JEFFERSON — Pickers and fiddlers of all skill levels gathered at Ashe County Park for a two-day jamming workshop before the start of the 50th annual Ashe County Bluegrass and Old Time Fiddlers Convention on Friday, July 26.
The jamming workshop brought people from across the state together for a chance to familiarize themselves with the fundamentals of bluegrass. Gilbert Nelson, who teaches the workshop along with his wife, Leigh, uses the Wernick Method to introduce beginning players to bluegrass jamming structure.
“There is a basic box in which we place ourselves, and within that box, we can dance a hundred different ways,” Gilbert Nelson said. “These guys are learning what the box’s shape is like.”
Leigh Nelson said the only requirements for the workshop are an instrument and the understanding of the essential bluegrass chords — G, C, D and A. From there, participants get hands-on experience with how those chords fit into the basic box described by Gilbert Nelson, and then can start trying their hand at soloing.
“They’re learning from one another, they’re watching each other make mistakes, hopefully learning from the other guy — hopefully getting better and better the whole time,” Gilbert Nelson said.
Fiddlers, guitarists, bassists and banjo pickers all attended the workshop looking to gain a better understanding of how their instruments fit into a bluegrass jam. Gilbert and Leigh Nelson are both multi-instrumentalists, which they said allows them to provide helpful tips and tricks for all participants.
Chris Tester, one of the participants in the two-day workshop, said he has been playing guitar for a few years, but never had the chance to jam with a group of people until attending the workshop.
“I’m having a blast, and I’m able to follow along,” Tester said. “Just playing chords, learning the songs and singing a little bit is really fulfilling to me.”
As a part of the Wernick Method, Gilbert Nelson said the workshop focuses on simple songs, only consisting of two or three chords at a comfortable tempo, so players can get a feel for how they fit into the jam session.
“The idea is to give people the tools they need — the clues they need — to participate meaningfully with others, making music extemporaneously without the benefit of preparation or a written score,” Gilbert Nelson said.
Kelly Cole, who has been playing banjo for more than 40 years, said that he attended the workshop to hone his jamming skills.
“They don’t teach you how to play your instrument — they teach you how to play with others,” Cole said. “That’s an important skill.”
Cole added that another reason he signed up for the workshop was to network with other musicians in the area in hopes of finding other people to jam with in the future.
“Most of all, it’s just fun,” Cole said.
Gilbert and Leigh Nelson have been traveling across the country for eight years teaching bluegrass workshops, from New Mexico to South Carolina. This year marked their first visit to Ashe County, with a total of 13 people signing up for the workshop.
“We love people,” Leigh Nelson said. “We love seeing people excel, and we want to keep the bluegrass tradition alive.”