Section III: Skills Development

Having acquired this book, the odds are that you are deeply engaged in Bluegrass music in some fashion.  Furthermore, it is somewhat likely that you have either thought about playing an instrument or already know how to do so.  You might even be a semi-pro or pro picker with interests of broadening your knowledge about the music. 

This section breaks down and examines the learning and playing of Bluegrass music – from the physics to the psychology and everything in between.  It is intended primarily for people that are already experienced musicians, but there is plenty in here for beginners and for interested non-musicians as well.

Learning to Think Musically

Great anthropologists have posited that early prehistoric humans only began to think increasingly abstract (and useful) thoughts as they developed language.  Well I’m not an anthropologist, but it does make sense that you need a language in order to have a basis for thoughts powerful enough to (say) build a rocket ship. 

Similarly, none of us were born knowing a musical language, but learning such a language should be able to help us build ever more powerful musical thoughts, and hence creations that involve music.  Of course, if you are blessed with an in-born musical talent of such a degree that you are able to perform and create great musical works without such a language, you can skip this chapter. There are, indeed such people in the world.  For the rest of us, let me suggest that learning to think musically is much easier if you have a language to think in.

I have, for years, used a particular musical numbering system to both think about music as well as teach it.  It is loosely based on the Nashville Numbering system, which you can read about on Wikipedia here <link>.  This notation will help us discuss harmony and some other related concepts to be covered in the next chapter in this section.

I have developed several important skills using this numbering system over my lifetime.  I rely on the numbering system (which will be described fully below) as a mental framework for composing and executing music.  Let me give several examples:

  1. I am able to compose instrumental breaks on the fly, usually based on a single hearing of a (new) melody.  These breaks may not be award-winning, but they get me thru tight spots in shows, especially if I’m filling in with another band.
  2. I can compose vocal harmonies on the fly, even as I’m performing them in front of an audience.  I can easily produce a tenor line to just about any melody and can usually nail the baritone line (with perhaps a few inaccuracies to be corrected later) the first time I try to sing the harmony. We will cover tenor and baritone harmonies later in the book.
  3. I can come up with new and interesting instrumental variations to breaks and tunes as needed.

In each of these examples, I typically have the aforementioned musical numbering system in my head as a framework to fit the melody (or harmony) of a song or tune as I am hearing it.  It took a bit of ear training to do this, and I strongly suggest that if you are currently unable to do these types of things, you read this chapter carefully and engage in some ear training (as I suggest below).   This work will yield tremendous dividends in the future for you as a picker and singer.

The rest of this section will describe my musical numbering system and how to use it.

Modified Nashville Numbering:  Thinking about the notes

It is always tempting to think about a melody or chord pattern in a Bluegrass song in a terms of letter values of notes (for simplicity in illustrating these concepts, I will use Arabic letters and not std. musical notation). For example, let’s start with the A Major scale.


How would we list the notes of “Mary Had A Little Lamb?” (Note that since we are just developing some high-level theory here, I am not going to differentiate the time value of each note, as is done in standard musical notation.)


If I wanted to play that same song in G, it would be a different series of notes:


Each different key would require a different set of notes to be memorized or learned.

Instead of using letters as note values, it is much more powerful and efficient to think about the notes as a series of numbers (in the scale of the root key).  These numbers can then be applied to any key.  

This way, if I learn a song in (say) the key of A and our guitarist / lead singer decides, after reaching puberty that he would rather sing it in Eb, I don’t need to re-learn the song.  The song will have the same number values in any key.  This applies to both individual notes and chords. 

Here is specifically how this works:  There are seven notes in a major scale, and let’s use Arabic numerals to denote each note of the scale, in this case an A major scale.  (The fact that we are using Arabic numerals (vs. Roman numerals) is important, and this will become clear shortly.)



Mary had a little lamb would be written:


The numbers wouldn’t change if I shifted the song to the key of G major, or the key of Eb for that matter.  I only need to learn each song once and then, if I have done the homework on my instrument or my voice, and know the scales of all the keys, I then can play or sing that song in any key without transposing.  I just need to think of the numbers, not the notes.  If you are familiar with shape note singing, this scheme essentially solves the same problem, but without the shapes.

