You may have a lot of questions about all that’s involved in participating in a Wernick Method class or camp. We’ve got your answers here!
At the first session, after a little orientation, the teacher leads the class on 2- and 3-chord songs, at easy tempos. If you’ve never jammed before, this first session will get you going. Everyone will be invited to sing, take solos, and show their stuff… or just work on following along. Keeping it together and keeping it fun will be the main goals.
The first part of every session is classroom-style, instructing on topics including: following new songs smoothly, jam etiquette and traditions, how to lead songs and avoid “train wrecks”, finding melodies, faking solos, kicking off and ending songs, picking keys, using capos, the chord number system, harmony singing, and a lot more!
After the classroom half of the session, the full group is divided into small jam groups, each coached by the teacher or an assistant. Teaching this way helps keep the group working well together, and gives the instructor a chance to give individual pointers. Read more about the Wernick Method, and see the Essentials of the Wernick Method followed by all WM teachers.
A Wernick Method jam class or camp is the ideal first step for any new bluegrass musician, providing all that’s needed to play with others, including the presence of other learning pickers. With just a few chords, a new player can participate, playing real bluegrass in a slow-speed student jam. Learning to make music in a small circle is top priority — everything is built on playing real songs with correct timing and chords, at first keeping simple rhythm and building from there. We teach many of the main skills — rhythm technique on your instrument, finding melodies and learning new songs on the fly — vital skills instilled when playing in a small group, all monitored by your teacher or a coach.
These are all skills that can be taught to a roomful of people playing different instruments, so some instrumental skills are taught even with a mix of instruments present.
Lessons and music camps designed to teach instrumental skills can be of great help once a person is playing regularly with others. Opportunities to play with others are at least as important as piling up skills focused on just one instrument, and not ensemble music. Wernick Method camps and classes focus on playing real bluegrass in small groups, with singing and a typical balance of instruments.
During “small group jam” time (about half of all class time), teachers and coaches give each of the players in a jam group pointers and feedback. We feel that a student can be helped the most when their playing under “real conditions” is observed by a teacher, who can offer guidance based on what they see and hear.
At a Wernick Method class the emphasis is not on individual skill but on the principles and skills of playing together. Individual skills such as finding melodies by ear (essential for soloing) pickup licks to use for kickoff solos can be and are taught to the full group.
Generally speaking, our classes and camps are really for paid participants only. However, each teacher has the discretion to allow others in some circumstances. For example, many classes and camps feature a “Jamboree” type event where students can choose to perform in groups for each other; friends and family might be welcome if space and other circumstances allow. When in doubt, contact the teacher for your class/camp to learn about those options.
The red “register now” button on the class or camp page. This will take you to a registration page, which allows us to collect all the necessary information. Once you have submitted that information, you will be presented with a pop-up to pay with a credit card via Stripe.
If you prefer to pay with a method OTHER than credit card, please use this form
Once your deposit is received, you will receive an email confirmation that includes the class preparation materials as a PDF attachment.
The standard method is to pay with your credit card by clicking the red “register now” button on the class page. This will take you to a registration page, which allows us to collect all the necessary information. Once you have submitted that information, you will be presented with a pop-up to pay with a credit card via Stripe.
Other options include contacting the teacher to arrange payment, or contacting us at firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange payment via PayPal or check.
Please note that most of our non-U.S. classes require that you contact the teacher directly to make arrangements for payment.
A few of our classes are completely free of charge!
All payments for the balance due should be made to the teacher. Your teacher will contact you to confirm the balance due, and acceptable methods of payment. Some teachers take only cash or check, and others can take credit cards. Some teachers will ask you to pay the balance prior to the start of the class/camp, others will collect the balance the first day of the class/camp.
The price is for class tuition only — unless otherwise noted on the class page. Lodging and meals are generally on your own. Upon registration a welcome letter with attached pdf. file of student materials (15-20 pages) is sent to each student. At the first meeting of the class or camp, hard copies of the same materials are distributed At the start of the class, your teacher will provide hard copy learning materials. Additionally, all new Wernick Method students who don’t yet have one will receive a JAM Songbook at no cost, which is a wonderful resource. (JAM Songbooks are not provided to returning students, or at free classes.)
For multi-day camps, meals and accommodations are generally separate expenses but check the information on each camp page. JAM Songbooks and other learning materials are also available for purchase online.
