Questions about bands.

Keith Frankel from Denver, CO writes: My bands first gig went great! Real good experience. We played to a pretty full house at Trilogy, and the crowd really responded nicely. It was interesting, we had everything nailed during the sound check. I could actually here things through the monitor. Then once the actual show started it seemed to slip or something, because I couldn’t hear the guitar to well. Of course I tried to get the sound guy to figure it all out, but he never really got it right again. The sound seemed really different after the room was full of people. Maybe all those bodies effect the sound waves in the place?

This is pretty typical. The bodies plus the noises they make (especially once they’ve had some beer) can dramatically change what you’re able to hear, and what the crowd hears. Depends on a lot of factors, especially the room itself. Read all about it in the Sound Checks section of How To Make A Band Work. Standard practice is to over-correct by making sure you don’t get feedback even when you’re much too loud, at the sound check. What sounds “much too loud” in an otherwise quiet room is sometimes about right for a noisy room.

See you again soon here at!

Dave writes: Dear Pete,
I have a Stelling pickup fitted to my banjo, but I’m plagued with feedback (especially in one band which has a drummer). Should I :
* Get a fancy amp with frequency filters and the like?
* Get a fancy microphone?
* Accept that banjos can’t be amplified withoput feedback?
* Superglue the drummer’s door shut while he’s at home?

Paul from Ithaca, NY writes:
I am playing in a band called Urban Horse Thieves and use a Deering Crossfire for the more electric and rowdy tunes, but I’d really like to use my Stelling Sunflower more on our grassier tunes. We play a lot of loud bars, including the famous Chapter House and the Nines, and I have been having some feedback issues with the Stelling.

I have been using a Fishman pickup and preamp, so I can get lots of output, but the head on the banjo acts like a microphone and starts to feedback pretty quickly. I recently decided to try using a combination set up with the pickup going thru a processor (for flange, phase, chorus, etc) and a mike for the more natural sound. I think I can blend them and use the mike to give me more punch on leads, fills, etc.

Do you have any suggestions on equipment (brands of mikes, feedback arresters, signal compressors, etc) that might give me more output without feedback. (And yes, I have told everyone else, including the drummer to play more softly!!) I also intend to have my amp face me at the next gig (like a monitor) and send out a signal via the mains in the PA.

Dear Dave and Paul,

This is a big topic! You have already thought of some of the main things to consider. I think this problem is a tough one for banjo players, more so than other acoustic instruments, due to the head being so sensitive to vibrations from monitors. Tony Furtado tapes his head up so much it seriously deadens the instrument and changes its tone pretty drastically. Bela Fleck when he plays with the Flecktones uses a mounted-on-banjo mic and I think a pickup, and blends them. Still doesn’t sound as great to me as his great tone as a player, through a regular mic.

Best solution from some points of view is if the whole band is on ear monitors. Ear monitors don’t feed back. Mics can work pretty well in these situations. There are important drawbacks, but the band can really hear itself, and with separate monitor mixes, it can be pretty cool. But it’s weird hearing only through headphones and not hearing the room at all. Also, ear monitors are pretty expensive when you consider that they require a wireless system to send and receive the signals. Maybe there’s a way you alone could use ear monitors with no speaker-monitor, thus possibly reducing the likelihood of feedback.

I use a Prucha Elban plug-in banjo (with pickup) for sit-in-with-loud-bands gigs. It is a “real” banjo with normal head size but a slightly smaller resonating cavity. It sounds pretty good, but I have to watch out for having it too loud in the monitors, or… feedback.

For what it’s worth, most all of the times I play (even with my band Flexigrass, which has a drummer — a relatively quiet one I might add), I do fine with a microphone. My favorite, AKG 414, actually has a wide pickup pattern, but rarely causes feedback in the situations I use it. Shure SM-57 is another favorite, less feedback-prone, with a much smaller pickup pattern.>>

Of your 5 suggested solutions, I think these two are best:

  1. Get a better pickup?
  2. Get a fancy amp with frequency filters and the like?

For me, the Prucha works, but I only use it in occasional situations, not my main band.

In general, it’s a good idea, as you did, to ask people who you think can be helpful. Sorry I can’t be more helpful, but at least you now what I know.

Best of luck, and if you find a good solution, please let me know!

