Bluegrass and Old Time Music Lessons with Bradley Laird

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. 

BradleyLaird.com ​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.

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?

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.

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.

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 BradleyLaird.com to see all of his programs, free lessons and other information!