When a class or camp has reached capacity, you will see a prominent notice along the lines of “this class is full, get on the waitlist.” We encourage you to complete the waitlist form. Teachers are sometimes able to make adjustments at the class location to accommodate more students than originally planned, so knowing of your interest is very helpful. There are also spots that open up due to cancellations, and you might be next on the list.
While it is ideal for all students to attend all sessions of a class (or all days of a camp), we know obstacles can make that very difficult in some situations. It’s best to discuss this with your teacher, who can talk through any options available for your particular situation. Your teacher’s email address can be found on the class/camp page. If you need further assistance, please contact us at email@example.com.
Our general policy is that you are entitled to a 50% refund of your deposit if you cancel at least one month in advance. However, each teacher has the option to offer a different policy. Either the default policy or the teacher’s policy is stated on each class page. If you have questions about what policy is in place for your class, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for clarification.
Note: these are the same basic requirements as for all elementary jamming.
- You must be able to tune your instrument accurately, in a minute or two, with an electronic tuner.
- You must be able to smoothly change on your instrument, between the chords G, C, D, and A. Fiddles and basses need to play the single notes that go with each chord.
- To be sure you meet these requirements: Pete’s video Bluegrass Slow Jam for the Total Beginner presents 17 songs using only G, C, D, and A, at minimum bluegrass tempos. The guitar chords are seen on screen for easy following. All four chords are shown on all 6 of the standard bluegrass instruments in the video. Order from the DrBanjo.com Store. Playing along with this video will build your confidence!
If you are having problems with either of these skills despite using the item above, please contact your teacher, whose email address is on the page advertising your class.
All skill levels are welcome. The only prerequisite is the ability to change smoothly and quickly between simple chords like G, C, D, and A. Often there are quite a few who have never or only rarely jammed. The camp is designed for them. But often there are also more experienced/skilled players, and they generally fit in quite well, with the understanding that when jamming with the less skilled, they need to keep the songs easy and the tempos moderate. Wernick Method teachers are trained to give a variety of extra challenges to more experienced players, and when possible, to group them together.
Average age varies by camp and is hard to guess, but we’ve had folks from under 10 to over 80. For parents of youngsters, please first contact the teacher to discuss.
Some jam time is with different experience levels mixed, and some is with the groups more matched by skill level. Both of these kinds of situations can happen in real life, so we give each person a chance at each. Teachers offer personalized comments to everyone at the camp, with their experience level taken into account.
See previous section, concerning typical skill levels.
Though there is flexibility according to the skill levels of the attendees, the classes and camps are tailored to musicians who are just getting into jamming or want to. At registration, attendees are asked: How often have you jammed/”, with the choices: Never / Rarely / 5-15 times / 16+ times. The makeup of any of the classes typically includes some of each, and often the numbers in each category are about equal.
Most attendees come with no or limited ability to take solos. Many only know solos they have learned by rote from a teacher, a tab or video. It’s common that these folks may have some trouble doing those solos in a jam. The Wernick Method prefers to teach soloing with a combination of “keeping single notes going with the right hand while the left hand follows the chords…. along with separate teaching of “how to guess at the melody on the fly, with missed notes sounding OK”. Over time, these skills yield believable on-the-fly solos that may come out different each time — but include melody and follow the chords. Memorized solos are welcome though not always possible in jams, and the ability to *fake* a solo is what we consider the more useful focus.
Pete’s Bluegrass Jamming and Intermediate Jam videos give a player multiple opportunities to fake a solo over band accompaniment. Some Bluegrass Jamming Favorites are on the video. We strongly recommend working on this important skill, including coming in and out accurately and smoothly, as a good head start for your class.n
Jam Camp requirements are simple, but preparation is important. From previous jam students:
“Have fun and enjoy, you’ll be very impressed how much you’ll learn during the camp.”
— Gerald (TX)
“Pete and his assistants will help and encourage you, and occasionally nudge you along. Some campers are a little uncomfortable or shy in the beginning but that’s expected, and once you get started you will see that it is easier than what you may have thought. Their job is to move you gently out of your comfort zone to learn to play bluegrass with others, and have an enjoyable time.”
“Far too many instruction methods teach a bluegrass instrument in a way quite isolated from what it means to be a functional bluegrass musician. They teach solos, to be read from a page, where playing bluegrass involves active use of (learnable) ear skills and awareness of/ involvement in a team effort.”
