Forum - Banjo Ben Clark

I'd like to start a conversation

In Western Civilization’s version of music training/teaching and theory we rarely if ever promote improv (jamming). I think the world of improv is fascinating…especially when the musician can get on a melody they’ve just heard for the first time,

Before we get too far into that…

Is it Ok to talk about the “theory” behind musical improv (jamming) here in the “Theory” category of the forums? Would anyone here like to chat about it and how develop it? I’d certainly like to talk about this and treat it as a “theory” but you may think it’s best location is elsewhere and I can do that. But there has to be a “theory” about musical improv. If not not there should be.

Just putting my feelers out here to try and start a conversation in an attempt to learn more on improv (jamming).

I am a very young adventurer that is just finally arriving in the new world I can see it, hear it, taste it it, smell it, …and can almost play it. Not yet.

If we can talk then how about we start with Rap Music? I simply think it’s fascinating how they can free style. I don’t pay attention to the words, I pay attention to the notes. They love using popular melodies (sample), then telling their story and “make it up as they go”. It’s all improv, but they are pretty convincing in their ability to be “jammers” and base it on the melody. It’s fascinating how the use “licks” like “What, what, what, what” or “All the ladies in the house raise your hands in the air”. Those are “licks” in the rapping world. They can work all kinds of popular licks in to fill space. Most of the time it’s a “safe space” that they can play (or use as a crutch) that they know by heart, all the while the brain is thinking “where can I go next” and “what is my message going to be”. Free-style rap music and bluegrass “jam breaks” over old fiddle tunes are so much alike.



That’s an interesting observation. I’d never thought of the similarities between rap battles and bluegrass improv, but you’re right. They are incredibly similar, even in how they’re built.

The rapper must first get an idea of the story (the song.) Then they have to develop the rhyming words (the melody notes.) Then they have to fill in the gaps between the rhymes (the filler between melody notes.)

Then, as you say, they’ll have some prepared phrases in their back pockets, equal to memorized licks on an instrument. Just like those licks, the more phrases they have ready to use, and the more they practice where those phrases can fit, the more likely they are to be successful and appear to be spontaneous.

Cool observation.


I’m defintely a beginner but have always been really interested in the idea of jamming. I will definitely read along o hopefully learn a little bit!


Oh I was just as amazed by the discovery as you. I have not listened to a rap song in years, can’t say I ever owned a cd or even searched out rap on the radio. But after you hear a song or two you notice the similarities.

I mentioned before that I herniated a disc in my neck 2 years ago, was in the bed for awhile, and decided to use that time to study music…especially musical improv.

Ted Talks had an impressive study into musical improv. They watched brain patterns by using an MRI to scan the brain while playing. The end results were astonishing when it came to the different sections of brain used for improv vs a memorized or “read” piece. In my opinion, and even though it was the same person playing - when it came to active areas in the brain and the difference it’s two entirely different musicians.

Sure we share the commonalities of scales, technique, and at the min basic theory…but the two are worlds apart when it comes to brain activity.

Information on the subject in Western Civilization’s music archives is essentially slim to none. It’s almost like we shunned it from our studies. Why has Western Civilization shunned these practices?

Did you know that Einstein loved “jamming” on a violin? Please don’t quote me on this because I may be wrong because it was two years ago and I don’t have the reference handy… I think it was Einstein who said improv on an instrument was the “ability” or “attempt” to “control chaos”…makes perfect sense because if you can’t jam nothing but chaos comes out if you try.

I think all of our famous composers were good at jamming. I mean wouldn’t one have to be?

Oh I watched a documentary about Elton John also. The guy that wrote a lot of songs for Elton in the band was amazed by his ability to simply look at the lyrics, start singing and playing, and in several instances his very fist attempt at putting the three (singing, lyrics, and piano) together ended up being the recorded version of the hit. Hand Elton some lyrics and 5 minutes later he has musically put together something that will end up at the top of the charts…that’s some pretty good jamming technique right there!


Sorry @oldhat40 Rap is just not part of my vocabulary


Oh I hear ya there Archie it’s not part of mine either, but I enjoy all music when simply viewing it as music…especially when it comes to “jamming”. Outside of the style it’s all the same…just a bunch of notes strung together. It’s exceptionally interesting how different styles of music addresses the technique of jamming.


I guess at the end of the day it’s a shame that Western Civilization does not focus on turning you into a unique musician. Instead we crank out machines that simply learn how to play something that others have already invented. We really do not permit creativity in our music teachings. This technique/method of music training does not permit your personality to show through with your respective instrument.

