Author: Campbell, Bruce

Improvisation Ė When You Need It Most

One of the most endearing things about bluegrass is the improvisation. Songs (or tunes) have a melody, which establishes the identity of the piece, but when the instrumentalists take their solos, the music joins other great musical forms (like jazz or the blues) in on-the-spot creativity. Every jammer has had a night when they nailed their solo turn, and it can make your whole weekend, and be a bragging point for years to follow.

But if you play music in public, you know thereís another kind of improvisation, which requires a whole different level of creativity. When youíre hauling instruments and gear over the miles, Murphyís law is in full effect, and the unexpected developments therein make for some crazy moments.

A missing or broken instrument happens fairly often. I have a friend who arrived at a gig, opened her fiddle case, and discovered it was empty! Luckily, at a festival gig, there is not shortage of fiddles to cure that malady. It happens to everyone Ė I was at a concert where Robbie McCoury had to borrow a banjo because the airline broke his. As it turned out, he borrowed some 1920ís Mastertone from David Grisman. Thatís rarified air there. Iím not going to be calling the Dawg with my instrument woes anytime soon.

When I was a much younger rockíníroller, I broke a guitar string while getting ready for a gig and didnít have a spare. Turned out, no one else in the band had one either. Then we remembered that a nearby department store (Montgomery Wards) had musical instruments, so we rushed over there just before closing time to see if we could buy a string. As it happened, Wards didnít sell strings, but we begged and pleaded so piteously the salesman let us take the high E string off one of the electric guitars they had for sale Ė for free! Howís THAT for improvisation!

Ever lose the end pin off an acoustic guitar? There is no easy way to attach a strap with no end pin. What you can do, however, is attach a piece of thin rope to your strap, feed the rope through the hole where the end pin would go, feed the end out the soundhole, then tie a knot big enough to prevent the end from going back through the end pin hole, and youíre all set! What isnít fun is trying to rig this up with only five minutes to show time!

I have taped microphones to all kind of contraptions, onstage and in studios, to make up for missing or broken mic stands. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Whiskey Brothers encountered something rarely seen: a broken Shure SM57. Thereís no tougher mic than the venerable 57, but this one snapped in the middle of its metal case, and dangled like a broken finger. Dave Courchaine found a very small, but very thick blue rubber band, and darned if that didnít hold the silly thing together for the gig.

The secrets to improvisation are the same, whether youíre improvising an instrumental break or a break in an instrument: Be prepared, be imaginative, and donít panic!

Posted:  2/27/2013

Copyright © 2002 California Bluegrass Association. All rights reserved.
Comments? Questions? Please email