All Posts By

David Bernard

Less Is More

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I think the fundamental problem is this. The more confident I get with my playing, the more I want show off. I have this narcissistic need to make some kind of grand personal statement when I’m playing. The result generally winds up sounding like crap! Recently I was practicing for a gig with a really talented singer songwriter. Her music is intelligent, powerful and well crafted. When I got home and listened to a recording of our session, I was horrified. I wasn’t playing to her singing at all. I was stomping all over the music. Instead of listening, I was trying to prove that I could play the fiddle. I spent the next two days carefully studying her CDs. I made notes on where to play and more importantly, where not to play. I stuck close to the melody and tried to focused on supporting the singer and song. In great big block letters at the top of the page I wrote “DON’T OVER PLAY”! The result worked. The gig went well. I could tell she was more relaxed, I allowed her talent to really shine and she made us both look good!

“Don’t Over Play”: I think I might just tattoo that to the back of my right hand so every time I bring my bow arm up it’s right in my face.

Strum Machine will make you better faster.

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This is a mind blowingly cool tool for helping you learn how to jam. It’s a play along web based app that has hundreds of different backing tracks for bluegrass and oldtime tunes. Not only can you adjust the time and key, you can also arrange chords in any order you want to produce whatever track you want to play with.

Strum Machine helps you…

  • Develop good timing and rhythm sense
  • Get comfortable playing with another “musician”
  • Practice your tunes and melodies
  • Develop leads and improvisation
  • Have fun “jamming” with guitar backup

For the $5.00 a month subscription price it is well worth it.

Check out Strum Machine here

Strum Machine was created by Luke Abbot who is the force behind Toneway, a really detailed and methodical approach to teaching people how to play old-time and bluegrass music. If you live in or near Santa Cruz you should check this out. They offer all kinds of great lessons and jamming opportunities and the Toneway songbook is one of the most comprehensive collection of old-time and folk tunes you will find.

Check out Toneway here

Learning Fiddle Tunes

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As I’ve written in the How To Learn blog, learning and practicing fiddle tunes is a great way to improve your technique, plus, they are really fun to play. A lot of fiddle tunes are similar in structure and melody so once you learn one, it gets easier to learn others. You’ll start to recognize similar patterns and chord structures. Everybody plays fiddle tunes a little differently. They can be really simple or full of flourishes and fills. You want to find a version that seems manageable. That is usually the one that’s close to the “old-time” version where you get the skeleton of the tune or basic melody. If you listen to a few different versions, you’ll begin to understand what’s important and what is added color. Don’t get overwhelmed when you hear a ripping version with lots of notes. Just cut out the notes you can’t handle. As long as you keep the basic framework of the tune, that’s fine.

I mostly learn fiddle tunes by ear. Or, I’ll use a chart along with a recording so I can hear the correct timing. The Amazing Slow Downer app is an essential tool for me when it comes to learning fiddle tunes or licks from recordings. Youtube is also a really great resource. Any tune you want to find, you will most likely be able to find somewhere on the internet.

About The Capo

Fiddle tunes are generally played using a lot of open strings so that means you will often be using a capo on usually on the second fret. So a G shape chord becomes an A. The C shape chord becomes a D, etc. If you play with a capo, learn what key you’re REALLY in. Don’t say things like, “I’m in C capoed on 2.” The bass player, fiddler, mandolinist, may not know what you’re talking about. Just say, “I’m in D” and everybody will be on the same page.

Here are a few links below to help you get stared learning fiddle tunes.

Old Joe Clark

This is a great place to start. Old Joe Clark is a popular jam tune. It’s in A but it’s got this great old-time, modal quality to it which makes it really fun to jam on.

Here’s a pretty good lesson on how to play back up 

Note for Note. This will give you the basic melody of the song.  

Here’s the definitive version by Doc and Merle  Watson. It does not get much better then this . Players will often combine similar fiddle tunes. In this case they start with Bill Cheatum and go into Old Joe Clark. Listen how they harmonize toward the end. That is super cool.  

Cripple Creek

Here’s a nice, simple version of Cripple Creek. Another classic jam tune.  

