Branching Out On the Banjo

Published Reviews

FIVE STRING QUARTERLY
Fall 1995

Pete Wernick has a guiding philosophy when choosing what to play: “It must sound good and be easy to play.” Thus, while developing licks by combining uncommon rolls and left-hand formations, none should leave you reaching for the “deep-heat” rub. This well-produced two-tape set, therefore, is appropriate for intermediate level players, even though much of the material will have you sounding like an advanced player.

Wernick covers a little non-threatening music theory as a foundation for his presentation of left-hand formations. He separates left and right-hand tasks nicely — when working on new left-hand patterns he uses standard right-hand patterns and vice versa. The well done split-screen camera work allows you to easily see what each hand does (especially when dampening with the left-hand).

If you are familiar with the “three basic moveable chord shapes,” you may want to skip the first 35 minutes or so. If not, pay close attention as it is the basis for everything to come.

Vol. 2 is a continuation of Vol. 1 with the following differences: Vol. 1 provides a groundwork of basic music theory and terminology. For the most part, popular bluegrass tunes are used as examples; Vol.2 assumes you understand the terminology and details many specific Hot Rize breaks. For these reasons, the delivery is a bit quicker in Vol. 2.

Pete does a nice job of identifying his source of licks (i.e. “a Floyd Cramer piano-style lick”). Especially nice is the way he takes a unique roll (moving the middle finger to and from string 2) and combines it with non-standard left-hand forms (F6-C9-G7 in “Back Up And Push”) to create a simple, yet interesting phrase.

All in all, Pete delivers a lot of great material in a comfortable easy-to-follow format. If you are an intermediate ready to “branch out,” start with Vol.1. Fans of Hot Rize who are experienced pickers may want to dive right in with Vol. 2.


Banjo Newsletter
October 1995

Branching Out On Bluegrass Banjo, Volumes One and Two. Homespun Video

by Wayne Shrubsall

Peter Wernick has been in the instruction business now for over twenty years, teaching banjo while performing with various groups such as the late great Hot Rize. That’s no news. Nor is this tape, which has been out now for some three years and is one of Homespun’s top selling video series. I should have reviewed it when I got it, but that’s another matter that I hope this review will correct.

The success of this tape should come as no surprise to banjo enthusiasts. Wernick’s banjo-teaching has been exemplary for all of us, in part because his interest in the form called bluegrass (and music in general) is really a passion. Though Hot Rize has disbanded, Wernick continues to perform with his wife Joan in a Colorado-area duo format, and he appears with other musicians as opportunities avail. Lately he has assembled an eclectic band called Flexigrass which features clarinet and xylophone among other non-bluegrass instruments. Though it will not appeal to hidebound bluegrass fanatics, Flexigrass is a good sounding aggregate.

Enough update. The tapes themselves are filled with valuable information which is augmented by well-designed tablatures which do a good deal of work. At times, Wernick refers the viewer to the tabs rather than elaborating on each note of certain banjo solos; at other times the selections (back-up, fillers, and so-los) are explained to the viewer in painstaking detail. This variety of approach adds to the appeal and value of these tapes as instructional devices. In addition, the tabs employ a unique chord fingering system which uses geometric shapes to represent fingers on the left hand. Once learned, this system cuts down on the interpreting time one must spend in figuring out the chords: this is important, as working with chords is integral in this series.

When one thinks of Scruggs style harmonic structure, one thinks of the seventh and sixth chords as things which are vamped (Wernick calls this “chunking”) or as the basis for back-up and solo rolls. Wernick explains these as significant features of the bluegrass sound. But then he does what an individual artist must do: he adds his approach to banjo harmony, chording, and rolls. Wer-nick’s approach to rolls and harmony may be characterized by two factors: The forward and back right hand roll (Thumb– index–middle– thumb– middle index– thumb-middle), and the use of the ninth chord. Both of these create the dis-tinctive Wernick sound, and their use comes up again and again on this tape. This is not to suggest that the tape is only a dissertation on How Pete Plays. There is plenty of material derived from Scruggs style (including the fine Foggy Mountain Special which I teach students as a means of mastering backup in higher neck positions) and others (notably Bill Emerson’s Theme Time,) presented as a way into learning chord positions up the neck. Nevertheless, the ninth chord is the factor which most distinguishes Wernick’s playing, for not many straight-ahead bluegrass performers use it–at least not to the extent that Wernick does.

What you will like is the section on basic music theory. This section is easy to follow and put into practice, more so than other similar video and print efforts I have seen. The student will also receive good advice and illustration for using passing tones, walking the chord, converting slow to fast back-up, exploring the fingerboard to create solos and fills, employing what Wernick calls “the big tree of licks,” forming two- and three-finger left-hand formations for fills, playing in C and other keys (notably D) without capo, learning to be a tasteful banjoist (this is no oxymoron, fo1ks!), and playing in the key of D out of a modified (3 tuning (the fifth string is tuned to F (a strategy not enough banjoists use).

One thing which characterizes the whole tape is Wernick’s three rules for good musical ideas: they must sound good, be fresh ideas, and be easy to play. The last factor is the main selling point of this tape. Naturally, determining what is easy to play will vary from musician to musician, but I think Wernick can claim that he has succeeded in showing a variety of licks and techniques which are indeed easy to play–once one has approached them with the idea of disciplined practice in mind, which Wernick emphasizes. As for the fresh ideas, the basics are provided, and you are given the opportunity to employ them as you like. Wernick’s fresh approach. as I said above, is his use of the unusual ninth chord in his material.

While the first tape emphasizes theory, fills, chording, and backup, the second shows one how to play a variety of solos, at least six of which Wernick created himself. In performing these, Wemick analyzes how he came to create them, and how they fit his three rules, thus applying the information provided on tape one. Wernick’s earnest and supportive tutorial tone is seasoned with fine examples of his deadpan, dry wit. This is climaxed by a surprising comic ending to tape two. Not many tutorials are willing to have a little self-deprecating fun.

You have a choice: you can attend Wernick’s banjo camp or buy these tapes. The tapes will save you some money, and they are effective. Nothing completely replaces a flesh-and-blood teacher, but these tapes come mighty close. It’s a good course, well worth the cost of admission. My standard of assessing the value of instructional material is to figure that the cost of a series must equate at least to what individual lessons covering the same material would cost. With that formula in mind, I figure that these tapes are a clear bargain.