Inspiring Practice Ideas
Updated: Nov 23, 2022
Four Practice Ideas from “Lee Highway Blues”
Lee Highway Blues has an extended improvisation section that really gives a fiddler the chance to show off their hottest licks. This version by Michael Cleveland has over 1.5 million views and is chock full of great musical takeaways.
I’ve broken down my synopsis of this great improvisation into four categories, all with time stamped links to the examples. Let me know what you think!
Triplet polyrhythm (Triplet over a sixteenth note groove) Because triplets are slower than sixteenth notes, this rhythm “tugs” on the groove in a way that is bluesy and mean.
Sextuplets This has the opposite effect- it drives and creates excitement
Groupings of 3 sixteenths and again here and Again here and again here This grouping is essential to bluegrass and country groove and has its roots in African Congolese drumming.
Up Three Skip down and that in reverse (Down Three Skip Up) and again here
Patterns can be applied to any scale or note grouping. Here we see patterns over the minor pentatonic scale and Mixolydian pentatonic
If you like the idea of practicing patterns, try the following:
Groups of 5 over 4 (Up Five at a time)
Groups of 4 over 4 (Up Four at a time)
Groups of 3 over 4 (Up Three at a time)
Up Three Skip down
Up three down one
3, 3, 2 Shuffle bowing and that bowing in reverse (2, 3, 3) also here and again here This is again a nod to african rhythm, as mentioned above (groupings of 3)
This bowing was banned in many fiddle competitions because of its “Flashiness”
You can also hear it in “Orange Blossom Special” and the C part of “Black Mountain Rag”
This one is a nod to the Earl Scruggs Iconic Tune "Foggy Mountain Breakdown"
This one was made famous by Benny Martin If you haven’t heard him, do yourself an amazingly inspiring favor and watch him play “Me and My Fiddle”
Quoting Norwegian Wood because... Why not? Well, also because its Mixolydian and fits the vibe of this groove
It’s Not All About Scales!
Too Many Neglect to Practice this Important Skill
It’s easy to be tricked into thinking that melody is the end all be all of music. We’re told to learn our major scales in all the keys - then we’re told that the blues scale is important to know, and pentatonic scales, and modes like mixolydian and harmonic minor - the list never ends!!
I know that coming from a classical background which has a heavy emphasis on scales, it’s easy to be trapped into always asking about “what notes to play”.
The better question often is to ask “When to play” and “What rhythms do I play”!
When I taught Middle school, I would often prove this point with my students by playing a song that everyone knows with all the correct notes but totally incorrect rhythms. No one could tell the song.
Then I played all the wrong notes with perfect rhythm. Sure enough, they figured out that I was playing the “Happy Birthday” song!
All this goes to say, rhythm is king! Two of my teachers, Matt Glaser and Christian Howes rightly directed me to practice what they refer to as Melodic Rhythms. -These are what occurs when you extract the rhythm from a popular melody. Incorporating these catchy rhythms into your own improvisation helps you sound just as catchy!
One of the ways I practice this is by listening to rhythms that occur over and over again in tunes, or rhythms that jump out to me, then I write them down or record them and practice playing those rhythms over a song, beat, or vamp chord.
Here are some of the rhythms I recommend working on:
(As in the B part of Turkey in the straw, opening lick of Stoney Lonesome, and the B part of Scotland)
As in the A part of Road to Columbus)
As in the A part of Salt Spring
And here are some examples of me writing down rhythms that I heard from Michael Cleveland’s playing. (I heard them in the car, mumbled the rhythm into my recording app, then wrote them down when I got home)
This Element of the Blues is too Often Ignored
When learning to capture the sound and feeling of the blues, many people start by learning the Major Blues Scale, Minor Blues Scale or pentatonic scales. This is an important element of the music, of course, but it doesn’t completely capture the emotional complexity of the music.
Blues music was born from hardship - the African American response to slavery and forced labor in the fields. The “Blues Scale” was never really meant to be a scale at all- just a collection of notes that occurred so often in the music that it was “codified” and written down for academic reasons. It became an easy way of pointing out some of what the Blues is all about.
If we take a step back and look at the broader, social-cultural context in which blues music was born, one could note that the blues scale is a means of creating tension, longing, or sorrow through melody.
Another way of creating tension in music is through rhythm. Much of classical music, which developed as a written tradition, inherently developed a less tense rhythmic language- one that could easily be written and broken into square measures.
The rhythmic language of the blues is not confined to written notation, but rather emphasizes tense polyrhythms and syncopations.
