Beginning Bluegrass Banjo

Published Reviews

JUNE 1986

Peter Wemick is well known throughout the bluegrass world for his role as banjo picker in Hot Rize, not to mention his alternate function with Hot Rize’s traveling companions, Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers. He is also a gifted instructor, as those who have attended his workshops will attest, and his book Bluegrass Banjo, is a well-established favorite among students of all levels.

Now that the price of a fairly nice VCR is within the range of many people, we are going to see more and more commercially available tapes with programs featuring everything from live shows to studio recordings to instructional material. It’s a whole new concept for bluegrass and there should be lots of exciting things appearing in the months to come.

“Beginning Bluegrass Banjo” features Pete “Dr. Banjo” Wemick in a two-hour program consisting of several segments, or lessons, which carry the beginning banjo student from the “which way do the picks go on” stage to a point where, if he/she has applied himself/herself, the students should at least be able to play through several songs and, with luck and/or talent, maybe even actually sound like something. Obviously, the more time and effort spent the more satisfactory the results.

Wernick’s approach differs from other beginning banjo material in that he bases his instruction on songs rather than banjo tunes – instead of “Cripple Creek” he presents “Mama Don’t Low” and “Columbus Stockade Blues” replaces “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” After the introduction of basic roll patterns Pete moves to “Buffalo Gals” and proceeds to strum the chord changes while singing the song. This effectively establishes the rhythmic patterns and the timing of the piece before any attempt is made to play the actual melody. The next step is playing the tune, which is demonstrated by integrating the basic rolls with where they go in relationship to the words of the song; Pete bravely continues to sing as he progresses toward the end.

We are led through more songs and introduced to more roll patterns and licks and, as the tape progresses, we gather quite an arsenal of material. Although the songs get more complicated and the arrangements get more complex, Pete breaks each one down into its components and demonstrates slow, medium and fast versions at every logical point. By the end of the tape the student has been exposed to almost everything needed to play bluegrass banjo.

Sitting through “Beginning Bluegrass Banjo” provides convincing evidence that video is the ideal medium for teaching beginners. The teacher only has to go through it once, never becoming frustrated by non-practicing students; and the student can play and replay any segment of the tape as many times as he wants until it all becomes clear. Thanks to the use of split-screen camera techniques it is easy to watch at one time what both hands are doing.

Beyond instruction in the basics this tape is full of interesting little asides and humorous effects. Like commercial television, there is an occasional pitch for banjo instructional material; unlike TV there is no “800” number and Pete mentions not only his own books and materials but those of others as well. He also recommends examples of recorded bluegrass and frequently mentions the importance of Earl Scruggs in the Grand Banjo Plan. There is even a demonstration of guitar and banjo interaction featuring Homespun Tapes founder Happy Traum playing along with Pete and at the end we are treated to a brief clip from a Hot Rize concert.

Accompanying the video is a short booklet of tablature illustrating the rolls, licks and songs Pete plays on the tape.

For the price of a couple of months of private lessons this tape gives access to all you need to know to begin playing the banjo, presented in a logical, clear and comprehensible manner by one of bluegrass music’s best-known banjo pickers and teachers.