Questions specifically about bluegrass jamming.

Banjo picker writes: Question for you about jams. If I am leading a song, an instrumental, and no one else knows or wants to take a break on it, what do you think is a reasonable number of times to run through it without hogging too much of the floor. Is three times about right or is there any pat answer?

My quickest answer is that if you want to play an instrumental that no one else knows or can take a break on, you may want to skip it altogether. At jams, it’s best if everyone gets a chance to shine, and if there are people present who can improvise breaks to easy songs, that gives them that chance. Instrumentals are much harder to improvise breaks on (the breaks are longer length, and the instrumentals are typically played faster than typical songs). But if people urge you to “pick one” even if they can’t take a solo on it, make sure they can follow the chords before launching into it, then go for it. Three times is probably about right.

When it comes to songs, as long as you’ve picked one that is not too hard to follow, it’s not so bad if it’s one no one has heard before. But you need to make sure there’s a dependable way for everyone to follow the chords. For guitar players introducing songs, that’s little problem– everyone can recognize, or should be able to, guitar chords. For banjo players, though, most people can’t follow their left hand chording, so you need either:

  1. A guitar player in the jam who knows the chords, which everyone can then follow, or,
  2. A run-through or two where you preview the song to everyone while calling out the chords. Some people are pretty good at singing the song and inserting chord names where they belong, substituting for song lyrics. Such as: “Yonder stands little F, with a G glass D her G. She’s drinking away her F while G a D G.”

These kinds of protocols are really helpful at jams. If people don’t know how to do them it can quickly increase the discomfort level of the novices in the group. If people do them well, everyone’s confidence and fun level goes way up. Your asking the question in the first place is a good sign that you are gaining experience and have your antenna up.

For lots more practical hints about making jams work smoothly, check out my new Bluegrass Jamming video.


Calvin H. writes: I am a beginner. I took lessons years ago for a short while. Put the banjo down for a few years and currently trying to get started back again. I have a few instruction materials. Some of which are easy to understand and some are not.I am also taking lessons again and I believe he is a better teacher. My church has a great praise band. Several guitars, etc. and I would like to play with them. I have tried to follow along but I dont know what a Em#, C2 and all those fancy chords are. My Earl Scruggs instruction book does not have them nor does my teacher know them. My teacher told me that a banjo could not be played with other types of music. I would truly like to learn to play bluegrass and well as accompany other styles of music. I would like to learn differnt chords. I would also like to know what are the different styles of banjo playing. 3 finger, melodic, clawhammer, jazz etc. How do these styles sound? What are good resources that are reasonable? Thanks.

Wow, Calvin, You’ve asked some good questions there. First, I want to tell you I strongly disagree with your teacher’s statement “the banjo could not be played with other types of music.” I’m assuming he means it’s only for bluegrass, but I must refer to Pete Seeger and many others who play great banjo as part of many many different musical styles. Please don’t assume that to learn an instrument you have to take lessons. They often help, of course, but not all good musicians are good teachers, and they can actually lead a student toward discouragement if they aren’t careful in what they teach.

You might try Pete Seeger’s instruction book and recording(s) that come with it. Consult the classified ads in Banjo Newsletter. You can get an issue from them free by mentioning my name. Their web site is You will also see a lot of items advertised that will help answer the questions you asked me. Their site also has music downloads of different kinds of banjo music, and you would enjoy those I’m sure (as well as getting proof positive that the banjo is versatile). Learning banjo is a long journey, not easily summed up in one message like this.

Another note, the chords you gave names for don’t really exist by those names. But I think Seeger’s book, as well as various others, do show how all sorts of chords are played, and once you learn the ones you need for the songs you want to play, you could sing through the songs while changing chords as efficiently as you can. That would be a good start learning to play those songs.

I hope you will browse a little on my web site and consider getting either my new Get Rolling video, which presents the rudiments of music making and bluegrass picking, and/or Beginning Bluegrass Banjo, which is a more complete video course starting from scratch moving through many of the basics of bluegrass style. Both will present a lot of material that I think you’ll find useful.

Best of luck learning banjo!


M. Ray from Greensboro, NC writes: I’d also like to become familiar with reading tab as well. I know a little about tab but would like to know more.

Well, there’s not much to explain. It’s a pretty clear set of principles, but there’s a need to practice at it to become more fluent. Very few banjo players become fluent enough to sight-read tab, the way a lot of piano or violin players can. A certain amount of fluency helps, though, to make sense of Scruggs style, which is not a linear melody, and needs a bit of speed to sound coherent. At camp I can review the principles of tab-reading if enough people need it, but I think of that topic as something that can be learned mostly from a book (Most books have a “how to read tab” section.) I do have some helpful hints, mainly that you get hold of a recording of the tabbed piece, and listen closely. You’re looking for more than reproducing a sequence of notes. Tone and feel are a big part of the musicianship. We work on that quite a bit at the camp.


