Category Archives for "Banjo Interviews"

Banjo Ben Clark

Mandolin, Banjo, or Guitar? Doesn’t Matter, Banjo Ben Clark Can Help With Them All

Banjo Interviews

You've probably heard the saying "Those who cannot do, teach." Don't mistake "Banjo" Ben Clark for someone who falls into this category. 

Ben has played and toured professionally with acts ​Lila McCann, Josh Gracin, Craig Morgan, and finally... The one and only Taylor Swift. Not only did he play the banjo for these acts, he spent time strumming a 6 string, picking a mandolin, and seated behind pianos. 

Now, we found Ben a few years back on an older version of his site BanjoBenClark​ and have kept an eye on him since.

The site has been active since 2011 and the shear amount of content for the banjo, guitar and mandolin is impressive. The quality is what makes it stand out. 

Each of Ben's videos have a close up, high resolution camera pointed at each of his hands. It is so easy to watch through once to make sure we have the picking/strumming pattern correct and then learn and follow along with the chords on the second go! 

We are excited to bring this interview to you, because just like his website and the video's it contains the answers are extremely well thought out and high quality! 


StringVibe: If someone is undecided as to which instrument they want to learn between the Banjo, Guitar, and Mandolin, what do you tell them? Is one easier to learn than the others?

Ben: I would say that mandolin is probably the easiest to play something recognizable on. Banjo is going to perhaps be the biggest challenge to begin with if they've never played an instrument since so many new motor skills must be learned. However, if someone has a passion to learn a specific instrument, then I recommend pursuing it.

What is the biggest mistake you see beginners making when learning to play Banjo? What should they do instead?

The biggest mistake I see is choosing not to wear or incorrectly wearing picks. People get discouraged by picks–they are uncomfortable at first and seem awkward. However, if you ever plan on playing with others, you need to wear picks. When you do wear them, it's important to consult with a teacher to make sure you have them on correctly.

What bad habits or mistakes do you see most often with professional, or very experienced Banjo players?

I don't equate professional and experienced. Most all professionals are experienced, but not the inverse. If they're professional, there aren't usually many bad habits or mistakes. Sometimes experienced players can have bad habits and it usually boils down to bad form that wasn't corrected early on. Perhaps they don't anchor a finger on the head or their timing is unsteady, but most all of these mistakes can be attributed to playing alone for years and not getting around other pickers through the years.

What are the key principles of fingerpicking?

Two words–timing and melody. Those are the key principles for most any playing, in fact. Timing is everything, and by that I not only mean not rushing or dragging, but listening to which part of the beat the other band members are playing on and getting in that groove. As far as melody goes, the melody needs to stand out amongst all the notes as we want to remain musical as we play music.

What have you tried to accomplish with your paid material that you feel other programs lack or don't quite do a good job with?

There are two things that inspired me to begin teaching and I still keep them in the forefront of my production. One, I want to not be boring. Two, I want to slow it down and communicate to a wide skill range of pickers. Most all the materials I'd been exposed to as I tried to learn either put me to sleep or was way over my head. I wanted to be different!

Thanks Banjo Ben!​

From where we are sitting Banjo Ben has succeeded. His material is very entertaining and regardless of what level you are on the mandolin, guitar, or banjo, he will have tabs and videos that will challenge but not frustrate you. 

Like this interview? Check out all of our Interviews now! 

If you are going to pick up a subscription service to learn ​from, don't pay for one until you've tried out Ben's free trail!

Find him and all his material at BanjoBenClark.

Having Fun Learning Banjo

Getting Results While Having Fun Learning Banjo with Pete Wernick, aka Dr. Banjo

Banjo Interviews , Interview

Anyone who has been in the Bluegrass circles for any length of time has likely heard of Pete Wernick. With a impressive career spanning over 50 years he's been part of the bluegrass and banjo communities longer than most. 

He's played with huge bands like Phish and recorded albums with many names that are widely recognized like Chris Thile and Jerry Douglas to name a few. 

What really interested us, though, was the fact he started teaching bluegrass at music camps in the early 1980's. Then, fast forward to 2010, he founded the Wernick Method and has certified over 60 teachers to help people learn to play Bluegrass and Banjo. 

On top of his continued work to teach several classes and camps each year he's developed the website, which is a great resource with pictures, audio/video, more on his teaching, and an Banjo forum. 

Pete was gracious enough to take some time out to answer some questions for us and leave some advice for beginner musicians. Below you'll find his thoughts on mistakes beginners make, bad advice you may hear, music theory, and more on the Wernick Method. 

