Updated: Aug 25
I didn’t grow up around bluegrass and country music. I came to love it in college while studying music education and had to develop quick, efficient, ways of learning the repertoire as an outsider.
Here are some of the resources that have helped me along the way:
Pete Wernick, Banjo player of Hot Rize, is a fierce advocate for getting people together to jam. He put together a free playlist of OVER 100 tunes that he believes are great for Bluegrass Jamming.
It's an incredible resource that is easy to take for granted- I'm the first to admit it! I've made my way through about 50 of them, and want to spend some time with them all.
This playlist is a great accompaniment to the JAM Songbook by Pete Wernick and Liam Purcell which is available in print OR PDF. The book is chock full of easy 2 and 3 chord songs that are labeled by the Number System so that they can be easily transposed.
A common pitfall of many song books is that the songs are written in specific keys- often they way they were recorded (by high male tenor voices) This makes it harder to sing if you don’t fit that voice type (low/middle ranged male voice or middle/high range female voice).
The JAM Songbook is a finely-tuned resource for any bluegrass education program, and our bulk pricing ($5/copy for orders of 5 or more books) makes it cost-effective for them, especially compared to the effort and expense of developing and printing their own handouts.
Along with 39 bluegrass songs in the largest possible print, there’s useful instructional material (chord diagrams for all instruments, jamming guidance, an explanation of the number system, and a simple transposing chart.
Online playlists for all songs in the book (live video and audio), allow students to learn the songs by ear – a rare and helpful feature. No music reading needed to learn the songs!
Chords are shown in numbers only, allowing students to choose their best singing key and to get familiar with the number system.
Photos of kids in the JAM program jamming are seen throughout the book.
My co-writer Liam Purcell, from Deep Gap, NC, got his musical start in the JAM program at age 6, and is now a bandleader and multi-instrumentalist on scholarship at Berklee College of Music – and a recent winner of IBMA Momentum awards!
The book contains plugs and descriptions of both JAM and the Wernick Method. The book’s circulation helps publicize both programs.
Attend Jams and Join your Local Bluegrass Organizations
I went to every jam I could when I was first learning- slow or fast, there was always something I could learn. Take notes, or add songs that you hear to a personal playlist in real time, then listen to those songs on the way home or on the way to the next jam.
The best way to find a jam is to Join your Local Bluegrass Organization and see if they have public jams listed, or contact the organization and let them know you are interested. Don’t have a local bluegrass organization- maybe you could start one! I noticed that every state around me had one but mine, so I created the Connecticut Bluegrass Association to help connect people!
Can't find people to jam? - Check out Pete Wernick's suggestions for finding people near you who play bluegrass. One interesting suggestion is to "wear bluegrass clothing" so that folks out in public can identify one another.
Bluegrass Jamming Basics is a great resource for learning about the etiquette of a jam.
Jam Skills Checklist can give you a sense of whether you are properly prepared for a jam
List of Two Chord Songs can give you songs that are sure to be successful in a jam. Pro tip: It’s better to start with simple, easy to follow, songs, rather than complex ones, even if they are your favorite and you know them really well - it will be more fun if people can follow you!
Learn to Read Guitar Chords - Every other instrument can play chords in a variety of ways- so watching the guitar player can be an easy, quick way to learn a song on the spot.
Three Approaches to taking a solo - Having a prepared solo in your favorite key is one thing, but you will find more often than not the need to "fake" a solo on a tune that maybe you've never heard before or a key you haven't practiced it in.
Vocal Harmony Tips Ever wonder how great harmony singers seem to effortlessly find that “missing note” and blend so perfectly in a group? You'll find tips and tricks here.
Here's an 360 interactive video that you can use to see a live bluegrass jam in action. Click and drag the screen to watch different solos/nonverbal cues.
Having a prepared solo in your favorite key is one thing, but you will find more often than not the need to "fake" a solo on a tune that maybe you've never heard before or a key you haven't practiced it in.
What do we do in those moments? I recently gave some feedback to a student of mine who learned and executed a FANTASTIC solo on a Bluegrass standard. I told him that it sounds great - the next step was to work on transposing and “mining” that solo for licks that can easily be reproduced in other keys. Here is a snip it of my feedback to this student:
"Transposing is a lot more common in bluegrass than in old-time or celtic music because of the vocal element- each singer will choose a key that's best for them.
A lot of these quite elaborate breaks were PLANNED for the recording or group that the fiddle player was with (You'll hear many musicians pretty much hitting the same notes as in the recording in live settings)
This doesn't transfer well to a bluegrass JAM setting where the tune might just as well be called in B or G...
The big takeaway is that if you don't have a regular group of people to play with, its good to spend a lot of time transposing and working on flexibility"
In my Wernick Method Bluegrass Jam Classes, I talk about three “Levels” of soloing
Level 1: Chord Tone based soloing
Also called a “Placeholder solo”, this method can be used even if you don’t know anything about the melody.
The strategy here is to lock in to the guitar player’s left hand, watch for the chord changes, and play chord tones that match what you see. (Root, third, and Fifth are the safest) This is where practicing arpeggios come in handy!
Level 2: Licks Based Soloing
This is a very common approach that many players use in jams where they are unfamiliar with the song that is being played. The same strategy of locking in to the guitar players left hand apply here. Watch the chord changes, but explore outside of chord tones.
Level 3: Melody Based Soloing/Embellishment
Most players want to quote the melody in some way. If you are familiar with the song, or train your ear to pick up melodies quickly, you will want to “nod” to the melody or base your solo off this.
The best way to pick up melodies more quickly is to… well…. Learn a bunch of melodies! But don’t forget to Transpose them so that you are prepared if the song is called in a different key. The more melodies you learn, the quicker you will develop pattern recognition, which is the key to quick learning.
Looking for instrument-specific Resources?
Learn the fundamentals of bluegrass fiddling as well as advanced concepts/transcriptions from famous players like Bobby Hicks
Bluegrass Rhythm Guitar Lesson: How is it different from Country, Rock, and Folk? Basics of strumming pattern, chords, and the "Do's and Don'ts" of playing. G, D, C, Chord voicing included. Bluegrass Guitar Lesson using examples from "I'll Fly Away" Strategies for not just finding the notes, but also the TIMING/Counting of common Bass line runs in your Bluegrass Rhythm Guitar Playing How to add variety to the boom-chuck rhythm pattern in a way that is exciting and tasteful.
Lessons on Double Stops, Scales, How to Take a Solo on the Mandolin
Singing, Ear Training, and other Fundamentals