Eric writes: I’d like to get one of your instructional videos and wonder which one you’d recommend for a beginner: the Level One or “Ultra Easy”. What’s the difference between the 2 tapes? I took a couple months of lessons using a Goodtime II banjo, but only learned simple chords and started to learn tab reading. My instructor didn’t teach rolls or 3-finger picking with picks during the lessons because he wanted me to learn the basic chords first and then progress to right-hand coordination.

Thanks for the advice and the music. Hot Rize got me started in bluegrass and your banjo got me interested in playing the instrument.

Good to hear you’re working on the banjo, and that I helped get you interested. I think you might as well start with the Getting Rolling (Ultra Easy) tape since it is cheap and you will definitely get $20 of value from it. You won’t learn a lot of technique, but it is great help to learn to play along and make chord changes in real time. You can work up to doing basic rolls along with the tape, and it will help you feel like you’re playing real music (which will be true!).

The other tape I think is also a fine value at $30, and is a much more thorough intro to bluegrass banjo, including more rolls, licks, simple and then harder full-song arrangements, how to figure out a solo on your own, etc. A pretty well-packed 2-hour tape, comparing well to the cost of lessons, and always available for replay.

May as well get both!


Shannon writes: I enjoy your banjo playing very much. I am beginning to play the banjo, and love it. What are some qualities to look for in a Banjo instructor? I have a teacher, but I often feel that he’s interested only in the monthly check!

Dear Shannon,

That’s a big question. I think a lot goes into good teaching, but in the big picture, it can be distilled into a few points:

  1. Knowing what is appropriate to teach each particular student (tailored to the most essential, do-able, and desired skills for the kind of playing the student wants to do).
  2. Ability to show the student clearly how to learn each skill, through a proper amount of repetition, written or taped help, and tactful correction as the student is learning.
  3. Providing a certain amount of friendly interest and patient but persistent expectation, to spur the student’s motivation to practice and improve.

A teacher does not have to be a great musician, or even a highly accomplished one. He/she just needs to know more than the student, and to know what to teach and how.

Banjo Newsletter will be printing in the June issue a pretty big article I just wrote about how I think beginning banjo players should be taught. I hope banjo teachers will take my ideas to heart, as they have worked very well for years for my students. Students like yourself might also benefit from reading the article, since in effect it’s you who are in charge of your learning program. You can hire or fire a teacher according to whether you think he/she serves your needs.

Without summarizing the article, I’ll just say here that the main point is to show the skills that will enable the learner to play music with other people, starting at the simplest level, and gradually moving up. Learning to play simple rhythm on simple songs is not hard, and if a teacher can group a few beginners together, they can have fun jamming right away, which sparks the motivational fire and builds success on success. Instead, most teachers give tablature to memorize, for solos that the student will have a hard time putting to use in a jam session. Some students can learn all right that way, but many find it a struggle, and lose motivation to practice.

I have two videos for beginners. One is brand new, called “Get Rolling“, which provides over 20 easy songs to play along with, in graduated degrees of difficulty (all relatively simple). I made it so easy that truly anyone who tries can play along. As they progress, three-finger rolls are added in, and get the student hearing and feeling the rhythm of bluegrass picking. The other video, “Beginning Bluegrass Banjo” is a 2-hour course starting from scratch, on the fundamentals of the style, including showing how solos are created, and showing many of the most important rolls and licks. You can find out more by clicking “store” on my web site.

If you find a teacher who is nice and is willing to work with you in the style of my videos, I think you’ll have some good help there. The main thing is, have fun and keep practicing!

Good luck,


Pete, What weaknesses or areas for improvement in my playing are most evident? I very much value your opinion and appreciate any comments or criticisms you can provide!

As good a picker as you are (and nothing showed me different the whole time), you have a lot to learn about ensemble playing skills and general jam etiquette. I hasten to add, it’s normal, and given your inexperience, it’s nothing to hold against you. But though nothing was said about it (it’s really awkward to do that at the time), you posed a few challenges. Your picking is so good that almost anyone would assume you’ve done a fair amount of playing in groups, and that might lead someone to conclude that you’re insensitive (which indeed you are, but I chalk that up to inexperience). In other words, people might wonder why you’re doing certain “clueless” things, since your picking itself makes you seem experienced.

Anyway, #1

is some of the between-songs stuff, such as continuing to play a variety of other songs while people are talking. The incessant banjo sound is a challenge for people. If you want to suggest a song, that’s cool, but almost anyone who suggests a song is then expected to *sing* it. I strongly recommend that you make a point of practicing singing and getting over some of the shyness you have about it. A banjo-only person seems a bit geeky to most folks, and if you have a song or two you can sing decently, you can jump in with it when things are at a lull. Then you can sing only if encouraged, but it doesn’t look like you’re there just to sort of sponge off the ones who do sing.


