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Best Ways to Start Learning Banjo

Posted on by Rick Saenz

by Pete Wernick

Best Ways to Start Learning Banjo by Pete Wernick

This article was written for teachers but is strongly recommended to anyone at the early stages or beginning of learning banjo.

Banjo teachers, lend me your ears! Are we doing all we can for our students? The ideas which follow may not be typical, but they’re based on experience, and they work. This article will try to convey both my method for teaching beginning banjo players and the reasons for what I do, and what I don’t do.

Get Rolling: Ultra-easy, No-fail Intro To Bluegrass Banjo
for the total beginner — ultra easy!

In sum: Focus your teaching directly on the skills that will enable your students, as soon as possible, to play simple and enjoyable music with other people. And as soon as they’re ready, help your students get together with others to make music.

A hard fact: Most people who try to learn bluegrass-style banjo give up at some point, whether after a few months or a few years. I feel this would happen far less if teachers and instructional materials would help students, from the first lesson, to play simple music with others.

It’s sad and frustrating to see how many teachers and teaching methods set students up for failure, when there are great possibilities for launching musicians. The biggest problem is that they focus primarily on having the student try to memorize note-for-note banjo solos, usually instrumentals. Most new players find even the simplest solos too hard, and play them very slowly and haltingly. Even those who learn to pick smoothly often have persistent rhythm problems because they never have to play in “real time”. This often goes on for months or even years, wearing down the student’s optimism as they struggle to learn a repertoire that amounts to only a few minutes of music.

I suggest they focus instead on skills such as simple right hand rhythm patterns, making easy chords, and learning to follow simple chord progressions in real time. Once a person can do that, making music with other people, or even a play-along recording, becomes possible. The rewards are endless. The repertoire of 3-chord songs is humongous. Songbooks and word sheets, or just watching others’ chords in a jam situation, make hours of music possible. Frustration is at a minimum. Also, this type of learning is more fundamental than soloing, providing a solid foundation which will serve the student well when it’s time to start learning solos.

Since starting to teach banjo back in 1964, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t. At over 80 week-long instructional camps since 1980, plus many weekend clinics and workshops, I’ve encountered students of all kinds. Many of them had taken banjo lessons, some for years. A great many own one or more (usually many more) teaching methods. The most frustrated students are usually those who, despite learning tabs or other note-for-note arrangements, still don’t or can’t play with other people. The ones who have the most fun are those who can and do play comfortably with others.

If you actually facilitate your students’ jamming with one another, or with the students of a fellow teacher, you will create an unbeatable motivational situation. Any student who learns to jam is unlikely to ever quit playing. Being able to jam leads to motivation to go beyond the basics, and it engenders an optimism in the student that in time, many things are possible.

Motivation is number one

Without motivation we have nothing. It’s the difference between the person who practices and makes progress, versus the one who never seems to “have enough time”, and who keeps coming back without having practiced (you know, the one who eventually drops out).

I assume every student begins with a motivational head start: Maybe he/she just likes the sound of a banjo, or likes bluegrass music itself. Maybe he/she happens to have a banjo and feels an urge to try to play it. We can add to that initial motivation, or we can squander it by needlessly trying the student’s patience. If we help them develop some momentum, they’re hooked. If we don’t, there’s a good chance that sooner or later they will quit.

What’s rewarding for a beginning student? A few favorites:

  • Learning something that sounds good, with minimal effort.
  • Having a sense of progress (“Hey, I can do it!”)
  • Having others witness and congratulate the progress.

Additional motivational fuel:

  • Sensing what fun it will be to get better.
  • Anticipating how easy it will be to improve.
Bluegrass Slow Jam for the Total Beginner
THE ONE VIDEO that every new bluegrasser needs, as soon as they get their first instrument!

Yes, it needs to be easy, that’s kind of obvious. All those “________ For Idiots” and “________ For Dummies” books remind us that many people lack confidence in their learning abilities and want clear assurances that learning will be made easy for them. Reasonable enough. I’m the same way. What’s wrong with something being easy? If it’s too easy, just move ahead to the next thing. But if something is too hard, frustration is the result, and there’s a temptation to just give up.

So to summarize: To keep motivation high, maximize:

  • Fun
  • Progress
  • A vision of increasing amounts of fun based on progress
  • Social benefits of progress.


  • Frustration
  • A sense that it’s “too hard for me”. (“Maybe I’m not good enough.”)

What else dictates what we should teach our students?

The importance of the social situation

A great many beginning players make music exclusively by themselves. Often the only person who hears them is their teacher, or a family member. This is not natural!

One thing that’s great about bluegrass and banjo music is that so much of it can be reduced to a form simple enough for almost anyone to do it, and do it successfully with others. I use the expression, “The first rung of the ladder is very close to the ground.”

Once a person can successfully combine with others in the making of simple music, a commitment develops. The fun and the feeling of success in that experience builds a desire to improve, to practice.

How to gear your teaching to the social situation

It helps to imagine a situation where a person can play banjo in a group doing something that’s ultra-easy. A few basics:

  1. Electronic tuner
  2. Key of G. Female singers may prefer C or D, but it means either playing F or retuning the 5th string.
  3. Start with two chord songs, using just G and D7 (a 2-finger chord), or C and G (key of C)
  4. Easiest right hand (simple strum, then later a TITM roll)
  5. Easiest left hand (simple chord forms near the nut, no F chord or F-shape chords at first)
  6. Familiar songs (preferably ones that the student actually likes).
  7. Easy-going tempos.
  8. Somebody to do the singing.

