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Pete Wernick Looks Back and Looks Ahead

posted in: 2018, Banjo Newsletter 0

This article by Ira Gitlin originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of Banjo Newsletter.

IBMA’s Mentor of the Year Talks About Teaching

By Ira Gitlin

If you got into bluegrass in the 1970s, you probably first became aware of Pete Wernick as half of the twin banjo tag team (along with Tony Trischka) from the New York State band Country Cooking. Or maybe you bought one of the first copies of his best-selling instruction book “Bluegrass Banjo” from Oak Publications. (Remember those flexi-discs?) If your starting point was in the 1980s, you knew him as the banjo player in Hot Rize, one of that decade’s best-loved touring bands and winner of the very first Entertainer of the Year award from the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA). A newcomer to the bluegrass banjo world in the 1990s would probably associate Pete with the banjo camps he held near his home in Boulder, Colorado, and elsewhere, or with his Homespun instructional videos. And in the 21st century the Wernick name calls up thoughts of Pete’s jamming camps and bluegrass camps, as well as the Wernick Method, the international network of instructors who use the methods Pete developed to teach aspiring bluegrassers to jam.

But that’s just scratching the surface. As a DJ on Columbia University’s radio station WKCR-FM in the 1960s Pete interviewed every first-generation bluegrass musician who passed through the New York City area, and he continued this work in Colorado through the ’80s, amassing a total of 77 recorded interviews. He’s the author of “How To Make A Band Work” and the “Bluegrass Songbook,” and coauthor (with Trischka) of “Masters Of The 5-String Banjo.” He’s a composer of songs (most notably Just Like You) that combine bluegrass directness with spiritual depth. He pioneered the use of video in banjo instruction. He taught actor-writer Steve Martin how to jam. And as president of the IBMA from 1986 to 2001, he established that organization’s focus on fostering young talent. He’s had a long and varied career in bluegrass, to say the least.

Born in 1946 in New York City, on the leading edge of the post-WWII Baby Boom, Pete Wernick grew up in the Bronx. He began playing banjo while attending the Bronx High School of Science, an elite public magnet school whose alumni include New Lost City Ramblers cofounder Tom Paley and old-time musician Bruce Molsky (and also the writer of this article). He continued to play while studying sociology at Columbia University, where he earned his Ph.D. degree—and with it, the nickname “Dr. Banjo.” In 1970, while working at Cornell University, Pete organized Country Cooking. By 1976, royalties from “Bluegrass Banjo” were starting to flow, and Pete decided to leave the academic world and move to Colorado with his wife, Country Cooking vocalist Joan “Nondi” Wernick. A year later he recorded his first solo album, “Dr. Banjo Steps Out,” and organized Hot Rize. Since Hot Rize’s 1990 disbanding, Pete has continued to perform and record on his own, with Joan, with the parabluegrass groups the Live Five and Flexigrass, and at Hot Rize reunion performances. As this is being published, Hot Rize is back on the circuit to celebrate their 40th anniversary.

(Since this is a BNL article, we need to discuss hardware at least a little bit, right? From 1966 to 1988 Pete’s main banjo was a prewar Gibson RB-1 that he bought from Porter Church, whom he met while hosting Red Allen’s band at WKCR-FM. It still has the original five-string neck, and a flathead tone ring of unknown origin that was in it when Pete bought it. In 1988 he got the new Gibson Granada that is now his main banjo. A small bit of missing resonator binding serves as a reminder of the 1989 crash of United Airlines flight 232 in Sioux City, Iowa, which killed 112 passengers; Pete, Joan, and their young son Will were among the 184 survivors. The stock Granada neck was damaged in the crash, as well; Gibson supplied Pete with a new neck that has a Granada-style double-cut peghead, but inlays that copy those of the RB-1. The banjo is set up with a Balch calfskin head and a Bob Westbrook bridge. Pete uses a Shubb fifth-string capo. Now that that’s out of the way….)

One thread that runs through the entire tapestry of Pete’s career has been teaching. He began when he was in college, writing out tablatures for his first student. After many weeks and many tunes, Pete recalls, the student “asked for something that seemed so easy, I said, ‘Well, you should be able to figure that out yourself,’ and he said, ‘No, I can only play exactly what you’ve written out for me.’” Pete calls this kind of note-for-note playing of a memorized piece “reciting,” comparing it to reciting a poem word for word. “I thought, ‘This is not going to work.’ I decided to go back to the way I had learned, which was to develop an ability to just play songs in time, strumming and singing.