Common Syncopations found often in blues music include
Groups of 3 notes over a 4 note groove/subdivision
Groups of 2 notes over a 3 note groove/subdivision
Common Polyrhythms often found in blues music include
Playing triplets over a 4/4 groove (Monroe picked this up and many Mandolin players have made this naturally a part of their playing)
Playing sixteenth notes over a triplet groove
Try this in your practice:
Pick a scale/tonality or palette of notes you’d like to work with
Try grouping notes with the syncopations listed above over a simple song
Try switching from non-tense, square rhythms to the common polyrhythms listed above. Pay attention to how this tension creates a certain feeling. Work to effortlessly switch between tension and resolution.
Three Approaches to
Taking a Solo/Break
Having a prepared solo in your favorite key is one thing, but you will find more often than not the need to "fake" a solo on a tune that maybe you've never heard before or a key you haven't practiced it in.
What do we do in those moments? I recently gave some feedback to a student of mine who learned and executed a FANTASTIC solo on a Bluegrass standard. I told him that it sounds great - the next step was to work on transposing and “mining” that solo for licks that can easily be reproduced in other keys. Here is a snip it of my feedback to this student:
"Transposing is a lot more common in bluegrass than in old-time or celtic music because of the vocal element- each singer will choose a key that's best for them.
A lot of these quite elaborate breaks were PLANNED for the recording or group that the fiddle player was with (You'll hear Bobby Hicks and Kenny Baker pretty much hitting the same notes as in the recording in live settings)
This doesn't transfer well to a bluegrass JAM setting where the tune might just as well be called in B or G...
The big takeaway is that if you don't have a regular group of people to play with, its good to spend a lot of time transposing and working on flexibility"
In my Wernick Method Bluegrass Jam Classes, I talk about three “Levels” of soloing
Click Here for a video demonstration
Level 1: Chord Tone based soloing
Also called a “Placeholder solo”, this method can be used even if you don’t know anything about the melody.
The strategy here is to lock in to the guitar player’s left hand, watch for the chord changes, and play chord tones that match what you see. (Root, third, and Fifth are the safest) This is where practicing arpeggios come in handy!
Level 2: Licks Based Soloing
This is a very common approach that many players use in jams where they are unfamiliar with the song that is being played. The same strategy of locking in to the guitar players left hand apply here. Watch the chord changes, but explore outside of chord tones.
Try playing scales like the Pentatonic Scale, or the Major Blues Scale, or really any cliche/stock bluegrass lick that fits the chord change.
Level 3: Melody Based Soloing/Embellishment
Most players want to quote the melody in some way. If you are familiar with the song, or train your ear to pick up melodies quickly, you will want to “nod” to the melody or base your solo off this.
The best way to pick up melodies more quickly is to… well…. Learn a bunch of melodies! But don’t forget to Transpose them so that you are prepared if the song is called in a different key. The more melodies you learn, the quicker you will develop pattern recognition, which is the key to quick learning.
What Do I Play Over Love Songs??
(All Two of Them)
For most people, getting the “Blues” in Bluegrass is challenging enough.
The genre is filled with songs about heartbreak, unrequited love, time in prison, somber gospel numbers, old work songs, and feeling lonesome.
We spend a lot of time working on making those sound good, but what do we do with the pesky two or three straight up love songs in the genre?
“I asked my love to take a walk
Just a little ways with me
And as we walked and we would talk
All about our wedding day
Darling say that you'll be mine
In our home we'll happy be
Down beside where the waters flow
On the banks of the Ohio”**
**May or may not be an example of a real love song
It really irks me when bluegrass musicians play really bright, major ideas over darker bluesy songs. But it’s even worse when they play dark bluesy lines over a quaint love song! At best it pulls you out of the song, but at worse it sounds corny and cringe-worthy. Not to mention it’s a totally misrepresentation of the contributions of black Americans to bluegrass music.
So I set out to listen to nothing but a set of bright, happy, encouraging or romantic songs and I made a list of all the tasteful ideas that can be put to practice. Here are the tunes I listened to:
Your Love is like a Flower - Bluegrass Album Band
Keep on the Sunny Side - The Whites
Little Georgia Rose - Audie Blaylock and Redline
Pride - Frenchie Burke (Doesn’t fit the bill perfectly, but a lot of these Ideas are great examples)
And then I came up with this list of musical Ideas that I hear in these songs that fit the feeling of the songs:
6ths and 9ths - Suspensions create that lofty feeling. These are colorful notes and should be thought of as the bright equivalent of the darker b3, b5 and b7 colors that we often use over darker, bluesy songs. Example: Over an A chord, deliberately play F# (6th) or B (ninth). Try sliding into these notes starting a half step below
Maj 7 - Rather than using the b7 as it is so often used in darker songs (Coming from a mixolydian or blues sound) , err on using the major 7, not as a point of arrival, but as a passing tone to brighten up the scale and overall feel of the song. At the end of a phrase, you can hit the maj 7 and 9th before resolving to 1 to further brighten the song and hint at the major scale.
