Mandolin Workshop: Playing to the Chords

Whether you’re a beginner just starting to play or a jam veteran that’s been playing for years, eventually you’ll be in a jam and someone will call a song you’ve never heard. Or maybe you’ve heard it but is one of those tunes you’ve always forgotten to learn! Whatever the reason, you don’t know the melody or the chords of the song. The song leader may provide you the key, they may even provide the basic progression – but they also just might start playing without providing any real insight. So what do you do hotshot? What do you do?

In this mandolin workshop, I’ll discuss my process for playing a songs that I’ve either never heard before or heard but never learned to play before. Simply put – I’ll show you how playing to the chords can help you play nearly any tune.

The TL;DR – I fake it.

Prerequisites to the Mandolin Workshop

Below are a few things that are helpful to know before diving into this lesson:

  • Being familiar with basic chord shapes
  • Being familiar with basic scales – at least the basic major and major pentatonic scales. Being familiar with arpeggios is a big plus.
  • Being comfortable with playing double stops is a big plus.
  • Being familiar with the Nashville Numbering System will help you branch out to keys your less familiar with (like Bb for many).
  • A basic understanding of the Circle of Fifths can be a great help too.
  • Being familiar with other instrument chord shapes – whether you play those instruments or not.

This workshop will basically take you through a step by step breakdown of how to play songs you don’t know. For this to be effective for you, you have to practice it. That means sitting down and getting things done. If you’ve attended my other workshops, you likely already know what’s coming.

Also, here’s some charts for the workshop. Note these will likely be updated before the workshop on 11/5/2022. Check back before the workshop for updates.

Before we move on, let’s talk about what practice actually means.

How to Practice

I hear from a lot of students some variation of “I can’t get better because don’t have the time to practice.” Without a doubt, especially as you get older, there’s so many competing obligations – family, work, friends, etc – it can seem hard (impossible?) to carve out a large enough window to practice. So how can you get an effective practice in with very little time?

The answer is focused practice.

Focused practice is different from playing. Focused practice involves targeting specific goal – a skill you’re trying to master, a song you’re trying to learn, etc. While playing is just that – playing and having fun. Both are important, but they are vastly different. In order to practice properly, you need to have a goal in mind. Before you even pick up the mandolin, try answering these questions:

  • What is your big, long term goal? Why are you playing mandolin?
    Your big long term goal should be way out of your reach today – so you can’t really “practice” that goal yet.

    Are you trying to play in a band? Get good enough to play at a local jam / festival? Play with friends / family? Or do you just like playing and want to be better? There’s no wrong answer – but there should be an answer (if not multiple answers).

    Knowing why you are practicing is an important but overlooked step. By answering this question, you’ll know where you want to go.
  • What are the medium goals you need to achieve in order to achieve your long term goal?
    Chop up your big goal in to more manageable high level topics. If your big goal is to be able to improvise over any song, then you need to focus on topics like mastering scales, chords, songs, and picking hand dexterity. But you can’t practice a category – so your medium goals need to be a little more defined. So improving on the above, instead of “mastering scales” you’d have a goal of “being able to play major, minor, and pentatonic scales in every key” and “being able to play chord common chord progressions in at least 3 different positions in every key” etc.

    The more detailed you are with these medium term goals, the better.

    These medium goals should be closer to your current skill level, but still out of reach. So again, you can’t really practice these directly – so on to the next step.
  • What are the smaller goals you need to achieve in order to achieve your medium term goal?
    The last step is to break up those medium goals into smaller goals you can immediately (or nearly immediately) achieve. These are the skills you actually practice a day to day.

    So taking the “being able to play major, minor, and pentatonic scales in every key” medium goal, you could break it up to spending 5, 10, 15, 20 etc minutes on practicing major scales in a few positions and keys for 2 weeks. Then repeat for minor and pentatonic scales etc.

By taking the time to answer these questions and come up with a goal (and write that goal down), you can create highly targeted practice routines designed to achieve your big goals by working on a series of smaller goals.

With focused / targeted practice, you can get more done in less time. If you only have 15 minutes a day – no problem! Just make sure you smaller / short term goals are achievable by practicing 15 minutes a day. If you need help on that, I offer personal coaching and would be happy to chat. Also, if you haven’t read the Practice of Practice, I highly recommend it.