“…we need reminding that how much we get out of the camp depends a lot on how much we put into preparing for the camp and how flexible and open we are to new experiences at the camp. Pete, Joan, and the camp staff are offering us an opportunity to have a great time singing and playing some great music with some great people. How much we get out of this opportunity depends mostly on our own willingness to make the effort.”
— Bruce (KY)
There is no specific set of songs we cover. The idea is to teach people how to deal with typical material, that they have not played before. Being able to handle unfamiliar songs is a skill needed at all jam sessions in the “real world” of bluegrass jamming, and we teach it.nnWe do make a point of asking students to come with a few songs to try in their small group jam sessions. That’s to make sure those jam groups don’t run dry of material right away. It’s appropriate for people to bring good songs when invited to jam, and what you all end up with is typically diverse — though coaches see to it that all songs are doable for inexperienced players. So others will learn the songs you bring and you’ll learn theirs — or at least learn to follow along. That’s how bluegrass jamming works, everywhere. “Preparation” is not expected, other than bringing a few songs, practicing chord changes if necessary, etc.nnIf a person has trouble singing in tune, they are welcome to bring song sheets with words, for songs they like and can follow along on.
One of the best things to do is to learn new songs. We recommend our JAM Songbook with 39 songs in large print, with online playlists of all the songs, to help you learn any of them by ear. You will receive a copy of the book at your first Wernick Method class but, as with Pete’s earlier Bluegrass Songbook and play-along videos, working with one before class will help you prepare. The videos (which come with a downloadable lyric/chord book) will get you following new songs in real time, and learning them in the process.
It’s ideal to practice singing songs you like, and to experiment with different keys to see which works best for each song. Commit the verses to memory if you can, though it’s OK to have a page nearby for reference. If you can work out a solo instrumental break to start the song off, so much the better.n
There are no specific songs to practice. Practice some good ones you like, that others might enjoy playing too. Advance emailed class materials include a mini-songbook with some good choices. You’ll want to practice a few to do in a small group setting. Know the chords and practice the song (in-tune singing not required) with the words in front of you. Try after a while to not need to read the words. Most of the songs in the class will probably be new to you, so the skill in play will be: “learn new songs more quickly”.
To prepare for jamming, one of the best things to work on is to find the melody of a song (that you know well enough to hum) on the neck of your instrument, trial-and-error style… and then fashion a solo based on that melody. In bluegrass, ability to hear and reproduce a melody is highly valued. Embellishments can sound good but they sometimes cover an inability to play the melody.
Once a person can find a melody on their instrument, tabs, books, and videos can provide ideas for embellishing the melody. Learning an exact solo or two for particular songs can be helpful. And learning a solo or two like that can have a different payoff if you can lift phrases from one solo and put them in another. When you can do that fairly spontaneously, it will improve your ability to “fake” a solo at a jam.n
“I received your jam camp orientation materials today. After looking it over I am wondering if I am getting on board a bit late. I know two songs that I can play, Worried Man and Bile Dem Cabbage Down and I have never sung either one, I am not even sure what the words are! The only person that has ever heard me play banjo is my wife and son, and I rarely play when they are around. If you think I should wait a year and be better prepared I will. Your thoughts?”
The info materials tell people how to prepare, assuming they have time to prepare. The prep is not necessary, just recommended. The requirements of the camp are spelled out, and if you meet them (can tune your instrument and play 4 chords) you qualify and can get a benefit from the camp.
You would be better prepared for next year if you took this year’s camp. The practicing you’ve done thus far (learning two songs by tablature only) is not good prep for jamming. I would say you should have started by working on different skills, but at the camp I make it clear what sorts of practicing are most beneficial, and you’ll get a chance to work on them.
Right now, you might try seeing if you can keep a simple standard roll such as TITM repeating while you change chords between G and D7. If that goes well, try using different chord changes. This is not a necessary skill, but if you can do it, it will be very satisfying to use in as accompaniment behind songs.