“I first got into playing banjo with friends who were folkies. They showed me the rudiments of chords and how I could follow the guitar. And as soon as I recognized guitar chords I could be part of a jam. I remember one of the songs we played was Hard, Ain’t It Hard, that Woody Guthrie sang, and I listened to ‘Flint Hill Special’ and I realized it was the same chords. Then I could match up to some of the notes I heard Earl playing. That was my first platform to figure it out, and within a couple of years it was starting to sound like Earl. Then I got my first Mastertone, a new ’62 archtop, and I was off.”

While “Bluegrass Banjo” contains many pages of tablature, and while tablature to all of Pete’s recorded solos is available (thanks to the efforts of transcriber Brian Ford), Pete is adamant that other than rolls and a few standard licks, tab should not be used to teach complete beginners: “I will say so bluntly, and I will maybe bother some people by saying that, and I’m ready to say it ’cause I feel it very strongly.”

Recognizing that beginners often have serious timing issues, he chose to start his book with simple, well-known songs that students could strum chords with while singing. The next step is to replace the strums with simple right-hand rolls. Next comes the skill to find and include melody notes in the rolls. Only after this is mastered does Pete suggest learning classic Scruggs-style breaks. As he sees it, a teacher who starts a beginner out with a real Earl Scruggs solo is like a parent who tries to teach an infant to speak by making him recite Shakespeare. “Instead of saying, ‘Good morning,’” Pete imagines the parent thinking, “he will say, ‘What light through yonder window breaks?,’ because it’s such a great piece of writing. Why not start him on something great?”

At best, Pete feels, introducing note-for-note banjo “reciting” too early in the learning process steers students away from developing the basic musical skills they need. At worst, the stumbling, tentative playing that often results from that kind of teaching can discourage students, making them feel they’re not good enough to pick at all. (For a fuller discussion of this issue, read Pete’s article “Best Ways To Start Learning Banjo” at the top of the “Learn Banjo” page on his web site, www.drbanjo.com.)

“The three-finger motion of Scruggs style can be roughly compared to your legs when you walk,” Pete theorizes in the sort of extended analogy that often enlivens his teaching. “When you first learn to walk you have to concentrate on it. After a while it’s all in muscle memory, just like rolls. You don’t even know what finger is playing what string, and you just sense that you’re rolling. Your concentration is on the content you’re trying to play, so you’re trying to make sure some finger hits the string with the melody note on it. So let’s compare it to walking.

“If you’re walking, what do you think about? Well, you know, ‘The sidewalk is curving here; I have to step onto the curb’—and you can do that while you’re talking to somebody; you watch and your legs just do it. Okay, what if you’re walking along and there’s the usual cracks every few feet, and you decide, ‘I’m going to step on every crack with my left foot as we walk and talk’? You can do that. And then, ‘Now I’ll avoid stepping on any cracks,’ or ‘I will only step on cracks with my right foot’—you can do that while you’re talking and walking.

“That is comparable to getting one of your fingers onto the right string with the note on it. And I believe that is actually what is going on in the head of the Scruggs-style banjo player. They’ve got muscle memory keeping their hand going, and they’re thinking, ‘Okay, I want that note on the fifth fret of the fourth string, and I also want to make sure I’m getting the third string open right after it, because that gives me a really solid gliding G sound.’ That’s all you think about and your hand does the rest.”

Pete started teaching banjo camps in 1980 when the Haystack program at Portland State University in Oregon asked him to teach a five-day class.

“I had never taught a class like that,” he recalls, “but I made it up as I went along. I started teaching people how to play with each other. I succeeded in getting all these banjo players to play simple songs and sing. They didn’t realize that singing was going to be part of the curriculum, but I insisted on it because songs are much easier to learn than a banjo instrumental. To play a break in a song, you’re only responsible for approximating the melody of a verse, whereas an instrumental has specific moves that are important; if you don’t already know them, you can’t play it. But you can fake You Are My Sunshine by just rolling against the chords; you have something. That became an important part of all my basic banjo teaching.”