Whiskey Before Breakfast

This is a very good lesson on flat picking technique and timing . It’s a note by not run through.  ( He also includes the Lyrics in the comments section which you don’t often hear. The lyrics to Whiskey are really fun )

Whiskey Lesson Note for Note 

Here’s Bryan Sutton playing a very pretty version of Whiskey. This is the kind of video I would convert into an MP3 and import into the Amazing Slow Downer  to learn. ( or pay the dough and sign up for his Academy Of Bluegrass course )

Bryan Sutton on Academy of Bluegrass 

Red Haird Boy

Nice Clean Version 

This funny Banjo Ben dude gives a pretty good analysis of how to approach “attack”. He demonstrates  adding what I call “color”. 

Here’s the definitive lesson. This is the great Tony Rice. 

Billy In the Low Ground

Here’s Tony Rice teaching Billy in The Low Ground. This is a great tune.I love how he finishes this and says, “that was a rather crude version”.   

Soldiers Joy

Here’s that Whacky Banjo Ben again. He’s actually a pretty good teacher. He offers tabs if go to his site. 

This is a pretty notey version but it’s shot really well to show the fingering and he plays it fast then slow.  

Here is a really pretty version by the great David Grier

Angeline the Baker

Here’s a note for note, more beginner version 

Here’s a very cool but technical version from Scott Nygaard

Another very technical and masterful version by David Grier


Guitar Resources

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I once attended a song writing workshop with Darrell Scott and he said something that I found really interesting. He grew up playing in a working, family band. From a very young age he was playing back up guitar on stage every weekend and later, more nights every week. He said that becoming a strong, backup player would later become his most valuable asset as a song writer.

Knowing how to hold the rhythm and support singers is just as important, if not more important, then being able to rip out hot leads. My advice is to spend time on becoming a competent backup player first.

Here are a few helpful places to go to pick up tips for learning good strumming and flat picking technique. I’ll keep adding to this list as I discover new resources and if you find anything you think would be helpful to share, be sure and pass it along to me.


Bryan Sutton  G Run 

Here’s Bryan Sutton’s Academy of Bluegrass course. 

Work On Your Guitar Rhythm

Classic Rhythm Guitar Boom Chicka pattern

Peghead course focusing on flat picking.  Great place to learn technique and tunes 

Basic Flat Pick patterns. This is a nice no-nonsense lesson showing a few basic, very handy patterns.  


About Music Camps

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In the last decade, music camps have sprung up all over the place. From Balkan to Bluegrass, whatever style or instrument you want to pursue, chances are good there’s a camp dedicated to learning it. A lot of music festivals host music camps the week before the festival. Camps can be a blast and a great learning experience. Here are four reasons why I think music camps are worth the time and money.

1. You get to fully immerse yourself in music

Many years ago, after I started playing banjo, I went to The American Banjo camp. I was really nervous about going. I hadn’t played much with other people. Most of my playing was done late at night, with nobody around (my family had banished the banjo from the house by that point). I wasn’t even sure if I could call myself “a real banjo player”. The camp  fixed that in a hurry. I got a lot of great instruction and positive feedback that boosted my confidence level significantly. When I was catching my flight home, I happen to go through security with the legendary Eddie Adcock, who had been teaching at the camp. It was so cool to be hoofing it through the airport, joking with Eddie and both of us packing our banjos. I came home finally feeling like real a banjo player.

2. You get to hang out with real musicians.

To me, people who have spent their whole lives dedicated to learning a craft are wizards. They have magic abilities. They can do things that are impossible for us average mortals to do. To be in close proximity to that magic I find amazing. When you attend a music camp you get to be up close an personal with real masters. You can watch what they do, ask them questions and you get to see what they are like when they are not on-stage; a glimpse of the person who lives behind the wizardry. This really fascinates me. To hear their stories and to learn what it’s like to be a working musician. You also experience how they relate to each other. One of the coolest things for me about the Targhee Music Camp was seeing how much love there was between the musicians. Most of them had worked together for decades. The brilliant, young  fiddle player, Brittany Hass described it to me this way. “I literally grew up with a lot of these people. We are like family and this camp is our reunion”. To be part of that family reunion was pretty special.

Having lunch with Sierra Hull

3. You get to meet your heroes.

I signed up for the Targhee Music Camp for three reasons: Darol Anger, Brittney Hass and Danny Barns. Just to spend a week hanging out with my heroes and meeting the likes of Darrell Scott and Sierra Hull was worth the price of admission. Sierra Hull sang harmony with me on the song Another Night. It never sounded so good, before or since.

