How much preparation is needed for banjo?

“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.

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What about contest style fiddling?

“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.

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Is fiddle notation or tab used at Wernick Method classes/camps?

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.

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What about chords on the fiddle?

“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.

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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.

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What songs should I practice beforehand?

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”.

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Should I buy training videos or books to prepare?

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.

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How should I prepare for my jam class?

Any time someone goes to a jam (or a Wernick Method class), bringing a song or two or three to sing is a very welcome contribution. To prepare, choose a few songs you like, and practice them in the keys you will sing and play them comfortably in. Try to commit the words to memory if possible, so you can confidently lead the song without hesitating or blanking out! … though it’s OK to still keep the words in front of you, for backup. What songs to choose? Pick some relatively easy ones from any of Pete’s jam videos or songbooks, or any other songbook. The 10 songs in the PDF you’ll be sent prior to class are all good choices.

One of the best ways to prepare is to try to find the melody of a song (that you know well enough to hum, perhaps one you will lead in the jam) on the neck of your instrument, trial-and-error style… and then fashion a solo based on that melody.

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Any advice for future jam campers?

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.”

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Are friends and family allowed at class or camp sessions?

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.

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