Harmonics - Naturally these are the brightest sounding notes on your instrument. Throw some of these in, especially in a swing context, but also at the end of a break to create that “flashy, brilliant” sound.
6th to unison/ Unisons - Double stops of 6th and root -> unison double root are great, bright sounds in the keys of G, D, and A
Arpeggios - Arpeggios, like the waterfall arpeggio, create a spaciousness. Try arpeggiating a maj 6 chord for even more of this feeling.
Triplets - (As in the intro to the tune “Big Sandy River”) - this playful rhythm can lighten up a song and give it the lilt it needs to compliment the lyrics
Wide intervals - You will hear this a lot in Western Swing, wide intervals, whether as separate notes or as double stops, create spaciousness.
Constant flowing 8th/16th notes - Keep a constant running stream of notes from the major pentatonic or major scale to hint at the happy dance music where bluegrass music has its roots before people's feelings got involved.
Swing hits - Bobby Hicks was king of this sort of playing- big band style swing rhythms can give a great lilt to the song. Try this on chord tones from the major 6 arpeggio
b7th and 9th - Play these two notes as a double stop to emphasize the feeling I mentioned earlier with 6ths and 9ths.
Use this Scale Over Fiddle Tunes and Bluegrass Standards
What do June Apple, Red Haired Boy, Little Maggie, Old Joe Clark all have in common?
Well, these tunes and more are built from the Mixolydian scale/mode.
^^Warm up your bow arm/fingers and boost your improvisation skills ^^
and groove with this play along instructional video.
For this one, I invited my friend Christian Howes on to the channel. He has been a friend and a mentor to me for years and now we work together!
Mixolydian is a major scale with a flatted 7th note.
In G, this is: G, A, B, C, D, E, F (Normally F# in G major) , G (all natural notes, not sharps or flats)
You can darken the sound a bit by sliding into the major third or flattening it completely, which pushes it towards the Minor Blues scale.
You can hear this in tunes like "Love, Please Come Home", "Gonna Settle Down" and "Gospel Plow"
Brighten it by arriving on the note "A", which is referred to as the "9th"
This brighter note is often harmonized with the flat 7 (In this case F)
Examples of this sound can be heard in tunes like , "Maiden's Prayer" or "Festival Waltz", "Sittin' Alone in the Moonlight"
Fiddle Tunes based on this sound are:
-Red Haired Boy
-Northern White Clouds
-Old Joe Clark
-Clinch Mountain Backstep (Banjo tune)
Bluegrass Standards Based on this Sound:
-No Hiding Place
-Ain't Gunna Work Tomorrow
-Dark as the Night, Blue as the Day
-Cry, Cry, Darlin
-Love Please Come Home
Subscribe to Chris's Channel for more awesome play alongs:
Or check out his Bluegrass play along playlist:
"Play along in Bluegrass fiddle style- lessons for easy to advanced. These Bluegrass play along lessons give you the ability to play back short phrases and develop your ear, technique, along with nuances of the Bluegrass fiddle style."
"Play along with me to develop fiddle licks, phrasing, rhythm, technique, & more on fiddle, violin, viola, or cello"
How to Become a Stronger Improviser
Bluegrass is a bit different from other fiddle styles in that the genre's emphasis is on SONGS.
That means 90% of fiddle playing in this genre is improvised "back up" to a singer or other instrumentalists taking improvised (Or planned) solos.
Solos are short and melody based but usually include licks, tricks, and blues/swing influenced improvisation.
Learning the language of bluegrass involves transcription, listening, some common licks, and common scales (Pentatonic, Major and Minor Blues) and double stops.
Check out this video for ideas on using “The Amazing Slow Downer” --->
If 90% or more of your playing in a bluegrass, country, or folk setting is improvised, it makes sense to spend a significant portion of your practice improvising.
Many people fall into the trap of learning a complicated break in one key, or a difficult fiddle tune, not realizing that in a real time setting- this may make up less than 10% of what you will play in any real bluegrass setting.