The camp itself can benefit you a lot as it will bring you face to face with what it takes to actually play music with others, and you will get a chance to do exactly that, for a few days. You can fit in just chording along. We keep it about as easy as it can possibly be (start with a bunch of two chord songs). Be assured there will be others there with zero jamming experience and confidence.n
Absolutely we do not require or even recommend a 4-finger D chord. Many people seem to think that D is “supposed to be” a 4-finger chord, but it actually sounds *better* as a 3-finger chord, leaving the 4th string open. The open string is a low D, after all, so that chord sounds fuller than a 4-finger D. I suggest using all but the ring finger, leaving it free to play the 4th string (or the 3rd) when and if the melody calls for it.nnThe 4-finger version I guess is often taught because unlike the 3-finger one, it’s a movable position, usable at other locations as an F chord, G chord, etc.
In the key of G, the easy 2-finger D7 substitutes fine for a D. But that substitution doesn’t work in the key of D, where the D7 is not interchangeable with D. BUT… there’s an easy alternative D chord, a simple 2-finger D, like the 3- and 4-finger versions but where both the 1st string and the 4th are left open. That D chord is not the best-sounding one, but is workable.
The key of D is well-worth getting handy with, generally needing only D, G, and A. It’s the most workable alternative to playing in G, and is often used when the singer can’t easily sing a particular song in G. That’s why our “required chords” list is G, C, D, and A. On the banjo G and A are pretty darned easy, and the easiest D is easy too, so we have the bar set as low as possible to make it easiest for people to come and learn how to jam.
It would fit in at the jam camp, but it’s appropriate to mention that clawhammer is not the “style of choice” for bluegrass, and the reasons for that.
On one hand, any song playable in Scruggs style (3-finger picking) banjo can also be played in clawhammer style, and as an accompaniment in a group setting, either style of banjo would work. If played well and tastefully, it can sound good in a variety of bluegrass settings. As a good example, the late Merle Watson did some fine clawhammer work on Doc Watson’s most “bluegrassy” record, Greenville Trestle. Ralph Stanley and others have occasionally played clawhammer style, perhaps a single song in a set, as a welcome novelty.
However, the reason the style is not normally heard in bluegrass is that, depending on what sort of clawhammer style is used (single notes, vs. more of a rhythmic strum), clawhammer banjo is not as clear and distinct as 3-finger picking is, and may either be too quiet to be heard, or else possibly “muddy” the rhythm sound that already includes a good amount of guitar and mandolin. While in informal bluegrass jam situations clawhammer may fit in easily, you will almost never hear it in a performing bluegrass band, for the reasons given.
All that said, I am happy to welcome clawhammer banjo players to a bluegrass jam camp, since their playing should fit in just fine. However, during the camp when it comes to learning soloing, they will encounter the limitation I’ve described.n
“In the orientation materials I didn’t see much about upright bass music. So I’ve been working on a variety of songs from your song list. Some fast jams, some slow and what-not.”nnYour comment and this response are going right onto our web site, to help others prepare for future camps. What you are doing is right on target. Also, be sure to practice your 1/4/5 positions in different keys. Playing along with recordings of standards is great practice too.
“Do you expect other bass players? I ask this for two reasons. First, I don’t get to talk to other bass players often. Second, three hours of hard jamming is about all my fingers can take at a time. It would be nice to take turns.”
We don’t expect steady playing for more than 2 hours at a time. So far, one other bass player is signed up, and we never know what to expect. Usually we’re short on bass players, so I HOPE you’ll sign up! Without bass players, we double up guitars, if available, in the small groups. Normally the bass players stay busy during the small groups times of day.
Amplifying will probably be necessary as the smaller “guitar” type basses are pretty quiet for bluegrass needs. No problem whatsoever playing electric bass. It’s definitely an acceptable variation on the traditional standup, as long as it’s played appropriately. Naturally there are limitations to where you can play, as you need to plug in your amp. Though there are battery powered amps which let you play anywhere.”
The advertised requirement is “able to change smoothly between simple chords”. A fiddle doesn’t exactly chord, but a fiddler needs to be able to follow simple chord progressions, and be aware when the song is on a G, or on a D, etc. That allows for playing of correct backup notes for either bowing or “chopping”, and if she ventures a lead, using licks that are most easily categorized by what chord(s) they go with.
Important: For bluegrass jamming, it is not really sufficient for a person to know only how to play tunes and lead lines. This is where bluegrass and other kinds of music differ: All instruments are expected to play backup, for which there is no printed music available. You just have to watch (the guitar player’s left hand) and listen for chord changes, and play something appropriate, even if it’s a single note for each chord. So it’s important for fiddlers to know what the different notes are that go into a G, C, or D chord, and to get to them quickly and smoothly. It’s actually ok if they just hit the root notes, G, C, and D, and that is a basic workable place to start.