To just come in and start playing where there is already an established banjo player taking care of business in a small group, is an etiquette breach (at least in my book). This is something of a judgement call. If a lot of people are all playing, as in your previous jam that night, no big deal. But when you see a pretty small group going at it, and one is a banjo player, you’d best go really quiet at first, and wait to see if asked to participate. In effect, only one banjo player at a time really fits in a good-sounding bluegrass jam. If for fun’s sake, you’re asked to participate, be especially careful to *share* with the other, the proper total amount of banjo that the music calls for. We did offer you banjo solos, which were fine (except when other “clueless” folks were soloing at the same time, without having been invited). You could have chopped chords a lot more, letting me do more of the banjo work sometimes. I did that for you, and finally I realized I’d help the group more if I just switched to guitar. (The rhythm was sucking overall, and I helped fix it, though it took forever to rig up a banjo string to work on the guitar). That’s my overall principle of backup, for everyone in the jam. Ask: “Of all the things I know how to do, what is the best thing I could do to help this group sound better?” Sometimes, often, in fact, that thing is to play more quietly, or just lay out. Sometimes the chop is a far better thing for a banjo player to do than roll, just for the relief of not hearing the full-bore banjo sound sometimes. Even quiet rolling is often not as good as the chop (in my book) because the chop has more pulse, and less “banjo sound”. People need a relief from constant banjo sound. Check out any Flatt & Scruggs record. There are plenty of times where you can’t hear Earl’s banjo roll.


As I think I mentioned at the workshop, we banjo players must remember banjos are loud, and make a point of controling them. I probably was excessive in my enthusiasm myself, and I think likewise, you could have controled your volume better.

A lot of the above is just based on listening to the ensemble and then using musical taste and common sense to guide you. In time, you’ll get more tuned in to the subtleties, and show exemplary banjo behavior in jams (and in a band). It’s even especially cool when a good banjo player plays a bit too *little*, and is content to wait for the most appropriate times to show what he can do. That sort of restraint is *really* valued, and your talents don’t need a lot of exposure to be obvious to those you’re playing with. In effect, one of the most important parts of good banjo playing is knowing when to roll/be loud etc. and when not to.

I hope the above doesn’t feel too harsh. Though I had to adapt to your inexperience, in all I was glad to get a chance to play with you, and I can confidently reiterate my first impression of your playing, that you sound very good and have done a lot of productive studying. I think you’ll do fine in the next phase. Keep me posted.


Pete Wernick

For you folks in the U.S. who think no one near you is into bluegrass, it’s my guess that you’re mistaken. In the following case, he is quite likely correct. U.S. bluegrassers, consider yourself fortunate!

Gary from Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia writes: Living in Darwin i am starved of pickers and bluegrass. Any help or info you can give me is very much appreciated.

Dear Gary,

On my web site, you’ll find several good suggestions for finding others to play with, usually based on the understanding that there probably folks around that you don’t know about. You might try those first, as they just might work. But in your case, there really might be no pickers and bluegrass within 500 miles!

This calls for drastic measures, which is that you have to get people interested. If you can get a friend interested in playing bluegrass (or any type) of guitar, you can soon be playing music with that person. There is basic guitar teaching available with books, videos etc., but the main thing is to learn chords well enough to simply chord behind songs. With a flat pick, a person may be able to go boom (bass note) / strum in a matter of days. You take it from there. Try introducing bluegrass recordings to various friends. You never know who might already be interested! If they are interested enough to surprise with a guitar, you could have a picking partner later that week. As I said, you take it from there. I have done such things with other people, and it has paid off.

The main thing is, enjoy the banjo!

Pete Wernick

Ron from Florida writes on: Attended my first jam session Saturday night at the Community Center in Longwood, FL (suburb of Orlando). Not many players but all were advanced. I played very little…vamping some chords where I could recognize them. I realized that I don’t know near enough songs…lead breaks or chords. And as fast as they were playing I couldn’t have been effective anyway.

Dear Ron,

Some great advice has already been given on the discussion list. But I thought I’d share some of my favorite tricks for dealing with jams that are over your head:

  1. Don’t let your mind run away with how you’re “not good enough”. You will be. It’s like you’re a fourth grader watching the 8th graders play basketball. Just accept the fact that you’re not ready yet, but you will be. Hang in there and use the learning opportunity.
  2. Bring a tape recorder. Situate yourself where you can see the left hand of the guitar player. (Make sure you know how to read guitar chords — not difficult at all, but important!) With each song, say into the tape recorder where the capo is, and name off the chords you see as they go through a verse and chorus or two. At home you can play the tape to study up on the chord progression, and even at fast speed, play along, work on keeping up, always being on the right chord. Play the chords the easiest way you know how, whether up-the-neck F or D or bar shapes, or simple down-the-neck shapes. This is a great form of practice!
  3. Use these jams as a recruiting opportunity. Look for other wallflowers with instrument cases nearby and see if you can strike up a slow jam at another place or time. Example: “I see you’ve got a guitar.” Yeah.” “How come you’re not playing?” “This jam is way too fast for me.” “Me too!…… Do you know Blue Ridge Cabin Home or Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” “Yeah, if you keep it slow!” “No problem! I wonder if we can find some space downstairs…”

I suggest you look up some things on my web site. Easiest thing is to go the Instructional section, where you’ll see an index of things especially for beginning banjo players, and also some articles for novice jammers, including a list of 100+ Jam Favorites.

