Photo by Don Fisher, courtesy Rounder Records
My improvisations take a number of forms. If I’m soloing on a traditional bluegrass tune, I’ll try to stick to the melody as closely as possible. Sometimes I’ll do something that John Hartford (great banjoist and fiddler and composer of “Gentle on my Mind”) suggested to me: moving my lips to the lyrics of a song, so that my solo will match my vocal phrasing. This gave me a whole new slant on this kind of improv and enables me to, in a certain sense, “play the words” of a tune. If I’m just jamming out on some other kind of tune that doesn’t require adherence to the melody, I’ll often let my fingers lead my brain. In other words, just try to find the flow, and not direct the solo very much. At times like this, I can often surprise myself with where I end up. It helps me get away from licks that I may have been playing for 20 years. I also have certain reliable improvisatory techniques that I can vary depending on the context or chord progression on a tune.
There have been a number of occasions where I’ve had to completely free improvise with other musicians. I did this recently in San Francisco with a group that I’d never heard before or met. We just walked out onstage and created structures spontaneously. This is usually the freest kind of improv, because you can take the music wherever you want. All of this is to say, that even though I have certain licks I rely on. A lot of what I do is very spontaneous.