Aside from that, a new fiddler would benefit a lot from being able to find melodies by ear. It’s fine to start slowly and haltingly, but after a while it should come more quickly and accurately, and that’s a great place to be when the camp gets going, so that she can try faking a melody in a jam now and then. To start that, suggest some favorite songs that she could hum, and the likely key (G or A works for many). If you can sing the song slowly and play guitar while she tries, that could really help get her going. Watch out, though, husbands and wives don’t always match up so well as pickers when one is ahead of the other one. Just being encouraging is the best thing, especially if she’s sensitive to criticism.
Either way, tab or standard notation, is just fine as a way of learning solos that someone else has created. But in bluegrass jamming, people have to “think on their feet” and learn to come up with solos based on their ability to follow chord progressions with notes that fit in the chords, and put in melody notes or pre-learned “licks” where they can. So we actually don’t use written notation at the camp at all, but work on developing ear skills. Since you are already a singer, you probably can already find melodies by ear, and that’s the kind of thing we encourage at the camp. Since we keep the tempos nice and slow, learning to solo this way gets a chance to happen at an easy pace, and there are lots of chances to try solos on good but simple bluegrass songs.
You’ve probably noticed in seeing other people play bluegrass, that people are not playing from paper. Nor do they usually have from-paper solos memorized. They make do using the above methods, and that’s what we teach at the camp!
“I am being taught to play fiddle as a lead instrument and I don’t understand about chords on the fiddle.”
This is typical, if that’s any comfort. Our teachers have taught the basics to a lot of fiddlers, even though many of them don’t play fiddle!
“I thought arpeggios were just extended chords broken up into single notes the fiddle can play, and a way to beat into the brain just which notes are acceptable choices when everyone else is playing a certain chord.”
That’s exactly right.
“But you say I need to learn honest-to-goodness chords on the fiddle.”
More experienced fiddle players learn which pairs of adjacent strings might BOTH have acceptable notes (one might be an open string, while the other is stopped), and then you actually would have a 2-note chord. But one “legal” note is sufficient.
“Or a definition of what a chord actually is on the fiddle? None of the books I have lying around address this. I don’t know whether to play double stops on the G and D strings, or on the D and A strings, or on the A and E strings, or something else entirely, and sometimes there’s more than one double stop that might be used.”nnA chord means any two or more notes which harmonize together. If you are playing arpeggios of the “acceptable notes in a chord”, then any one or more of those same notes can be used. If you’re playing two at the same time, that can be called “a chord”.
To jam in bluegrass, you mainly need to know what notes are “acceptable” choices behind each of the chords. The choices change as the chords change.
On our Slow Jam video, we start out with a bunch of two chord songs. They use G and D chords. For those two chords, the acceptable notes are (for G:) G, B, or D, and (for D:) D, F#, A. So, for instance, as the song changed from the part backed by a G chord, to D chord, on the fiddle you could note a G and then an A. Or a G and then a D. Or …. a D and then a D!
When you look at it that way, the technical end is pretty simple, but you do have to keep the “acceptable” choices in mind, and as you follow the chord changes, make sure to “stay legal”.
This kind of thing gets much easier the more you do it, to where after a while you can almost stop thinking about it, while still doing it correctly. That’s why I strongly recommend the Slow Jam video for both you and your husband. The chord changes are shown right on screen, and as the songs go by, you can just follow along. The video has 17 standards, all played slowly, and the entire chord vocabulary is G, C, D, and A. Play along enough with that video, and you’ll be able to fit right in at the camp, and set your sights on more than just the basics of “being legal”.
If you are willing/able to try for double stops, then the trick is to find which pair of notes that are both in a chord can be easily enough sounded when the time comes. Example: For a G chord, you can just play the open G and D simultaneously. For the D chord, you can play D and A simultaneously. Those are nice easy choices, no left hand!nnIn case it’s not spelled out in your books, the acceptable notes in a chord are: the FIRST, THIRD, and FIFTH note of the scale the chord is based on. Example, for a G chord, use the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes of the G scale. Those are: G, B, and D.
“Are there suggested ways to improve learning chords?”