Welcome to Jamalot!

Welcome to Jamalot!
About Jam Camps

Start Jamming– Right Away!

Once a person has an in-tune banjo in their lap, why not run through a number of nice G/D7 songs they know and have them strum along? No special technique required for the right hand. Just brush the strings with the thumb or any finger, in a regular downbeat rhythm. If a student is up to it, have him/her try a simple strum: thumb on the 3rd string on the downbeats, the index and/or middle on the offbeats.

Don’t use written music of any sort. It’s better for them to practice listening and watching (skills needed for jamming). They get the chords by following you.

You could start with kiddie songs like “Skip to My Lou” or “Go Tell Aunt Rhody”, or maybe bluegrass classics like “Handsome Molly”, “I’m Going Back to Old Kentucky”, or “My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains”, “Katy Daley”, or “Little Birdie”. For the over-40 crowd there are songs like “Tom Dooley” or “Down in the Valley”. For country fans, there’s “Take Me Back to Tulsa” and “Jambalaya”. Just have the student watch your left hand and change back and forth at the right time. These are all just 2-chord songs. It’s hard to mess them up!

The point is that, with a teacher leading the way, a student can actually be making banjo music immediately, in the first few minutes of trying. That has got to be a good feeling!

I spin out this initial blast of success and fun with a vision of the future:

You’ll learn one more chord (C, using three fingers) and this will open up a WHOLE WORLD of music, such as at least 80 percent of the repertoire of Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, and the Stanley Brothers– for starters. All that’s needed is someone to sing the song, and the banjo can play along. If the student is willing to sing, or even hum while looking at a songbook, there’s a clear path ahead.

Next will be learning rolls and adding them to chord changes. One TITM for each downbeat. Show how it sounds played slowly, then gradually increase the speed. Have the student strum lightly on each downbeat, and synchonize your roll to the strum.

For extra motivation, you can whet the student’s appetite by doing a slide on the 3rd string with this roll, like the B part of “Cripple Creek”. Do it up to speed, and make it sound great. (You’ll see them smile.)

Stress that a person can play all night long on song after song, with just three chords and a strum or a simple roll. Not fancy, but it’s workable music– a way of backing up singing and joining with other musicians.

I have this definition of “successful musician”: “a person who enjoys playing music”. Nothing more. After all, what is the primary purpose of music? Ability is great, but without the enjoyment, what’s the point? And if it’s enough fun, the person will do it more, and improve.

As Vince Gill sings in his song “The Key”, “Three chords on the banjo is the key to life.”

Teaching The Skills

Bluegrass Jamming, A Guide For Newcomers and Closet Pickers
Bluegrass Jamming, A Guide For Newcomers and Closet Pickers

Join a full band playing 17 standards at moderate speeds. Try a break when the band goes into “backup” mode once per song. Jamming tips and protocols explained in detail. Songbook included with all words and chords. A best-seller and great value at $30.

For the first stage, the student needs to get comfortable with the basics of rhythm playing. Key skills involve knowing:

  1. Chord changes– which chord and when it happens.

    Forming chords accurately. Check by picking the strings slowly with the right hand, one by one. Listen for unclear notes, and correct.

    • Changing chords quickly
    • Changing chords without looking at the left hand
    • Following chord changes by watching another player
    • Remembering chord changes
    • Anticipating chord changes.
    • Maintaining steady rhythm while changing chords.
    • Aligning rhythm properly with phrasing— the right number of strums per phrase, especially pauses in the lyrics between lines of a song.

    This can take some repetition and training. Forming a C chord without looking is not an overnight job. Often teachers take it for granted, but learning and executing chord changes, even on an easy song, will take a beginner a while. Fingers will be sore until good calluses form. Here is where that initial blast of motivation is needed. A certain amount of pain and frustration are outweighed by that beginner’s spark.

  2. For variety in practicing and a head start on right hand technique, it’s not too early for the student to learn the first right hand roll that you demonstrated earlier. It’s just a 4-note move: TITM, on strings 3,2,5,1. With minimal coaching, that roll can jell at a slow, steady speed.
  3. The next step will be to combine the rolls and the chord changes. One 4-note roll per downbeat, where before there had been just a strum. This is where the student first experiences the thrill of making the basic bluegrass sound. Work on putting the roll with G/D7 changes four beats apart. Eight beats apart matches “My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains”.
  4. Soon the student will learn to vary which string the thumb hits for the first note of the roll. Starting the first four-note roll with the third string, then the next four the fourth string, a “root-five” sound is now embedded in the banjo roll. This gives the roll its standard eight-note, two-beat, full-measure form, a very nice sounding accompaniment. Yes, even the pro’s do exactly this roll!
  5. The slide on the 3rd string with this roll, a la the beginning of “Cripple Creek”, is a very appealing move, but it might be a bit early to teach it to a student. Some students have trouble executing and coordinating slides with rolls. If a student picks it right up, go for it. If not, put it off till later.

These skills all come with practice. This is where students really need you to monitor their progress, to be encouraging and to congratulate them on their success.