Also, on the homepage you’ll see a list of the jam camps that I host in various parts of the country. Those are fun, and everybody starts jamming together the first morning.

I hope the suggestions help. As with many things, some of the early stages of learning are the hardest and most psychologically trying. The important thing is not to lose heart, as many would-be banjo players do. Chin up and keep picking!

Pete Wernick

This one was not asked as a question, but I felt the topic is important enough to share my post in response.

Bob writes on A guitar player (a fellow programmer) I met here at work once played with a group that had a banjo — his comment was — the banjo was too #$&#* loud! Obviously, this banjo player wanted to be a star instead of a contributor.

I think this is probably the biggest complaint about banjo players in general, as well as the biggest reason for the continued popularity of banjo jokes, and the subtle downplaying in some quarters of the role of the banjo in bluegrass.

I can’t understand why so many banjo players speak so glowingly of *volume* as one of the primary desirable characteristics of a banjo. (“It can peel paint at 50 feet,” etc.) When does a banjo *need* to be really loud? The only time I can think of is, “when performing unamplified”, a pretty rare circumstance, though not unheard-of in my case, anyway. I love to practice loud, but that’s for my own self, and to work out my finger muscles.

If people are jamming and a singer or soloing instrument can’t be heard, generally the thing to do is for everyone else to *quiet down*. In many high-energy jam sessions, it seems people are reluctant to do this. They would rather get their instrument the loudest. I’ve seen jams where the Stellings “win”, but the music sounds awful. Usually, the better musicians leave. If as is sometimes true, the banjo is truly not loud enough, in many cases, the player can learn to dig in harder and get plenty of volume.

But mostly, the rule is, “If you can’t hear the singer or soloist well enough, get quieter.”

When I teach this to people at a jam camp, everyone quiets down, sure enough, and I become aware that a fair number of people weren’t even *listening* to the person singing or soloing. In that case, the need to listen to the group and yourself simultaneously is the main challenge.

Probably the single biggest, most important factor that causes unawareness of a banjo being too loud is: (drum roll) Where the player is listening from.

The player is *behind* the instrument, and everyone else is in front of it. A lesson I always teach at banjo camps:

Try this highly educational experiment: Play a few simple phrases on your instrument. Now, lay your instrument on your lap, facing up, and play the same simple phrases. Wow, didn’t they get LOUD? Guess what, that’s how loud you REALLY ARE. It’s a huge discrepancy, more so than with any other instrument (our resonators really project the sound directionally more than other instruments).

It’s hard to remember when playing that the mix of the sound a banjo player hears is much more banjo-light than the sound everyone else hears. If what you’re hearing is a perfect mix, you’re probably too loud. This is especially true of anyone you’re pointed at. It’s natural to point at the lead singer in a jam, or even on stage. Watch out.

I once saw a video of a band featuring a great singer who was in a wheelchair. Right next to him, a very skilled banjo player was playing a ton of backup, too loud even on the TV, but worse yet, he was standing right next to the lead singer. He was essentially playing right in the singer’s ear. I was amazed at the singer for looking unrattled and singing so well anyway. Some time later I met the singer at IBMA. I told him how good I thought he sounded, and about what I saw on the video, and how amazed I was at the banjo player’s obliviousness. The singer guy responded, “Oh yeah, I don’t work with that guy anymore.”

Take warning, banjo players! Respect your lead singers and your fellow instrumentalists. Keep reminding yourself, you’re *definitely* louder than you think. If other musicians come to realize you’re tasteful with your volume choices, you’ll be a lot more popular at jam sessions, I promise.


The topic of singing came up on the banjo-l list. I’ll share a post in which I responded to a few posts that I thought were myth-based.

Nancy: I tell folks (especially the banjo instructor) that I can’t sing.

In my opinion, the statements “I can’t sing,” and “I’m tone deaf,” are incorrect and essentially meaningless. EVERYONE with a voice can sing and EVERYONE who can hear at all, can hear (at least some) differences in pitch. I think what these folks really mean is: “I have a hard time carrying a tune,” and “I have no confidence in my singing.”

I have had many successes with people who start out “tone deaf”, who then get some instruction and “permission” to sing, and have a great time with it, and sometimes even get to be good singers.

To learn how to carry a tune, get the help of a friendly musical person. Just start singing a song, regardless of key, and have the other person last note of the chorus is probably the right key. Then sing the song again, with their good chordal accompaniment in *that* key. Very often, with only that, or a little extra help, a person will start carrying the tune correctly. The self-consciousness on the part of the singer is a big obstacle, but if he/she will just try anyway and put up with the discomfort, the results will start coming.

Dave: So many people want to sing anyway that they won’t care if you sing or not.

I feel this is only sometimes true, especially not in beginners’ jams. Often, everyone wants someone else to pick a song, and nothing happens until someone does. I think that coming to a jam prepared to sing a few songs if the need arises, is quite positive, and I consider it appropriate jam behavior. If no one will just say, “OK, let’s do _________ and I’ll sing it,” some beginner jams get nowhere, except maybe a messy Cripple Creek or trainwrecked Blackberry Blossom.