This is a very convenient notation for harmony singers as well.  Using this notation, we can easily figure out harmonies (and have a framework to think about while singing harmonies).  We will give an example of how to do this later in this chapter.

As mentioned above, I also use this system when I am in a jam and someone starts playing a new song, one I have never heard before.  I find if I can recognize and replicate a few of the key notes (as well as think about the chord structure, to be covered below), I can produce a rudimentary mandolin break on the fly, the very first time I’ve played the song – just as long as I can hear the melody at least once.  My thought processes at the time of panic – just before I take my first break in this unknown song – are to think about the melody in terms of numbers, and then attempt to construct a break using those numbers as a framework.  It works most of the time (but sometimes ends up with a spectacular failure).

The key point is to be able to fluently think about notes as numbers:  to be able to recognize melodies on the fly and assign numbers to them. This is not as difficult as you might think but will require some practice.  It is a fundamental skill that I would highly recommend for any beginning bluegrass musician to acquire.

Constructing and Using Chords

Now let’s discuss chords.  Briefly reviewing some basic theory: a major chord is composed of three notes, including the root, the third, and the fifth.  If I add an octave to the root note, I will have a four-note major chord.  (The reason these four particular notes sound harmonious is they contain pairs of notes that are separated by the five most harmonious intervals – the octave, the perfect fifth, the fourth, the major third and the minor third.  More detail is available in the appendix.)

For an A Major chord, the notes would be A-C#-E and A (octave).  Using our Arabic numeral notation, its 1-3-5-1.  And as with scales, a major chord is always 1-3-5-1 (in some combination) in any key.  An F Major chord is 1-3-5-1, and so is a D Major.

If we are playing a song in the key of A, we will need more than just an A Major chord.  You will find that you can play most of the songs in bluegrass in the key of A with two just additional chords – the D Major, the E Major.  And to avoid confusion with the notes of a scale (which we are using Arabic numerals to denote), we will refer to chords using Roman numerals.  So, an A chord in the key of A would be a I chord (“I” as in Roman numeral “one”).  The D chord is a IV chord (for a song that is in the key of A).  Roman numeral “four,” or IV.  It is a IV chord because the root note of the chord is the 4th note of the scale.  The 4th note of the scale in the key of A is a D.  For similar reasons, the E Major chord is a V chord (in a song that is played in the key of A).

I, IV, and V are the three basic chords in bluegrass music.  There are also a couple of less common chords that you will encounter – these are the II (major and minor)[1], VI (major and minor), bVII (pronounced “flat seven”) and the III chord, which we include in homage to the song “Old Home Place”.  These “roman numeral” chords are listed in the table below, with a translation into all the keys.  You will need to memorize this table.  But once you do, you will only need to learn songs once (learning them by the roman numerals) and then can play in any key without transposing.  This will also come in handy when the guitar player yells, “go to a IV chord next.”

A A D E F# B G C#
Bb Bb Eb F G C Ab E
B B E F# G C# A D#
C C F G A D Bb E
D D G A B E C F#
E E A B C# F# D G#
F F Bb C Dm G Eb A

*Note that the VI, II and III chords are sometimes minor but not always. 

So, You Want to Sing Harmony?

In my experience it is always best to start with constructing the tenor harmony first. The tenor line is the easiest to find and often consists of iconic phrases in order to “sound like bluegrass.”  To find the tenor line, start with the tenor “rule” – sing the note that occurs in the current chord directly above the melody line.  If you can find the first harmony note, you’ve won half the battle.  Continue to sing this line, going up in pitch when the lead goes up and down when the lead descends.  You will find there are places where, in order for it to “sound like bluegrass” you may need to deviate from this note-for-note shadowing of the lead, and you should go with your feeling here.

The baritone part comes next and, as implied above, it can be much trickier than the tenor part.  The game with singing baritone is basically to “fill in the missing note of the chord.”  Most of the time this note will be directly below the melody line but occasionally you will have to cross over the melody (e.g. choose a note or phrase higher in pitch than the melody) if the tenor singer has left a gap between his part and the melody.  It takes a sharp ear to sing a baritone part and it is often best to slow things down and make sure you are blending on each and every sustainable note.  At the end of the day, the baritone’s job is to blend in and fill out the vocal trio – and not to stick out (which is very much unlike the tenor part).

