Updated: Nov 16
Step by Step Process:
Learn the VOCAL melody, note for note.
Don't be tempted by flashy solos. Coming from a classical background, I approached bluegrass music by learning complicated fiddle solos. This ended up not serving me because the song might get called in a totally different key in a jam than what you learned.
Use the original recordings and play along at a reduced speed. Focus on singing, playing, and following the shape or contour of the melody along with the singer.
Use free extensions, like "Transpose" to play this melody in the common bluegrass keys
Prime your fingers for finding the right notes by playing the pentatonic scale associated with the key of the song. (Ie. if the key is G, play the G pentatonic scale)
Add strong pick up notes
**Important** While the number of notes and rhythm might differ, these notes always come in on the same beat (The "and" of 3)
Try counting starting on the singer's last word of the chorus "1...2...3... (pick up notes!)
Climb up to the target note starting on either:
One chord tone above/below
Two chord tones below
One octave below
Slide into notes on the chord changes
You can use slow, metered slides in many places, but targeting the chord changes highlights the melody best.
I use the term "Metered" to differentiate bluegrassy slides from the type of slides you hear in celtic music. In most celtic music, slides operate as embellishments of the melody in the form of quick, unmetered "grace notes". In bluegrass music, slides occur this way, but also as metered, slower slides that actually alter the melody into a darker, more bluesy version.
Add Double stops on the chord changes
Double stops should match the chord changes. Meaning if you're playing a G note over a C chord, the double stops should reflect the C chord (E or C), not a G chord.
Ask yourself the question "What out of a G chord can I harmonize with B?" Check out my Essential Bluegrass Double Stops PDF for a list of all possible double stops in each key
Don't forget that you can also use unisons as double stops
When sustaining long vocal notes, use this bowing/rhythm
Listen to this: 27 minutes
Using this rhythm allows you to play with more volume, control, and groove. You will hear it all over bluegrass fiddle solos.
Try Making Variations on the Melody
Take small musical phrases and challenge yourself to play that snip it in 4-5 different ways, while keeping the melody basically intact. Many call this "Micro-improvisation"
Play along with a metronome or drum beat to make sure your ideas are in time and are the same length as the original musical idea.
Add a "tag lick"
You'll want to fill in the space between the end of the melody and when the singer comes back in. This space existed because in early bluegrass, bands played around one mic. It took time for the lead singer to get back to the mic, so soloists would often trail off with some extra notes to fill in the space
Even with more microphones available, bluegrass musicians still kept this tradition and expanded on it by putting their signature licks or fancy improvisations in this space
There is typically 8 total beats in this space, meaning the length of about two licks / musical phrases
These can be completely improvised ideas OR stock/learned licks.
Leave the melody
Some bluegrass musicians stuck to the melody the whole time. Some played very little melody, and some mixed and matched the two to their preference.
Of note, the most often place that bluegrass musicians leave the melody would be on the last quarter of the solo form. Sometimes, it will start as early as the second half of the solo.
It's easy to lose your place when improvising outside of the melody. The key here is to practice phrasing. This is the ability to play a series of improvised notes within a clear start and finish. The most common phrase lengths in bluegrass are 4 beats and 8 beats.
Try these ideas on simple, common melodies, in each of the common bluegrass keys along with a metronome or drum beat that you set to the point where you are challenged, but not overwhelmed. This sort of practice might take getting used to, but you will find it as a much more helpful process in preparing you to have a blast at the next jam!
Other Helpful Resources: