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Improvisation Cheat Sheet
Safe notes for each chord in common bluegrass, old time, country and folk keys
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KindaScratchy
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April 29, 2015 - 9:34 pm
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In my mission to master improvisation at bluegrass jams, I came up with this cheat sheet to help me find the "safe notes" that can be played for each chord. Think of this as a menu from which you can select in figuring out what notes to play when you have to improvise. Thought I'd share it here in case it's of some help to others.

This is based on the chords for the keys commonly played on bluegrass, old time, country, folk and traditional songs/tunes. It assumes that you know the chord progressions for a given tune/song. While a particular chord is being played, you can play any combination of the notes for that chord, in rhythm for the song/tune, and it

A tip: if you play in jams, learn what guitar chord fingerings/shapes look like. That way, you can watch the guitarist to know what chord is being played.

Disclaimer: these notes may not make for the most interesting improvisation, but it shouldn't sound bad and can be a launching pad for more complex improvisation (I hope).

improvisation_cheat_sheet_500px.jpgImage Enlarger

When the work's all done and the sun's settin' low,

I pull out my fiddle and I rosin up the bow.

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Schaick
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April 30, 2015 - 8:01 am
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@KindaScratchy  Great minds think alike!!  I have a similar cheat sheet for my jams for the chords.  I was placing it on my leg but it kept sliding off.  I started putting it on the ground and at every jam someone asks to pick it up!!  

This last Tuesday I didn't use the chart.  I used chunking on the songs with the keys I didn't know or am not used to - B, E, F.

I am a bit confused as to when to use III or IV.  I think at my jam it is usually IV but on occasion I bet there is a III thrown in.  I have not learned those chords yet.

What would the chords be for the key of F and V for the key of B?

Is this chart correct?  

 

Chords-1.pngImage Enlarger

At jam my eyes are glued on the hands of the guitar players!!  Check out the guitar 

 

chord chart!!guitar-chords-chart.jpgImage Enlarger

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Violinist start date -  May 2013  

Fiddler start date - May 2014

FIDDLE- Gift from a dear friend. A 1930-40 german copy, of a french copy of a Stradivarius.  BOW - $50 carbon fiber. Strings - Dominants with E Pirastro Gold string.

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DanielB
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April 30, 2015 - 10:48 am
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Well the notes to the F I chord (F major) are F, A, C.

The notes for the IV chord for that key (the Bb) are Bb, D, F

The notes to the V chord for the key of B (the F# Major chord) are F#, A# and C#

 

In most of the progressions you're likely to encounter, the III chord would be a iii chord, meaning it would be the minor chord.  And as long as we're on that topic, another you will see fairly often is the vi chord, which is the relative minor chord mentioned in KindaScratchy's chart.

Good cheat sheets, folks!  Nice bit of applied theory.

 

One other thing I will mention is that improvising out of the chord notes for ach chord as they change will tend to "lean" your improvisation a bit towards the accompaniment.  If you wanted to "lean" more towards the main melody, that will usually be in a scale or mode that doesn't usually change unless the key of the song actually changes, a "modulation".  But KindaScratchy is quite correct in that you won't be playing any "off" notes if you are improvising from the notes of the chords and changing the notes you use to follow each chord change.  Either way can work, and which you use depends on what you like.

"This young wine may have a lot of tannins now, but in 5 or 10 years it is going to be spectacular, despite the fact that right now it tastes like crude oil. You know this is how it is supposed to taste at this stage of development." ~ Itzhak Perlman

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Schaick
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April 30, 2015 - 3:41 pm
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Thanks!!  Where I seemed to get confused is switching from thinking about keys to chords and visa versa.  I'm not sure why.  

If I recite and count the notes out on my fingers for the different chords I understand .... until I blink!!!

Violinist start date -  May 2013  

Fiddler start date - May 2014

FIDDLE- Gift from a dear friend. A 1930-40 german copy, of a french copy of a Stradivarius.  BOW - $50 carbon fiber. Strings - Dominants with E Pirastro Gold string.