Constructing a Basic Tenor Harmony

Now we will put some of this notation to work and show an example of how to construct a tenor harmony.   Let’s take the first line from the song “Rolling in my Sweet Baby’s Arms,” which using our notation for writing notes, would be written like this (I’ve simplified the melody somewhat):

Rollin’ in my sweet baby’s arms

3     3    3  3     3       3  2      1

The chord being played during this phrase is a I chord.  As mentioned above, this consists of the notes 1, 3 and 5.

The first word, “Rollin,” is on a 3 note.  And we find, conveniently, that the 3 note is within the I chord.  The “tenor rule” states that the tenor harmony is usually the next higher note than the melody of the chord currently being played.  The melody is on 3, so the harmony is on 5.  Once we find that note, we follow the idea that if the melody goes up, the tenor line goes up and vice versa.  Note that in the word “baby’s” the melody drops.  This is a transient word – the note being sung is not in the chord being played.  Have no worry, though – the next note (the word “arms”) is sustained, and it is on the 1 note and it is is squarely in the I chord.  So, the tenor harmony would be:

Rollin’ in my sweet baby’s arms

5     5    5  5    5         5  4    3

Now for the Baritone

Adding a baritone to this line is relatively simple.  Starting with the melody, we find the note directly below and within the chord.  If you do this exercise you’ll find that the baritone line is

Rollin’ in my sweet baby’s arms

1      1   1   1   1         1  6     5

Note here that the 6 and the 5 are the ones below the melody, not above.  This is implied by the direction of the melody, which is down.  One of the problems of our simple notation is that the octave that the note occurs in is not explicit – but the context of the song seems to always give you the correct octave.

Again, with the exception of the transition note on the second half of the word “baby’s,” we are always forming a major chord and the harmonies will blend accordingly.

The Rest of the Song

You can now take this scheme and extend it to the rest of the song.  It becomes a little tricky when the chord switches beyond the “I” chord.  The way to approach this is to look at the notes of the new chord in the key you are currently in.  The IV chord for example has the notes 4-6-1 when expressed in the key of the song.  This is just taking the 1-3-5 and shifting it up to the root note of the IV chord, which is a 4.   You will find that, generally speaking, the “important” melody notes (e.g. notes that are on downbeats or are sustained) will fall on one of the three notes that the chord contains[2]. This is not always true but can be used as a rule of thumb.  Similarly, the V chord will have the notes 5-7-2 and the melody will have “important” notes contained in this chord.  The next step is to find the tenor harmony by re-applying the “tenor rule” of moving up to the next chorded note, or chord tone.  Similarly for the baritone, the game is (usually) to move down to the next chorded note.

I will leave it to the reader to complete the harmony of “Rollin’ In My Sweet Baby’s Arms”.  

Finally, just remember that 99% of songs have melodies that end on a “1” note – so to check your harmonies, the tenor should (almost) always end on a “3” note and the baritone should (almost) always end on a “5” note.  Happy singing!

How to compose breaks

It is probably very bold of me to try to write a chapter that promises to teach a reader how to compose breaks on any of the bluegrass instruments.  This is certainly an overly ambitious goal for any book, and I certainly don’t expect that.  However, I believe I can offer a couple of “common sense” methods to constructing breaks that will apply to any instrument as well as describe the thought process behind taking a break.

I have found that there are two approaches to composing breaks to songs.  The first is to learn a solo note for note and then execute it when the time comes[3].  The second is to develop breaks on the fly, calling upon a real-time creation of the song’s melody[4].  Both methods are valid, and an accomplished instrumentalist will have both at her disposal.  Let’s discuss each approach individually and then cover a hybrid approach that combines the best of both.

Learning solos note-for-note

Learning breaks note-for-note is an essential tool for the modern bluegrass musician.  There is no better way to fully appreciate the masters of bluegrass than to learn a break from one of the top players of your instrument, note-for-note.  It doesn’t mean that you need to play it that way each time you perform but having done the hard work of getting each note and nuance just the way that a particular top performer did will improve your skills and insight tremendously as a musician.  

This is actually a classical learning technique employed in all the art forms.   Just as master painters study the classic paintings of an earlier era by copying them, you will find that many master musicians have taken the time to learn key breaks from those gurus that came before them.   Doing so allows them (and you) to pay respect to previous masters by incorporating elements of their break.  It will, in turn, earn you a ton of respect from your listeners, especially those who are musicians with “educated” ears.