Also, lead singing is not the only singing contribution. If someone knows choruses and harmonies, they will be *much* more welcome at a jam session than a player who doesn’t sing. How many times does a banjo player walk up to a session and hear, “Oh great, four banjos now” ? If you are a banjo player who can contribute to the singing, you get the edge over one who won’t sing. Which brings us to:

Steve:Have you heard Earl Scruggs sing?…. Earl isn’t a good singer.

Earl is a great singer — a great harmony singer. He was good enough to sing on large numbers of great records with Bill Monroe and Lester Flatt. He knows words and knows how to blend. A great contribution. Ask Jerry Douglas, who has sung with him often, on stage, in recent years.

With the example of people like Earl and J.D., Sonny, Ralph, Bill Emerson, and many other banjo players in the spotlight, and just about every member of any professional band, yes, they do all sing (even if not on stage), and they don’t blow it off as unimportant. Singing is using your body to make music. Being musical doesn’t absolutely have to involve singing, but singing is a very accessible type of musicality. Musicians value harmony, and sometimes have to sing little melody phrases to each other, and should be tuned in to what vocals (the nucleus of the music) are all about. All good reasons to learn how to sing, not just “to keep the jam going”.

So I encourage people to sing. Sometimes they just won’t, so I tell them they have to *move their lips*. Then I tell them to make some sound come out while mouthing the words. Generally, once they get over their self-consciousness, it comes out fine. It’s not atypical that I start a jam camp of 20 with about 5 people willing to sing, and at least 5 not at all willing. By the end, virtually everyone is singing and having fun.

For the stubborn ones who WONT, I just think OK, too bad. But I never think they can’t contribute musically if they can play.

Dave on the banjo-l list, asks: When a song is played that you don’t know, how do you:

1. Remember the chord progression?
2. If you don’t know the chord progression when you start, then how do you play backup to it?


Starting with #2:

Look at the guitar player’s left hand. If he/she is capoed in the same place as you, just match their chords. If there’s more than one guitar player, pick the one you think is most dependable, and you can see best. If you don’t have a view of a guitarist’s right hand, then move to where you do.

Now #1:

Folks on the list have already pointed out the value of learning chord progressions in terms of the simple number system, 1, 4, 5 and so on. This can be very helpful in learning chord changes. The value of using numbers is that, regardless of the key chosen, the *numbers* of the chords played to a certain song stay the same. Once you’re comfortable with the numbers as equivalents to say, G, C, and D, you can memorize progressions in terms of the numbers. Example: “Starts on a 1 (as usual), stays there for a pretty good while, ends up on a D. Then back to 1, into 4, and then the last line is 1 5 1.” That would be “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms”. It reduces to: Long 1, 5, then 1 to 4, then 1 5 1. This is true in any key you play the song in, whether G or C, etc.

Many people when *reading* chords from a book or another player don’t also make a point of memorizing the changes. If they make the effort while they start playing and following the chords, after a few times through, they can start putting in the right chords “without peeking”. This means *not being content to just read* the chords, but actively memorizing them. Most bluegrass songs’ chord progressions are not very complicated, and the more someone practices memorizing chord changes, the faster and more accurate they become at doing so. (Surprise!!??)

It gets another step more valuable yet, when you start to recognize the *sound* of a 5 chord, or a 4 chord. G going to C (1 to 4) sounds different from G going to D (1 to 5), or G staying on G. Some melodies fit so nicely over a G to C chord change, and indeed, on investigation, you’d find that the melody notes fit the G chord at first, and at the time of the change to C, the melody arrives at least one note that is actually part of the C chord.

After a while, your ear starts to recognize these things. You start hearing where a melody is heading and something tells you that a 4 chord, or a 1 chord, etc. will be the one that sounds like a fit. Whether you’re right or wrong, trying to anticipate chord changes keeps the ear/brain combo in “active” mode, and that makes for better memorizing.

The above tells you some of the pathway, but it’s up to you to get on there and start traveling. It’s the doing that creates the success.

Pete Wernick

Michael writes: I have never used a flat pick before. Of course I will pick up a couple at my local store (before the Jam Camp). However, getting used to it may be difficult. I am afraid it will sound pretty ragged.

Dear Michael,

I surely understand. In fact, 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 judgment.


Elise, who attended the 2005 jam camp in California, writes: I never gave you all the sordid details of my first jam’s people conflicts, but oh boy, it was colorful. One guy hated the rules of jamming we learned at jam-camp, because they took all the fun out of it for him, but he got so mad that he took the fun out of it for us, and then a debate ensued about whether there is really a difference in music styles (old time vs. bluegrass etc.) or whether all music is essentially the same and all jamming is essentially the same.

We are slowly regrouping, but now I am very cautious before inviting new people. Anyway, I love the jamming, and recently got to do it “for real” with strangers and the rules really helped. And they did not do them overtly, but underneath it was there with covert nods and telepathy.