At the end of the day we guitar flat pickers love that “Tony Rice sound”. I want to sound like Oldhat, I don’t want to be a Tony Rice clone. If I work out a Tony Rice break I am simply turning into a machine and playing something someone else played. What sound do you have in you? It may very well be a sound that’s better than Tony Rice if you let it come out.

Ben runs some “build a break” stuff from time to time. Imagine that this skill is developed enough to where you can do it real time, on a song you’ve heard for first time, and at break-neck bluegrass speeds…that’s raw talent to me! I’m certainly interested in developing it…but the resources are very limited.

When I started searching out methods for jamming I found a video of John Mayer talking about it in a vid he recorded. When he came on the scene as a blues guy I was not impressed. Then he done his own thing and John Mayer created an identity. Then he joined Dead and Company and became a true musician.

If you are interested in jamming then take a few minutes and watch this video of his where he explains his thought process and technique…you won’t be disappointed if you are interested in developing your jamming skills.


I don’t think it’s necessary to go as far as studying monotone poetry to drums in order to force creativity as opposed to memorisation.

One simple "push toward creating is to play with a different goal. for instance play an emotion…can you create anger, happiness, laughter, sadness, etc. on your instrument? Can you incorporate the mood into a song?

Once we have learned the basics of how to play something, we are cheating ourselves (as a non-classical musician) if we leave experimentation off the table. By keeping it out of our playing time we will not create.

It’s quite simple…if you want to grow & expand in improvisation you should take time to experiment regularly.


Thanks for sharing that Mayer vid. Good thoughts on improve and dropping into the river of music…


Takeaways if I understood it correctly:

  1. Fret board notes familiarity (I remember seeing a video where you understand E & A strings and rest can be understood relative to that.)
  2. Multiple position pentatonic scales
  3. Some fill-in ideas for I-V progression to improvise
    At the end of the day, practice, practice, practice several along these lines is the key to be able to do any song real time.

Yes that pretty much sums it up. You need to learn those scales based on the “CAGED” system and pretty much know them by heart. Most bluegrass guitar pickers love playing out of the key G, so you might as well look at it like learning how to make those G chords up and down the neck and being able to play the major scale around them. Learn the major scale. Once you take the time to know it up to the 12th fret in “G”, then by then you will understand enough to simply drop or change some notes for a different scale. That’s the point where I am at.

Where I’ve really been focusing though is just like you said - find you 5 backing tracks that you like, learn how to play the major scale “in time” with the track, simply keep it in time and in order. Do that for all 5 positions. Start with a slow backing track and progress over moths (?)

By the time you’ve put forth the effort to learn to do this it really starts becoming natural/second nature. Also all of that time spent cleaned up or settled you into an acceptable right hand picking style.

Now that you don’t have to think about looking at the fret board as much, worrying about hitting the correct string, and where you are in the progression, you can now spend a lot to free’d up time/brain space towards creativity.

Sure you still have to sometimes look at the fretboard, still have to switch your brain over to checking out what your right hand is doing to clean it up a bit, but over-all you can think of where to place notes/where important notes need to be. You might figure that out quickly in your head and when it comes back around you then know enough to get cute with it and add a few notes however you like.

Turn on a backing track and just listen to it. Make up a song melody to that song by humming it. Now go get your instrument of choice and work out that melody. Play that melody 1000 times (lol) at some point it will all slow down and you’ll then be able to start adding in notes.

I am at the point where I can “jam” and read and comprehend a website and understand what I am reading. Subconsciously my ear and hands play something. No kidding. It’s melodic, in the right scale, etc but may not fit on the 1/4 notes but fits just fine none-the-less.

Now I want to start developing that. I want to be able to hear a melody and instantly be able to play it back. That’s my focus…on the ear picking the correct fret and moving me there. It’s already developed a lot but I know there is more. I hear the sounds around me on the fret board right before I want to go to them, however I’m batting about 50% if I let my ear move my hands to the note it thinks is there. I was batting 25% a few months ago. It’s getting better.

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@oldhat40, you described it well. I’m still far off. I learnt the CAGED for the regular scales, now I should switch and learn it for the simpler pentatonic scales to keep things simple. I now have idea about the up and down movement to switch between positions in one key (or G key), but I have implement it and practice it.

