We’ve all heard the phrase “stick to the melody!” before. Normally those words are shouted by a bluegrass festival veteran in the direction of a pre-teen Chris Thile play-a-like. But far from a traditional versus progressive dividing line, these comments often come from the same traditionalist that will applaud a completely improvisational Tony Rice break. This duality of conviction, applauding some for rule breaking and crucifying others for the same broken rules, is a topic I’ve covered before in my two part YouTube series on Fixing Bad Advice For Bluegrass Guitarists.
I recently was thrown back into the same old argument but from a different direction when I received this comment on a recent YouTube video.
This isn’t really related to the video, and I know it probably varies from person to person, but how much of what advanced bluegrass guitarists play in jams or performances is improvised vs. figured out beforehand? It just kinda feels like cheating if I write a break for every song and never improvise over the changes, although I’m working on both.
So how much does the average flatpicker prepare before they get on stage? Well it probably depends on where along the slider of traditionalist to progressivist they fall. A sliding line of value that we’ve already shown isn’t nearly as black and white as it seems. Before we cover the hypocrisy, let’s consider both sides of the argument as extreme characterizations of their values.
A heavy traditionalist would want to study and prepare a melody accurately and perform tasteful embellishments to that melody. The improvisations should be small and serve the melody which remains protected, preserved. This kind of musician feels his role is that of an archivist.
So a traditional vantage point tells us that bluegrass music is in danger of degrading. “You can already hear it, the new stuff isn’t as good as the old stuff! Learn it note for note so that it doesn’t change anymore!” Hard coded into that kind of extremism is preparation. When you learn a tune, find the oldest version and learn it note for note. So what is the traditionalists answer to the question, “How much should be prepared and how much should be improvised?” It should almost all be prepared as long as it’s from the right sources.
So what does the progressive side think? Well if traditionalists believe in preservation and pre-meditation, it should be obvious that progressivists believe in creation and improvisation.
Hallmarks of the progressive side include techniques like motific improvisations. The act of taking a known melody then twisting and contorting it using a rhythmic or melodic theme selected from the original melody. Frequently these thoughts will culminate with a full new improvised musical thought. The appeal here is the danger of creating something of value in the moment and sometimes failing. The success is fleeting and temporary needing constant upkeep and continued effort.
If the pitfall of traditionalism is becoming dated and boring. The pitfall of progressive bluegrass is becoming tasteless and disrespectful. A possible personal rule could be: improvisation should not be used for improvisations sake but to better music with a personal statement.
So a true progressive response would be that the majority of a performance should be improvisational assuming that it is from a place of musical betterment and not from a place of ego.
Far from an argument between ‘young’ and ‘old’ these are ideals we can see in any era of bluegrass. You don’t have to look far to find first generation groups that played their live breaks nothing like how they cut them in studios. These early musicians were innovators, the progressives of their day. Adding improvisation and incredible speed to the music they learned from their families and communities. It wasn’t until the 60’s folk revival that bluegrass music began to be ‘protected’ and slowly became a by-the-book academic pursuit. Suddenly there wasn’t more than one right answer.
The truth is that both perspectives are correct and bluegrass has more than enough room for both pursuits. Tons of great players have composed breaks, tons of great players have purposefully avoided playing a written melody. The true danger in my mind is the hypocrisy of many players belonging to either camp.
Many traditionalists want to hold up the highly improvisational playing of later bluegrass generations as sacred. But if we honor improvisation at all we should continue to honor it and let bluegrass continue to evolve and speak to the current generation. By that token that means we should promote a healthy encouragement of those that want to take on more improvisation in their breaks.
For progressivists that means not hiding behind improvisation as an excuse not to learn history and tradition. Improvisation should come from a place of respect and knowledge. A personal stamp on a piece of music doesn’t have to be destructive. That means when you see you’re fellow bluegrasser taking an entirely minor pentatonic break over Whiskey Before Breakfast you should gently encourage them to improvise something more similar to the melody.
Bluegrass has to keep looking backwards but moving forwards for it to survive. Genres can very quickly become irrelevant to the modern day if we only handle them with kid gloves. Genres also become so fractured the scene disappears when we insist on sub labels upon sub labels. Bluegrass can be a traditional and progressive genre if we all just get out of each others way.
So how much of your set should be improvised? I don’t care, just don’t act like it’s better because you improvised more or less than the next guy.