Bluegrass Slow Jam for the Total Beginner

Published Reviews

Bluegrass Slow Jam For The Total Beginner, Intermediate Bluegrass Jamming
Peter Wernick (with Drew Emmitt, Sally Van Meter, Ben Kaufmann, Nick Forster, Nancy Steinberger and Joan Wernick)

Instructional DVD Review by John J. Wood

Ah, the plight of the novice picker!

You’ve settled on your bluegrass instrument of choice. You sign up to take local lessons as you learn your instrument. You eventually approach a crossroad where you now desire to play with others, but you have no experience.

How does a novice picker interact with other players? How does one approach a bluegrass jam when you have never participated in one before? How does one learn to listen to others in a bluegrass jam?

While real life provides the ultimate experience, the novice picker can receive a significant head start by spending numerous quality hours with Pete Wernick and his bluegrass jam DVD series. In 2000, Wernick along with a troupe of Colorado musicians including Michael Kang (fiddle, String Cheese Incident) created Bluegrass Jamming: A Guide For Newcomers and Closet Pickers. Then, to meet the needs for pickers at both lower and higher levels, Dr. Banjo convened a similar troupe of local musicians to record two more instructional jam videos: Bluegrass Slow Jam For The Total Beginner and Intermediate Bluegrass Jamming.

Dr. Banjo makes your requirements very straightforward: If you can play the chords of D, G, C and A on your particular instrument, and if you can play rolls or fills with your chosen instrument, then you already meet the basic requirements. As a learning banjo player approaching the intermediate level, I found the Bluegrass Slow Jam For The Total Beginner a prime place to start. Once you have mastered that video, you can choose either Wernick’s original 2000 jam video or Intermediate Bluegrass Jamming. In fact, Bluegrass Slow Jam For The Total Beginner was developed as a response to Intermediate Bluegrass Jamming due to the challenging nature of that video.

Recorded at LCT Productions in Longmont in 2005, both videos start in the midst of a given jam session, placing the viewer literally in the same room with Pete Wernick and the jam musicians: Drew Emmitt (mandolin; Leftover Salmon, Drew Emmitt Band), Sally Van Meter (dobro), Nick Forester (guitar; Hot Rize, and producer of the e-Town radio program), Ben Kaufmann (upright bass; Yonder Mountain String Band), Nancy Steinberger (fiddle) and Joan Wernick (guitar, vocals). Each musician plays at an easy listening level with an informal, relaxed approach; making it quite approachable for the novice picker to learn how to listen to cues and chord changes. While it is easy to sit back and enjoy the music, the video is designed as an interactive educational experience. In short, Dr. Banjo is the professor and the musicians are his teaching assistants. A booklet accompanies each video, containing additional jamming tips, rules of group jamming etiquette, and the lyrics & chords of each song played in that given jam.

Although the basic concept is to learn to play along with these musicians, Wernick and company offer numerous valuable tips during the course of the video that prove to be valuable at bluegrass jam sessions: How to play with others who are at a higher level, how to get around a train wreck, how to find and develop your own voice and vocal range, how to create vocal harmonies, and how to anticipate chord changes and cues. These lessons are worth repeating because as you learn on your own, it is easy to develop bad habits both on your instrument and in listening etiquette. These lessons will help you to maintain focus as you develop your own vocabulary on your chosen instrument. Wernick also offers tips on practicing, setting goals for yourself and how to avoid bad habits.

For each song in the video jam session, a separate window appears focusing on Forester’s left hand, showing which key he is playing, helping you to keep on top of the song’s chord changes. At each player’s solo, the camera is focused on the particular musician. When it is your turn to solo, the camera angle changes to the entire ensemble, with the “chord change window” prompting you. Once I got used to the format, I found following the players to be quite simple, particularly on the Slow Jam video.

While Wernick offers tips on playing a solo via banjo, each musician offers tips on what he/she will play in a given situation. Emmit may toss in a tremolo fill to accent a particular line while Steinberger may start a given song with a couple of “taters.” Van Meter may repeat a riff on her Dobro during a song to signal a cue.

Wernick also introduces a variety of terms often used at picks, and essential to the beginning picker’s vocabulary and growth. During “Rollin’ In My Sweet Baby’s Arms” on Slow Jam, Wernick explains about holding a given key to keep all players locked in, then invites the listener to sing along on the segued She’ll Be Comin’ ‘Round The Mountain. Before “New River Train, Van Meter demonstrates how to cue others via body language.

The group also models potential goof ups such as when Kaufmann “forgets” one of the verses to Blue Ridge Cabin Home and turns to Wernick for the starting lyrics for the next verse. Another key segment shows Wernick explaining how to develop your first solos by connecting a group of given riffs and fills.