Pete Wernick

Former Jam camper Mary, from Kentucky, writes: Hi Pete,

Sorry we missed your Morehead jam camp. We were still in Branson, Mo. Ben’s teen bluegrass band was invited to participate in the Youth in Bluegrass competition. Only 12 bands were selected, so it truly was an honor to be there. Alas, they didn’t win. You never know. We had a great time, and learned a lot.

It’s good to hear from you and get the report. Congratulations to Ben and the group for the invitation to Branson. What a fine way to spend time. The bigger thing now than winning is the enjoyment and the learning, so I’d say that was a great situation for them. There seems to be a stirring among the bluegrass community as to traditional vs. contemporary. Some contests don’t want such favorites as, “Foggy Mt. Breakdown,” and some just eat it up.

The FMB thing will help them learn how to read audiences, etc. That’s not just about trad vs. modern, that’s also about “overdone” vs. unusual, how audience-pleasing any piece is, etc. We have come to the conclusion that they need to cut their teeth on the old stuff, then branch out into more contemporary tunes. What do you think?

Sounds right to me. The old stuff is what the contemporaries cut their teeth on, or maybe we’ve gone another generation more, as with Chris Thile publicly thanking the first generation for inspiring the next generation, that inspired him. The first generation was the one with the most fire and urgency in the music. They also created and selected most of the core repertoire that made bluegrass what it is.

They do some Allison Krauss, and some original material. They did a small show when we got back. Nobody was there but the parents and the radio station. The radio guy gave them free tickets to The Grand Ole Opry.

What a great thing! This is one way the Opry old timers get to pass the torch. They will plant seeds for big dreams.

They will be playing a local radio show this Saturday, a city-wide concert next week, a festival in July, a fireman’s dinner in August, and the Tennessee Valley Fair in September, right before Mike Snider. We are talking with [a bluegrass bandleader] to see if she will produce a CD for the kids.

All really good stuff. They will learn more than they could in any school. It’s good if they learn to function largely autonomously, with parents more as fans and chauffeurs (and parents of course, on non-music matters) than coaches or marketing departments, which can twist it.

I strongly recommend that they get together with [the bandleader] or someone else worthy, well in advance of recording plans, with the goal of showing them what needs work and tightening (almost for sure, any teenagers will need help on the singing). They can make big gains through the summer, maybe record a few tunes to put on a web site, and save a real disk for when they are readier to make one, after the summer. Learning and breaking in some original or unique material will make any recording more interesting to djs and fans.

We just got back from the Festival of the Bluegrass in Lexington. We always love that festival. We got to jam a lot in the campground, and had a wonderful time. While at one campsite, a member of King Wilkie came and jammed with us.

Mom and Dad need some of their own music fun, always!

I have written yet another song.

Yes! Keep them coming. I remember hearing you sing one or two, really nice.

I feel so inadequate when I hear songs written by Blue Highway, and others. Their songs seem so much more marketable.

Don’t think about that when you write. Always steer over, toward the feeling you have about the words and music, and it will work out. That is your style, and they have theirs. No gain in comparing styles. Any good style can hit a bullseye with listeners, if the song is good.

I figure if I keep writing, eventually I’ll write a hit.

Well, there’s certainly a chance, but try not to think of that. Think about what will musically satisfy you, as you can’t have a hit without that.

In the meantime, I’m having fun and enjoying myself.

The payoff!

Thanks for being such a great resource for us. Hopefully, we’ll get to see you down the road.

I hope so too. I appreciate your occasional checkins, progress reports. I love the idea that your family can now share music in a variety of satisfying ways.

Keep on!


Lew from Pittsburgh writes: Do you have some advice, or is there a place on your website, to help a band develop better rhythm? Our band seems to have various rhythm breakdowns plus we tend to speed up songs. Are there some exercises that we can to do help?


Sorry to hear of the problem. It’s a pretty common one.

My main suggestion is for each band member to practice on their own with a reliable rhythm source. This can be a metronome, drum machine, or any recording by a group with solid, dependable rhythm.

Notice I didn’t suggest having the whole band play to a metronome. The band tends to drown out the sound. I guess a well-amplified drum machine playing a clear boom-chick beat could keep everyone in line. But I think the best cure is for each person to practice being attentive to, and feeling at one with, a steady beat. I’ve practiced with a drum machine for over 25 years, and a metronome before that.

If each person does that individually, each will start to notice and can work on any tendency to change the rhythm. It’s especially important that bass players and guitar players feel the rhythm consistently, though as Jerry Garcia once told me, “Man, the whole band’s the rhythm section.”