Pick two chords that are commonly played in the same song, and practice switching between them. At first, once you’ve made the chord, pick the strings one by one to make sure they’re all clear. Then change the chord and do the same. Then back and forth, and in time, more quickly. With practice, you will definitely get it.n
“I teach Texas Style or ‘contest style’ fiddling. Most of my fiddlers jam quite often and almost all also play guitar. I am not sure my kids would fit into the bluegrass perspective.”
From what you say, not many of your students might find this class “for them”. But it’s also true that being able to “fake” solos and do tasteful backup on songs that come up at a jam is a skill that some “contest style” fiddlers might want to add. This skill is less about well-practiced technique than just getting out in a bluegrass situation and “learning how to play shortstop” where, while there are ground rules, no one really knows just what’s going to happen. Depending on what sort of jamming experience a student has had or wants, this kind of opportunity might be helpful.
In general, guitarists are handled about the same as the other folks: You’re expected to at the least, know several chords and be able to play rhythm and change chords pretty smoothly.
Beyond that, it’s a plus if you can offer some songs that you sing, at slow tempos, with easy chords, preferably in G. If you can do any soloing, that’s fine, but it’s not expected. We are mainly about:n1. Getting people comfortable in a jamming situation, following along.n2. Teaching people how to be valuable contributors to a jam session (singing lead, singing harmony, taking solos, leading the group for a song at a time). Some people are ready for this, some not. All are welcome.
My wife Joan is a good rhythm guitar player, and both she and I will give pointers to the various guitarists regarding a good balance of sound, bass runs, etc. Not a lot of specific instrument instruction, but pointers as a person’s playing relates to helping the group sound better.
In sum, you will get a good workout on your guitar, and learn some of the fine points of how to handle your guitar at a jam, building confidence as you go.n
There are a few rhythm guitar players (including Delbert Williams, a very respected California musician), who do use a thumb pick, in the style of some of the earliest bluegrass guitar players, such as Lester Flatt and Carter Stanley. But these exceptions are rare.
I would say a flat pick is not *necessary* for bluegrass, but the standard way the guitar is played in bluegrass does *not* call for fingerpicking at all. Instead, it is typically a strong and clear bass note followed by a quick and clean (not noisy) brushed strum on mostly strings 1, 2, and 3. The idea is to have the low note, and punctuate time, not to “fill” the midrange sound of the ensemble.
Generally, people make the bluegrass guitar sound with a flat pick, but if the grip, etc. are awkward at first, you can try for the same sound with a thumbpick and maybe a single finger pick for the quick strum (not individual notes). Sorry to sound dogmatic about that, but I feel responsible for helping people to understand and learn “the bluegrass way” from me, which they then can use according to their own judgement.
“My video for the mandolin is all in G, however the fiddle one has all the tunes in A. This becomes confusing at times. Should I try to learn all the songs for both instruments in mainly the key of G to be better prepared for the camp?”
Learning how to chord along on three chord songs in BOTH keys is a very meaningful and appropriate skill for you to work on. Both keys are frequently used in bluegrass jamming.
Also, in bluegrass there are so many different songs that might come up at a jam, the idea is not to “learn songs”, but to learn the skills to help you follow along on songs you’ve never played before. This is NOT the same as rote learning or reading music. It is a different set of skills. Working with my jamming videos will help you develop them.
“Also, I find it easy to do the two finger G, C, and D chords on the mandolin but the A chord as shown is pretty difficult. Do I need to be learning other than the two finder G, C, and D chords?”
2-finger chords will get you by, but you’ll be able to control your sound better once you get comfortable on the 4-finger ones. If you get started now, you’ll probably have it by November. It’s hard at first, and may seem impossible, but don’t give up. Change between the different chords and see how cleanly and fluently you can do it. Eventually, being able to make chord changes quickly *without looking* will get you where you want to be.
Class/Camp Prep for Novice Mandolin Players
By Mark Roberts, former jam camper, Argyle, TX
In bluegrass mandolins provide the back beat or off beat. This is done with the mandolin “chop.” It’s not hard. You make a chord – say G – and then strum it but just as it starts to ring you let you fingers up just a little on the strings, dampening them and the sound. You get a nice snare drum chop sound.
That’s your job: to keep the band in rhythm with your chop. The bass player will play ON the beat, and you will play the OFF beat. Boom-chick, boom-chick, boom-chick. You’re the chick.nGuitars do both the Boom and the chick. Fiddles, banjos, resonator guitars sometimes hit the chick, but the mandolin virtually always does.
