G. "Strange", I thought. Then a light bulb. Oh, the minor pentatonic scale for E - the relative minor of G. "How come it sounds more natural to play out of the minor pentatonic scale for relative minor of the key I'm trying to play out of?", I thought to myself, again. A little more exploration showed that those notes are pretty much identical to the G maj pentatonic scale, just starting on a different note. Pretty much the major pentatonic scale you charted out above (minus the 2 Bb notes on the A and G strings). I was like "Okay cool, learning all those minor pentatonic scale positions wasn't a total loss, then"
Very interesting! Though some of our compadres, here, are probably rolling their eyes going, "these banjo guys are just figuring this stuff out, NOW??? Kinda slow witted aren't they?" LOL

Apr 23, 2018 - 8:12:22 AM

70 posts since 3/21/2011

Great insight!!! Yes, that's how the major and minor pentatonic scales relate. I'm far to old to care about eye rolling anymore. But you are right, you can be a pretty solid Scruggs/Crowe type picker on a banjo and never care about scales. Just like getting in a jam with a fiddler who doesn't care about chords! I'm seeing that scales are a little more relevant to flatpickers (guitar and mandolin)

Apr 23, 2018 - 9:08:04 PM

5 posts since 3/28/2018
Online Now that way, banjo is waaay easier to pick up than guitar, imo. All you really need to know are the chord positions and the right-hand patterns and you're there. Any instrument is very difficult to master, without tons of practice of course, but I find guitar a LOT harder than the banjo in general. For some odd reason, as mentioned above however, I have a much easier time figuring out breaks - especially fiddle tunes - on the guitar, than the banjo. It's just that pesky timing between the right and left hands, and finding the correct string with that pick. I still can't play any tune over around 85bpm cleanly. Getting tunes up to speed with every note standing out clean and clear has probably been the most difficult thing for me. Being able to work up tunes and knowing the basic scales and how they relate to one another is one thing. But developing the technical skill is quite another. I still have a ways to go before I am able to play cleanly at speed and even longer before I am able to improvise with any kind of proficiency...

I'd still like to hear more advice on this subject from the experts, here, as per the OP. My apologies for my ramblings and if I have steered this thread in a direction other than the OP intended.

Apr 24, 2018 - 12:13:39 PM

70 posts since 3/21/2011

Our experiences and perceptions as banjo players branching out to flatpicking are remarkable similar. I too find flatpicking more difficult as a technical skill than 3-finger BG banjo. Right hand technique for flatpicking has been challenging (playing cleanly). I've found myself intently studying the right hand of people like Bryan Sutton, which has helped. Keeping those fingers and forearm relaxed has been a journey but I'm getting there. I've converted from 'posting' to keeping my pinky, ring, and middle fingers open and just brushing the pickguard. That has taken a very conscious effort, but it is paying off. My speeds are still limited a bit, like you. The other technique I've found useful is Bryan Sutton's advice to aim the neck away from the plane of your chest about 45 degrees or so. To give your left arm/hand unimpeded access to the fretboard. All of that together has helped me to avoid tightening up. I know that we're all different and need to find what works for us, however.

Apr 25, 2018 - 6:12:17 AM

19 posts since 11/22/2013

Here's the chart I use to teach with, it covers 90% of what is played in many genres of music.
I would suggest learning each "lick" one at a time in every key while visualizing it on the chart. BTW the chart is showing the intervals in all keys if you visualize a moveable nut.

Edited by - mmuussiiccaall on 04/25/2018 06:14:51

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