A few years later an old friend of Pete’s, bluegrass insider Fred Bartenstein, suggested that Pete try running his own banjo camps in Colorado. Pete’s initial skepticism evaporated when 37 students signed up in two weeks. “I now had an alternative business to supplement my Hot Rize income at the time, which needed supplementing,” he says with a chuckle.

One element of his camps was a public performance on the last day. But in 1996 some students approached him saying, “We’re only looking to become better jammers. We’re not interested in performing. Could you have a camp that concentrates on just jamming?” So Pete put together a banjo camp that focused on backup and other jamming skills. With a local radio station spreading the word, pickers came in to play other instruments along with his banjo students. “Much to my surprise,” he recalls, “none of them knew how to jam either. I realized that I could run a jam class in Boulder, and just teach jam skills on all the instruments. Nobody was teaching jam skills or getting people together to teach them about jamming. It felt like discovering a gold mine. Once in a while I’ve come upon something like—‘Wow, there really needs to be this, and it doesn’t exist yet, so I’ll do it.’”

In 1999, after a few years running of weekend afternoon jam classes in Boulder, Pete switched his annual banjo camp at MerleFest over to being a jam camp. Although he doesn’t play all the bluegrass instruments, his understanding of their roles enabled him to advise students how to fit into the bigger picture. To give inexperienced jammers at least a taste of what it’s like to take a solo, Pete had them play any individual strings (or, for banjos, play basic rolls) while holding the appropriate chords, in what he calls “the ‘here goes nothing’ solo” or “the placeholder solo.” With this approach, he says with a laugh, “Anybody can solo, as long as people accept that there won’t be any melody! Which is funny on one level, and I always tell people, ‘You can’t do this in a real jam in the real world, but at our camp it’s a way to ramp you into real soloing.’”

Pete also taught jam camp students to find melodies on their instruments—a necessary skill—and coached non-singers to sing in tune. He began incorporating basic harmony singing into his curriculum, too. “Almost anyone who takes up a bluegrass instrument aspires to play bluegrass with other people, so I’m glad to be making that possible for them,” Pete says with pride. “Student surveys were showing that they were making breakthroughs. Now they could go back and really jam with their friends. That was inspirational to me.”

By 2009 Pete, assisted by Joan and other coaches as needed, was running jam camps in Boulder and at festivals such as MerleFest, Grey Fox, and the Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival. But that May, Joan was hospitalized with a serious illness. Unwilling to leave her side, and with barely a week to go until his Gettysburg camp, Pete wrote up his teaching guidelines and sent them to his most experienced assistant coach, who ran the camp in his place. It was the first time someone else had run one of Pete’s camps. That camp’s success encouraged Pete to expand his operation to include other teachers. With the help of Rick Saenz, a “semi-retired IT guy” who had attended his MerleFest camp, he devised a system in which the instructors—independent contractors who agree to use Pete’s methods—can run their own classes and camps while the Wernick Method handles registrations and advertising, and takes a percentage of the class fees.

The first use of the system occurred in the fall of 2010 when the teacher who had filled in for Pete at Gettysburg taught a four-session class near Washington, DC. Since then the Wernick Method has offered over 700 classes in more than 40 U.S. states and 10 foreign countries, with about 70 active teachers, including such respected performers as Kristin Scott Benson, resonator guitarist Jimmy Heffernan, Jeremy Chapman (mandolinist with The Chapmans), and French banjo player Gilles Rézard. Pete’s “Bluegrass Jamming Basics” and “Jam Skills Checklist” handouts have been translated into German, French, and Czech.

Initially Pete was surprised at the widespread appeal of jamming instruction: “I found that I could get a turnout for a jam camp wherever I tried one. I tried a class in Carbondale, Colorado, just an afternoon of jam teaching. That’s relatively remote; about 50,000 people live within an hour’s drive. When 26 people showed up, I realized I had drawn one out of every 2,000 people who were within driving distance. That’s pretty striking—and Carbondale is not famous for bluegrass! Another teacher in northeast Wyoming had similar results: one out of every 2,000 people within driving distance. That told me something, and I’ve been trying to enlist teachers ever since.”

Approximately 5,000 students—many of them repeat customers—have passed through Wernick Method classes and camps in the past eight years, and Pete is eager to cast the net even more widely. “We’re still actively looking for

teachers,” he says. “We’ve never had a class in Kansas, of all places. We’ve never had a class in Nebraska or Idaho, or Alaska or Hawaii. But I’ve now named most of the [states] we’ve never had a class in.”