Playing on the off beat is a little different. It is very easy to roll over to the on beat and it requires some practice to stay on the off beats. If you can’t do it you should work on this relentlessly until you can. This is the single most important preparation you can do so you need to work on this until you can do it. I’m not kidding. You’ve got to be able to chop on the off beats. Get a metronome and set it at a slow tempo. Hold a chord. Beep – Strum the CHOP – Beep – Strum the CHOP. If you can’t chop in between the beeps slow it down till you can. Then work on it until you can do it faster.
If you can’t do it you may want to try playing the G string (furthest from the floor on your mandolin) ON the beat and then chopping. This helps a lot of mandolin players. They play G string, then CHOP. In effect, they are playing boom-chick, boom-chick – playing “both parts”, as the guitar does. Work on this. This is what the mandolin does when playing rhythm in bluegrass.
You also should work on changing chords as you chop. You need to be able to smoothly and quickly change from G, C, and D chords. Get the song sheet and use it. Play boom-chick, boom-chick, boom-chick as you sing the words in your head and then smoothly, without breaking tempo, shift to the next chord and keep right on boom-chicking in rhythm. The better you are at this the better you’ll do at Jam Camp. Don’t worry about anything else. Don’t work on fiddle tunes or solos. Just work on your chop chords.
By the way, I knew some two-finger mandolin chords and thought I’d just use those. Wrong! You can’t make that nice mandolin “bark” with only two strings chorded. You need to use the full chords that fret all the strings if you want to be a bluegrass mandolin player. [However, if you can switch quickly between the 2-finger chords, it’s acceptable to use those. But practicing the full chords is worth the effort.]nnIf you can chord chop your way through the songs Pete sends at a good pace (like 80 bpm) then you’re ready for Camp.
If you can’t chop and chord and you aren’t getting it on your own then order Pete’s Slow Jam video. It contains a ton of songs and gives you plenty of slow songs to work on your chop. I bought one at the Camp and it is a huge help. Get one before Camp and you’ll be just that much better before the Camp starts.
What is your policy on “non-bluegrass” instruments (ukulele, dulcimer, autoharp, harmonica, etc.)?
We are glad to accept people who play acoustic string instruments that are not normally thought of as bluegrass instruments. But we feel it’s important to make clear why the instrument is not normally thought of as “belonging” in bluegrass.
In general, the reason is the instrument is too quiet or low-definition in sound to stand out among a group of bluegrass instruments. The player can participate by playing along, but their playing may not be heard by the other musicians, so it’s not the usual type of participation, where interactions are part of the artistry and the fun.
Ukulele or Mountain dulcimer, for instance, would be hard to hear over guitars, banjo, bass, etc… unless amplified. Amplification could work, but that would open another challenge, since many jams take place outdoors, and the absence of an outlet could be a problem… Then again, there are good battery-operated, rechargeable amps, which would solve the problem. Or, as with electric basses that need amps, we could make sure that that person was able to jam within reach of an outlet.
Hammered dulcimers can usually solo loud enough to be heard in a bluegrass jam, but there’s no designated role for them as a rhythm/chording instrument. Because only two notes can be played at once, it would have less role to play in backup than a typical chording instrument.
Autoharp is not necessarily quiet, but its sound as a rhythm instrument would likely be lost amidst the strumming of guitars and mandolins. Soloing on an autoharp could be audible if done well.
Clawhammer banjo – see this information.
Harmonica has been a bit controversial in bluegrass (as a non-stringed instrument that doesn’t typically fit well in faster songs), but we are happy to accept harmonica players who understand the limitations of the instrument. Like hammered dulcimer it’s not able to make full chords, limiting its use for backup. But harmonica, like fiddle, can play good melody lines and background fills with expression, and a skilled player can make a good contribution to a bluegrass jam. It’s a rare harmonica player that can keep up with fast bluegrass, and the results are not always likeable, but it can be done and done well.
One last thing worth mentioning: If a person wants to play bluegrass, it makes most sense to learn to play one of the instruments normally associated with bluegrass: guitar, mandolin, fiddle, banjo (played Scruggs style), bass, or dobro guitar. Many people play more than one instrument, and play different styles of music. Usually, the second instrument or the second style is learned faster than the first, and being versatile is an advantage in that it allows a person to participate in more situations. This is worth considering!