Al writes:

Hi Pete, I have been taking lessons for four months. I can play three songs by memorizing the notes.


I wish people would stop teaching banjo this way! There are much better ways, and learning to memorize lead arrangements before actually learning to play in a simple ensemble is cart-before-the-horse, and actually counterproductive in some ways! Please read the article on my web site called Teaching Beginning Banjo Students. If the article makes sense to you, please print it and give a copy to your teacher. If you are “sold” on the principles I offer, then I recommend that you actually insist your teacher teach you that way, or quit lessons. (Sorry, I know it sounds harsh, but I don’t think teaching to memorize notes is “the way”.)

I have a musician friend that wants me to join in his jam sessions.

This is a very nice invitation, but as you realize, you’re not ready to participate. My advice below is aimed at getting you ready ASAP to accept and enjoy that opportunity.

I don’t have a clue on how to fit into his group and play along. I see that you have a new video out for back up. Would you suggest at this point it might be a good idea to try this?

Absolutely. I recommend you get both that and the video called Slow Jam for the Total Beginner (both available on my web site), and start playing along with the Slow Jam. You’ll see, it’s not hard once you get the hang of following chord changes (something you should have already been taught).

The backup moves shown on my Backup Video (based on what I do on the Slow Jam video) are good to know, but you can play along with really a minimum of technique (a strum is OK) and still be part of the music. Depending on how the jam is structured, you may be comfortable doing just that, a bit outside of the main jamming circle. That is how a lot of people learn the ropes of jamming.

Or should I give it more time with just my lessons and continue on the way I am?


I feel like I would like to start opening up my possibilities and learning as much as I can. I’m not familiar with Bluegrass Music in general. I am actually new to it. This makes it a little more difficult like a foreign language. I have been listening to allot of CD’s over and over and over along with a Satellite Radio Bluegrass Station.

That is excellent. You’re definitely helping yourself there, and familiarity will come in time of course.

I also have been recording my lessons.

Never a bad idea, but as you can tell, I don’t think the lessons thus far are where your effective learning lies, unless your teacher changes methods. Eventually the memorized arrangements will have their benefit, but so far, I think you’re spending a lot of time on something that won’t translate into any help when you’re jamming.

The thing to shoot for now is learning to follow chord changes fluently, and as soon as possible, learning to roll or vamp, smoothly and in time, with easy bluegrass songs. At that point, you’ll be able to fit into the jam (at least to the extent they play easy songs, reasonably slowly), and have quite a bit of fun. If your teacher can help you learn to play along with the video, that would be very helpful.

Please let me know what you think. Thanks.

That’s what I think, and you’re welcome! I hope you can follow my advice, and if so, let me know how it goes.

Pete Wernick