The above steps amount to creating a musical foundation for your student. Keeping rhythm and following chord changes may be easy for some, but it is definitely not something to take for granted in your students. Be sure they are on solid footing before you move on.

How to find jams

How to find jams

How to Scout Good Jam Opportunities

Now it is most appropriate to help the student find some people to play with and start putting their skills to work.

Maybe the student already has a situation like that. More likely, he/she has a less-than-ideal jamming situation available, such as one where the level is over their head and where there is less-than-ideal attitude toward novices. Even if the experienced players try to be supportive, it’s still an intimidating situation. Being a wallflower/ wannabe in such a situation can actually be more discouraging than helpful.

What makes a good situation? Mostly, the presence of a person who can accurately sing a variety of banjo-friendly songs at comfortable tempos (70-90 beats/minute works well). Just one person like that is all a banjo player needs to get launched as a jammer.

In a pinch, you can be the student’s jam partner. But better they should connect with another musician or two or three who can enjoy and benefit from playing with a banjo player.

There are many people out there who could fit this need. The question is, how to find them? A few ways: Through music teachers, by scouting in person at festivals and jam sessions, and even by scouting through advertisements, such as index cards on music store bulletin boards.

If you’re a music teacher with several students of compatible abilities, you can arrange a group “jamming” lesson. You can show one person how to roll while the other strums. If you can get one or both to sing, using lyric sheets or songbooks, it won’t be long before they’re self-sufficient. Also, you or your student can call a guitar teacher and ask for help in finding a basic-level guitar player who’d enjoy jamming with a banjo player. The student could even offer the teacher a finder’s fee for their help, well worth it.

An added benefit to any teacher whose students are learning to jam is that now the students are likely to get a burst of motivation, which makes them learn better and be less likely to quit.

Scouting for good jam partners can be a lonely pursuit, but since the goal is finding just one good match, it’s worth the effort. Since the people who would fill the bill are likely to be “closet” players, they are sometimes hard to spot. Look for people who attend jams or festivals with instruments that they never seem to take out of the case. Strike up a conversation: “Do you play that?” When they say, “Not very well,” you can say, “Me neither. I play pretty slowly but I know some easy three chord songs. Want to play a little?” That might be all it takes.

Any way a teacher can facilitate their students’ finding jam buddies will pay off big time. It will go a lot farther than having them learn one more tab!

Beginning Bluegrass Banjo
Beginning Bluegrass BanjoMake Up Your Own Banjo Solos
Make Up Your Own Banjo Solos

First Solos — Songs Are Best

It is definitely not time for the student to be taught Cripple Creek! It’s rare for a beginner to play the A part of Cripple Creek correctly– they almost always miss their timing on the double-length slide that must anticipate the first beat. It typically results in speeding up, breaking the comfort of a steady rhythmic feel.

Another popular but out-of-place choice is Blackberry Blossom. This one is way too hard, but I think teachers give it because it is pretty, even when played haltingly, and makes the student feel, a bit falsely, that they’re “on their way”. In reality, to play it correctly and at typical speed, is a long-term project, and one whose benefits don’t easily generalize to other tunes.

Speaking of which, even a nice and easy tune like “Doug’s Tune”, while a confidence-builder, does not easily generalize to other pieces.

Solos to songs tend to use common notes and licks that transfer easily to solos for other songs. Solos to songs are generally half the length of a typical two-part instrumental. Well known and well-loved songs such as Red River Valley, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, You Are My Sunshine, and Worried Man Blues can be learned in much less time than almost any instrumental, and have much more utility to the next steps of learning.

A short list of recommended first tab solos

“Bile Them Cabbage Down”, is a song and favorite, and also a definite confidence builder, though a bit atypical compared to most bluegrass songs. It is a song, but can be played as a tune. If taught as a one-roll (TMTIMTIM) song with the first note and the following index notes staying on the melody, it is a fine introduction to using that forward roll.

On my Beginning Bluegrass Banjo instruction video I teach four different rolls by applying each one to an entire song. I use classics: Shady Grove (alternating thumb), Handsome Molly (Foggy Mt. Breakdown roll), Big Ball’s in Boston (forward), and Worried Man Blues (forward-backward). These build confidence, and though quite simple compared to most basic solos, they do get the melody out. They show the students in a general way how the melody can be brought out with different rolls.

A few slides are required to play these tunes correctly. The teacher needs to monitor how the first arrangements are working, timing-wise. Things to watch out for:

  1. No fair starting and stopping. Work to keep the song moving at the right pace, in real time, even when mistakes happen.
  2. Rolls staying steady at 8 notes per roll, no aimless rolling along outside of the 8-note form (for now).
  3. No “re-locating” one’s spot in the song. That is, no jumping ahead or falling behind due to the wrong number of notes played along with a certain part of the song.

Once a student is rendering these tunes acceptably, it’s appropriate to try a few tablatures which combine the simple rolls. Simple songs with melodies found on the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th strings are best. Melodies on the 3rd and 4th are best, because the thumb falls there naturally, and any roll can be started on those strings (only some can start on the 2nd). My Bluegrass Banjo book offers simple versions of four familiar songs: She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Ballad of Jed Clampett, and Worried Man Blues.