Now, let’s dive into the workshop.

Figure out the Key or Root Chord

The first step is always figuring out the key of the song. If the leader called it, then this step is easy. However, if they don’t or you walk into the jam after a song has started (following proper jam etiquette of course), you’ll need to figure this out on your own.

My first step is to listen and watch others before playing a note.

If there’s a guitarist playing the chords, I’ll start by watching them mostly because it’s a bigger instrument (easier to see) and most bluegrass guitarist use open chords and a capo (so the chords are easy to identify). If there’s no solid guitar playing chords, I’ll then look for a banjo player. Oddly, the last instrument I’d look at normally is the mandolin – mostly because it’s small and there’s so many different chord variations commonly played.

I’ll start by looking for the root (or “the one”) chord being played. There’s three fairly easy ways to figure out the root – though none of these are 100% accurate all the time:

  1. The first chord of the progression is often, though not always, the root.
  2. The last chord in a progression is often, though not always, the root as well. If it is the root chord, the progression feels resolved or complete. If it’s not the root, often it’ll feel open and not stable.
  3. The most frequently played chord is often the root as well.

If you see a G chord being played first, last, or a lot of the time – the song is probably in G.

Figure out the Progression / Chords

Once you know the key, the next step is to get the other chords in the progression down. A lot of bluegrass songs are simple 1 4 5 (I IV V) progressions or basic variations of that (like Old Home Place with the 3 in the verse). While the first chord played is usually the root chord, the second chord played is often either the four (IV) or five (V) chord.

Start with whatever basic mandolin chords you are most comfortable with and just follow the changes as best you can. The key here is to memorize the progression as quickly as possible so you can get to the fun stuff!

Play the Arpeggios

Once you know the progression, you could just start playing to the chords rather than the melody. There’s a few ways to do this. Two pretty easy ways are to use the arpeggios for the chords and the major pentatonic scales for the chords.

For the arpeggios method, you’d just play the notes of the chord being played – so over a G chord, you’d play the notes in the G arpeggio. Over a C chord, you’d play the notes in the C arpeggio. Over a D chord, you’d play the notes in a D arpeggio. Below are the arpeggios for G C and D major for reference:

MattCBruno - Mandolin Workshop - Playing to the Chords - 1 4 5 Arpeggio in G
Arpeggios for G C D (the 1 4 5 in G)

You should be able to see some chord shapes in these graphics which is a really handy way to memorize these notes! A few things to note here:

  1. The chord tones in a 1 4 5 progression are all pretty similar. The root chord will share at least 1 note with the 4 and 5 chords. In a G 1 4 5, the G note appears in both G and C chords while the D appears in both G and D.
  2. The 4 and 5 chords will have no common chord tones. The intervals between these chords will always be 1 step (or 2 frets).
  3. When playing, the smaller the interval (or distance between notes) played, the more similar the notes will sound. The larger the interval played, the more drastic the change.

If all you did was play these arpeggios over their respective chord, your solo would sound okay – but probably wouldn’t have any real feeling. That’s mainly because these are “safe notes” and we all know, nothing fun is 100% safe. So, let’s add a few non-chord tones.

Major Pentatonic Scales

Pentatonic scales are 5 tone scales that include the 3 chord tones from above plus the 2nd and 6th degree of those chords. Using these extra 2 notes, you can start creating some fun stepwise or chromatic lines. Below are the G C and D Major Pentatonic scales for reference:

MattCBruno - Mandolin Workshop - Playing to the Chords - 1 4 5 Pentatonic in G
1 4 5 Pentatonic in G

A few things you should notice here:

  1. There’s 2 notes that appear in just one of the scales (the C note only appears in the C Major pentatonic and the F# only appears in the D Major pentatonic)
  2. There’s 2 notes that appear in two of the scales (C Major pentatonic has no B note and D Major pentatonic has no G note)
  3. There’s 3 notes that overlap in all 3 scales (the A, E, and D notes)

The unique notes can help announce chord changes in your solo breaks while the similar notes can help add some tension (think of hold blues players hold a note out etc).

Below is the G Major pentatonic scale with with the F# and C added to help illustrate that point. This should look familiar since the two added notes complete the full G Major scale.

