Improvisation: How do you do it?

Admired and feared, improvising has sometimes been shrouded by mystery and misunderstanding.   New banjo students are often baffled by top players who pick beautiful streams of notes but never the same way twice on a given song.

The Secret

Probably the most important “secret” of improvisation is “familiarity with your instrument.”

The player who knows three songs will approach the banjo using the knowledge from those three songs.

The player who knows three thousand songs will approach the banjo using the knowledge from those three thousand songs.

Familiarity of Songs 

The knowledge of how to play more songs, is kind of like a writer who knows more words.  The player or writer who knows more, can put together more varied combinations of notes or words than a player or writer with less knowledge.

So, one important ingredient of “familiarity with your instrument” is to learn as many melodies, as many chords and as many picking patterns or picking  combinations as possible.

Familiarity of Techniques  

Classically trained musicians spend most of their early development on their instrument learning extremely basic technique.  A friend of mine said his classical guitar teacher had them plucking one string with all their fingers of the right hand until “the tone from each finger sounded the same as with every other finger.”   They did this for a month.

Every great banjoist that I’ve spoken with said their early development was very much like the classical approach in that they would learn one roll, then another, then another.   They would practice slowly and precisely and the familiarity with the picking technique would gradually increase.

The more “familiar” you are with rolls or picking patterns, the less “effort” it requires to play them.   Also, the more “familiar” you are with rolls, the more easily you can vary the rolls slightly, which allows more variation in what you play.

Trial and Error

A lot of improvisation comes from trying different combinations of rolls and chords and rolls picking different strings from your usual practice.  When you finish your regular, daily practice routine, try playing completely random chords, random picking patterns and random notes and listen to what “happy accidents” you stumble across.  It is good to allow yourself, in the privacy of your practice room, to play some really odd and clashing notes or chords.  What sounds bad in one context, often sounds good in another.

For example, if you fret a normal C chord one fret above the usual first position and strum the banjo, it sounds pretty strange.  But this chord, when picked with the appropriate rolls is a chord that can be used in the Beverly Hillbillies song when they sing the “TEE” in the phrase … “you’re all invited back next week to this locali   ty….”

Innate Ability 

While it is true that some people have an innate musical ability that makes things seem easy for them to spontaneously create, no one can write without words.  No one can improvise without “licks” or combinations of rolls and notes.  It doesn’t matter whether you play a plectrum or tenor banjo with a flatpick, clawhammer or fingerpick a 5-string, or play 6 string banjo.

Improvisation always boils down to “familiarity.”

“Familiarity” boils down to training and experience.

Every person who plays, whether “blessed” with innate ability or for those of us who struggle, can improvise on a melody.  It is important to allow yourself to sound “bad” at times because sometimes bad becomes good when you try it in different settings.   You do have to allow yourself the “freedom” of “not always sounding awesome!”   Some of your stinkiest errors will yield beautiful results when applied to another text.

Training, trial and error and experience are far more important in improvisation than innate ability.

Committing to Memory

Reading music is NOT a crutch.  Reading music is a kind of freedom as it allows us to learn music accurately.

Reading music is also NOT a necessity to enjoy music and have fun.   Music is sound….it doesn’t HAVE to be written or read.

Improvisation is based on drawing from your memory the vast number of picking patterns, chords, chord shapes and “licks” that you are comfortable remembering and executing.   There is nothing written to follow.   You are drawing on what you remember.

You will remember more things if you practice more often; if you try new and different things after your daily practice; and if you allow yourself the freedom of trying some rather strange sounding combinations.

How Can I get there?

The answer to this is really pretty simple:  Spend as much time as you can with your banjo and take lessons if you can, read instruction books, watch videos, go to concerts and TAKE YOUR TIME.   Give yourself time to “discover” good and “strange” combinations and then try them occasionally after your practice time and with friends.

You will see, with time, that you start having some very happy “accidents”…… or maybe, just maybe, you came up with something beautiful.

Wouldn’t that be wonderful.


  • Barry

    Thanks Nathan. Keep at it. Let us know if you’re playing in San Diego area.

  • Barry

    Thanks David. Keep in touch.

  • Barry

    Thank YOU Michael. Greg Deering has several GOodtime banjos around his house near various chairs and couches. Like some folks have candies or salted nuts, Greg has banjos. (he has candy and nuts too….much to my doom.) You’re in good company….. as long as you don’t forget the candy and nuts…..

  • David Russell

    Thanks for this very well written article! I have been preaching this to my students since the late 70s, and it is a part of my regular list of banjo mantras. Learning to improvise takes time, and patience. There is absolutely no magic bullet to getting there.

  • Nathan Friedlander

    I really enjoy learning and studying the relationship between notes, chords, and how connecting them can lead to interesting music. For instance, you can play a C note in multiple positions up and down the neck. During a phrase where the rest of the band is playing the chord of C, I might slide, hammer, or otherwise move between these different positions. Sometimes jumping over one to the other (e,.g. start in the “D” position 9top finger on 2d string, 1st fret), then go to the G position (top finger on 2d string, 8th fret), and work my way back up, maybe stopping at an F chord, then G, then F and ending back on C. Obviously trying to find the melody in these transitions is what really makes it interesting. Throw in some 7ths, 6ths, bends, ect… The more I understand the relationships and patterns, the more creative my improv seems to get, and I can move away from licks and just start playing what I feel.

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