Interview with Dr Banjo, Pete Wernick

StringVibe: What is the biggest mistake you see beginners making when learning to play stringed instruments? What should they do instead?

Learning scales and learning to read and play music off a page are so often what new players are expected to do. They look to "learn songs" by playing notes they are told to play. That's not a bad thing, but I suggest instead that they start by laying the groundwork for having fun playing music as soon as possible, which is the whole point of playing music!

​The fundamentals of informal string band music are simple: Learn to make chords on your instrument -- if it's a chording kind of instrument, (that is, not fiddle or bass ... though those folks would still want to learn which notes to play along with the main chords people use: G, C, D, A, E, F, maybe B). Once you know how to play simple chords, a large world of songs opens up. With the words and chords in front of you (a song sheet or songbook), just start singing and changing chords, any strum will do... You're making music! It's real music and you are welcome to enjoy it to the max, even if it's elementary. If you then keep rhythm with your strum and sync with someone else doing the same, now you're jamming!

StringVibe: What bad habits or mistakes do you see most often with professional, or very experienced players?​

On the technical level, they probably are doing quite well if they're that far along. What matters now is compatibility and cooperation with other players. As with any joint endeavor, it can be tricky for each person to find the right combination of leading and following. Personalities need to be flexible, to easily do either. Egos have to be managed, both your own and sometimes your partners'. Finding common ground, both regarding material and speed/complexity is a must.​

​Learning how to control your volume, moment by moment, is an important challenge, both for expression in the music and staying in proper relation to the other instruments.

Last, I note that sometimes even pretty advanced players don't give the melody of a song its full due. Wherever the melody goes, learn how to go there on your instrument. Find every note. Even if you have your own way of phrasing it, be sure to honor the intentions of the person who created the melody. There's a balance between that and "making it your own".​

StringVibe: Is there a piece of advice that is commonly given to beginners that you feel is bad? What would you say instead?

​Very often I hear the standard advice: "Get a teacher." That *can* be great advice but it can also lead a student astray, depending on who the teacher is. Not every teacher really knows how to teach (we are all "self-appointed"), and not everyone who plays the instrument well can be counted on to show you only what will help and inspire you, and do a good job of showing it to you, correcting, and encouraging you. Some teachers sorta phone it in by giving the same material they always give to beginners, with no thought of customizing it to the tastes, goals, and abilities of the student.

Similarly, there is now a glut of published instructional material (videos, books, "the Internet") with no easy way to evaluate the choices. Yes, those folks can all play the instrument, all right, but if the goal is to have the best time possible playing music, as soon as possible... is this the right choice of teacher?​

Asking for recommendations on online forums can help, and so can conversations with each of the candidates you might consider as a teacher.

For what it's worth: I picked up the instrument at age 14 with a minimum of actual instruction, but chances to interact with other musicians a little ahead of me, and that turned out to work very well. They would make suggestions (and one gave me a songbook) and then it was up to me to do the practicing -- which I did, and then I was able to play with them, which delivered a large blast of motivation to keep me practicing!​

StringVibe: What are the biggest benefits of the "Wernick Method"?​

In two words: Fun and Results.​

I developed my method as an alternative to all the popular by-rote styles of instrument-learning that are mostly teaching folks to be closet players. There's a high rate of attrition with people starting to play an instrument. Too typically, after six months the instrument stays in its case. Not that much fun happens in the closet, though of course solo practicing is necessary. I think the student should be led as soon as possible to having fun playing their instrument, and making real music with other people. Struggling repeatedly, by yourself, through a note-for-note arrangement can be frustrating and discouraging. Even if it comes out right, it's a pretty lonesome activity if no one but your teacher ever hears it.​

I prefer to get people playing and singing good 2-chord songs together, almost right away. That's how Wernick Method classes start. The right hand can be completely improvised, just some way of strumming in rhythm. This can easily done with others. Get to the fun as soon as possible! Once the fun starts, "correct technique" and new repertoire can be introduced to help it sound good and be interesting. Making sure the instruments are in tune and playing in time together helps ensure better-sounding music. So that's the first phase of the Wernick Method.​

With a bit of coaching, this process can start almost immediately. So we train teachers how to do it in a gentle and effective way. A week later when students come back, they have improved and realize they're on a track to play better and better music with others. It's a pleasure to teach motivated students and watch them improve and get excited about their progress, all while getting to know and play with people much like themselves. It's quite a satisfying experience for both the students and teachers. We often hear: "I wish I had been introduced to music this way in the first place."​

