Forum - Banjo Ben Clark

Banjo Improvisation

Edit - This is a topic split off of the original Tony Ullrich interview thread. Continue discussing improv here.

My improv is extremely limited. I can play backup rolls behind someone playing lead. It’s just simple forward and backward rolls with some square rolls thrown in. Ben has lessons for all of those.

The limited lead I can play just comes from my fingers knowing that certain string / fret combinations produce a note I want to hear. I guess that just comes with practice, but I’ve met many banjo pickers that are WAY better at that than me. When I ask how they learned it, none of them can really say. I think it might just be a gift that’s developed with time and practice.


So it’s not like Ben can teach it or have lessons for it?
I’ve tried the forward backward rolls and the alternating Thumb Rolls. But that gets monotonous fast. I don’t consider it a lead break at all but maybe it is

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Also having a knowledge of backup licks and combinations of licks that run well together is a key component.

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I’ve asked Ben that specific question. His answer was the same as all the others. “I don’t know HOW to teach that.”

Maybe I need to spend a few months trying to develop that curriculum. I’ll be rich!!! :laughing::laughing:


Hopefully, maybe, Ben can give us some insight. It’s something I would really like to know about


Really, I thought as good a teacher as Ben is he could have explained it

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I can tell you from experience that the bottom line is, you have to learn new licks and transitions, then train your fingers to put those into your current toolbox.

Think of it like this. You learn a forward roll and can do that in G C and D. Now you learn a backward roll in G C and D. You’ve just doubled your toolbox. Next, you learn the square roll. Now you’re all set for a variety of mundane banjo backup. So, you learn 1 transition and get comfortable throwing it into your playing. Now do that dozens, maybe hundreds of times with new licks and you can see how it eventually gets to what we’re looking for.

I think what doesn’t exist (yet) is the hand holding that I obviously require that says “We’re going to learn these sets of licks and transitions, and now we’re going to put them into various parts of songs we already know.”

The absolute key to it is training your brain to hear where licks are going to go before you get there. I can only guess that that can’t be taught.


Don’t know if this will help at all, but maybe it will spark questions to move the discussion forward.


I’m gonna add this here also so it’s easy to find

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Woops! I thought I had that included in the split. Sorry. Yeah, that’s an important piece of this puzzle.

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Improvisation ???

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Being able to play some form of lead on a song you don’t already know. It seems the banjo is one of the most difficult instruments to teach this on. I took 1 lesson from a local guy that used to play with Bill Monroe. I think it was a classic case of folks who have a natural gift not being able to teach. He told me to go home and learn every major, minor, and 7th chord, where they are on the neck, and be able to instantly move to all inversions of them when he calls them out.

I came home, made an awesome chord chart, but apparently lack the drive to commit my work to memory. I’d pick up my banjo, spend 5 minutes on the chart, and then start playing music. I never went back.


Whenever I read, Mark saying, ( yeah that’s what I want, ) I knew this had to be something extremely important. Apparently you have learned to do it. I have seen and heard you play with others. So how did you reach that goal? Is this a set of lessons that Ben needs to put on the site? Are there stepping stones to get to this improvisation? Is this essentially playing by ear ? Or is it a special gift that only good players achieve?
I feel like this you speak of is what I’ve been searching for. A missing piece of the puzzle to being able to play with others.
Is this something Ben could teach in a video or is it to complicated and vary from person to person.

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Build a break lessons are meant to teach this concept, and I think they do pretty well…

Other than that, you just have to go try to improvise, you aren’t gonna start improvising by playing the same thing, you learn to improvise by playing what you don’t know, even if you’re familiar with the tune, it’s about playing something else from what you usually play. Get outside your comfort zone, try something crazy, worst thing that happens is it doesn’t sound good, which will happen a lot as you’re starting, but if you stick to it in not much time it’ll start to sound better till it usually sounds good, and eventually you’ll be improv-ing like the pros. It all starts by practicing improv


Gunnar I agree…it is a skill that must be practiced.

Like any skill, when beginning it is slow and difficult, and good results are usually few…with time and work, it gets easier.

A huge part of improvisation is being able to hear/feel where the chord progression is going and understand the progression… You should be able to tell by ear what direction the progression is going, and the difference between major & minor.

Ability to read other players hands can help with figuring the chords out, but is hard to do while playing because of reaction time.

It doesn’t happen overnight, but there are some tricks/tools that can help speed the process.


Can you share the tips and tricks to help speed the process?

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I highly recommend @BanjoBen’s Utility Rolls lesson… one of the most helpful lessons on rolling backup in my opinion. With improvising solos for a less familiar tune, I generally try to learn several licks over the most common chord positions (typically G, C, D, Em, F, and A) and then throw those together while trying to emphasize the melody.


OK, I brought over all of the other posts. Of course, now they’re out of order, but at least they’re all in one place.


Thanks Mark. That was a big help.


Check out the banjo lick challenge responses…That is improvising…putting licks (or new licks) in new places

Anything new you add to a piece is basically improvisation.

The “bag o licks” lessons are meant to provide tools for you to use to improvise…when you learn a lick, you can experiment with putting it in any place you think it might fit…this is improvising.

Improvisation is simply not playing a piece the way you learned it note for note.

#1… You learn both the basic and advanced versions of a Ben Clark lesson.

The entire advanced lesson is too difficult to play at a certain speed you want to go but you want to play a couple of really cool licks from it that you can pull off

Answer" you add in those cool advanced licks into the beginner solo that you can play easily…you have just improvised your own break.

Example 2: you’re playing a song and you throw in a favorite lick for the D chord instead of the one you learned from a tab…you just improvised.

Example 3 You forget that the takeoff starts on the 4th string and goes 2nd, 2nd, 1st, open on the frets…instead you play second string O, 1, 2, 3 then continue with the piece…you just improvised and still kept the D note as the first note…

The number of possible substitutions is as the imagination.

The more licks you can memorise and find uses for, the easier it all becomes to do on the fly.

To be honest, having played several instruments over many years, I find it far more difficult to play a piece (like a lesson here) completely as written without throwing something of my own into it while playing. Having my own “go to” licks makes me want to insert them when I come to a part where I know they might fit.

Here is an exercise: Choose a favorite lick you’re learning. go through your list of songs you play and look for anyplace you might be able to insert it in place of the lick that’s already there. (same thing as Ben’s challenge, but with your own lick you chose). My bandmates and I used to kid each other about doing this all the time…“think we’ve heard you’re lick-of-the-day enough”…:rofl: