How Can You Learn to Play Bluegrass? Learn to Jam
Many bluegrass pickers — both good amateurs and professionals — really did learn to play on the back porch, whether it’s a symbolic back porch or a real one.
Tut Taylor, the late, great flatpicking Dobro man, learned his unique style when his brother left for the army during WWII, leaving a Dobro leaning against the wall. Tut didn’t know how to play it, so he picked it up and started to pick it with a flat pick. His style was highly personal, almost never used by anyone else, but he made a significant impact on bluegrass.
Ron Thomason, lead singer, mandolin player, and humorist of Dry Branch Fire Squad, likes to tell about his father leaving the house with several tuned instruments leaning against the wall, warning Ron never to touch them. Of course, by the time he was a young man, he was playing with Ralph Stanley.
Steve Dilling, former banjo player with IIIrd Tyme Out, who now plays with Sideline, learned the way many banjo players of his era did: he listened to recordings repeatedly, probably thousands of times, studying Earl Scruggs’ records. He’d listen to a phrase, lift the needle off his record, and play it again, picking out the rolls until, according to his father, he’d fall asleep in his chair, clutching his banjo.
There are many more stories such as these, about musicians being eaten up by their desire to master their instrument. Many bluegrass musicians play two or more of the five traditional ones: guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, bass. The Dobro has since become an accepted sixth.
Guitar is perhaps the easiest of the six instruments to learn at a beginner level. Although it can take a lifetime to master, beginners can learn three chords, some elementary flatpicking, and sing most of the bluegrass repertoire.
I fell in love with the banjo and bought one soon after we started going to bluegrass festivals. It only took me ten years to decide I’d made a bad choice, and return to the guitar, which I had played as a teenager. Five years of violin, when I was in elementary school and junior high, convinced me never to pick it up again. No fiddle for Ted. Irene chose the mandolin, after hearing Alan Bibey play. You’d need to be a masochist to want to carry a bass in an RV, although there are plenty who do. But I do recommend you get an instrument, learn a few chords, learn some of the massive repertoire of traditional bluegrass songs drawn from folk, mountain, gospel, tin pan alley, and other traditional sources, start singing one … and then head for a jam.
Jams can be found at bluegrass festivals everywhere. They vary in quality and the level of expertise required, but there are often slow-jams where beginners feel welcome. Check out your local music store. Ask on Facebook if anyone knows a local jam. For instance, there’s an ongoing jam in a parking lot in Ocoee, Florida, and that link includes a list of places you might find bluegrass jams around that state.
Join the hangout for your instrument of choice. The Banjo Hangout, the Mandolin Cafe, the Unofficial Martin Guitar Forum, and others are available free online. These hangouts are not exclusively bluegrass-oriented, but all of them have many bluegrass members who’ll point you toward a jam or a teacher somewhere near to you. These days, there are free and low-cost instructional programs online everywhere and at every level. You can learn the rudiments of your new instrument and practice by yourself.
Once you find the jam for you, there is etiquette you should follow. When people get together to jam, they usually either sit or stand in a circle. In the middle of the circle, somewhere between four and eight pickers take turns announcing and the playing songs that are, generally, very well known to the other members of the jam. The person who called the song leads, picking out other players when it’s their turn to solo — “take a break.” If you’re new to jamming, this might all seem intimidating. But at many jams, you’re welcome to stand around the outside of the circle and quietly play rhythm along with the song. That’s where you begin to develop a repertoire of your own while learning the “bluegrass way.” For more about bluegrass jam etiquette, read what Pete Wernick (Dr. Banjo) has to say.
Dr. Banjo has been a significant figure in bluegrass music as a performer, teacher, and administrator since he was in high school in New York City more than 50 years ago. While still in college, Wernick hosted the only bluegrass radio show in the New York metropolitan area. He served as the first president of IBMA, from its founding in 1986 until 2001. He has, in recent years, certified a group of jam teachers around the country who teach “Wernick Method” jamming in small groups and at festivals. Meanwhile, he continues to conduct very popular bluegrass camps at major festivals like Merlefest. Here’s a list of bluegrass camps and Wernick Style Jam Camps for 2016.
Jamming is the central motor keeping traditional bluegrass alive. People who hear bluegrass music on the radio, attend a local festival, or who grew up near the music often find that bluegrass has become a part of their musical DNA. But the most important thing is picking up an instrument, screwing up your courage, going to a jam, and joining in, before you can begin to appreciate bluegrass at the deepest and most exalting levels.
My friend Tony Watt, a Boston area fixture and a familiar face at festivals and jams around the country, believes that the jam communities is essential to the continued existence of bluegrass music. He also calls jamming an addiction.
When I started to take jamming seriously, as a part of my own festival experience, was when I began to internalize and learn the traditional lore and skills of bluegrass music. I still prefer to hear a broader range of bluegrass than I’m competent enough to participate in. However, the first time we heard the sounds of the Gibson Brothers song “Ring the Bell” through the window of our trailer in a campground, that was the moment we knew they were for the ages. That’s the power of jamming.