4. You get to hear “the secret music”.

One of the amazing instructor jams in the Targhee Bar

I left before the festival started but did not care one bit. I felt like the music I heard at the camp was as good, if not better than what I would have heard at the show. Every night the instructors played together in this little bar. They did solo performances or, they  would assemble different configuration and play whatever they wanted to play in that moment. It was spontaneous, exciting and at times, very moving, ( Glen Cambell past away that week of the camp so they played a wrenchingly beautiful version of Gentle On My Mind). Danny Barns calls this “the secret music”. The stuff that happens between musicians when they are off stage. He says it’s his favorite part of going to festivals:

” The “secret music.” this is really my favorite part. see, there’s all this stuff that artists jam and play around on when no audience is there. it’s a really cool repertoire. that’s the funnest bit for me, the jamming.”


Here are links to some cool camps you might want to check out.


Rocky Grass Academy – End of July

For the week before the RockyGrass festival begins, immerse yourself as an active participant in the world of bluegrass. From small classes with world-class professional musicians, to sessions on group jamming, vocal coaching, songwriting, one-on-one instruction, and a variety of electives including practice techniques, writing instrumentals, accompaniment, improvisation, and music history. Evenings feature band scrambles, BBQs, and plenty of jamming for novice through advanced ability levels. Many Academy students return year after year, creating long-term relationships with fellow musicians from all over the world.


Targhee Music Camp – Mid August

Imagine an afternoon in the Tetons. A head full of new tunes, rubbing elbows with your musical heroes, a community of new friends, outstanding views and great food. Free time to jam, rehearse or hike. Sounds like the prescription for sanity in this crazy world. Sounds like the syllabus for the annual Targhee Music Camp!


Happens in November near Petaluma CA


This camp is for people who like traditional American music: largely bluegrass and oldtime, also often including swing, Celtic, Cajun, and country. All ages are welcome, and core classes are offered in instrume


Spend an inspiring, challenging, and thrilling week with others who share your passion for bluegrass and old-time music! Each August we’re proud to host NimbleFingers Bluegrass and Old-Time Music Workshop in Sorrento, BC—about 5 hours from Vancouver and 7 hours by car from Calgary. Now in our 26th year, we provide a fun, friendly and non-competitive environment for everyone from beginners to advanced players, with ample opportunity for group learning, electives, organized jam sessions, and tons of other spontaneous activities.


This is Joe Craven’s camp that happens end of July in the Sierras. It’s really popular. Fun for families and fills up fast.

RiverTunes ~ Roots Music & Creativity Camp ~ honors traditions and celebrates innovations in Acoustic Roots Music and Creative Living through individual growth and community spirit. Whether you aspire to perform, want to jam with friends, or simply and comfortably share songs with a loved one, our mission and passion is to help you do it!



Lark Camp is legendary. It happens in Mendocino in Late July. It’s a wildly eclectic mix of music and dance workshops.

Imagine idyllic days & nights in the magical redwood forest filled with all the music, dance, and good times you could possibly stand, and that’s kind of close to what Lark Camp World Music & Dance Celebration is like. You are free to take as many or as few of the workshops offered as you like; jam sessions 24 hours a day, big dances every evening. Plenty of good food, new friends, and musical stimulation. Truly a unique total immersion into the joys of nature, music, song and dance. Many workshops for the professional as well as the beginner! An adult and family event.



Spend a long weekend away from everyday life’s toil and cares with nothing to do but learn about the 5-string banjo or fiddle or guitar or . . . from world-famous teachers! ABC features four levels of instruction in bluegrass banjo and four levels of instruction in old-time banjo, as well as a full-time guitar track and a full-time fiddle track!

How To Learn

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Here are a few ideas for how to approach and think about learning an instrument well enough to play music with other people. If you are a younger player who has the time and energy to dedicate more serious study, I’d approach the conversation a little differently. Not to say that the basic ideas I’m suggesting here aren’t relevant, I would just put more emphasis on technical exercises and learning theory. The ideas outlined below aim more toward us somewhat worn out adult learners who need to economize our time and energy when it comes to practice. So let’s start with the one thing that you really can’t do with out.

The Bare Minimum Required .

