By Wayne Erbsen
Many people don’t like change. They don’t want their cheese moved, as the book says. I’m more guilty of this than almost anyone I know. Once I discover something I like, I tend to do that thing from that day forward, without wavering one iota.
In bluegrass music, most traditional players don’t want their cheese moved either. They think, if Earl, Don, Carter, or Bill played a lick a certain way, by God, that’s the way I’m going to play it too, or try to. Now, I can’t really fault that way of thinking, because I’m as guilty of this as the next guy.
For those of you who like their cheese right where it is, this little article is a small nudge in the direction of moving the cheese, of allowing more improvising in your music.
One way to improvise is to change the timing of a piece of music. Let’s try it. Think of the melody of the popular Albert E. Brumley gospel song I’ll Fly Away. The first four notes of the song go with the words, “Some glad morn-ing.” If we play it in the key of G, the first four notes are B, G, D, G. For banjo players, all the strings are open, or unfretted. Simply play your strings in this order: 2, 3, 4, 3.
As it’s normally played, each of these notes fall on the downbeat. If you don’t know what I mean by this, let me show you. Tap your foot in a steady rhythm. When your foot hits the floor, that’s a downbeat. When it comes up, it’s an upbeat. Begin tapping your foot at a steady medium rhythm. At the same time, sing those first four words of I’ll Fly Away: “Some glad morn-ing.” You’ll notice that each of the notes is exactly on the downbeat. That’s the way Albert E. Brumley wrote it, and the rhythm of those notes may be partly responsible for the fact that the song is considered a classic. Having the melody line up perfectly with the downbeat hammers home the words in a clear and direct way that a more syncopated rhythm would not.
But just for sport, and to learn a new trick of improvising, let’s mess with the rhythm on those first four notes of I’ll Fly Away. Instead of singing or playing the first four notes of the song on the downbeat, try singing or playing them on the upbeat. In other words, your foot would hit the floor and when it comes up, sing “some.” Then do the same thing with the rest of those first notes of the song.
I’m not saying it’s easy to play the notes on the upbeat. In fact, you may find it quite difficult, but no gain without pain. Right? Once you think you have it, try this. First play or sing those four notes or words on the downbeat. Then try the upbeat. Then switch back and forth from the downbeat to the upbeat.
The little exercise we just did may be good for you because it will show you one small way to vary the rhythm of a melody. When that happens, you have moved your cheese at least one inch. You’re on your way. Congratulations!