Kathy in Pennsylvania writes:
I am a guitar flatpicker, playing for four years. I learned to read music as a child having played classical piano for eleven years (no ear training—all by rote). Since I love fiddle tunes, when I first started guitar, I got a bunch of fiddle tune music and have been memorizing ever since.
I sound good and can hold my own with stuff I’ve labored over and memorized and played over and over and over, but that is getting old. I am way too spontaneous a person to be satisfied with the box I’ve put myself into. I know the problem stems from those 11 years of piano where I ONLY learned by music that had to be memorized for piano recitals. I just applied how I use to learn to how I would tackle the fiddle tunes (flatpicking with a guitar). Now that I shine in that method, it is difficult to take ten steps back and sound lousy at improv! But, it’s got to be done!!!! …lest I go insane.
The problem you’re describing is actually quite common. We get a lot of people at our jam camps who sound great on just a few tunes, and are otherwise quite stressed at having to play new material, even just the rhythm chords, with no paper in front of them. Getting going at slow tempos, surrounded by people who are no more advanced than they are, they eventually settle and get on track.
I suggest that you get the Steve Kaufman video from Homespun Tapes, Lead Guitar Breaks for Bluegrass Songs. He shows how to take a basic melody and spin it into a guitar break. One important part here is that it’s *songs*, not instrumentals. The melodies are simpler, and to make a good break means knowing the melody but then also being able to embellish a melody. There are various patterns and tricks that can be used and reused from song to song, and if you learn and practice those, you can start to “improvise”.
My video Bluegrass Jamming for Newcomers and Closet Pickers would provide a good way for you to get some experience “faking” solos. The speeds are quite moderate, and there is one place in each song where the band goes into backup mode. You can experiment, using ideas you might catch from watching the guitar player on the video, who takes simple solos.
I also recommend from my web site the Play-Along Music Minus One Bluegrass Guitar, which allows you to play along *instead* of the guitarist on the CDs. There is also tab for his straightforward solos. Again, most of the material on this item is *songs*, which as you know are the main kind of material that happens at most jams, not fiddle tunes.
I hope you try these concrete suggestions. These recommended materials are designed exactly for folks like you.
Best of luck!