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Learning to Play Lead Solos in Bluegrass Jams

I am interested in learning to play lead solos in bluegrass jams. Are there any pointers you can give me?

In order to answer this question, we will provide you with an excerpt from a handout that Tim Stafford gave students at last year's Roanoke Bluegrass Weekend.

Tips for Lead Guitar

Lead guitar in bluegrass is vastly over-rated. Not that there isn't some excellent lead guitar music being performed and recorded these days. It's just that too many people have the wrong attitude. When they begin thinking of lead as just one of many roles they play as a guitarist in a band, it becomes a little clearer.

Here are some things that may help your lead guitar playing. All of these refer back to the basics, as some good practice habits like always playing with a timing device like a metronome, drum machine or keyboard rhythm track, or with a good recorded band groove. (Caution: Many of these are strictly my opinions. Proceed forewarned.)

Pick Direction

How are you holding the pick? Is this allowing maximum tone? Play a solo you know very slowly. Examine the tone you're getting from upstrokes and downstrokes. Here's a tip: They shoud be as even in sound as possible. If you're playing a fiddle tune, it's a good bet you'll be using lots of alternating up and down strokes. Downstrokes usually have the best tone because of simple muscle physics. Some of the most "toneful" players utilize lots of downstrokes (watch Peter Rowan play lead or marvel at Tony Rice's amazing technique in getting maximum downstroke position for tone). Another tip: Slower songs sometimes sound great almost totally downstroked. Try playing just long, downstroked notes. Hear the overtones? Try getting a similar tone from your upstrokes.

Timing

Do you rush or drag certain sections of leads? Usually, "bad timing" comes not from an overall poor sense of beat but rather from a tendency to push or fall behind the beat at small twists and turns within a break. Learn how to spot these tendencies by recording what you practice. Listen for "bad timing" in other places too--so that you can avoid it, not criticize it.

Speed

Too many players worry about speed. The truth is, most fast guitar solos just sound plain bad, but that doesn't mean you can't try. But if you can't get it smooth, dead-on and in time, or if it doesn't fit the song, don't try to be a hero. Leave it to somebody else. But if you want to be Mr. Speed, I'd suggest practicing it, plain and simple. Nothing will work better than playing the break fast--and faster, even than you plan to perform it--over and over and over and. . . Choice of pick may help too. I prefer a big, thick white nylon pick for the sound I get with it on rhythm as well as the lead tone, but it's heard to play fast with it (I also play with the corner of the pick instead of the point). A good, thin tortoise shell pick with a not-too sharp point will help you play lead faster. But alway pay attention to the tone trade-off.

Play the Melody!

Sounds simple enough, but. . . The point is to get away from the whole concept of playing "licks" and start focusing on playing music. This is where the Taste "T" comes in. I've actually heard people say that their leads are nothing more than different licks they've put together. It's sure easy to get into that showy, contest-style of playing, especially when you're younger. But growing musically means thinking of other things like feeling, warmth and making your lead fit the song. Then maybe you'll look back on those silly days when you tried to play fireworks as the embarrassing, self-indulgent adolescence of your musical career.

Easy to say. Now, how do you do it? It's a difficult process, one that you learn only by doing over and over. Another key is to listen. Listening well is a fine art. Listen to the tasteful, tuneful players. How do you think they do it? For one, they always have the melody in mind. Now, they may not play a simplistic melody line, but it may be simple (there is a difference, of course). And it may not be the exact melody, but it is melodic, and it fits.

Tip: Don't think of individual notes in a break, but the break as a whole.

Rhythmic Sense

Sometimes you can do a lot with a break by using unconventional rhythmic twists. Some players, like Clarence White, could "play" with the rhythm without dropping time, and created wonderful effects without complex note patterns. Warning: You must have a good sense of time to pull this off.

Crosspick

Sometimes a song just cries out for crosspicking instead of a straight melodic line of notes. It's a great way to break up the "sameness" of your breaks.

Tip: The easiest crosspicking pattern on three strings is 1-2-3, down-up-down, but much of the best "Stanley style" crosspicking by our friend George Shuffler, Bill Napier and some of the others is 1-2-3 (or occasionally 1-3-2), down-down-up.