MattCBruno - Playing to the Chords - G Major Scale with Circle
G C D Pentatonic Major Scales showing the G Major Scale with Circle

Figuring out that combining a 1 4 5 pentatonic scale would create the major scale based on the 1 was a lightbulb moment for me. Highlighting those added notes at the right time (like playing the F# over the D chord) can help reinforce the chord change in your solo break. Using the Circle of 5ths, you can see this a bit more clearly. The Circle graphic here shows the G Major scale with the G C and D pentatonic scales. If you want to dive into this more, check out my lesson on the using the Circle of 5ths for the Pentatonic Scales.

While the above is focused on the 1 4 5 in G, it’s worth noting that this works in all keys. Learning scale boxes like the Four Finger Closed Position (or FFcP) can really help. The FFcP style basically is just playing scales but changing your starting finger – the first position using your index finger, the next starts with your second finger etc.

Using ideas like FFcP, you can move closed position scale shapes from one key to another easily while keeping the fingering the same. Take the below G pentatonic scale position for example – the colored notes are what you’d play, the grey notes are in the scale but not this position. The numbers next to the note are your fingers.

MattCBruno - Mandolin Workshop - Playing to the Chords - G Pentatonic Shape 1
G Pentatonic Shape 1

When you’re at a jam, if someone calls a tune in a different key, you can simply move this shape to start at the root key. So, if someone calls a tune in Bb, take that G pentatonic shape and move it so your first finger hits a Bb (3rd fret of the G, the 1st fret of the A, or the 8th fret of the D strings) and you’ll have a Bb major pentatonic.

MattCBruno - Mandolin Workshop - Playing to the Chords - Bb Pentatonic Shape 1
Bb Pentatonic Shape 1

Below shows the basic 4 positions for the G Major pentatonic. I included Shape 1b to help showcase the closed position so moving these shapes is easier. Each shape starts with a different finger – so Shape 1 starts with the 1st finger, Shape 2 with the 2nd etc.

MattCBruno - Playing to the Chords - G Major Pentatonic Shapes
G Pentatonic Shapes

The below is same for C – note that Shape 1 could be repeated starting on the 3rd fret of the A string too – just didn’t include that for space reasons. In this case, the 4th position has two options as well starting either on the 4th finger (4a) or using the 3rd finger with the open strings (4b)

MattCBruno - Playing to the Chords - X Major Pentatonic Shapes
C Pentatonic Shapes

Below is the same for D – similar to G, Shape 1 has an open version (1a) and closed (1b)

MattCBruno - Playing to the Chords - D Major Pentatonic Shapes
D Pentatonic Shapes

You can also link these positions together to form two octave runs. For example, Shape 1a and 1b for G or D could be played consecutively for a two octave run. I suggest writing these positions out in multiple ways that work for you

If all you did was just the notes from the pentatonic or major scales either to the key of the song, it’d sound pretty good – but your breaks may not be as interesting as it could be. Let’s look at adding some “off” tones.

Adding Off Tones

So far we’ve reviewed the “on” tones – essentially the tones that appear in the diatonic major. Those tones will pretty much always sound good, but because they sound good, they also can sound boring. Think of any interesting story – it’s interesting because something you didn’t expect happened. If I told you I went to the grocery store and got milk, it’d be a story – but wouldn’t really hold anyones interest for too long similar to playing just scale tones. But, if I told you I went to the grocery store to get milk and while I was there I won a million dollars in a contest they were having – you’d probably be more interested. That’s in large part because you didn’t expect me to win a million bucks while getting milk. Using “off” tones is essentially like winning the million dollars – except you likely don’t have a million bucks after your breaks.

If the “on” tones are the diatonic scale tones (or G, A, B, C, D, E, F#) then the “off” tones would be the below

Generally, these tones will be unstable and will want to resolve somewhere. The specific resolution depends on the context of the music, but generally the “wants to resolve” section can work.

An easy way to start adding in these “off” tones is to use the b3, b5, and b7.

  • The b3 resolves really nicely to the 3rd
  • The b5 can resolve to the 5. Also b5 can resolve to a 4, especially when using the b5 as a walk down from the root to the 4 chord – think G / Gb5 / C. The D descends from D in G, to Db in Gb5, to C in C.
  • The b7 usually resolves to the root but also the 5 works.