When I saw the joy to the world - jazzy by Mark_Rocka, I never imagined when I will in a position to free up and play the notes. It is becoming achievable now from more practice of the same song/music. I guess playing in real time also will come up with more listening and more practice with playing by ear. The guys who teach have several years of experience, I guess patience is going to be needed to catch up. But I know some tricks are going to make things much easier to get to their level in fraction of their time to get to where they are now.

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I used the “Rap” thing as a shock. Now folks seem to be opening up. Since John Mayer is in the conversation now I simply want any of you that think about being “jammers” to watch the video I will link.

It’s “Cumberland Blues”. Hangs out in G for a long time, then to F#,Bb,B, Bb, A, then back in G. It’s a jam tune. It should fit folk’s ears that are interested in bluegrass.

Now listen to how they express themselves on their instruments and how good they are at those lead breaks. These entertainers are having fun. The crowd is having fun. Music is supposed to be fun like this. I’ll take fun over a memorized note for note Hollywood production any day of the week.

Here’s the vid - John Mayer sure knows his way around a guitar. He’s using his ear. He hears every single sound and control the notes just like the ability to control his speech.

I’d like to be able to play this good but with a bluegrass twist. I’ve got at least 20 years left on earth and I’m not gonna stop trying.


So all of you that watched the vid…

Doing scales is not “fun”. It’s discipline. But once you put in the work on “theory” and scale work then you are in a position to put yourself into having fun?

I hate to be blunt, I was there. I honestly look back through all the years and say “I wasn’t playing the guitar, I was still learning how to play the guitar”. Those memorized fiddle tunes, worked out breaks, etc, were all still just a big part of the learning process.

I think after all these years I can state that “I can now play the guitar”. I’ve still got a looooong way to go. I’m am really interested in progressing myself. So if anyone has any tips for a person who really just fell off the turnip truck and into this world then I AM ALL EARS!

You guys can get there if you want. Don’t short your theory and scales…mark my words you will be coming back to them. Mix up your practice, start at least a few minutes a day on working towards scales in between Ben’s licks and his lessons. You’ll get that Bluegrass sound from Ben…no doubt about that, now you need to start understanding why it sounds like that and what scales those passages are in and over what chord.

In the earlier Mayer practice video he says something about what’s in his head while jamming - In his head he’s thinking of the progression and saying the Chord note, .i.e "G, G, G, C, C, C, C, G, G, G, G, etc. So while he’s jamming his brain is still keeping track of what chord they are in in the progression but also to make his playing sound better he can match up a “G note” anywhere on the fret board at the same time his brain is thinking “G”.

Once you free up worrying about the right note and string to hit, know scales, then it gets fun. Start calling out your note in your head on the 1/4 notes of the chord you are in. I am talking about while strumming the progression for beginners. Later your brain will tell you where you are and on what 1/4 note and you can then play lead around that important note while hitting that note at the right time.


I don’t want to offend you, but did you “really” learn the CAGED system? I mean REALLY LEARN?

If you’ve learned them then you should be able to put on a 120bpm min backing track in G and play the major scale up and down the neck without stopping and moving from position to position… just like it’s a long lead break…but all you do is play the G major scale like a guitar break in 5 different positions without missing a note at 120 bpm.

That’s when you really learn it.

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Yeah the 5 position I can play with decent speed. May not be so clean as with my doing with Ben’s lessons. But decently clean. I learnt them even before we talked last time. 2 pentatonic positions also I know.

Oh ok. I’ll try that. Do you have suggestions for which back track or where i get that?

Again, should I use regular scale or pentatonic scale?

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No, It’s all a personal preference. I have a 60" smart TV and a nice sound system in my bedroom on the wall. I just up Youtube, Hit on the voice search and say “Bluegrass Backing track in G”, I listen to a few of Youtube’s suggestions until I find one that I like and at a speed I am comfortable with.

It’s no different than using a metronome, it simply has some backing music with it. You should treat it like a metronome though and just practice your scales and not worry about what cord they are on at the time…just make sure for now the G note matches up whenever you are in the G chord of the progression.

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Got it…

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You should also be able to identify every single note by name when you hit it too.

around 120 bpm up and down the neck playing the major scale in time. Then be able to call out each note in your head at the same time…that’s when you’ve really learned your major scale based on the CAGED system. I mean you have to know it and know it at a fairly moderate pace when it comes to BPM.

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I believe then I’m not there yet to get the note in to my head as I play. I only know the root note so far. Some short term goal for me to work on now…

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