If these are working all right, it’s time for a student to start creating arrangements on their own.

I first have a student try to find the melody on their own. Once they think they have it, I review it and make sure it’s plausible.

Next comes the big assignment, combining melody and rolls. This is a rather complicated trial and error task, one usually requiring quite a bit of patience and persistence despite frustration. This bridge of skill and understanding Scruggs-style bluegrass must be crossed at some point, and with a few memorized tabs under a student’s belt, I feel now is the time. A teacher can review and point out problems in the arrangement. Working through the problems will result in success at some point.

Bluegrass Songbook
Bluegrass SongbookBluegrass Banjo
Bluegrass Banjo

To assist a student with the challenging task of creating a rhythmically correct solo, I first have them make a play-along rhythm tape. They sing or audibly hum (or just say the words) in time while playing the simple chord changes. Ideal speed is about 70 or 80 beats per minute. It’s good to repeat the chord progression behind the solo at least five times in a row, to help them stay focused as they keep trying, and not have to rewind the tape. Computer programs like Band In a Box can make this task easy, if the student is able to practice in the same room as the computer. The demand of keeping up with an accompaniment in real time forces the student to avoid typical pitfalls such as frequent stops, starts, hesitations, and other rhythmic flaws. When the arrangement can finally flow, in time with the play-along recording, the job is done and it’s time for congratulations! The student has every reason to believe that this solo will really work in their jamming situation.

If the student has been doing all right up till now with the steps of learning, and has found people to make music with, there is enough of a reserve of motivation for them to endure the frustrations of this critical learning stage. You have given him/her enough foundation to make the task as easy as possible, but now it’s like walking or running or riding a bicycle– by doing it enough, the student will just “get the hang of it”, and put it into the “automatic” part of their brain, where the parts of what they’re doing blend into larger units that the conscious mind can learn to control. When the student comes out the other side of this process, they’ve “learned the style” and there’s no turning back. They’re hooked! Now they just have to build that soundproofed practice room or woodshed.

In Summary

The observations and recommendations in this article are distilled from almost 40 years of teaching experience with a few thousand students. While I can’t claim they will fit everyone, they have worked for a great many. If the student really wants to play, these methods should keep the path as clear as possible, moving one rung at a time up the ladder, with a minimum of frustration and a maximum of optimism. I hope you’ll try these ideas with your own students. Let me know how they work, and what other ideas you have which may help our students learn to be successful musicians.

Good luck,
Pete Wernick

Posted in Learn Banjo article | Leave a comment

Summary of the Beginners Bluegrass Banjo Method

Posted on by Rick Saenz

Copyright by Pete Wernick


Prerequisite: Get a banjo in playable condition (see pages 124-5 of Bluegrass Banjo)

Non-playing assignment: Get a songbook (page 13, BGB), records (pp 138-41 BG B,) strap for the banjo (p 126, BG B). Find a regular place to practice.

Practicing steps:

  1. Learn to tune the banjo. If you can’t do it very well, find someone who can teach you to do it. (pp 9-10, BG B) Before playing, you must always get the banjo in tune.
  2. Learn the basic chords. Learn G, D7 and C (p 11, BG B). When holding each chord, pick the strings one by one to see if each is ringing clear. If not, make adjustments. Learn to change chords in a second or less, continually checking to see that each string rings clear. Work toward not having to look at your left hand while changing chords quickly and accurately.
  3. Learn several songs. With either a songbook or a teacher, start with songs using just G and D7, then try some with G, C and D7 (pp 14-17, BG B). Brush or strum the strings any way that feels comfortable and sing along, or at least say or hum the words to yourself. To consider a song “learned”, you should be able to play through it smoothly without stopping and without looking at written music.
  4. Learn some more songs and some more chords. Learn at least a dozen or so songs before going on to Phase Two. Learn how to transpose songs from one key to another (p 12, BG B), so you can learn songs not presented in G in a songbook. This will also enable you to put songs into C or other keys when they’re hard to sing in G.
  5. Learn chords such as F, A, G7, D, Em, Am, E, and B (page 14, BG B) as new songs require them. Some of the harder chords like F or Am may come slowly. Keep working on them while you move on to later steps.

Goals of Phase One: Develop basic left hand ability, sense of rhythm, sense of chord changes. Build confidence to continue.

Pacing: If you are of average aptitude and have a medium level of dedication (three or four hours a week of goal-oriented practice), you are likely to get through Step 3 within a month or even a week. Step 4 might take another two weeks.

Pep Talk: These few steps will prepare an excellent foundation for learning three-finger picking. However, if you never progress past this point, you can still consider yourself a banjo player and get great enjoyment from playing.

While it’s not a necessary learning step yet, you can now play with other musicians. Doing just that will help your playing in a variety of ways. If you have the chance, do it!

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Prerequisite: Steps 1, 2, and 3 above.

Non-playing assignment: Listen to your bluegrass records, especially
the banjo playing. Get a set of fingerpicks (p 125 BG B). Observe good banjo
players as often and as closely as possible.