If you really want to improve as a bluegrass fiddle player, here are some practice ideas that will transfer to your playing
Practice Extended Range Scales, which are taking the notes of a scale and playing them as they occur throughout the range of one position, without shifting the hand. IE: D Major pentatonic on a Fiddle/mandolin would be A B D E F# A B D E F# A B.
Explore the sound of this scale over a train beat, or a one chord vamp (Offered in the “Chords and Progressions Section of the Free Bluegrass Backing Tracks Website**
Combine pentatonic, blues, mixolydian, and other types of scales with bowing like the Georgia, Nashville, or Straight Shuffle.
Pay attention to where you feel fluency and mastery vs. discomfort improvising, whether that has to do with bowing, fingering, or tempo- and consistently push back against this over time. (IE: Raise the ceiling of your ability to improvise/think quickly)
Practice Double Stops over a song or chord progression
I focus on smooth transitions between open or closed voicings on double stops, which you can see explained in this video. Open voicings like to move to other open voicings and closed voicing like to move to other closed voicings
Try playing one double stop per chord change, and see where the closest next double stop would be in the next chord change (This is called “Voice Leading”) Find out what area of the instrument you feel like you are uncomfortable voicing chords and push back against this.
Try smoothly transitioning from one double stop to the next, but restrict yourself to two strings at a time
Take a small, easily digestible phrase from a song or fiddle tune and try to play it in 10 different ways, switching bowings, rhythms, or notes, while still keeping the integrity of the phrase intact.
Construct your own break by combining micro improvisations on the singer’s melody.
**Free Bluegrass Backing Tracks allows you to play common fiddle tunes, songs, and chord progressions over professionally recorded backing tracks. You have full control over the speed of playback and can change the key using this amazing extension: “Transpose”
Three Approaches to Playing Over Chord Changes
I remember feeling frustrated when I first attempted to follow chord changes.
People would say things like “play A over the A chord and E over the E chord”
Huh? A what? E what?
What does that even mean? I would ask questions like, “so… do I change keys when I play over the E chord?”
If I play the major scale associated with the chord, it would be adding or removing sharps every chord change. How does this make sense when the song is in the key of A?
After years of frustration, I’ve developed a system for surviving in improvised scenarios that can work at any level.
There are three approaches you can take to playing over chord progressions:
Play ONE Versatile SCALE over all of the chord changes.
Suggested scales: (Sheet Music Here)
These scales remove the “offending notes” of a full major scale that are harder to place and are less likely to fit over multiple chords. They offer versatility and broad application and, with an attentive ear, can be used over all the chords of a song. Many people get by for years playing intuitively using these sounds.
Switch between TWO SCALES - One over the home chord, and another for ANY other chord
Use this approach if you can hear that the chord did change, but can’t identify whether it's a 4 or a 5 chord, for example.
This is an approach often used by blues musicians who switch from the major blues scale to the minor blues scale
This strategy works because the minor blues scale has inherent tension. Any chord change away from I will also create tension. Playing this rather tense set of notes, resolving back to a more stable set of notes, will give the impression that you are playing through chord changes, even if you are unsure of them.
Switch scales based on the chord changes - This approach is the most advanced but also gives the improviser more freedom/creative potential. It involves a bit more theory, ie: knowledge of modes, keys, and performance practice. Check out my Music Fundamentals course to learn more about this
For example, in the key of C, and improviser might choose to play C Major Blues over the C chord, C Minor Blues or F Lydian over the 4 chord, and G Mixolydian or G Minor blues over the G chord….
There is potentially an infinite number of approaches you can take to playing over any chord, but these choices are often influenced by performance practice in the genre (ie: What people have done before). Here are some Suggested Scales for Bluegrass music that I haven’t already mentioned
Major - I’m sure you know this one!
Mixolydian Pentatonic (As in the scale construction of tunes like Wheelhoss and Northeast Seaboard Blues
Then of course, there is an arpeggio based approach which can range from Maj 6, Maj 7, Dominant, Diminished, Augmented etc. PHEW!
That's a lot!
I hope this inspires curiosity rather than dread! Learning music is a never ending journey. One that we can enjoy ever step of the way.
I’ve dedicated my professional career to helping others feel less frustrated, more confident, and more clear on how to achieve their musical goals.
That’s because I’ve had my fair share of frustration and I want to make it so others don’t have to pay a fortune to learn this stuff at music school!
That's also why I believe in the Bluegrass, Country, and Roots Online School
Or, if you’re interested in working one on one with me, check out my options: ways to work with me
I hope these tips inspire your next practice session!