Hi Elise,

Glad that sad little story of the stubborn guy had a pretty happy ending for you, especially with the successful use of jam camp “rules”. They are actually more like protocols that have slowly developed naturally in bluegrass, according to common sense and courtesy. I didn’t “make” any of the protocols. I just interpreted and sort of codified them from a great deal of observation in many places and times. The closest thing I have to rules in jams concern tuning, timing, and being on the right chord. Those “rules” are bound to be broken sometimes, and the next rule is, let’s keep trying to get it right but not be too uptight about minor mishaps. It’s a jam, after all, and the payoff is in fun and harmony.

After that, different jams can have different ways of reaching the goal (musical fun), and people will gravitate to their own styles of doing it. The guy you mention is comfortable with what he is used to, and seems to have made the mistake of considering his way “the right way”. I am very careful with the use of terms “right” and “wrong” when it comes to music. As in other parts of life, there are many ways of doing things that work for different people, and trouble can arise when two or more people stubbornly maintain differences on what is “right”, implying some objective standard. This is the same kind of thinking that over history has led to some pretty bloody wars! Humans have to learn better ways if we are to survive together.

The three jamming “musts” I’ve laid out (tuning, timing, agreement on chords) have a tremendous degree of consensus. Beyond those, when in Rome I just might go along with the Romans. For example, old time jams do have some protocols different from bluegrass jams. (There are no “solos”, for instance.) The typical protocols listed on my Jamming Pointers sheet are more to be thought of as a sensible and trustworthy guide for bluegrass jams, but there are many ways to have musical fun.

Pick on, have fun, and stay in touch!


Dale asks: I am watching/using your Bluegrass Slow Jam video and am having some beginner problems. I am using a book to try and learn songs but I am very slow to remember and have not really gotten anything down pat. Nothing up to any kind of speed. Also I have never played anything other then this banjo in my life. No musical background and can’t hear the chord changes.

So a banjo hangout member sent me his copy of your video to learn from so I might find some enjoyment from this banjo. Up until now it has been lots of practice work and no fun. I have gotten real discouraged and ready to quit a couple of times and the BHO members kept dragging me up again. So here I still am. Now I know that I am not going to master this thing over night but I do enjoy the pace that you have on this video.

I’m glad you’re finding the video helpful. It happens I disagree with the learning approach of learning “songs” (meaning lead arrangements in Scruggs style) first. I think rhythm playing should be taught first, with good chording, and then a person should join in with bluegrass jamming, at slow speeds.

Unfortunately, most instructors don’t teach anything about jamming, nor do they facilitate jams. They instead teach people to “recite” tablature, which I assure you is only a fraction of what it takes to learn to actually *play* the style.

The fact that you’ve gotten discouraged doesn’t surprise me, because I think the kind of teaching/learning you’ve done so far tends to be a dead end, especially because it doesn’t lead to successful jamming. Now that you’re oriented more toward jamming, I hope you have a better time.

I can make the chords like you show them in the beginning of the video above the fifth fret but can’t follow you when you are playing chords down around the 5th to seventh frets.

The purpose of this video was not to show a variety of banjo techniques, but to give you the opportunity to play along. As I teach on the video, playing backup just means doing whatever you know how to do that will follow the chords and the beat, and sound good in context of the jam. You don’t have to worry about duplicating what I do. As you learn more techniques on the banjo, your playing will develop variety, like what you see me doing. That will come from your other study of the banjo.

Also can you point out a simple roll that can be done to those tunes so I can do something besides the chopping thing.

Any roll at all, if timed right with the rhythm, should sound fine. One roll that’s easy to synchronize to the beat is the TITM roll (alternating thumb). This is the roll I suggest the viewer use when playing along with my introductory video Get Rolling. It sounds good, and is pretty easy to do and to link to the beat.

I hope you’ll take some time to look at the beginners materials on my web site, as they try to point novice players in the directions I feel are most productive and satisfying for a person trying to learn to play enjoyable music.


Becky writes: Playing with another feels so exposing to me. Like I’ve taken off my shirt or something. Does that make any sense?


Absolutely. Very common feeling, with roots in insecurities common to us all.

Sometimes when I play, stuff comes out that I never knew was in there….

Yep, part of the fun.

It’s hard for me to let go, and just let the music flow out through me. It’s so powerful, that I draw back from it. How do you handle that yourself, Dr. Banjo?

Keep playing. If you play to really serve the quality of the music you’re playing, for the sake of everyone there, including yourself, then you have that good thing to focus on. Ego and insecurities lead to distraction, so it’s best to assume that you’re all in it together and everyone does what they can, and just go ahead and give it your best. If you stumble, keep going. If you fall, get up.

The bridge that many are timid to cross, that holds them back is: Do they or do they not seek out, even create, situations where they can play music with others — especially people they’re well suited to playing with.

Always appreciate your thoughtful answers.

Glad someone’s listening!

Pete Wernick

Pam writes: Hi Pete. When I request to play stoney creek with a group over this guys house lets call him Jim, he always starts it, which, number one, is incorrect because it is my song request and I want to start it but anyway he proceeds to play it correct except for the end part which he puts an extra beat in it. The others go ahead when it is their turn and play it the way Jim started it. I learned it from an Eric Thompson CD which he does not put an extra beat in it.