Practicing steps:

  1. Learn two rolls (p 19 BG B). To consider a roll “learned” you should be able to play it perfectly, continuously six times in 15 seconds, without looking at written music.
  2. For each roll, learn to change chords once every two measures without breaking the speed of the roll. Work from easier patterns (G, D7, G, D7) to harder ones (G, C, D7, C, G). Make up your own. Learn to change chords once each measure.
  3. Play some easy, familiar songs from Phase One. Play them just as before, but instead of brushing the strings with your right hand, play one of the two rolls you know. Be sure to play one full roll for each two down-beats. Re-learn several songs from Phase One this way. Before proceeding to the next step, be sure you can play at least two three-chord songs with each roll, without breaking time.
  4. Learn two more rolls and learn to use them in two songs each (p 19 BG B).
  5. Learn to vary the strings your thumb hits while maintaining a particular roll (p 21 BG B).

Goals of Phase Two: Develop basic right hand dexterity, develop steady right hand timing. Combine left and right hand moves without breaking time.

Pacing: If you are of average aptitude and practice hard for at least three hours a week, you can aim to get through Phase Two in about two months.

Pep talk: Once you get through this phase you will already be able to impress people at parties, accompany singing with a roll, and provide yourself with endless entertainment.

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Prerequisite: An in-tune banjo

Practicing steps:

  1. l. Pick out do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do starting with the third string open (G). That is a G scale, and songs in the key of G use those notes. Learn by sight the notes on the first, second, third, and fourth strings that are in the G scale up to the 5th fret. No need now to know their names.
  2. Pick out, by trial and error, the melodies to several songs in the key of G. Memorize them.

Goals of Phase Three: Develop sense of melody. Learn locations on neck of most-likely-to-be-used notes.

Pacing: There is a great deal of trial and error here, which can be frustrating. For some it will come much slower than for others. Natural aptitude or experience (especially at singing or playing a melodic instrument) has an influence here. However, with coaching, even someone with very little natural ability should be able to develop this skill in a few weeks by spending an average of a half-hour a day on it. Include both Phase Two practicing and Phase Three practicing in your practice sessions. Both are prerequisites for Phrase Four.

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Prerequisite: Phases One, Two and Three (Optional: Phase Five)

Non-playing assignments: Get a capo for playing along with records in the key of A (pp 125-6 BG B) . Listen very carefully to records featuring good basic banjo playing. Learn how to read tablature (p 18 BG B).

Practicing steps:

  1. Learn two elementary solos from tablature (pp. 25-28 BG B). Commit a measure or two at a time to memory. To consider a song “learned” you should be able to play a 16-measure solo in 25 seconds, smoothly and accurately, without looking at the tablature.
  2. Carefully read and play through the segment in Bluegrass Banjo (pp. 22-25) about constructing an arrangement to Coming Round the Mountain.
  3. Try to construct an arrangement of your own the same way. Use one of your favorites among the simpler songs you worked on in Phases Two and Three.
  4. Check the accuracy of the arrangement. Have a music teacher or someone else you trust musically tell you whether your arrangement is melodically and rhythmically correct. Correct as necessary.
  5. Construct arrangements of two more tunes.
  6. Play your arrangement of a song along with a recorded version of that song. The recorded version could be a home recording with you or someone else chording along on banjo or guitar.
  7. (Optional) Learn some more elementary arrangements from tablature.

Goals of Phase Four: This phase is the critical point where in my estimation a person crosses the magic line over to “bluegrass banjo player”. Using a three-finger roll to play a simple melody line surrounded by other notes, is the essence of the bluegrass banjo style. At this point you’ve got it and everything else is embellishment!

Pacing: Since this learning step is a jump in learning, and not based just on memorization and practice, it is hard to predict how long it may take someone to truly learn it. For a somewhat dedicated student it shouldn’t take longer than a year. It could take as little as a week or two if you’ve got the momentum and you’re gung-ho.

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Prerequisite: Know how to pick at least two tunes from Step 3 of Phase Four, straight through without having to look at tablature. (Note: As noted in Prerequisites to Phase Four, it’s possible that slides, hammer-ons and pull-offs may be learned before Phase Four. However, for the sake of reaching the Phrase Four plateau as soon as possible, it may be easier to tackle these left hand techniques after the basics of picking out tunes are learned.)

Practicing steps:

  1. Learn how to hammer-on, first on a single picked string, then as an embellishment on the first note of a roll (p 29 BG B). Be careful that the hammer-on doesn’t affect the even right hand flow of notes.
  2. Learn slides the same way (pp 29-30 BG B).
  3. Learn pull-offs the same way (p 31 BG B).
  4. Learn some stock licks using hammer-ons, slides and pull-offs. (pp 29-36 BG B).
  5. Incorporate some of your newly-learned licks into arrangements you are working on from Phase Four.

Goal of Phase Five: These left-hand techniques combined with the hard-won right-hand knowledge gained in Phase Four are what makes your playing sound like bluegrass!

Pacing: If a somewhat dedicated student avoids rhythmic difficulties adding the new moves in, it shouldn’t take more than a week or two to incorporate them comfortably. As in Phase Four, it’s a good idea to have a better player listen to you and let you know if you have rhythm problems.

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Prerequisite: At least three arrangements with left-hand embellishments learned and comfortable.

Practicing steps:

  1. Learn more stock lead-in licks, tag licks, endings. (pp 38-45 BG B).
  2. Apply each new lick within an arrangement.
  3. Revamp your arrangements to include lead-ins and tags wherever appropriate.