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KindaScratchy
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May 1, 2015 - 9:03 pm
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@Schaick : Great minds think alike, indeed. 🙂

I like your more comprehensive chart organized by key and the Nashville number system. I organized mine by chord rather than key because that's just how my mind works at a jam. Maybe it's my guitar background.

Great find on that chart showing the guitar chord fingerings with pictures! I play some of those chords differently and I see other guitarists play other chords differently, so folks should be aware that there is more than one way to finger a guitar chord. Eventually, you'll get used to the way that the guitarists at the jams you attend play certain chords.

Just to clarify...the relative minor column on my chart indicates a note to play instead of the 5th, if the relative minor chord (same name as the note in that column) is being played instead of the major chord.

I created my chart as primarily a practice tool. Hopefully, playing the right notes will become second nature before too long.

When the work's all done and the sun's settin' low,

I pull out my fiddle and I rosin up the bow.

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Schaick
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May 2, 2015 - 7:15 am
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Hey @KindaScratchy  Yep, different fingerings for some of the chords - I have run into that. I have also noticed that even the very same fingering of a chord can look different on a different guitarist's hand.  I think it might dependent on the difference of the actual hand - stiff knuckles, chubby fingers, using the thumb to play the top string, etc.

Thanks for explaining that - relative minor column.

Violinist start date -  May 2013  

Fiddler start date - May 2014

FIDDLE- Gift from a dear friend. A 1930-40 german copy, of a french copy of a Stradivarius.  BOW - $50 carbon fiber. Strings - Dominants with E Pirastro Gold string.

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KindaScratchy
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May 18, 2015 - 9:59 pm
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I've updated my chart and thought I'd share...it's sort of a hybrid of my original chart and @Schaick 's chart. Again, I did this as a practice aid, not really for use at a jam, though I will likely keep it in my back pocket, just in case I get stuck. 🙂

Nashville-NS-with-chord-spellings.JPGImage Enlarger

When the work's all done and the sun's settin' low,

I pull out my fiddle and I rosin up the bow.

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DanielB
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May 19, 2015 - 8:58 am
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Good looking chart!  I'd say laminate a copy and keep it tucked in your case.  

thumbs-up

I do have one question though.. Do fiddlers or bluegrass players use a different variation of the Nashville Number System?  The version I've seen (some years ago, at least) used "Arabic" numerals instead of "Roman" and a minus sign "-" to show minor, so instead of I IV V vi, it looked like 1 4 5 6-.  

I always thought the break from Roman numerals was kind of sensible, since we usually would say the "five" or the "four" instead of the "Vee" or "Eye-Vee", and on a cramped and hastily scribbled chart, it can be hard sometimes to tell if someone meant you are supposed to play the IV chord, or a I chord and then a V chord.  

Nashville Number System wasn't covered when I took music, but I met a couple players over the years who used it.  Some of it, like the dots over the numbers on a song chart to tell what beats to play on, I never quite "got", but most of it seemed easy enough to figure out.  I never had a teacher who used it or was in a band that used it, so I never actually learned the details or nuances of it.  And I also might be confusing it with some other system, perhaps.

Your table though, at least appears to be done in the "traditional" (18th century) theory notation, with Roman numerals and "m" to indicate a minor chord?  So I'm wondering if maybe there is a different NNS or a hybrid that is used sometimes?

dunno

In any case, though.. It's a nice little table, easy to read and a lot of info packed into a small space.  Kudos, KindaScratchy!

"This young wine may have a lot of tannins now, but in 5 or 10 years it is going to be spectacular, despite the fact that right now it tastes like crude oil. You know this is how it is supposed to taste at this stage of development." ~ Itzhak Perlman

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Schaick
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May 19, 2015 - 9:08 am
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@KindaScratchy Cool!! I am definitely printing that off!!

@DanielB At jam camp we were taught to use Arabic numbers.  When I showed one of the guitar players at the weekly jam I attend numbers instead of the notes he didn't know what they meant!!

Violinist start date -  May 2013  

Fiddler start date - May 2014

FIDDLE- Gift from a dear friend. A 1930-40 german copy, of a french copy of a Stradivarius.  BOW - $50 carbon fiber. Strings - Dominants with E Pirastro Gold string.