StringVibe: Is Music Theory important for a beginner? If not when would you start to focus on it?​

The only music theory I teach to beginners is the number system. Since many folks are phobic about learning "theory" or anything math-like, I intro it by saying, "here's just one teaspoon of music theory, which will help make your musical life a lot simpler."​

A good way to do that is to do a two-chord song in G, and refer to the G as the 1 and D as the 5. I count on my fingers: do re mi fa so, and say, that's the same as 1 2 3 4 5. If we start with G, then G A B C D are the 1 through 5. I show my thumb and pinky and say "So G is the 1 and D is the 5." Then we do some of the song, using those chords. Then I say: "Now what if someone can't sing it so well in G, what if we put it in C, to sing it more easily? Now C is the 1 and the 5 is.... G." [they get it by now]. The song is a 1/5 song and the 1/5 can be 'plugged into' any key, and the chords will then work in that key. Then we do the same song but now it's in C. I let them know that anyone leading a song can put it in whatever key they sing and play it best in. It's called "transposing" and it helps the music sound better when you are free to put a song into a key where it will work better for you.​

Knowing the number system also helps people remember chord progressions, since there are conventions regarding numbers that help us get a handle on new songs:​

* All songs start and end on the 1.​

* Next to last chord is virtually always the 5.

​* The 2 chord (major or minor) is generally followed by the 5.

* A song leader can say "the chorus starts on a 4" and can even signal a change to 4 by adding a 7th to the 1 chord before it. Once these conventions get used, they go right into the jammer's tool kit where they will get a lot of use and become instilled.

All of this can be done before learning scales, which are good to avoid (at first) for people for whom it smacks of drudgery and math. 

I don't mind keeping it mostly fun at first with little infrastructural learning that might slow things down. A lot of learning is going on just to keep playing and singing and changing chords. This foundation is being laid. I know that once a student is hooked on playing music, it's easier to get them to work on mastering things they might not be drawn to, if they understand the new tools and knowledge will help them sound better and play more easily with others. ​I recommend to teachers that they first "set the hook" with the fun stuff, and then bring in "here's what you need to do to get better."

Here are two articles that flesh out my pedagogy for beginners... Learning Bluegrass Instruments and for Learning Banjo​.

They are each listed and linkable from two all purpose pages on my website: The Jamalot Page and the Learn Banjo Page​.

One of the mains things that stands out about this interview is the word "fun". 

Is there anyone who doesn't enjoy listening to music? If there are, then we'd assume they aren't the type of people who are learning to play an instrument.

With that being said, shouldn't learning to play be as enjoyable as possible? ​If you're not having fun, instead of putting your instrument in its case and stashing it under your bed for the foreseeable future, why not change your practice routine to be more fun? 

We hope you got enjoyed this interview as much as we did. You can find out more about Pete, his show dates and times, and his teaching method over at his website DrBanjo. ​

bluegrass and old time music

Bluegrass and Old Time Music Lessons with Bradley Laird

Banjo Interviews , Interview

If someone who knew how to speak multiple languages offered some advice as to how to learn one for ourselves, we'd listen. When Bradley Laird (who knows how to play multiple stringed instruments) accepted our interview request, suffice to say we were excited to hear what he had to say. ​is the hub, if you will, for all of Bradley's teaching programs and information. From there you can find links to his Mandolin training, the Banjo course and e-books (including the Clawhammer Banjo), Jam session kits, free Appalachian Dulcimer tabs and lessons, and his Bluegrass Guitar "how to play" guide. 

All told, Bradley has over 70 videos and has 11 books detailing how to get started and improve as a bluegrass and old time music player. ​Much of this impressive collection of knowledge is offered free as well. 

So, what advice did Bradley have for musicians starting out with stringed instruments? What mistakes do most beginners make? What bad advice should you avoid? What is his favorite instrument? Maybe most importantly, which of these questions did he dodge (kinda)! ​

Interview with Bradley Laird

StringVibe: You teach the Banjo, the Clawhammer, the Mandolin, the Guitar, and the Appalachian Dulcimer. Do you have a favorite or is there one you recommend someone looking for an instrument start with?

Bradley: When I got started in this I was about 15 years old and I wanted to play everything! I made my first banjo, borrowed a fiddle, got a mandolin from the J.C. Penney catalog, and we had an old Kay guitar laying around the house. Within a year I had made a dulcimer too! I encourage everyone to try a lot of different instruments. That is the best way to find what they really love. It takes some time and, even if you spend some time trying to play an instrument which you later lay aside, you'll learn a lot in the process. It is similar to dating. I wouldn't suggest that you marry the first gal you meet. You need some experience first.