With the Wernick Method established and growing, Pete has shifted his focus yet again in the last few years. For one thing, he no longer runs banjo camps. “When I started, I was the only game in town, and now there’s dozens of banjo camps all over the place. These days I’m more concerned with bluegrass music as a whole than I am with the details of banjo teaching. My banjo methods are out there—books and ten videos, the tabs of all my solos, and lots of articles and Q&A on my website. With the jam camps I felt I was getting more done. People would regularly tell me the camps had changed their lives, since now they were getting to play bluegrass.”

“At a banjo camp, the only way to play bluegrass,” he says with a laugh, “is to get most of the banjo players to switch instruments, and in fact that’s what banjo players mostly need: to jam more with other instruments, and get the fun and motivation from that situation. In the Wernick Method we coach the musicians while they’re jamming, which makes it easier to spot and fix problems.”

Beyond that, he has begun offering full-service bluegrass camps. “A lot of what I’ve chosen to do has been at the suggestion of other people,” Pete reflects. “I like to point out that it wasn’t even my idea to write a banjo book; that was somebody else’s idea for me and then I went with it. And it was somebody else’s idea that I run banjo camps, and it was somebody else’s idea to start teaching jamming. At my camps we were getting all these suggestions saying, ‘Couldn’t we have a banjo class a little bit, or a guitar class? Can’t we have individual teaching of the instruments, and not just jam skills?’ Once I started getting more attendance at my camps”—which meant hiring more assistants, enough to cover the different instruments—“I realized I could branch into that.”

At Pete’s two annual bluegrass camps—one at MerleFest in North Carolina and the other in Silver Bay, New York—the program includes instruction in all the bluegrass instruments, bluegrass history, and band dynamics and performance. In contrast to his jam camps, where harmony vocals were touched on only briefly, Pete’s bluegrass camps teach harmony every day because, as he observes, “It’s hard, and people don’t tend to get it until they do it repeatedly.” By experimenting and refining his methods over time, Pete says proudly, “We’re getting good results, good solid three-part harmony singing, that the students work into the songs they’re doing.”

Of course there’s plenty of jamming instruction at Pete’s bluegrass camps, but the emphasis there is on small self-sufficient groups, in contrast to the massive instructor-led jams often seen at other camps. While acknowledging that such clusterplucks can foster a community spirit and help shy beginners get their feet wet, Pete maintains, “That’s not bluegrass! It’s like bluegrass, but what if forty people wanted to play a game of basketball, and they all got out on the court? That would be something involving a basketball and shooting and passing, but it would not be the game of basketball. When thirty people sit in a crowd playing, that’s pretty different from regular bluegrass. There’s a lot of important things in bluegrass that are not happening, like the space to hear interactive play, and all the dynamics that happen in a small group.”

Among the resources Pete has assembled for students is his list of 116 “Bluegrass Jam Favorites.” Recently one Wernick Method instructor had the idea to turn that text-only list into Spotify and YouTube playlists. Before that, a really dedicated listener could have bought recordings of all the listed songs, Pete acknowledges, “but that would cost a fortune, and they’d have to weed through the Jimmy Martin box set to find the ones that are really going to come up the most in jams. All you have to do to get the jam favorites play-list is go to letspick.org and click on ‘Jam Favorites Playlist,’ and we send a file with the links and list all 116 classic bluegrass jam favorites.

“On the Spotify playlist almost everything is the original version. The YouTube list shows live versions of all the songs, mostly played by the artist who made them famous. I couldn’t find a YouTube video of Flatt & Scruggs doing ‘Blue Ridge Cabin Home,’ but we have the Bluegrass Album Band playing that. I made a point of getting Junior Sisk and Dave Evans onto those playlists; those are important artists that people really should hear, and some of the most incredible harmony singing. The playlists don’t cost the student anything, and they make money for the people on the playlist, which is the way it should be. So this is an incredible application of modern technology.”