When it comes my turn I always play it the way I learned it and then the others do also but then when it comes Jim’s turn again he plays it the other way. What is the correct thing to do in this case? Play it the way Jim started it when it comes my turn or play it the correct way the song goes?


Check the original version, by Jim and Jesse (the tune was written by Jesse McReynolds). I don’t think it includes any extra beat. If the J&J version matches the way you play it, you might make a copy of it for Jim, and just let him know that’s why you’ve been playing it that way. The person who wrote the tune chose to make it a certain way, and in bluegrass, the writer is given respect. See what Jim says, but if he’s not moved, don’t be too amazed, and you don’t have to register an opinion, just say that’s why you play it the way you play it.

You can both continue to play your different versions within the tune, and if the band follows you both, it’s viable music — but normally that’s not done. Usually the person calling out the tune might even say: “and we’re doing it in this particular way, though there are other ways to do it”. Such protocol also applies on a few songs for which there are variant versions (such as, adding or not, an Em to Sitting on Top of the World, or a 1- or 3-beat pause in Worried Man Blues). Enough people know each version, it might be good practice to point out which version you’re doing, so no one will be surprised.

I agree with you about who should decide which version will be followed. Normally that would be the person who calls the tune, and that person would also be the one to start it. Jim is out of bounds in starting it without being invited. Chances are, Jim doesn’t see it that way, and likes his version and doesn’t want to have to change.

Good luck, and however it resolves, have fun jamming!

Pete Wernick

Sam in Israel writes: I wondered if you could help me understand the traditional bluegrass vocal harmony intervals. From what I’ve read on the net, most vocal arrangements follow the 1-3-5 of the chord.


That’s right — whatever chord is *active at the time*. Whichever of those three is the melody note, the two harmony parts, tenor and baritone, cover the other two notes, for a 3-part chord.

Most melody notes are one of the three notes of the chord that’s the same “chord name” as the chord you’re playing when you sing that melody note. On the “main” words, that is, the words which are on main beats, long notes, etc. that is typically the case. On the quicker, between-beats words, many are outside the chord you’re playing, but still in the scale of the key you’re in. The harmony principle stays the same: Melody is surrounded by: 1. The nearest chord tone *above* the melody (“tenor” part), and 2. The nearest chord tone *below* the melody (“baritone” part).


1. The last note of any song in G is a G, sung over a G chord. So tenor is B, baritone is D. Top to bottom, the harmony is 3, 1, 5 (one each of the main 3 notes that make a major G chord).

2. On a “between main beats” note (“by’s” in “baby’s” in Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms), that’s an “A” note if you’re in the key of G. Using available notes from the major scale in the key of G, the nearest chord tone above is a C and below, it’s an E. These 3 actually make an Am chord, not played for accompaniment, as it last so briefly. You’d still be playing a G, but the notes to be in harmony with the A note are logical choices based on where the tenor and baritone parts go for the *main*notes.

I’ve come across another post that said that in old-timey country music, vocal harmonies follow the 1-3-5 of the songs key regardless of what specific chord the song is playing.

Wrong. This “sounds” like the correct info above, so I’m guessing that source may have heard the correct info and garbled it.

Also from listening, I hear a lot of fourth intervals in bluegrass duets and some occasional sixths that weren’t described in the material I found on the web.

In duet harmonies, some tenor singers like to pick unusual intervals, just for the uniqueness of it, and sometimes a hair-raising effect. That can happen in trio harmonies too, which can work as long as the three notes sung sound good together. That would mean a chord missing one of the 1, 3, and 5, but including a “partial” note which is essentially an ornament to the basic chord, such as a 6th.

Any assistance you could give me would be gratefully accepted.

That’s as clear as I know how to explain it! Hope it helps. A more complete explanation of bluegrass harmony can be found in the appendices of my Bluegrass Songbook (Music Sales pub.), available in the Store on


Bragg writes: I have attended several bluegrass festivals and I have been jamming for a couple of years.  I have 50 songs or so that I play primary in Keys G, A, E, D, and C.  At jam sessions I do take a turn in singing.  My favorites are Wayfaring Stranger, Will the Circle be Unbroken, and Your Cheatin’ Heart.  The skill that I know I lack for intermediate jam camp is faking solos.  However I am interested in attending.

I look forward to your recommendation.


I see from your newsletter signup that you’re a guitar player. At our camps, we don’t expect guitarists to solo, though they are welcome to try. I encourage you to attend the camp, and with the time still 4 months away, you can get a start on learning to fake solos in your own time prior to the camp.

Playing passable guitar solos on the fly is based on ear skills and a bit of knowledge of the fingerboard. The most simple kind of solo-faking is just to hold a chord with your left hand and “work” any string with your pick going up/down for a few notes at a time, and then just switch to another string and keep going. This will get you a string of “legal” if rather monotonous notes. Legal in the sense that if you’re holding the chord that’s active at a given time, the notes you’re playing are within the chord and will sound all right, if not interesting. This kind of solo is what I call a “placeholder” solo. If you get fluent at doing the above, you are “passable” for soloing at my basic jam camp, and actually in any jam situation, as long as your fellow jammers are encouraging (which is the norm at our camps).