Goal of Phase Six: These licks are the last link in constructing convincingly bluegrassy arrangements. You now have the skills to do the main things required of a banjo player in a bluegrass band: play along in rhythm and take a solo. You are no longer a beginner! From now on you can think of yourself as intermediate level. To become advanced technically now just means learning to sound better and learning more material. In a manner of speaking, having built your boat, you are now ready to put it out on the river.

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Jammer Spotlight: Chris Stanton, MD

Posted on by pete


Chris Stanton, MD goes to a special place to recharge after many hours working as a doctor. He calls it Banjoland. click for more

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The Crossroad Jammers

Posted on by pete
Bill Skelly, the writer, is 2nd banjo player from the right.

Bill Skelly, the writer, is 2nd banjo player from the right.

“Each Thursday we meet at The Crossroads, an assisted living facility in the Minneapolis area. Many of our ‘groupies’ live there and arrive in various modes of transportation. Some are elders that come almost week come rain or snow; many with a cane or walker. Most have their own Bluegrass Fake Book and a few even bring a music stand and sing along with us.

For the most part, we are all retired and novice pickers. … at 87 I am generally the oldest in the room!

If I had not attended your Banjo Camp and your Bluegrass Jamming Camp, I would not be able to give back to these fellow Seniors!

I thank you!

Bill Skelly”

Thank you, Bill, for this report and 45 photos you sent! You are a fortunate man and I am fortunate to know you.



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Colorado Flood

Posted on by pete

We’re OK and so is our house but my cabin “by” Left Hand Creek (usually 10 feet across) was in the 500 foot- wide version).

“Before” (courtesy of Fretboard Journal)

“Before” (courtesy of Fretboard Journal)

“During” ...note high water line near top of the windows

“During” …note high water line near top of the windows

“After” shoveling out 2 tons of mud

“After” shoveling out 2 tons of mud

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You helped to stir something…

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"By the way, thanks also for the beginning jam class you led at RockyGrass in 2011. My then-12-year-old son Landon was in your class, and you helped to stir something deep within him. He’s been playing guitar, mandolin, piano and drums constantly ever since. He plays the kit for a jazz group at his Middle School, and he is registered to be in the Kid’s Camp at RockyGrass this summer. We’re having great fun with music together."

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Prague Blog: The First Europe-Wide Jam Camp

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I’ll admit to a bit of trepidation about this camp … though it’s hard to worry too much about people will have a good time when they get together to play music for a weekend. But this camp was a little different.

Would the hotel be an agreeable enough place for the camp? Despite my best efforts, communications both before and during the camp were slow and uncertain. English is not readily spoken or understood in the Czech Republic, we found. But the friendliness of the owner and the staff made it work out fine. The hotel was homey, clean, and the beds were comfortable. Not much time was spent in the rooms!

Would the diversity of nationalities/languages amount to language problems that would slow up the teaching, learning and jamming to a crawl? No… thank goodness. Twenty-four of us, from seven countries (Czech Republic, Germany, France, England, Italy, Denmark, U.S.A.) had a common language — as the advertising said, the teaching was in English. I made a point to speak slowly, with ample pauses, and keep it as simple and brief as I could — good policy anyway! I asked regularly whether what I had just said was understood, or it needed to be repeated, and all said they understood me. Yay!

… Though it had to help that my two Czech assistants (Petr and Peter) could fill in what I said to the Czech students.

Chris Kealy, Europe’s first Jam Hero

Le Sac En Plastique shows their stuff

Jamming can be visual too

Peter Ruby coaching a jam

What about people singing in a language foreign to them? Well, that’s one of the interesting facts about European bluegrass… Almost everyone seems to assume that bluegrass is always sung in English. Even Radim, who had a difficult time making full sentences in English, and said he practiced Mountain Dew for weeks before the camp, sang all five verses (in a thick Czech accent of course) quite fluently while playing bass. I asked him if he’d like the words on a music stand in front of him and he declined, saying that would only confuse him. He got a big compliment from me and a Jam Hero badge for his effort!

Claude from France had been practicing with Dan Huckabee’s harmony singing instruction, and could sing the tenor part of I Don’t Want Your Rambling Letters. I supplied the melody, and the result was quite satisfying to both of us. We switched and that worked too. Claude’s particularly good on banjo, but I was impressed that he wanted to work on his singing skills, and did quite well.

One of the big events in every jam camp is the presentation of the first Jam Hero award. At this camp, it was Chris Kealy of Great Britain who stepped right up when the first jam group was assembled and did the first song, Worried Man Blues. His receipt of the badge was a hit. Throughout the weekend, he’d remind us of his status as Europe’s first Jam Hero, and thank goodness he continued to prove himself worthy. His Brit mates seemed equally proud of his accomplishment.

This camp gave me a chance to work with and certify two new Wernick Method teachers, Joff Lowson from Bristol, England, and Peter Ruby from Prague. Both are very skilled musicians with a lot of teaching experience. I think they’ll both make excellent jam teachers. Joff has already been asked to offer a jam class at a festival in June in Tamworth, England. It looks like that will happen.