Some people use the term "crosspicking" to explain anything that doesn't follow a straight melodic line in a lead. You don't have to use three strings in the familiar rhythmic pattern; you can use two or four strings, or play in different times.

Develop a Unique Style

This is the big one, isn't it? This has to be your ultimate goal, though. We simply have too many Tony Rice clones out there, and the bluegrass world is anxiously awaiting good players and singers who don't sound like anyone else. Of course, when you're starting out, and even when you've played for a number of years, it's hard to break out of the "copycat" mode, but it's crucial.

Hint: Try playing a Tony Rice break another way--your own way. Make up breaks to all the songs on one of your favorite records, even if there are no guitar breaks.

Hint: Try playing leads with the older Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs recordings. The timing is usually great, and you'll hear some great music along the way. Besides, you need to hear that stuff anyway if you play bluegrass.

Tip: Try to play the way a vocalist sings. Try to make your guitar sound like the voices of Lester Flatt or Tim O'Brien, or Alison Krauss. You may laugh, but try.

Play Often with Good Musicians

This is the most problematic thing. If you don't play with people who have a good grasp of the "Ts," then you won't progress and could even damage your playing. However, I do believe it is important to go out and play with live musicians no matter what, if nothing else for the therapeutic effects. There's simply nothing like being in the middle of this sound, and being a part of it.

Where Do You Play?

Not as in what dive or what room of the house, but where is your right hand when you play? Play a few single notes about 1 inch from the bridge on the fourth string. Now play the same notes about 1 inch from the end of the fingerboard. Hear the difference? I prefer the sound I get from moving a little further up for leads, but for rhythm I prefer it much further down, below the sound hole. Experiment. Find what's best for you, and learn to do it that way smoothly.

Can You Hear All the Notes?

Smooth. That's the way I like it. Some don't, and that's the great thing about democracy. If you want to play smoother, concentrate on these things: pick placement, practice, smooth pick direction (up or down), practice, think ahead half a measure and simultaneously concentrate on what you're playing at that moment, practice, let the notes ring out--sustaining until the next note starts, practice, practice.

Tone, Tone, Tone.

I can't say enough about this--too few flatpickers are musicians. Maybe they play for different reasons--if you play mainly to stroke your ego, you probably won't be primarily interested in the tone of your breaks. You have to love that sound. Too many don't listen to the sound of the instrument. It's beautiful! Experiment with different ways to get different tone, using simple lead lines.

Simpler is Usually Better.

I realize this violates much of the flatpicker's canon that has developed over the last twenty years or so, but like it or not, it's just the truth. As I used to point out to my college History students, there's a difference between simplistic and simple. In music, one refers to a certain kind of ignorance of a tune' the other refers to the courage required to leave out something that doesn't fit. Just because you know something, doesn't mean you should play it. How many players have you heard who throw in everything they know every time they take a break?

Try Not to Play Licks.

Technique is a means to an end, a tool to help you express a feeling. A lick is a mechanical fingering mastered through repetition. There's a world of difference in one of these things and the other; one helps you play music--a form of communication, remember--when you play lead guitar, while the other can lead to flashy, note-filled finger-wiggling which manages to communicate only one's ego. There's a difference between mastering technique and mastering a catalog of licks. There's room for it all, I guess, but beware of the pitfalls.

Listen to the Masters of Other Styles and Instruments for Role Models.

Everyone needs role models. Unfortunately, bluegrass guitarists tend to listen only to other bluegrass guitarists. There is a world full of incredible guitarists who don't play bluegrass and don't even flatpick. Then there are fiddle, dobro, banjo, mandolin, bass, saxaphone and piano players who are just downright incredible. Why not listen to them when thinking of how to improvise? Or of how to make your guitar sound better? Try to learn a Stuart Duncan fiddle break on the guitar, or a Jerry Douglas dobro break, or a Roy Nichols break, or a Django Reinhardt riff, or a Merle Travis song, or an Eric Schoenberg arrangement, or an Oscar Petersen solo, or a Charlie Parker tune, or anything Robert Johnson did.

Last updated by Dan Miller May 11, 2008.

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