I do have a favorite instrument but I am not telling. Wouldn't be fair to the other instruments. I wouldn't want to make them feel bad.

StringVibe: What is the biggest mistake you see beginners making when learning to play stringed instruments? What should they do instead?

The biggest mistake is thinking that someone else can teach you to play. I know that may sound odd from a fellow who writes instruction manuals and peddles videos about how to play an instrument. But, the truth is that all teaching is self-teaching. Private lessons, videos, books--all of that wonderful instructional material we are blessed with these days--cannot open the top of your head and pour it into your skull. I wish it were that easy! Instructional material can only demonstrate, advise, explain and perhaps inspire. You, with your instrument in your own hands, will actually will teach yourself. I have always considered that my purpose as a teacher is to teach you to teach yourself. Make sense?

StringVibe: What bad habits or mistakes do you see most often with professional, or very experienced players?

Professional players don't make a lot of technical mistakes. If they did they would have never made it into the ranks of the professionals. If there is one bad habit or mistake that I sometimes witness in "better players" it is too much internal focus. That works to a point for solo performers, but in the bluegrass world (and others), teamwork is the name of the game. It's a lot like baseball in that regard. Helping your team members do well might not bring the spotlight on you but the final score is higher.

I see a lot of really good players who spend too much time staring down at their own hands when they might do well to look at the other players and the audience. Connection with the other musicians and the audiences is what makes good musicians into great musicians. And, in fact, there are some so-so musicians, technically speaking, who win over audiences night after night because they have learned that fundamental reality. Inside the lonely practice room it is okay to completely become engrossed in what you are technically trying to accomplish, but when you hit the stage any performer would do well to connect with the audience.

Good overt examples are Victor Borge and Jethro Burns. Anytime you see a performer wink at the audience or a fellow musician you are seeing it in action. It can be more subtle than that but the connection must exist. That skill is harder than playing an instrument well.

That doesn't mean you have to "ham it up" all of the time. You have to be yourself on stage and there is an important role for "sidemen" in this art form too! Maybe that is your role. But, it is painful to sit through performances by excellent musicians who never acknowledge the audience and, frankly, are probably scared to death to do so.

StringVibe: What advice would you give a beginning musician on a budget trying to decide between free materials and spending on paid courses?

I have written about this on my blog and have been guilty of this myself. There is so much free material on the web these days that it is understandable that people might think that there is something called a "free lunch." The basic problem I see is that, no offense to any beginner, beginners are not in the position to judge the quality of the free material they are enjoying. That may sound harsh but it is similar to shopping for groceries and letting your six year old son make all of the decisions. A more experienced person (mom or dad) will not pick the Super Frosted Pops (or whatever). They will give you the spinach and other things they know are good for you!

I suppose all I would say is free online instruction (mine included) is a good way to get to know the teacher, how that person thinks, and if it seems to be working for you then it is good to plunk down a little green stuff and buy something. There is a feeling of investment when you have coughed up a few bucks and you'll apply yourself more because of it. And you get the nice warm feeling of knowing you are helping to put beans on the table of that guy who was crazy enough to think he could make a humble living teaching others to play music.

StringVibe: Is there a piece of advice that is commonly given to beginners that you feel is bad? What would you say instead?

Oh, there is a lot of bad advice out there! Thinking that you need a really expensive instrument when you start is bad advice. That's just one example of many. I'd rather, with your permission, turn this question around and tell folks what I think is good advice. The best advice. Here it is: Believe in yourself. Trust yourself. If I could sell belief I'd be a millionaire. Little children believe. They think they really are Batman when they run through the house with a towel tied around their neck. Society gradually strangles that sense of imagination out of us and forms us into little obedient rule-followers.

If you can imagine it you can make it happen. It doesn't matter if it is playing a banjo, building a business, raising a family, or any other thing. If you hear a little voice telling you that you can't do it you must slap that pest away and say "Oh, really? Just watch me!" That little voice of doubt is not you. It is a recording of ideas other people have fed you. Ignore it and listen to your own inner voice. Do that and you can do anything.

From his joking about "not wanting to make the other instruments feel bad" to his very interesting metaphor with "Free Lunch" as it pertains to paid courses, that was a very insightful interview! 

Bradley has a ton to offer any budding musician interested in playing Bluegrass style music. Check out his site at to see all of his programs, free lessons and other information!