For anyone seeing an authentic bluegrass band for the first time, the unique instrumentation, driving tempos, soulful harmonies, and fierce, piercing tenor singing can be a lot to take. The sharp suits and masterfully virtuosic musicianship defy any “hillbilly” stereotype of its southern Appalachian roots, and it’s hard to disagree that ace bluegrass musicians are among the best of any genre.
Like all great art forms, bluegrass music has a way of creeping into your soul and staying there. Plus, it’s fun to play, incredibly inclusive and nurturing to beginners, and because there are no amps, drums, or wires of any kind, it is very portable, meaning you can basically jam anywhere. Countless musicians have traded in their Les Pauls and Marshall stacks for Martin guitars and Gibson mandolins in pursuit of capturing a piece of this music for themselves.
If you’re interested in learning more about bluegrass, or want to learn to play a bluegrass instrument, we hope this article will guide you and be a healthy starting point to explore the music. We asked innovative banjo player Pete Wernick, AKA “Dr. Banjo,” of the legendary progressive bluegrass band Hot Rize, to share some of his knowledge and expertise in introducing novice musicians to bluegrass.
Listen and Learn
“Bluegrass is a team sport, and if you just learn to play a lead by learning a rote arrangement at home, that’s really not learning the language of bluegrass anymore than learning a Chinese poem phonetically is learning Chinese,” says Wernick. “You need to be fluent, and be able to change gears, like switching between lead and backup. Those skills are really critical for the playing of bluegrass music.”
Just as immersion is the best way to learn a language, listening to records and going to jams is the best way to learn bluegrass. While there are many great contemporary bluegrass artists that are worth a listen, it’s important to listen to the classic recordings. “You should really hear how it’s done, like the inflections of the vocals and the instrument styles,” Wernick explains. “The sounds will get imbedded into your head after a while, and then you can use the method of playing music where you hear what it’s supposed to sound like in your head, and then learn to reproduce that with your hands.”
High Lonesome Harmony
While blazing instrumentals might be what grab your attention at first, bluegrass music is really centered around the vocals. Bill Monroe, aka the father of bluegrass, set the standard for “the high lonesome sound” with his powerful tenor voice. Drawing from the gospel tradition, bluegrass also features close harmonies with anywhere from two to four voices. “That is the distinctive element of the music, without which it is not most people’s idea of bluegrass,” says Wernick.
Jump In and Jam
When learning to play bluegrass, the best thing to do is find other people to jam with. At its core, the music is very simple, with most bluegrass songs centered around I, IV, and V chords in easy keys. “Once a person can smoothly change between G, C, D, and A, I consider them ready to become a bluegrass musician in a group,” says Wernick. “As long as someone is willing to sing, people change to the right chords and keep in time with each other, the music works.”
Bluegrass festivals are a great place to learn, with more than 500 held nationwide every summer. Festivals are a great place to see top-notch artists, as well as have a blast jamming in the campground until daylight. “That’s where an awful lot of music is learned, and also where friendships are developed,” says Wernick. “Over many years, you can get to know fellow bluegrass enthusiasts at these festivals.”