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

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!

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”.​

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!​

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.”​

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!