As someone who came to bluegrass from the outside, Pete challenges students to learn not just about the music, but also about the culture from which it emerged. His own first encounter with bluegrass’s heartland came in 1965, when he drove with fellow New York banjoists Winnie Winston, Steve Arkin, and Marty Cutler to Fincastle, Virginia, to attend the very first bluegrass festival. “It wasn’t really the deep south,” he observes, “but Roanoke was easily the farthest I had ever driven west or south at the age of 19. It was all new to me.”

It was a polarized time in America. The Baby Boom generation—and the counterculture that it spawned—was becoming increasingly influential. Opposition to the Vietnam War was growing. And the civil rights struggle was exacerbating north-south tensions. As Yankees in the south, recalls Pete, “We didn’t really experience any sort of resentment, although when all four of us entered the banjo contest thinking we were going to be the hotshots, and only Winnie made the finals—and did not win—we realized that our city style of banjo playing was not being appreciated by the judges, who were Bill Emerson and Ralph Stanley. That was part of my education. I also found that jamming with southerners was no problem as long as I understood that I was a visitor on home territory for other people, not me.” The way he dealt with sensitive subjects was “to just not talk about it. [Laugh] And that is the way we still do it. If we started talking politics, we could get in big trouble. If we stick to bluegrass we can have an amazingly great community and a great time together. We keep our peace that way.”

In the decades since he started playing, the biggest change Pete sees is the increased presence of women in bluegrass. “When Country Cooking played at one of the first big Bill Monroe festivals, the only other women on the whole program were Hazel [Dickens] and Alice [Gerrard], and my wife, Joan,” he remembers, though he adds that Lynn Morris was “the top banjo player in the state” when he moved to Colorado. But, he says, “It always dismayed me: there was actual discrimination going on against women in bluegrass. Even someone like [multi-instrumentalist and singer] Gloria Belle, who was a pioneer, was treated in a humiliating way by Jimmy [Martin] on stage. It’s taken a really long time. We’re finally getting past the time where a promoter would say, ‘Well, I would hire this female act, except I already have a female act on the program’—as though one is enough.”

Pete remains concerned that “any person of any gender, and hopefully any race and sexual orientation, shouldn’t have to feel that they might get ostracized.” But as a visible sign of the progress that’s occurring, he points to a jam at the IBMA convention a few years ago: “I’m jamming with a mandolin player from Japan [Shin Akimoto], and a really good bass player from the northeast who’s very dark-skinned [Sav Sankaran], and there’s a blind guy—that would be Michael Cleveland—and I’m thinking, ‘This probably couldn’t have happened too many years ago.’”

Bluegrass’s audience has widened and younger musicians are becoming more collegial and businesslike. The legendary grudges—and even occasional physical violence—between first-generation stars like Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, and Carter Stanley, who saw the business of bluegrass as a zero-sum game, are a thing of the past. Pete recalls a conversation he once had with Sonny Osborne: “I said, ‘Sonny, you guys were so competitive back then. Nowadays, we’re friends with Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver and the New Grass Revival. We ride on each other’s buses and stuff like that, and we hang out. We’re competitive with them, but we like ’em.’ He said, ‘Oh, you guys have something that we never had.’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ He said, ‘Intelligence!’ [Laugh]”

As a professional who supports himself and his family with his musical activities, Pete has always had an eye out for what can bring in income. But it’s impossible to talk with him for very long without noticing an altruistic side to all his activities. He genuinely believes that when people play music together they make the world a better place, and is willing to evangelize about bluegrass and its culture to anyone who’s willing to listen (including, once at a Grammy Award reception, R&B diva Chaka Khan.)

“There’s an amazing, rich variety of experience to have in bluegrass,” Pete observes. “It’s hard to find a friendlier and lower-BS community than there is in bluegrass. Even though there’s egos and competition, it’s a wonderful community, and I’ve found as I’ve traveled the world, bluegrass people are bluegrass people. We all like the same stuff. We can argue about whether an E-minor chord belongs in ‘Sitting On Top Of The World,’” he jokes, “and still be friends.”

And that community, Pete feels, is not going away any time soon: “If you think all the great three-chord songs have been written, think again. There’s great new songs being written every year that are about real, honest things, and maybe with some great harmony, sometimes with humor, or great lyrics. It’s a fabulous world. It’s a big enough world to spend your life in. Thanks to teaching and writing and that kind of thing, I’ve been able to create a balance that is very nourishing to me, and keeps me operating in this community, which I’m so glad I found.”

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