The hotel included both a bar and a sort of nightclub-style small ballroom. Some interesting events went on there during the weekend (dog show, Easter pageant by handicapped kids for their families), and we got to take it over Sunday afternoon after the dog show was over. The jam groups — The Train Wrecks, Room 35, and Le Sac En Plastique featuring Mr. Chris Kealy, Europe’s First Jam Hero — did themselves proud, and three of the musicians were so picturesque as to warrant a photo-op encore of just them on stage in their best poses.

Here are comments from the jammers, from the surveys taken anonymously online:

  • It’s great to be instructed by Joan & Pete as they are so passionate about Bluegrass and want to make your experience as enjoyable and instructive as they possibly can.
  • My sincere thanks for taking the time and making the effort to make the Jam Camp a memorable experience and truly meaningful learning experience.
  • Thanks for putting on the first Wernick Method Jam Camp in Europe. I picked up so many great tidbits to improve not only my own playing, but most importantly, my whole approach to learning (and teaching) the banjo. And all this is such a great atmosphere. I haven’t been around so many great players in one place ever. I enjoyed every minute and I don’t think I stopped grinning the whole weekend. I look forward now to finding a jam group closer to home. I will recommend to any-and-everyone to take one of your Jam Camps.
  • Before I went to the camp, I was totally aware of the fact that I didn’t know anything about jamming. Now I know what I need to learn. My jam skills can hardly improve in just three days but I now know what I need to practice to improve those skills.
  • I made a big and much-needed step forward over the weekend. I’ve been to other workshops and taken quite a few one-on-one lessons with my mandolin. But I made more progress over the jam camp weekend than any other workshop I’ve been to in the past. I learned a lot about bluegrass at the other workshops, but at the jam camp I actually played it in earnest. I even managed to take solos for the first time (which I had pretty much given up on before the camp). I know what to do now and what I need to practice.
  • I got more out of these 3 days than any week at Sorefingers (I’ve been going for the last 7 years)
  • It was a pleasure to participate. What a fun way to play. Also a great experience to get to know the other musicians while playing with them.
  • It was a nice an interesting week, with good music and nice people, and of course enough beer.

My thanks to Tomas Kral, proprietor of the Hotel Svornost, who provided many of the photos in this report, and commented on his web site:

Čtyři dny se u nás hrálo na banjo a jinné strunné nástrojec jako o život .Byli u nás na návštěvě bajisti z celé Evropy. Hru na Banjo je učil

Dr. Banjo mistr Petr Wernick.Four days with us playing the banjo and other stringed instruments like hell. Were here visiting banjo player from across Europe. Game Banjo taught by Dr. Banjo Champion Peter Wernick


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Prague Blog: Pete and Joan on the Loose in Prague

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For years I’ve heard from many people, “Oh, you HAVE to go to Prague!” Well, now we have, and I can see why people say that. The city has a unique charm thanks to a deep history that’s well-preserved visually throughout. It was spared the widespread destruction of World War II and other wars, allowing centuries of buildings and streets to coexist in what’s still a modern city.

For us, the experience was tainted a bit by unseasonably cold weather. We knew late March might not be exactly springlike, but even the locals were wincing about the bitter cold (“below zero” as they say, meaning in the 20s Farenheit), accompanied by a brisk wind. At least the sun shone and by late afternoon, walking the city was pretty tolerable.

Some highlights of treading the old cobblestones:

Charles Bridge

The Charles Bridge, pedestrians-only, over the river that runs through the city, with 30 large statues of saints, all sorts of folks just hanging out, street artists, an ever-changing scene, mighty scenic.

Historic Church

The Old Town square, with historic churches, statues, a big clock tower, food and souvenir stands, and even an Easter celebration, with local kids dancing and playing music on a large stage.

Old Jewish Cemetery

The Old Jewish Cemetery. I wondered why this is called a “must-see” designation, but upon learning the history (100,000 people buried — in 12 layers — in a fraction of a city block) and seeing the place with its innumerable ancient grave stones, many of which had self-exhumed over the years… it was indeed a moving and memorable place to visit.

Our nights in Prague were well-spent as well.

Piano Contest






Sunday following the Bluegrass Summit: A… Piano Contest!? Rosta, our host for the Bluegrass Summit, requested our presence as guests of honor at a special event, a piano contest for which he was one of the three judges. The event took place at a quite-fancy downtown hotel, with the piano the contestants all played a maximum-size (8-foot) grand piano by the world-famous Petrof company, local to Prague. I was introduced to CEO Zuzanah Petrof, a statuesque friendly lady with a lovely smile, who welcomed us, and we enjoyed hearing seven contestants with a great variety of skills and performing styles.

The players were not so much of a “classical” type of piano playing, but more about solo, “bar” style piano. So the pieces ranged from Girl From Ipanema and Besame Mucho (twice each) to various classical pieces. The contestants’ clothes choices were interesting, ranging from too-large to too-small suits, and one contestant dressed all in white. Demeanor ranged from scared-witless to flirtatious. One contestant played almost always with his eyes closed, and to add a bit of showmanship, played his last piece after being ceremoniously blindfolded.

For a bit of variety, I was requested to play a piece with the reigning champion, a friendly and huge youngish guy named Peter. We had Sweet Georgia Brown as common ground, and had a little 4-minute international piano/banjo jam on the old standard.