If you are taking the time to read this, I’m guessing you are already there. In other words, you’ve met the bare minimum required to be able to learn how to play well enough to jam with other people. If you want to learn to jam, you have to have a real interest in learning to play music. It helps if this interest is to a degree one might call a passion or, even better, an obsession. Why? Because becoming a competent musician requires some work. Just like becoming a good golfer or staying in good shape or learning Spanish, if you don’t put in the time, it will never happen. That is the sad truth for us grown-ups. Between job and family duties, who has the time? Late starters like us need to approach music differently than kids or somebody who intends to seriously study music or do what it takes to make it a profession. We need to have a strategy and an attitude toward learning that keeps it accessible and fun.  

Strategies For Keeping It Fun and Staying Motivated

Focus on one thing at a time. 

The process can be frustrating and demoralizing if you feel like you aren’t getting anywhere. If you focus on one goal at a time, you get to experience the feeling of mastery – getting better and growing as a musician. If you choose songs that are too challenging or lessons that are really technical, and playing becomes a drag, you’ll quit. And why shouldn’t you? Why keep doing something if it sucks? You need to keep the process interesting and fulfilling. Here are a couple of suggestions to help with that.  

Learn songs 

Dave B and Doug Dirt on a whale watching boat jam.

Exercises and lessons are great but to what end?  We want to jam, right? If you want to jam you have to know songs. So practice technique by practicing songs. Simple is good, three chords and not so many lyrics you can’t keep them memorized. (That’s why I love Jimmy Martin tunes ). Focus on one song at a time. Play that damn song over and over until it’s ingrained at the cellular level. Even if you don’t feel like you are much of a singer, do it. Make yourself sing it loud and proud. Own it ! The more comfortable and confident you are, the better it sounds. And that confidence will help you grow as a musician. Plus, here’s the really wonderful thing about learning a song. Songs have a beginning middle and end. When you learn a song, you feel like you are getting somewhere and that is essential to keeping the process fun. Finally, when you learn a song, you are building your repertoire for when that time comes and it’s your turn to lead the jam circle. You want to come to the jam armed with songs you have down pat. 

A little everyday goes a long way.   

Just like exercise, you need to do a little everyday to stay in shape. Playing an instrument is a physical endeavor. It requires mind body coordination. Guitar, mandolin, fiddle, banjo, bass, tuba, it doesn’t matter what you play, the process is the same. Repetition is key to learning, clean, smooth, fast, rhythmically strong playing. There are endless resources to help build technique. So much so that it can be overwhelming to figure out where to start. It’s hard to know how and what to practice and if you pick the wrong exercise, it can feel impossible. So here’s my advice for figuring out a practice routine to help build technique and keep the process fun.

    1. Learn to pick a few good fiddle tunes.Why learn fiddle tunes? One, because playing fiddle tunes is fun and two, learning fiddle tunes is a fantastic way to practice. Fiddle tunes function like etudes in classical music. An etude, to quote Wikipedia,  is an “instrumental composition, usually short, of considerable difficulty, and designed to provide practice material for perfecting a particular musical skill”. When you get a fiddle tune ingrained in your fingers and head you begin to instinctively understand chord changes and note intervals as they relate to melody. You learn cool phrases and licks and classic patterns that show up over and over again in countless songs. I have a set series of fiddle tunes that try to  play everyday. If I only have a few minutes to practice, I run through that series of fiddle tunes. First slow and precise and then faster. If I have more time, I play the tune, then play around with improvising around the melody and the chords. If you are a guitar player and you are feeling like you just don’t want to work that hard and you aren’t really interested in learning to pick out solos, you still should practice playing the chords and getting the rhythm down for classic fiddle tunes. Just like learning the melodies, learning the chord changes teaches you classic progressions and turn arounds that are important to know.
    2. Learn to pick out the melody of the song. Remember that song you worked so hard to get down? You now have the melody ingrained in your head so it should be pretty easy to find those notes on your instrument. Play that melody over and over. Once you get it down, try playing around with that melody. Add some notes to it, figure out how to make it sound a little bluesy or rhythmically cool by hammering on or pulling off. Hey, look at you! You are now working out your break. This is what the process of improvising is all about. You are taking the melody and reworking it to make things interesting. Even the fastest, hottest most sophisticated solo, whether it’s Mark O’Connor, Tony Rice or Miles Davis, starts with the melody and moves out from there. So practice picking by finding and playing melodies.
    3. A few notes goes a long way. A one note solo is great as long as it is the right note. It is amazing what you can do with just three or four notes. Try finding four notes in the melody of the song and arrange and rearrange those into different patterns or “licks”. Play around with the rhythm too. Use easily fingered notes: open strings, first and second finger. Keep it comfortable and easy. Anything goes as long as you like the sound you’re getting. If you land on something you really like, remember it and store it in your bag of tricks.

