Before I begin, I should offer my apologies to Gary Burton, Miles Davis, Bela Fleck, and other improvisational juggernauts since this method merely scratches the surface of improvisation. My focus is on a rather simplistic approach to improvisation that my jazzer friends
may will turn their noses up to. At it’s core, improvisation is a spontaneous communication between a player and the ‘music’. The ‘music’ can consist of other players, a melody, or even the underlying chord progression. Although simplistic, I find that the ‘cut and paste’ method meets the standards of the above definition AND it is very useful for the budding improvisor.
Backstory: Some months back, I stumbled upon an eccentric Berklee Banjo professor named Lauck Benson in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We spoke about a myriad of technical and theoretical topics but two of the nuggets particularly interested me.
1. There are A TON of ways to play 4 open notes on a stringed instrument without repeating a string in succession. Lauck has spent considerable time uncovering all the combinations. At an earlier time he even crashed a computer program with an algorithm simulating the possibilities of different types of open stringed rolls.
2. How does banjo player, Bill Keith work on improvisation? He takes a lick or phrase and cuts it in half, then cuts it in half again, then puts the pieces together again in a different order. The result? A spontaneous new creation!
I couldn’t stop thinking about the possibilities. Like Lauck before me, I crunched some numbers found that the possible variations for a simple 8 bar break are so numerous that it would be impossible to memorize them all. I started writing ideas out on paper to get a grasp on all of this and want to share my findings with you.
(Editors Note: Many have taught this method and written about it. This post is simply a reflection of my own journey)
Project time: Just how many ways we can play one simple song?
The tune we will use is a standard fiddle tune called Bill Cheatham. This version is from Michael Corcoran and can be found in it’s entirety here. The first section is 8 measures long and it is played 2X in a row before the song moves on. Below are 2 variations (breaks) for the first section of Bill Cheatham (tab is for Banjo gDGBD)…
Now, when we play each 8 measure chunk in succession, it sounds great, right?
While it sounds great as is, you may want to alter the tune on the fly so that you have a unique break every time you get back to the first section. Variation can keep your sound fresh and interesting and will of course stretch your mind when you spontaneously do it in real-time. So, how do we alter the tune?
Taking these ‘cuts’ you can now ‘paste’ them back together in 4 different ways.
1. A1 – A2
2. A1 – B2
3. B1 – A2
4. B1 – B2
Sounds awesome and it might keep you sounding fresh for a few breaks but we can go MUCH farther when we split the breaks into smaller chunks (2 measures, 1 measure, 1/2 measure, etc.)
The number of possibilities goes up exponentially the smaller the chunks get. For example, when splitting into 2 measure chunks, we suddenly have 16 possible ways to play the tune (each letter is a 2 measure chunk, played left to right)
AAAA AAAB AABA AABB
ABAA ABAB ABBA ABBB
BBBB BBBA BBAB BBAA
BABB BABA BAAB BAAA
When splitting into 1 measure chunks…
1/2 measure chunks…..
When breaking music down mathematically like this I am reminded of how limitless our musical choices really are. My friend Lauck from the beginning of this post told me that Tony Trischka is down to thinking in 2 note chunks when he improvises. Freaky stuff, right?
Here is a clip of a few different variations so you can get the gist of how it works in action…
Break #1 – ABAABABB
Break #2 – BABBABBA