There are a ton of tools available on PCs, iPads and iPhones that can 1) slow down a break 2) repeat a break or a section of a break by looping and 3) transpose a break into any key.  Two tools I’m familiar with are the Amazing Slow Downer and Anytune.  Both are great tools, but I would give Anytune the nod as it is much more flexible and taps directly into your iTunes library.  Another tool that can help is to use sheet music or tablature transcriptions – these are available from a variety of sources and can really speed things along in your learning process.

Another “learning note-for-note” technique is to construct your own break from “scratch” ahead of time (not necessarily copying anybody) and play it back exactly the way you learned it every time you take a solo.  This technique has an advantage of teaching you how to create breaks, and it allows you to take the necessary time to figure out solos on your own instead of extemporaneously while performing or jamming.  However, I’d caution against doing this over the long term.  These types of breaks can often sound stilted and a bit stale if you rely on them too much in my opinion.

Constructing breaks on the fly

Most, if not all professional Bluegrass instrumentalists have developed the skill of creating breaks on the fly.  This is really the essence of the music – to evolve a break in real time, just as the emotion hits you, taking into account everything you have learned about the song, your instrument, and the music in the past and applying it to the current dynamics of the song as it is happening.  It is lots of fun to do and (maybe more importantly) fun for the audience to see happening before their eyes.

In order to do this, first, you have to acquire a skill of being able to take a melody and play it extemporaneously, in real time, on your instrument.  As a part of the learning process, I recommend using the technique that we described in the last chapter – thinking about notes as numbers.

Start by practicing the translation of melodies into numbers in real time on your instrument and then playing them.  Begin with simple melodies such as Mary Had a Little Lamb and Jingle Bells… and then advance to perhaps some straightforward Bluegrass vocal melodies like Little Cabin Home on the Hill or Blue Ridge Mountain Home.  You will get to a point where you don’t actually have to think consciously about numbers once you gain proficiency, but it is an excellent way to learn how to do it. 

Once you get to the point of being able to produce a melody on your instrument at will, you can add embellishments and deviations to make things more interesting. This will be covered in depth next, in the chapter on improvisation. 

One of the key advantages of this this method is that it first forces you to rely on the melody as the primary organizing technique for creating your breaks – as opposed to simply stringing together licks that happen to fit the chord structure of the song.  Your breaks will sound much more natural and appropriate for the song to begin with.

A hybrid technique

Once you get fluent in both of the above approaches, it will be quite natural to combine the above two to create a hybrid method for constructing a break.  For example, if you have memorized a top picker’s break to a particular song and also know how to pull something together in an impromptu fashion, you can select key elements from the memorized break and fill in the sections in between with notes invented on the fly.  This probably sounds much more mechanical than it actually is, and I suspect it will happen naturally as you master both of the above approaches.

How to improvise

This is yet another topic that doesn’t lend itself well to being put in print, and I certainly don’t want to imply success in learning how to improvise as a direct result of reading this chapter.  However, as in the previous chapter, I can offer some approaches to improvising as well as the thought process behind them.

Improvisation can mean quite a few different things.  My meaning of it is creating and executing new and interesting musical ideas while taking a break during a Bluegrass fiddle tune or song.  These concepts can, of course, apply more broadly – for example in those extended jam solos that happen frequently in Jam-grass bands. 

As implied in the last chapter, before learning to improvise, I believe it is essential that you gain the skill of being able to create and play the melody of a particular song in real time.  It has become standard practice, in fact, for an instrumentalist to state the melody in a recognizable form first, before going on to more abstract improvisation.  It is more than possible (but perhaps poor taste) to launch in on an improvised break just based on the chord structure alone without knowing or referring to the melody in any way.  But in my view, it is much better to reference the melody early in your break (or as your entire first break) before invoking abstraction.

