Dr. Banjo – Pete Wernick of HOT RIZE continues this week with his series on “Jam Tips” with an in-depth article. Pete is a prominent teacher of bluegrass, having hosted music camps since 1980 and now conducting ten or more each year focusing mostly on bluegrass jamming for all bluegrass instruments.
Each month as part of his weekly “shorter tips” here on Prescription Bluegrass we’ll have Pete give us all a more comprehensive view of what jamming is about, why jamming is not only fun but very important to the overall learning and growth of the picker’s ability.
Regardless of your own musical knowledge or ability we hope to provide you with something of interest – something you can pick up and move yourself and your jamming partners a little closer to where you want to be. Please feel free to share these links with other pickers via email or your social media outlets.
This week Dr. Banjo’s Jam Tip is right below….just click on READ MORE and you’re there. Have fun!
No more closet pickers… It’s about Jamming!
No more closet pickers… It’s about Jamming!
I love to jam. Jamming is truly “bluegrass in its most natural habitat”… In a circle you can really see and hear each other, and in a circle is the way all bluegrass is played except performing. Being in a good jam is Bluegrass Heaven-on-Earth. The teamwork, camaraderie, and spontaneity are… bluegrass at its essence.
Almost all fledgling bluegrass musicians have a dream: Being able to pick with others.
Then why so many closet pickers? One big reason: Bluegrass teaching is generally geared to grooming folks to be… closet pickers. They assign “pieces”, and some teachers even start with scales. What about jam skills -- following chord changes, staying in rhythm, backup, transposing, controlling volume, etc.? These are virtually 100% neglected by bluegrass teachers and instruction methods.
And what about singing? Many students don’t want to, and teachers rarely challenge that. But to carry a melody with your voice is actually part of general musicianship and sometimes a needed jam skill, helps in finding melodies on your instrument. And make no mistake: Singing and songs are central in bluegrass and jamming.
So… If virtually every player wants to jam, but doesn’t learn jam skills, there’s a disconnect. Many quit, unfortunately. My teaching was like that at first, but it progressed.
What’s fundamental to the Wernick Method?
- Two overall goals: First, help people have fun playing real bluegrass, right away. Yes, at slow speeds, like 60 or 70 beats a minute. As soon as a person can change from G to D and back, he/she can start jamming (see the big 2-chord song list on BGjam.com)! For our classes, G, C, D, and A are the only requirements. Teachers who think a year of lessons is necessary before starting to jam… well, they just don’t know! It just takes a minute or two to get people boom-chicking behind me on G/D7 songs. How hard is that?
- The other goal of the Wernick Method is helping people develop confidence in real bluegrass jams – anywhere they go. Slow jams are getting easier to find nowadays, and we teach how to find or even start them. And we distribute a handout detailing all the main ground-rules, signals, and protocols used worldwide. I’m lucky to have experience with them from Florida to Alaska, Finland, Japan, Russia, France, Australia, Israel, you name it!
- Our teachers don’t just lead jams. More important, they make up small groups to coach as they jam on their own. Coaches guide but don’t lead. They show how to lead a song, and how to easily follow a new song.
- Bluegrass is song-centered music – yes, bluegrass is noted for its instrumentation, but is nonetheless focused on singing and songs – with many instrumental breaks of course. Instrumental tunes only work well at jams when a few musicians have the skill to pass solos around smoothly, with at least one guitar player knowing the chords. Only a few such tunes are as manageable as a nice simple bluegrass song with the song leader inviting pickers to fake breaks over the chords.
This is key: To play bluegrass you need to stay with the chords at all times. If you need help, watch a guitar player’s left hand. BGjam.com has a new Chord Photo Section diagrams of all the typical chords – and their variations.
Note reading (tab or playing from exact verbal directions) has little to do with good jamming. Ear Skills rule! If the Devil offers to trade you Ear skills for your Music Reading skills… well, just be patient, you can have both: Keep jamming and the ear skills will come, I promise!
Fortunately, most bluegrass songs use just three chords, with relatively simple patterns. It’s amazing how many great melodies and lyrics can fit over three chords.
What about memorization skills? Valuable in some situations but the fact is, “real” players rarely depend on exact memory of all 128 notes in a typical break. Breaks come out a little different each time -- like words in conversation. Earl Scruggs once said to me in conversation: “I don’t know how anyone can play a tune exactly the same, twice in a row.” Yes, practicing helps it work better, but pure memorization as a rule is too rigid, not allowing for goofs. Memorizing cool solos is a great way to expand, but not the way to start playing music -- and not necessary for jamming.
In jams, first make sure you’ve got the chord pattern. Stay in rhythm. If called on to solo, keep the melody of the song in your head while keeping a stream of notes going that fit the chords. Try to include some melody notes in there if you can. The more you jam, and/or practice this on-the-fly skill at home, the better your spontaneously “faked” solos at jams.
Tab books or music stands at jams? Wernick Method does allow paper and stands… but for only one person -- the lead singer, who may need help with the verses. Otherwise, it’s all by ear, just like in “real bluegrass”.
Fortunately for shy and unconfident folks reading this, you can start learning in privacy with play-along jam DVDs. I’m not only a purveyor of such things, but believe it or not, some folks have told me they think mine are the best!
One last point: Is it heresy to be so dismissive of written music, right here in the pages of the world’s leading source of written banjo music? I have never said, “Tab is bad” … once you know how to play, and to jam. Tab is a fabulous resource… it’s just not where to start, any more than artists should first paint by the numbers, or learning Japanese means first phonetically reciting poems in Japanese. First learn to play (2 easy tabs might be good for a taste at first), then once you can play, yes, get ideas from great players.
For help with jamming, including how to find jams, visit BGjam.com. Happy Jamming!
READ DR. BANJO’S JAM TIPS EVERY TUESDAY ON THE PRESCRIPTION BLUEGRASS BLOG
This is a brand new weekly series with Dr. Banjo. If you just can’t wait a week or need more advanced help, be sure to visit DrBanjo.com and browse around.