Playing a break for a song
I mentioned last night at the jam that a break for a song can range anywhere from just playing the melody as given, for instance, on the melody sheets I include in the attachments for the song of the week emails to fitting licks over the chord progression of the song that have little to do with the melody. Most breaks that you hear on bluegrass records fall somewhere between these two extremes. If you are an absolute beginner, then just playing the melody without adding anything around it is a good place to start for playing a break, but it is only a start. To progress to the next level, here are a few things to try:
1) slide into some of the melody notes from a lower note. On fiddle, it tends to work best if the note you are sliding from is most often only a half-step lower than the note you are sliding to. On the fretted instruments, especially banjo and guitar, slides from a note a whole step or one-and-a-half whole steps lower will often work just as well, and sometimes better, than slides from a note a half step lower.
2) add notes around the melody that belong to the chord that is called for at the time: for Scruggs-style banjo, this is done by incorporating the melody into rolls. On the other bluegrass instruments, this is done more often by playing double stops, i.e., playing 2 notes at once, one of which is the melody note while the other is a harmony note that more often than not is some other note that belongs to the chord being played at the time. (Here, the information I offer about which notes make up each chord can especially come in handy.)
3) learn a few fillins: i.e., licks that are designed to fill up spots in a tune in which one measure or more elapses between the beginning of one melody note and the beginning of the next melody note. For songs that use a 16-measure progression that ends with 2 measures of the '1' chord (like any of the progressions in rows V, W, and X on the basic chord progressions handout), there will almost always be one of these types of spots that begins in the second to last measure of the progression and continues into the last measure of the progression. On bluegrass records, the part of the break that coincides with these spots will most often consist of a fillin lick, so this is a good place to start for looking for fillin licks to learn from records.To make it easier to learn these fillin licks, I will often find the songs on youtube and then go to settings where I can slow down the recording to half speed. In applying fillins in your playing, it is important to keep track of which chord they are designed to be played over: an 'A' fillin for instance, will not work over a Bb chord and vice versa.
4) Using breaks that you hear on bluegrass records as a guide, find places where it works to make use of notes that neither belong to the melody nor to the major scale of the key that the song is played in. Two of these notes that bluegrass players frequently make use of are the notes that are a half step lower than the 3rd and 7th notes of the major scale. These are often called 'blue notes'. In the key of Bb, these notes are Db and Ab, since the 3rd and 7th notes of the Bb Major Scale are D and A. In the key of G, these notes would be Bb and F, since the 3rd and 7th notes of the G Major Scale are B and F#. If you are trying to learn a break or a lick from a record, and you are hearing notes that don't belong to the major scale of the key that the song is being played in, it will more often than not be the so-called 'blue notes' that you are encountering.
Playing in the key of Bb
If you are fiddler or a mandolin player, and you already play songs or licks in F, then, provided that these songs or licks do not require using the 4th string, you can take your same fingerings for F and move them all one string lower in pitch, and you will be thereby be playing in Bb. For playing chop chords on the mandolin that use no open strings, if you move the chords shapes you use for playing in the key of A up by one fret, this will put you in the key of Bb.
For playing in the key of Bb, bluegrass banjo and guitar players almost always capo to the 3rd fret, so that they can use the same fingerings that they would use for playing in the key of G. (In the key of G: 1=G; 4= C; 5=D. The G chord consists of the notes G, B, and D; the C chord consists of the notes C, E, and G, and the D chord consists of the notes D, F#, and A.)
Banjo players will need to raise the pitch of the fifth string to a Bb note (registers as A# on most tuners). This is done by capoing (with a 5th string capo, or 8th fret spike) the 5th string at the 8th fret. For banjo players who do not have a fifth string capo or an 8th fret spike (that includes myself), spike the 5th string at the 7th fret, and then tune it up a half step to a Bb (A#) note. This is best done by ear by playing the 5th string with the thumb while playing the 3rd string with the index finger, turning the 5th string tuning peg slowly until the 5th string sounds harmonious with the 3rd string.
If you do not have spikes or a 5th string capo, you can just tune up the 5th string manually to a Bb note, but don't be surprised if the string breaks. (You might wish to keep the banjo away from your face when tuning the 5th string up this high in case the string does break.) Also, remember that the tension on the neck changes every time you tune a string up or down. Tuning one string up 3 half steps will cause the rest of your strings to go flat, and so they will need to be tuned up a little bit.