Stringing together licks

In some people’s minds this doesn’t qualify as improvisation but it sure is easy to do and can be very effective as a way for a beginner to start improvising.  The idea here is to learn a “vocabulary” of licks on your particular instrument that will work with each chord.  For example, you might have “A licks” and “D licks” and “E licks.  So, improvising on the song Blue Ridge Cabin Home, for example, in the key of A would involve starting with an A lick then a D lick then an E lick then finally another A lick[5].  There are a couple of problems with this approach, however – the most obvious of which is that it won’t sound very good after a while, as your lick-based approach will start to sound repetitive and a bit trite.  I will say, though, that it is really good to have licks to fall back on when you need them, and we all use them even if we are loathe to admit it.

Targeting chord tones

One way to keep your Improv line somewhat coherent (assuming you are aiming to do that) is to target chord tones.  This is only slightly more difficult than the above method of stringing together licks, and it can be much more effective for creating interesting solos.  Chord tones were covered earlier in this section – and they are simply the notes of the chord that is currently playing.  For example, if you are playing a song in A and you are currently in the IV chord (which is a D), the chord tones are D, F# and A.  For an “improvised” break, you would create a series of notes such that you end up on a chord tone at the beginning of each measure or half measure.  Intervening notes can be just about anything. 

Targeting and resolving dissonances

One of the methods of musical theory that has been employed since well before classical times is the building of dissonances and then resolving them.  A most common (and benign) example is that of a V7 chord resolving to a I chord.  The V7 has dissonance that “pulls” toward the I.  Applying this theory to an Improv line would involve thinking about increasingly dissonant notes – as you climb the overtone series – 7ths, 9ths, 11ths, 13ths – all the way to the chromatic notes that are not in the diatonic scale (for example an augmented second).  Targeting these dissonances with your solo can be an extremely effective way of building some interest – and motion – into your breaks.  Perhaps an even more dramatic technique would be to use dissonances as double stops (playing an Eb against an E, for example, and resolving to an E). These can be built into rolls too for a mandolin (e.g. crosspicking roll on two strings) or a banjo and be very effective devices. 

Rhyming patterns

In instrumental music, rhymes are similar patterns of notes that repeat regularly.   There are two different types of rhymes: rhythmic patterns and tonal patterns. 

  • A rhythmic pattern that rhymes is a series of note time values that repeat.  An example is a triplet followed by a quarter note – say, occurring as a group three times in a row.  If a rhythmic rhyming pattern is particularly strong and recognizable, you can almost play any series of notes within the pattern – even if they are atonal.  As long as it forms a recognizable, repeating pattern, you will probably get away with it. 
  • A tonal pattern that rhymes is a highly recognizable sequence of notes, repeated multiple times (perhaps repeated exactly the same or alternatively they could be shifted up or down in tone with each repetition).  Strong tonal patterns can stand alone in almost any context too, if you have come up with an interesting enough sequence of notes. 
  • A pattern can be both rhythmically rhyming and tonally rhyming.  In fact, I’ve found that most that I come up with are both rhythmic and tonal rhymes. These are particularly strong and useful.

Musicians will often say that if you make a mistake and it sounds particularly bad when it comes out, just repeat it a couple of times.  People will think it is deliberate. 

Bringing it all together

Employing the above techniques by themselves will surely result in a very dry solo. Using these together – especially in the context of the melody – will yield dramatically better results.  It is best in my opinion to employ of some of these methods along with periodic statement of a melody – so that the Improv weaves in and out of the melody in some fashion.  But at the end of the day it is all up to you to select and use these (and other) techniques.  Following these “rules” will only get you so far; it is essential that you put your own stamp on things as you develop as a musician, which of course will only come from breaking these rules once you learn them. 



Section I: Bluegrass Primer 

Section II: The Five Bluegrass Instruments + the Bluegrass Voice:

– Bass

– Guitar

– Mandolin

– Banjo

– Fiddle

– The Bluegrass Voice

Section III: Skills Development (you are here)

Section IV: The Bluegrass Band

Section V: Bluegrass as a Business

Section VI: Sound Reinforcement for Bluegrass Bands

[1] The II is a natural minor chord.  A II major is actually the V of a V.

[2] People refer to these melody notes as Chord Tones, and this will be important in our upcoming chapter on improvisation.  

[3] This is basically equivalent to sight-reading the notes on a sheet of music but the notes come from memory instead. 

[4] In combination with embellishments, improvisations and/or deviations to the melody line.

[5] This echoes the chord structure of the song, which is A-D-E-A