On the Intermediate Bluegrass Jamming DVD, the songs are played at medium to fast tempos, the arrangements carrying a degree of complexity. A wider variety of chords are learned and utilized, and the picker receives two opportunities to solo each song, the majority derived from verbal cues. Among the tips Wernick offers: Emphasis on the song’s melody in your solos, how to play backup as part of a musical conversation (i.e, “play what helps the music the most, depending on your instrument), developing your musical etiquette, playing in the keys of B and F, how to conclude a slow song, and how to get around a “train wreck” (i.e., a collapse of the music as a result of a player’s indicision and mistakes). On the latter, Wernick and Van Meter demonstrate two methods of how to continue on after a “train wreck.” In addition, Intermediate Bluegrass Jamming also includes a special guest, songwriter/guitarist Benny Galloway (the Wayword Sons), leading all musicians on his Ramblin’ Boy, demonstrating that jams can include originals too.

By the time the two-hour video concludes with “Bill Cheatham”, the player is challenged to keep up with the musicians and the tempo is at a significantly faster pace. This is why for the novice picker, I highly recommend starting with the Bluegrass Slow Jam For The Total Beginner, which sets the foundation for the novice player. From there, the foundation gets stronger as the player progresses with Intermediate Bluegrass Jamming. However, while there are some similarities between Intermediate Bluegrass Jamming and Bluegrass Jamming: A Guide For Newcomers and Closet Pickers, the latter can work well as step two since you are only cued for one solo, and the tempos and arrangements are moderate. Once you have mastered Newcomers, you can jump immediately to Intermediate Bluegrass Jamming.

Unlike movies that wind up taking space on your shelf, these DVDs should receive repeated use. As a beginner banjo player, while learning to keep time, I loathed using metronomes because while they certainly help with its purpose, never could I learn to play with feeling. Here, it is much easier to pull out any of these three DVDs, select a given track, and play alongnot just keeping time, but practicing and developing your solos in applicable spots. Even if you think you would outgrow Slow Bluegrass Jamming, playing a dirge or ballad requires you to play slow, with accent on the spaces between notes. Because the majority of the songs offered in the Slow Bluegrass Jamming video are often played in faster tempos at picks, this particular video also serves as a template for learning those melodies themselves at their primary basic level. Once you have progressed as a player, the Intermediate DVD becomes your next template for continued practice and growth.

Bluegrass Slow Jam For The Total Beginner, Intermediate Bluegrass Jamming and Bluegrass Jamming: A Guide For Newcomers and Closet Pickers are invaluable educational resources for every novice picker. Between the variety of songs offered, the many group jamming tips, lessons of etiquette and variety of group situations presented, these DVDs provide the essential tools necessary for the novice-to-immediate picker to participate and succeed in bluegrass jam sessions. Not to mention the fun of playing along with these premier musicians and the sheer joy gained from learning your instrument as you embark on your musical journey.

— John J. Wood has been playing banjo for 18 months and resides in Boulder, CO. A longtime music lover, John is also a columnist and contributing writer for

DVD-Bluegrass Slow Jam for the Total Beginner (DVD)—Review,
“So simple, anyone can follow it.”
By Matthew F. Merta, The Bluegrass Journal.

People, it doesn’t get much easier than this when it comes to practicing at home. “Dr. Banjo” Pete Wernick slows it down even further than his successful Bluegrass Jamming video so that anyone with an acoustic instrument (even the most novice player) can get comfortable performing with other musicians.

With the help of Colorado bluegrass musicians such as Nick Forster, Sally Van Meter, Drew Emmitt and others, this video covers nearly two hours worth of folk and bluegrass standards that are sure to be familiar to almost anyone. Wernick has chosen to keep these interactive performances to their simplest form by sticking with four common music chords (G, C, D and A), and eliminating solo breaks on most of the songs.

Along with the 17 play-along songs, there are also jamming tips presented between songs. Wernick is a great motivator to get people started playing musical instruments, and his laid-back yet factual presentation shows that he is probably the best at this position. A great addition to this edition is the simultaneous viewing of the guitar player’s fretting hand so that the student can be familiar with chord changes. Wernick also varies up the overall performance by having everyone at the session perform vocally. While the vocal skills vary in quality, it does give off the message that at bluegrass and folk jam sessions such as this, one doesn’t have to be “professional” to have a good time performing.

Besides being a useful tool for the absolute beginner, this video has another useful purpose. Many musicians learn a second or third instrument to make themselves more versatile, especially when attempting to join a band. Since these are familiar songs, a guitarist attempting to learn banjo, mandolin, fiddle or whatever may find that he/she has an instant backing track to simple but complete songs to work on the new instrument.

Wernick has been a great ambassador of teaching bluegrass and folk music for a number of years, and this video helps to get his wonderful educational message out to more potential musicians who are not familiar with him. Bluegrass Slow Jam should be recommended to anyone learning a new acoustic instrument and wanting to see and hear how it is to work with other musicians before going “live.”