Try adding these notes in on the off beats to start (like the + of 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + etc) and resolving on the down beats (like the 1 2 3 4).

If you just used the “on” and “off” tones in a given key, your solo breaks might be more interesting, but if you’re making up 100% of your riffs on the spot, you may find it hard to play faster and your break may not be as good as you’d hoped. So the next step is to make sure you have a good “bag of riffs” ready to go.

Bag of Riffs

If you ask any high level player, they’ll all have some standard go-to riffs they use often. Just look at some fiddle tune melodies and you’ll see the same riffs in many. Having a riffs at the ready will help avoid the “what do I play” paralysis. If you don’t have some go to riffs already or just want to add more riffs to your bag o tricks, try learning the melodies from fiddle tunes. Often there are some real gems in the melody – or there’s a recording of your favorite artist playing an awesome riff. Either way, learn those riff, bring them into your playing, and create new riffs from them whenever possible.

There are a few types of riffs you should have ready. On a high level, you can break these up into 4 basic categories:

  1. Intro riffs – riffs to kick of a song or your break
  2. Outro riffs – riffs to end a song or your break
  3. Static Chord riffs – riffs that work well over the same chord
  4. Chord Changing riffs – riffs that highlight the chord change or progression

Building up your bag is fairly easy – and usually pretty fun. There’s two ways I do this

  1. Focused Practice – I’ll sit down with the intent to write some riffs. In these cases, I usually find a song I’m working on and use the melody to create some “near melody” riffs.
  2. Playing with a Purpose – This is when I just turn on a song or progression and just have fun playing. The only difference between “Playing with a Purpose” and simply “Playing” is that I’m trying to write riffs that I can repeat in the progression. Often this means recording what I’m doing, listening back to it, and transcribing parts I like.

To help, I’ve included a few riffs in my sheet music guide for this workshop.

If all you did was just play riffs you’ve written or stolen using the notes from the pentatonic scales either to the key of the song or for each chord, it’d sound pretty good – but would lack direction and a hook to tie it to the song / tune you’re playing. So the next step is to try to emulate the melody by playing the melodic ideas.

Figure out the Melodic Ideas

It’s not what you play, but how you play it.

Mae West – paraphrased anyway

Knowing what notes you can play is only a small part of playing. It’s knowing when and how to play those notes that really separate good players from great players. Here’s where the Melodic Ideas (or maybe Melodic Intent) comes into play.

The Melodic Ideas / Intent of a song or tune is simply understanding what the melody is doing and when. For example

  • Is the melody ascending or descending?
  • Are there triplets in the melody?
  • Is there a standout part in the melody (like a hard rest or a slide)?

Including the Melodic Ideas and Intent in a particular piece is how you can take the series of “good” notes and craft a great break. For me, I have a habit of humming or singing the melody in my head (not out loud!!!) while others are playing. I’ll make mental notes of where in the progression unique things or standout phrases happen and will try to include them in my break.

If all you did was play Melodic Ideas that fit the progression, you’d have a good break. However, including key Melodic Phrases can take that to another level.

Figure out Key Melodic Phrases

A Key Melodic Phrase are the parts of a melody that really stand out. Sometimes there’s 1 or 2 phrases like this – other times, there’s more. When you’re trying to figure out what the Key Melodic Phrase or Phrases are of a song, just think about what stands out the most. If you were trying to call a tune / song but forgot the name – what part of the melody would you play to get others to know what tune / song you’re talking about? Whatever phrase or phrases you’d use is likely the Key Melodic Phrase or Phrases.

Ear Training, specifically interval training, is really a key part of getting better at this. I strongly recommend singing / humming the solfège scale (do re mi etc) in various keys as well as skipping around (i.e. do mi, do fa, etc). Using a piano is a great help here too. Ear training is a huge topic with a lot of layers – way too big for this workshop. You can check out stuff like this book from Berklee Press for more details on Ear Training.

Putting it together

To help put this together, let’s look at tune not super common jam songs/tunes – Lady Be Good and Billy in the Lowground.

Lady Be Good
Lady Be Good is the most bluegrass swing jazz song I can think of. It’s a great bridge between the styles and is a gateway tune to more jazzy styles of playing. For the most part, Lady Be Good is just a 1 4 5 progression in G but adds the minor 2 chord (Am) and major 6 chord (E7). These two added chords don’t really change much about the progression though.

