Video: Pete describes and demonstrates some of his earliest learning on the banjo.
is renowned worldwide for his accomplishments and contributions to bluegrass music: the hot-picking force in several trend-setting bands including Hot Rize, innovative teacher and author, songwriter, and long-term President of the International Bluegrass Music Association.
Pete’s national music career started in 1971 with the first records by northeast instrumental wizards Country Cooking. Founding Hot Rize in 1978 led to an enduring stint as a performing artist, appearing throughout the U.S. and three continents, on national television and radio. Pete’s instructional books, CDs and videos include best-sellers in their respective fields: Bluegrass Banjo, Bluegrass Songbook, How to Make a Band Work, and many others. A pioneer in bluegrass music instruction, since 1980 his banjo camps, bluegrass jam camps, instruction books, videos and his DrBanjo,com website have inspired players nationwide and overseas.
Pete took up banjo as a teenager in his native New York City, closely studying Earl Scruggs records. While completing B.A. and Ph.D. sociology degrees at Columbia University, he played in local bands and hosted the New York metropolitan area’s only bluegrass radio show in the 1960s. In the early 70s while a sociologist by day at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, he formed Country Cooking whose innovative recordings helped usher in a new wave of contemporary bluegrass.
In 1976 Pete moved to Colorado where he recorded his first solo album, Dr. Banjo Steps Out and in 1978 started Hot Rize. The enduring foursome of Wernick with Tim O’Brien, Charles Sawtelle, and Nick Forster became a major attraction and creative force in bluegrass, famous for their dynamic stage shows and finely-crafted recordings. The group scored repeated #1 bluegrass radio hits, including the Wernick-penned “Just Like You”, and received IBMA’s first Entertainer of the Year award in 1990, as well as a Grammy nomination. The band’s daffy alter-egos Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers gained a following of their own, with Pete as Waldo Otto, steel guitar player and donut impresario (“You Bite It, You Bought It”).
In 1990 Hot Rize disbanded as a full-time unit, while continuing to make several appearances virtually every year ever since. Pete went on to record albums and perform with cutting-edge musicians including Jody Stecher & Kate Brislin, Jeff White, Chris Thile, Peter Rowan, and Jerry Douglas. His solo album on Sugar Hill, On a Roll, rode the bluegrass chart for over a year in the mid-90s, with another #1 hit, Wernick original, “Ruthie” and Pete’s signature mix of traditional and progressive sounds.
Pete has lived in Niwot, Colorado since 1976 and currently tours and records with the traditional bluegrass band Long Road Home, with his wife Joan in a duet, and in the bluegrass/traditional jazz combo Pete Wernick & FLEXIGRASS.
Over a career spanning six decades, Pete has performed and recorded in close contact with Doc Watson, Vince Gill, Jerry Garcia, Steve Martin, and his original idol and main influence, Earl Scruggs. Wernick has also assisted Martin with projects including Martin’s Grammy-winning album The Crow and serving on the Board of the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass.
Always active in the teaching of banjo and bluegrass, Pete was the original pioneer of bluegrass music camps in the early 1980s. Having since taught about 200 camps in about half of the U.S. states and three other countries, he continues to host several per year.
In 2010, he launched the Wernick Method of teaching bluegrass jamming which as of 2016 has certified teachers offering classes in 40 states and 11 countries. Info at LetsPick.org.
In 2010 the IBMA presented Pete its Distinguished Achievement Award.
In 2014, transcriptions of all of Pete’s solos recorded to date, over 250 in all, were published, from his first recordings with Country Cooking (1971) through the 2014 Hot Rize album When I’m Free.
As a radio host and author Pete has recorded more than 75 in-depth interviews since 1964 with a who’s who of bluegrass musicians from Bill Monroe and Carter Stanley to Tony Rice and Béla Fleck. Pete is arranging to donate the archive to a music museum where it can always be accessed.
In 2018 Pete won two IBMA awards: Mentor of the Year, and Best Liner Notes.