Tuesday night jam at a Prague pub

Peter Ruby, host of a weekly jam at a nearby pub in Prague, invited us to come and pick with the locals, so we got to mix it up with some talented folks who crammed around some tables and kept the music going for a few hours amid the consumption of a fair amount of bubbly beverages. A good band, Twisted Timber, whose members had met at this jam, played a few numbers for us, including some impressive originals. It’s inspiring to see good young pickers carrying bluegrass along, from this outpost so far from the bluegrass heartland. A few people had made a point of coming, one said from as far as 200 kilometers. That’s a haul!

Click here to watch a video of the Prague Pub Jam.

Visit with Prucha


I’ve known Jaroslav (he goes by Jarda) for over 10 years — we met at, and he regularly comes to IBMA. He’s a maker of fine instruments including one I have, and… speaks good English, always a nicety. We were both excited about the opportunity to get together on my first visit to Prague. Though time was in short supply, Joan and I made a point to have a visit and see his small factory.

Jarda picked us up at a prime sightseeing location by the river, at 5 on the dot, as planned. Fortunately, central Prague is fairly unclogged with cars– a pleasure for both noise level and pedestrian convenience. We drove maybe 20 minutes to the south outskirts, and down a small avenue not unlike what you see in the states… and walked into Prucha Banjo central! Only a few specimens were on the premises, but I did play them, and they do the maker proud. I even got a few sounds off a lefty model, made by Jarda’s son who showed us his very fine work on necks-in-progress. We also met Jarda’s girlfriend and her daughter, and drove with them into the hills to an upscale restaurant, recently converted from a barn! A most unique and delicious dinner ensued, good times!

And on to the Svornost for the first Europe-Wide Jam Camp!

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Prague Blog: Pete and Joan at The Bluegrass Summit

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After the long trip, a short rest, then a wonderful dinner and jam with Summit organizers and musician friends from all over Europe, Ireland to Norway and Russia… The Pyramida Hotel provided a former-communist elegant setting for an international jam.

With Summit Organizers Ivana Loukova and Rosta Capek, and Bill Keith

With Summit Organizers Ivana Loukova and Rosta Capek, and Bill Keith

Jamming after dinner!

Jamming after dinner!

Jammers from Norway, Russia, Italy, Switzerland, Czech Rep., U.S. Great twin fiddles by Angelika Torrie (Switzerland) and "Fiddlin' George" from Prague!

Jammers from Norway, Russia, Italy, Switzerland, Czech Rep., U.S. Great twin fiddles by Angelika Torrie (Switzerland) and “Fiddlin’ George” from Prague!

Saturday morning bright and early, meetings about the future of European bluegrass.

English is the common language, thank goodness. To our relief, we could understand people even from Hungary, Bulgaria, Norway, and more. Hard-working bluegrass diehards from Ireland to Moscow were there to move it all to the next level!

European Bluegrass Movers and Shakers, moving and shaking.

European Bluegrass Movers and Shakers, moving and shaking.

Pete discusses workshops at festivals with Denmark's Arne Sorenson, 3 Wernick Method teachers, a total of 4 "Peter"s

Pete discusses workshops at festivals with Denmark’s Arne Sorenson, 3 Wernick Method teachers, a total of 4 “Peter”s

Bluegrass summit attendees

Bluegrass summit attendees

Saturday night, the sold-out Bluegrass Summit concert!

Pete and Joan perform at the Bluegrass Summit, Prague

Pete and Joan perform at the Bluegrass Summit, Prague

"The Banjo Trio", Bill Keith, Pete Wernick, Petr Brandejs

“The Banjo Trio”, Bill Keith, Pete Wernick, Petr Brandejs

Pete and Bill Keith with the "Father of Czech Bluegrass", Marko Cernak, Petr Brandejs, Wernick Method teacher, President of Czech Bluegrass Association, and President of The European Bluegrass Music Association.

Pete and Bill Keith with the “Father of Czech Bluegrass”, Marko Cernak, Petr Brandejs, Wernick Method teacher, President of Czech Bluegrass Association, and President of The European Bluegrass Music Association.

Bluegrass Summit final jam with Cop and Brokeland Bullets etc.

Bluegrass Summit final jam with Cop and Brokeland Bullets etc.

"Will the Circle Be Unbroken"

“Will the Circle Be Unbroken”

Joan leads the group

Joan leads the group

Next blog, Pete and Joan on the loose in Prague!

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Get a hug from the ground to the south of the world

Posted on by pete

Hello Pete
It was real pleasure to receive your kind mail.
I have only 67 springs, and with my granddaughter and friends I’m in a band completely traditional bluegrass and classic songs of that genre. We may be the only group that made ​​exclusively bluegrass.

We, Banjo, Mandolin, Acoustic Guitar (my granddaughter 8 years), violin, another acoustic guitar and acoustic bass.
If you want to laugh a little, you can see our first test with the violin. In youtube “Red River Valley-JL-Buenos Aires-1er Ensayo.”

In the Province of Buenos Aires, in the city of San Pedro, 29 and 30 September is the Country Music Festival XIII, with the participation of several bands, (but none is completely traditional as ours), you can see on youtube something about it.

Well, get a hug from the ground to the south of the world, God bless you and give you good luck in your job,

Jose Luis.
(I understand the English language but I encourage you to write, use the translator, sorry if it is not very well translated).

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