Analyze the chords / arpeggios: The below chart shows the chords in Lady Be Good and the common notes between them. I added in the b7 for all chords since that’s generally a viable substitute for the major triad counterpart. Notice the only notes that are not common are just 1/2 step (or 1 fret) from a common note.

MattCBruno - Mandolin Workshop - Playing to the Chords - Lady Be Good Chord tones
Chord tones for Lady Be Good

There is also a quick passing chord Bb°7 chord in the A part. I’m not including this chord in the Chord Tone or Pentatonic analysis below since it’s a passing chord over 2 beats.

Taking this a step further, we can look at how the chords interact with each other. The below charts out the various chord phrases in the A and B parts for Lady Be Good.

MattCBruno - Mandolin Workshop - Playing to the Chords - Lady Be Good A Part Chord Progression analysis
Lady Be Good A Part Chord Progression analysis
MattCBruno - Mandolin Workshop - Playing to the Chords - Lady Be Good B Part Chord Progression analysis
Lady Be Good B Part Chord Progression analysis

A few things I’d note here

  1. There’s a lot of 2 5 (or II V) changes and extended 6 2 5 changes. Most often the last chord in these (the 1) is the start of the next phrase. For example, the last 2 5 in the B part could include the G from the first measure of the A Part.
  2. There’s a lot of descending chord tones and chords. The G/B, Bb°7, Amin7 change in the A Part for example descends B Bb A. That particular phrase works really well with a double stop walk down.
  3. The start of the B Part uses an ascending chord progression. Moving from C C#°7 G you have the notes C, C#, and D moving up. Since that’s at the start of the B Part, using an ascending line to kick of your B Part break would be a nice compliment.

Analyze potential scales (pentatonic in this case): Another way to look at this would be the pentatonic scales. So below is a similar analysis using the notes in the pentatonic scales:

MattCBruno - Mandolin Workshop - Playing to the Chords - Lady Be Good Pentatonic tones
Notes in the pentatonic scales for each chord

With this information, you can view the changes a little differently. For example:

  • There are 6 notes (C, E, Bb, F#, A and G#) that don’t appear in the G Major chord
  • There are 3 notes (C, F#, and G#) that don’t appear in the G Major Pentatonic. The C and F# are apart of the G Major scale however (so diatonically, they fit in G).
  • Theres 1 note (G#) that only appears in one chord (the E7)

In either case, hopefully you can see that using the G Major Pentatonic scale would work across the entire progression. However, by selectively adding the notes not found in either the chord or pentatonic scale (like adding the C when playing the C, Am, or E7 chords or F# when playing the D or E chords etc), you can use the chord changes in your solo breaks more effectively.

Analyze the melody ideas and phrases
While you may not know the melody, you should be able to hear certain things going on. Below is a very basic melody and chord progression for Lady Be Good. I’ve classified these sections into 3 basic parts:

  • Purple = Ascending
  • Red = Descending
  • Black = Static / held notes

Looking at the chart below for the A part, it’s easy to notice the intro phrase is an ascending line while the other phrases are either descending or static (or big jumps). So using descending lines over the verse would provide a “parallel” type feel whereas using ascending lines would provide more of a “counter point” type feel.

MattCBruno - Mandolin Workshop - Playing to the Chords - Lady Be Good Melodic Ideas A Part
Lady Be Good Melodic Ideas A Part

With the B part, the notes are pretty static and last 2 measures for the most part except for the last phrase where it’s moving back to the A part with an ascending phrase similar to the intro phrase. Generally if you held notes or pedaled back and forth for two measures for each phrase, it’ll sound a lot like the melody line. If you get more busy, you’ll lose the melody feel probably but that could be great. Another point is often when there’s a short but very static part like this, the rhythm section will accent this by holding chords out longer – though not always.

MattCBruno - Mandolin Workshop - Playing to the Chords - Lady Be Good Melodic Ideas B part
Lady Be Good Melodic Ideas B Part

Billy in the Lowground
Billy in the Lowground (BITL for short) is also mostly a 1 4 5 but adds the minor 6 (instead of the major 6 like in Lady Be Good). Remember, the minor 6 is the relative minor for the root major – so these chords will sound very similar and the pentatonic scales are identical just with a different tonal center.