When bands speed up, normally one person starts it and then someone else picks up on it, causing the others to follow along. Sometimes the speeding is gradual but often it happens in lunges, you might say, such as where a lead player or even a singer pushes the tempo, and is followed by a rhythm player. Or sometimes a rhythm player may speed or slow down.

A typical “speeding” place is when a lead picker is not too good at a particular phrase, and rushes through it. Also, distractions and nervousness can cause speeding up. Practicing with the “loop exercise method” that I outlined in my January Banjo Newsletter column will help a person iron out the flaws in their solo, so that everything stays smooth.

If everyone in a band is committed to having steady, consistent rhythm, it will happen!

Pete Wernick

Leslie asks: The other female lead singer in our band had to leave the band due to personal/family demands on her time. This is a huge loss, since the strong 3-part harmonies are a big signature of our band, and what I love the most. So we’re now searching for another (hopefully female) strong lead/harmony singer – not easy, but we’re staying positive that we’ll find the right person.

We’re about to put an ad out and about, and I’m anticipating a whole bunch of my women musician friends who I really like and enjoy jamming with , to approach me about auditioning. Not one of them would be a fit though at all – great to jam with, and be friends with. But, a band’s a whole different story. Already, the fact that I’m in a band now that’s getting more attention and has a demo, has stirred some jealous hearts and there’ve been some ‘attitude’ coming my way sometimes…….

Alas, the challenges of semi-professional amateurism!


That is a tough question.

Even though you are really an “amateur” musician, this is a problem associated with the professional attitude and situation. Performing musicians and situations are considered special and are indeed a step above informal music making. There is a huge difference between making music in a circle, for yourselves vs. all facing one direction, using a sound system, and having an audience that’s there presumably to give you their attention and maybe pay money to sit in the dark and watch/listen to you.

Those simple facts create a set of expectations based around an imbalance of attention and power, and the challenges do affect whom you’d like to join forces with. So this preamble is just to say, yes, you’re right to be selective. Also it implies that jealousy and ego issues become part of the scenario in a different way than when you’re just free-form jamming.

With all that said, what to do in this situation? Well certainly, I agree you shouldn’t compromise your choice, just to please someone or be polite. Fragile egos will get stepped on when people are not chosen, and it rarely helps to frankly explain to someone why they weren’t chosen. If you got cornered into that, you might take tips from colleges and all sorts of folks who have nicely-worded letters saying stuff like “We had a lot of wonderful candidates, your considerable qualifications impressed us but we were looking for the best fit, etc. etc.” Once the replacement has been chosen, any discussion of the choice can be in terms of how well the new person fits, and let any observers hear the your band’s new sound and make their own conclusions about their own relative qualifications.

Once a person becomes a real pro, they understand they are going to be passed over LOTS of times, and they will do best if they handle it with aplomb and keep their ego issues to themselves. Naturally, folks who are amateurs might not do this very well (pros are the experienced ones, you see, and have learned this lesson from that experience).

So there you are, on the receiving end of both positive and (gasp) negative attention. Welcome to show biz! Now your job description includes handling these situations with grace and kindness. You can certainly take some care to stroke the egos of any of those people you passed over, being happy to play together in situations that work for you, and making extra sure to not seem stuck on yourself, which they will be especially attuned to.

A friend of mine in a high visibility job who’s attracted a bunch of admirers and some detractors, came up with a little jingle: “Do your job, do it well, let the whiners go to hell.” Catchy, huh!

Hope that helps. Mainly — enjoy the music and the people!

Pete Wernick

Bob in North Carolina writes: I’ve been really frustrated lately. I’ve been playing banjo since 1965. I’m almost 60 and can hold my own on the 5-string. I also play rhythm guitar and pretty good fiddle, sing lead and baritone. I’ve been fronting my little band since 1978, but in the past few years, it’s languished. I can’t find any talented dedicated pickers to get the sound 100% tight and right. Various members of my little troupe have fallen by the wayside and are mostly too old or too limited to do any serious picking. We still jam once in a while, but nothing serious erupts. I do instrument repair and set-ups.

Many people have asked me why I never did anything with my music and why I “never made the big time.” Frankly, I have spent my entire adult life scraping for a living, being a farmer and truck-driver, so I never had time to pursue my musical dreams. A friend who played in my band back in 1978-79 went on to be a professional musician, guitar for a long time with a famous country act. I often wish I had gone with him. I chose, however, to stay close to home.