Keep It Simple 

I could keep going and tell you to learn triads and scale patterns and modes all the other stuff which you’ve probably run across online and in books and lessons but my experience is that too much information can just be overwhelming and discouraging if you are are not ready for it. If some aspect of theory is interesting to you and you want to chase it down, fantastic but don’t feel like you need to understand theory and know how to read music in order to become a competent player. The last thing you want to do is have the process of playing be unfulfilling and demoralizing. Use the precious time you have to focus on the basics and stuff you find fun to play.

How To Practice

One man’s car is another man’s practice studio

The more you do it, the better you get. It’s that simple. I’m one of those guys who really loves to practice. It’s a meditation for me. The problem is time. When one is practicing one is generally not spending quality time with others. You know, like wives and children for example. If I find myself alone and free, I can play for hours. ( It is possible to play too much. You can hurt yourself with repetitive motion injuries so be careful )  It’s great to get those long, uninterrupted sessions of practice but you shouldn’t just rely on getting the perfect time and place to make it happen. A little discipline goes a long way. Set up a schedule like you would going to the gym. Even just 15 minutes everyday dedicated to working on your current project, whatever that might be, like attacking a fiddle tune or practicing that song you’ve chosen to work on. “Just do it”.  And what if you can’t ” just do it” ?

Learn By Listening 

If you find yourself having to take off on a business trip without an instrument or your schedule is such that you can’t even get that 15 minutes in, practice by listening. Put a song you want to learn on your phone and listen to it while driving/traveling. I find it really cool to hum a fiddle tune or quietly sing to myself  while looking out a plane window. If I tune the song close to the key of the droning jet engines it gets trippy. Listen carefully to great players and pay attention to their approach to rhythm, how they back up singers, cool breaks they may do in a song. Play when you can play and when you can’t learn by listening.   

The World According To Danny Barnes

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Me with Danny Barnes and Darrell Scott all wearing our “Barns” hats

Lumpy beanpole and dirt.

Don’t get your feelings hurt

Buy me some wine

And some good old turpentine

And get yourself a healthy little squirt”

–Chorus from Lumpy Beanpole and Dirt, Danny Barnes

Many years ago, when I first picked up the banjo, my friend Scotty Cooper gave me a Bad Livers CD and said, “you need to hear this guy”.  The song Little Bitty Town changed my life. Something about Danny Barns’ music resonated with me in a powerful way. I think it has to do with the way he elevates the invisible, forgotten, loser in life to a kind of mythical status. It was Danny Barne’s music that inspired me to start writing my own songs. He made it ok for me to explore my own, sometimes weird view on life.  Danny is a musician’s musician. He is deeply respected, not only for his song writing and masterful banjo playing, but also for the sheer, intellectual intensity he brings to thinking about music. I took a song writing workshop with him and was astounded when he began by saying, in his soft spoken, Texas, good-old-boy drawl ,” I don’t if any of y’all have read anything by the French Deconstructionists, but those guys really were a big influence on me”. I suppose, the pathway from French Deconstructionism to Lumpy Beanpole and Dirt, is clear if you know about such things but I’m sure Danny would be the first to say, “who cares”?

If you are a banjo player, I strongly recommend signing up for Danny Barnes’ Peghead Nation course. Even if you are not a banjo player, I would watch the Peghead intro video and go check out his website. You will learn a lot.

Danny’s Barnes Peghead Nation Intro Video 

Danny Barnes website 

Here’s a live version of Little Bitty Town. It pretty much sums it all up.  

And finally, here is a very entertaining story about the real life character that inspired the song Turpentine Willie.  This will give a little insight into where Danny comes from.   Click Here 

How To Sing With Others

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Here is an incredibly entertaining and instructive lesson in harmony singing from three masters who have been singing together for a long time.  Singer-song writers Aoife O’Donovan and Sarah Jarosz join virtuoso mandolinist, singer, and composer Chris Thile of Punch Brothers for How to Sing with Others, an open master class and workshop on vocal and string performance.

Click Here to Watch The Video