Analyze the chords / arpeggios: The below chart shows the chords in BITL and the common notes between them. I added in the b7 for all chords since that’s generally a viable substitute for the major triad counterpart. Notice the only notes that are not common are just 1/2 step (or 1 fret) from a common note.

MattCBruno - Mandolin Workshop - Playing to the Chords - Billy in the Lowground - Chord Tones
Billy in the Lowground Chord Tones

Below is an analysis of the chord progression for BITL.

MattCBruno - Mandolin Workshop - Playing to the Chords - Billy in the Lowground A Part Chord Progression analysis
Billy in the Lowground A Part Chord Progression analysis
MattCBruno - Playing to the Chords - Billy in the Lowground B Part Chord Progression analysis
Billy in the Lowground A Part Chord Progression analysis

A few things to note here:

  1. The first verse has a C to Amin change. This is a relative major (C spelled C E G) to minor change (Am spelled A C E)- which means there’s not too much different about these chords. It’s really just moving the 5th of the root chord (G) up 1 step to the root of the 6th chord (A).
  2. There’s a “broken” 6 2 5 1 in both the A and B Parts. I call it broken because there’s no 2 chord in the progression – but you can still treat this similar to how you’d treat a 6 2 5 1 progression.
MattCBruno - Mandolin Workshop - Playing to the Chords - Billy in the Lowground - Pentatonic Tones
Billy in the Lowground – Pentatonic Tones

Similar to Lady Be Good, there are a few things to note:

  • There are 5 notes (F, A, Eb, B, D) that don’t appear in the root C Major chord
  • There are 2 notes (F and B) that don’t appear in the C Major Pentatonic
  • There is 1 note (B) that only appears in the G Major chord / pentatonic – however that note is the natural 7th of C, so it does appear in the C Major scale.

Again, you can use this information to make informed choices about what notes to play and when in this progression.

Below is the A Part for Billy in the Lowground. I’ve highlighted different Melodic Ideas here

  • Purple = Ascending
  • Green = Pedaling a note (playing one note, then another, then back to the first)
  • Red = Descending
  • Gold = repetitive
MattCBruno  - Mandolin Workshop -  Playing to the Chords - Billy in the Lowground - Melodic Ideas A Part 1
Billy in the Lowground – Melodic Ideas A Part 1

A few things stand out here. First there’s a lot of pedaling of notes and the beginning of each phrase (not counting the pick up measure) are pedaling as well. Next the verse phrases end with descending notes. And last, the end of the first line just repeats itself while descending.

With that information, you can mirror the melody even without playing the same notes. Try starting your break with a pick up measure that ascends into a pedaled note. When you’re ending your verse lines, try making them descend. Of course you can also purposefully break those ideas (like ascending when the Melodic Idea descends).

The below highlights the specific Melodic Phrases in the A Part analysis

MattCBruno - Mandolin Workshop - Playing to the Chords - Billy in the Lowground - Melodic Phrases A Part 1
Billy in the Lowground – Melodic Phrases A Part 1

Trying to mirror a melodic phrase, especially the intro or outro phrases, is a great way to set the tone for your break. Often these melodic phrases will repeat as they do with BITL In the above I’ve highlighted what I consider the main 4 phrases in the verse. My first goal is to play something that sounds similar, but not exactly, like these.

Have fun and Smile!

If you’re at a jam, you should be having fun. While there are “pro jams” where it’s more like a show than a jam, most bluegrass jams are pretty friendly and open to people trying new things. In those friendly jams, it’s okay to take chances and play songs you don’t know. By stretching out of your comfort zone, you’ll become a better player and better equipped to play in more skilled jams.

With that in mind, don’t skip a solo break when you’re at a friendly jam and you know the key. I see so many newer (and even some more intermediate) players shake off a break simply because they don’t know the specific melody. Unless you’re on stage or in a high level pro jam, that’s a completely wasted opportunity to learn in my opinion. You may mess up – in fact you probably will – but that’s fine. Mistakes are the foundation of learning and often times for some pretty cool ideas you wouldn’t have thought of if you didn’t make the mistake. As long as you’re having fun and not causing train wrecks, that’s all that matters.