So at this stage of my life, my dilemma is this: I want to play music professionally and see what I can accomplish. I have never felt like I was as good as some of well-known pickers, but lately I find myself challenging that notion.

Problem is that I would like to get a job with a really good band, but don’t know how to go about it. I should be better-connected than I am, but I seem to be pretty much unknown and invisible. I am not one to kiss any body’s backside to garner favors, nor am I one to be a hanger-on or leech like I’ve seen so many pickers do.

I am pretty much retired and have some money put aside, so I really don’t have to work a full-time regular anymore. My life’s dream would be to appear on the stage of the Ryman at least one time. So, I’m wondering what is a good approach to find out who might need a banjo picker and how to let anyone know I’m interested and available. Any suggestions?


I sympathize with what you’re feeling. You’re of the age when it might seem like the train is about to leave or has already left.

I am assuming your music ambitions are not so strong as to cause you to relocate. (If you were, it would broaden my advice.) If you aren’t going to relocate, you’ll need to find people in your own area. How close? Well, how much driving can you stand to do, to rehearse and be around the band a lot?

While it’s not impossible for bands to have members who don’t live near the others, it’s a lot harder, and a less stable situation. You need to be around the other members on a pretty regular basis to be a tight band. Sometimes you’ll rehearse or jam on a whim, or take a low-pay local gig just to be playing.

The standard thing I’d tell someone of any age is to network as much as possible. Go to bluegrass festivals, talk with as many good musicians as you can about what you’re looking for. The key people are band leaders, who are often the lead singers around whom the music revolves. If you can impress a really good lead singer with your “value”, they can be the key to your desired situation.

Every working band in your area just may be about to lose their banjo player. You can investigate every one that you think you’d like to play with.

All of the above takes a lot of proactive communication, some of it possibly embarrassing (“I’m available…”). Many of the most promising prospects may be youngish musicians who are young enough to be your kids. You might be able to get something symbiotic going with them — your experience and contacts make you more valuable, and their energy and appeal (face it, no one is actively looking for 60 year-old musicians) are of value to you.

It’s probably good to get out your Bluegrass Unlimited and some local bluegrass publications and do some research, make a list of people to talk to, and make some calls. If you have any blabbermouth friends who respect your musicianship and are around a lot of musicians, let them know what you have in mind, and they may get a few possibilities going. Some people like being put onto a job like that.

Hope those ideas are helpful. Patience is required of course, but that can be in short supply. But persistence is the real key.

Best of luck. Let me know how it goes.


Bob Piekiel from Banjo Newsletter writes: A long time ago, in a galaxy not so far away, I read an article where you described how members of HotRize made decisions – something about a “scale of importance” or words to that effect. You described a system where if somebody objected to something, the “intensity” of the objection would be rated compared to other opinions. I have never forgot your system here and realized that it was a good method for ALL relationships, whether band business, personal, etc. I’m not spelling it out here very well, but could you write that out again in your words so I could hear it described again?


The voting system is explained in my book How to Make a Band Work (and I think later reprinted in Bluegrass Unlimited, but here it is in more detail:

Hot Rize decision making system:

Simple democracy, majority rules, but voting choices are expanded:

  1. Strong yes
  2. Mild yes
  3. Neutral/abstain
  4. Mild no
  5. Strong no
  6. Veto (one person can nix something if he just can’t live with it. Used very sparingly and judiciously)
  7. Proxy (I give my vote to _____, because he knows/cares more about this than I do, and want to support his take on the situation).

With these choices, there was no real need for “quantification” of the weight of a vote. It could have gotten dicey with “two mild no”s weighed against “one strong yes” and two abstains. (Our “fifth member”, soundman/road mgr Frank Edmonson, eventually got a full vote after first just being consulted when there was a tie.) But I don’t ever remember hitting a real impasse on any issue, because somehow a majority would form.

Another good aspect of our democracy was a “committee” system. Anyone who cared/knew enough about some part of our functioning could be on the committee that would research the issue and bring choices to the group. The committee would have a carte blanche on matters too trivial to meet about, but a threshold of “importance” was determined where if crossed, the band had to be consulted for a vote. For example the “sound equipment committee” could buy something it felt the band needed, without a band OK if it was a $100 item, but not if it was a $400 item.

We also tried to hold off presenting a case for anything significant if one or more members weren’t present. That way all the give and take could happen with everyone contributing and listening, instead of say, four people bringing a “done deal” to someone before he could have input.