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Schaick
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May 19, 2015 - 9:19 am
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This is what I showed him.

http://www.musicpotential.com/.....chor333952

ElK Rivers Blues is a great tune!!

Violinist start date -  May 2013  

Fiddler start date - May 2014

FIDDLE- Gift from a dear friend. A 1930-40 german copy, of a french copy of a Stradivarius.  BOW - $50 carbon fiber. Strings - Dominants with E Pirastro Gold string.

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DanielB
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May 19, 2015 - 9:42 am
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I had to blink and think for a second the first time I saw a 37 chord when going down that list..

rofl

I got it, though..LOL

 

Q. What do you call a guitarist that only knows 2 chords?

A. A critic.

 

Q. How many guitarists does it take to change a lightbulb? 

A. One to change it and 6 to stand around talking about how they could have done it better.

or

A. "Omigosh!  You CHANGED the original bulb in a VINTAGE 1967 Sears and Roebuck table lamp?  That was a CLASSIC!  Oh crap, you know you totally ruined the investment value, don't you?  And it will just never sound the same again, now."

jimi-hendrix

"This young wine may have a lot of tannins now, but in 5 or 10 years it is going to be spectacular, despite the fact that right now it tastes like crude oil. You know this is how it is supposed to taste at this stage of development." ~ Itzhak Perlman

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coolpinkone
California, the place of my heart
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@DanielB

that is so funny. 🙂

Vibrato Desperato.... Desperately seeking vibrato

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KindaScratchy
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May 19, 2015 - 8:48 pm
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DanielB said
Good looking chart!  I'd say laminate a copy and keep it tucked in your case.  

thumbs-up

I do have one question though.. Do fiddlers or bluegrass players use a different variation of the Nashville Number System?  The version I've seen (some years ago, at least) used "Arabic" numerals instead of "Roman" and a minus sign "-" to show minor, so instead of I IV V vi, it looked like 1 4 5 6-.  

I always thought the break from Roman numerals was kind of sensible, since we usually would say the "five" or the "four" instead of the "Vee" or "Eye-Vee", and on a cramped and hastily scribbled chart, it can be hard sometimes to tell if someone meant you are supposed to play the IV chord, or a I chord and then a V chord.  

Nashville Number System wasn't covered when I took music, but I met a couple players over the years who used it.  Some of it, like the dots over the numbers on a song chart to tell what beats to play on, I never quite "got", but most of it seemed easy enough to figure out.  I never had a teacher who used it or was in a band that used it, so I never actually learned the details or nuances of it.  And I also might be confusing it with some other system, perhaps.

Your table though, at least appears to be done in the "traditional" (18th century) theory notation, with Roman numerals and "m" to indicate a minor chord?  So I'm wondering if maybe there is a different NNS or a hybrid that is used sometimes?

dunno

In any case, though.. It's a nice little table, easy to read and a lot of info packed into a small space.  Kudos, KindaScratchy!

If you google "Nashville Number System" you'll find images of charts, some of which use Roman numerals and some use Arabic numerals. I guess I based my chart on the first chart or two that I found in my original google searching for chord charts.

Although I've been playing guitar for close to 40 years, I had never heard of the Nashville Number System until recently. I wish that I had learned it many years ago. Nonetheless, I'm finding it very helpful now. Better late than never!

I added the chord spellings to my chart because, in the past, I relied on guitar chord fingering charts and never gave much thought to what notes make up each chord. Now, with fiddle and mandolin, I need to know what notes go with which chords in order to sound respectable when improvising.

When the work's all done and the sun's settin' low,

I pull out my fiddle and I rosin up the bow.

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DanielB
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May 20, 2015 - 10:20 pm
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Thanks for the clear-up, Diane!

Yeah, I've only run into players using it a few times over the year.  Maybe it's more common in other parts of the country or other genres.  By the time I'd heard of NNS, I was already familiar with the same sort of principles from music theory classes, so I never looked into it much. 

"This young wine may have a lot of tannins now, but in 5 or 10 years it is going to be spectacular, despite the fact that right now it tastes like crude oil. You know this is how it is supposed to taste at this stage of development." ~ Itzhak Perlman

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