The other, more typical, kind of soloing can happen when you can actually find your way to the melody or something close. This is an ear skill which develops naturally the more you just try to find the melodies of songs you can hum. You do it regularly while practicing, trial-and-error style, a note at a time, and as the melody reveals itself to you, you review until you can play the melody pretty fluently by ear. As you do this with more and more melodies over a period of time, you’ll find that you can locate melody notes much more quickly, often on your first guess. This is a skill you see with all of the more skilled players, and the way I’ve described is actually pretty much how they’ve all learned. If you use the simple tab in my Bluegrass Songbook that gives the melody lines to songs, you can check and see how accurate your guesswork is.

If you learn the basic scales in the most common keys, you’ll see those notes are the ones that get used over and over, both in melodies and in the additional notes that are thrown in to embellish the basic melodies.

The above hints are just a starting point of course, but if you practice the methods above for the next several months, I am confident that you’ll be able to try your hand at faking solos at the jam camp, with promising results.


Kathy in Pennsylvania writes: I am a guitar flatpicker, playing for four years.  I learned to read music as a child having played classical piano for eleven years (no ear training—all by rote).  Since I love fiddle tunes, when I first started guitar, I got a bunch of fiddle tune music and have been memorizing ever since.

I sound good and can hold my own with stuff I’ve labored over and memorized and played over and over and over, but that is getting old.  I am way too spontaneous a person to be satisfied with the box I’ve put myself into.  I know the problem stems from those 11 years of piano where I ONLY learned by music that had to be memorized for piano recitals.  I just applied how I use to learn to how I would tackle the fiddle tunes (flatpicking with a guitar).  Now that I shine in that method, it is difficult to take ten steps back and sound lousy at improv!  But, it’s got to be done!!!! …lest I go insane.


The problem you’re describing is actually quite common. We get a lot of people at our jam camps who sound great on just a few tunes, and are otherwise quite stressed at having to play new material, even just the rhythm chords, with no paper in front of them. Getting going at slow tempos, surrounded by people who are no more advanced than they are, they eventually settle and get on track.

I suggest that you get the Steve Kaufman video from Homespun Tapes, Lead Guitar Breaks for Bluegrass Songs. He shows how to take a basic melody and spin it into a guitar break. One important part here is that it’s *songs*, not instrumentals. The melodies are simpler, and to make a good break means knowing the melody but then also being able to embellish a melody. There are various patterns and tricks that can be used and reused from song to song, and if you learn and practice those, you can start to “improvise”.

My video Bluegrass Jamming for Newcomers and Closet Pickers would provide a good way for you to get some experience “faking” solos. The speeds are quite moderate, and there is one place in each song where the band goes into backup mode. You can experiment, using ideas you might catch from watching the guitar player on the video, who takes simple solos.

I also recommend from my web site the Play-Along Music Minus One Bluegrass Guitar, which allows you to play along *instead* of the guitarist on the CDs. There is also tab for his straightforward solos. Again, most of the material on this item is *songs*, which as you know are the main kind of material that happens at most jams, not fiddle tunes.

I hope you try these concrete suggestions. These recommended materials are designed exactly for folks like you.

Best of luck!


Joe from Indiana writes: I have started going to some jams, and have a problem when it’s my turn to sing. I know the best keys for my songs. Some are easier for me to sing in, say, B flat, but some people can’t play in that key and don’t know how to capo. In an unfamiliar group you don’t know the players’ skill levels. Would you just go ahead and sing in that key and not worry about it, or avoid those songs and sing something in a key that everyone can probably play in?


Before settling on a key, I recommend you ask everyone “If I do it in __, would that work OK for you?” If people say no or look blank, then I suggest picking a nearby easier key. A guide for that is below.

Bb is not a problem for a guitar player with a capo. They can play “as though in G” with the capo on the 3rd fret, and that’s fine. It’s the non-capoing instruments (fiddle, mando, bass) that would struggle with Bb.

A is so near Bb, and is such a more user-friendly and common key, that is a much better choice for a song that you’d prefer in Bb.

The most user-friendly keys for non-capoing instruments are:

G    D    A

Harder, but common:

C      E (especially for guitar players)

Hard but somewhat common among more experienced players, since many bluegrass greats have used these keys, causing people to learn them:

B     Bb     and to some degree, F

Every other key is better avoided: both hard and uncommon.

So that gives an idea of degree of difficulty, and depending on whom you’re playing with, and how hard the chord progression is (number of different chords used, and frequency of changing), you might venture down the list of keys.

It’s a good idea to scope out at home what key is optimum for you for each song, and what other key might be a good workable alternative, that people find easier to play.

Remember, a guitar player can match where you put your capo and what key you “think” you’re playing in, and it works fine. It’s the non-capoing instruments that take more careful consideration.

Hope that helps,