There’s always going to be a tune you don’t know or don’t think you know well enough to play. While there are times it’s best to sit out so as not to derail a jam, that should be the exception, not the rule.

Okay but how do I practice this?

You may be asking “how can I practice getting better at things I don’t know?” – which is understandable. The answer is to play things you don’t know. I’ve found the best way to do that is simply to turn on the radio or a streaming service (like the Bluegrass Junction). The more random the songs, the better. Try to figure out every song/tune you hear before it ends. While you’re doing this, pretend like you’re at a jam – meaning no do overs. If you make a “mistake”, try to figure out how to make it sound like it was right.

One more point – remember, practice is different from playing. While you might feel tempted to just lose yourself while having fun and just solo non-stop, remember to stay focused. While there’s nothing wrong with just having fun and noodling, in this case, your goal is to learn the progression and melody as quickly as possible not to just noodle around.

1. First Verse: The first verse is like the leader kicking off the tune without calling anything. So, figure out the key and progression ASAP. In this case, it’s all by ear since there’s no video etc. I usually start by trying Double Stops since they are ambiguous and can be used in place of chords (for example playing the B and D notes could be a G chord E7 chord, B minor etc).

Once you have an idea of the key and progression, you can commit a bit more and play chords. If the double stop sounded good but the chord you played sounds off, try another related chord that uses the notes in the double stop. In a live jam setting, you could do this too – but you need to make sure you’re not too loud (likely best to “step out” of the circle if you do this). Don’t play over anyone.

Something to note, in some cases the only time you’ll hear the clear melody is in the first or second verse – so make sure you are listening to that as well. I try to sing the melody in my head as soon as I can.

2. Second verse: If the verse repeats and you didn’t get the progression down yet, then repeat the first step. If you have the progression by now however, you can also use this to start getting the melody down using rhythmic double stops. For example, if you know the chord is a G chord, you can cycle through the various G double stops listening for when the double stop notes are in the melody too.

Also, if you have the progression down, definitely start singing the melody in your head.

3. Chorus: Figuring out the chorus is similar to figuring our the verse but it’s usually a little easier since most often choruses have something in common with the verse – sometimes they identical too. Often when there is a difference between the verse and chorus, it’s usually something like a relative minor or starting the phrase on something different from the verse (like starting on the 4 chord instead of the root). When figuring out the chorus, try to focus on what’s the same from the verse and what is different.

4. Solo Breaks of others: At this point ideally you know the progression completely – so now it’s time to start really paying attention to what the soloists are doing. Listen to others to find something that stands out and copy it or play off it. By either copying or playing off what other soloists are doing, it’ll sound more like a group playing than a jam just improving – which is always a good goal.

You can either play full chords or the rhythmic double stop ideas from before during the breaks of others. In the practice setting, try playing over what the soloists are doing from time to time and see if you can mirror it. In a live jam setting – definitely do not do that. Nothing is worse than when someone is noodling over someone else’s break. Don’t be that person.

5. Your Break: When you’re ready to take a break (meaning you’re not really listening to the soloists or vocalist on the recording any more or it’s your turn in the jam), ideally you understand the progression and have heard the melody a few times. Even better, you have a few key phrases / licks ready to go.

When you don’t know the melody too well, start small and play a “skeleton melody” – enough of the melody to hint at the actual melody, but not completely the melody since you don’t know it fully. When it doubt, start with bigger scales as your guide – the Major pentatonic is a good starting point often, but the full 7 tone major scale can also work will. As you refine the melody and your ideas, use more accurate notes / scales. Just to be clear, in a live jam setting never play over someone else.

Wrap up

Learning to quickly play songs you don’t know on the fly is a really important part of becoming a better musician. This workshop should give you some tools, but I’m just scratching the surface even with all this information. Ear training is a huge part of this but way beyond the scope of a simple workshop. There are some good books (like this one) that have more details on ear training. Above all, in order to get better at playing songs you don’t know you simply have to be going to local jams, playing with friends, be willing to step far outside your comfort zone – and most importantly, be okay with making mistakes.

If you liked this topic, please leave a comment below with any questions or feedback. For a deeper dive in to this topic, click here for more information on private coaching.

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