Bluegrass College is a new and exciting website designed to help those learning to play bluegrass. It offers lessons for mandolin, guitar, fiddle, banjo, dobro and double bass. Lessons are provided by some of the best musicians of the genre and come in the form of songs and tunes, with tabs, mp3s and videos provided for each individual instrument. Not only that, but the tunes are presented in various ways – three different speeds, beginner and advanced versions, and audio with solo instrument and full band.
This means that almost everybody can gain something from the vast lesson library available on the site, and even advanced pickers can learn a thing or two. We spoke to fiddler Brian Wicklund about the site, how it came about and the plans for the future.
The site was born at the British bluegrass camp, Sore Fingers, where Brian was teaching fiddle. “I was waiting in the breakfast queue with Ian Nicholls who was one of my students from bluegrass fiddle class,” says Brian. “I was asking him if he had ideas of how to better use the internet to teach bluegrass. His eyes brightened and he said he had been thinking about the very same thing for some time. He commented on the difficulty of getting good instruction in places like the UK which are far from the heart of bluegrass. It was out of this discussion that we dreamed up Bluegrass College.”
Brian and Ian joined forces with Andy Metcalfe, who was also at Sore Fingers studying guitar, and Peter Earle, a friend of Ian’s, to make the site a reality. They all bring their own talents and skills to the project. “Andy has experience in engineering and producing recordings and Peter is an IT specialist,” says Brian. “Andy, Peter and Ian all have extensive musical training and performing experience and have been smitten with bluegrass. They’ve been studying the music with a passion. All four of us partners have been enjoying having access to this great resource ourselves.”
Brian is an expert fiddler and teacher now, but his early days of playing were somewhat of a struggle. “I grew up outside of the inner circle of bluegrass,” he says. “Minnesota is about 800 miles from Nashville. There weren’t many pickers in my area when I was young. Without an instructor, I labored over old recordings for many many hours trying to figure out the bluegrass masters’ licks. Often after a great deal of work I was able to figure them out, but sometimes they were just too difficult to hear.” He is sure that the methods used by Bluegrass College will make learning much easier for budding musicians. “The lessons cover all of the bases with slowed down recordings, transcriptions and video,” he says. “Not only can you read what the master played, but you can practice along at a comfortable speed. You can also watch the musician play the tune on video and absorb the subtleties of their technique. Had a resource like this been available to me, I’d have progressed at a much faster rate.”
Brian insists that the site is not just a tool for beginners. “There is something for every player,” he tells us. “A number of my intermediate students are members. It has been really fun to watch them grow musically. They learn the easier version of a tune and learn to play it at all speeds. Then they learn the advanced version and learn it at all tempos. Then I encourage them to personalize the way they play the tune and use ideas they learn from both versions.”
Bluegrass will always be a minority interest, but the College seems to be doing well. “Membership is continuing to grow. We started up the company with all four of us using our own money to pay start up expenses such as the considerable recording costs to develop our lesson library. We didn’t really have anything left for marketing! However, even without much advertising, we are amazed how well it’s catching on just by word of mouth. We have had wonderful feedback from members all over the world.”
It’s not just the students who are benefitting from the site. Some of bluegrass’ most famous names have been asked to contribute and many are more than eager to help. Tuition from the likes of Rob Ickes, Butch Baldassari, Casey Driessen, Tim Stafford and the entire line-up of The Infamous Stringdusters is available. “Many of the instructors that we feature have been just as excited about the site as we are,” Brian tells us. “They’ve put together really thoughtful arrangements and haven’t held back on the advanced versions. They also done a good job of getting the word out to their students and fans. We have had numerous requests from musicians to be included on our instructional roster.”
Brian says the College will continue to grow and develop in new directions. This month the site introduced a new music theory lesson, something that was often requested by subscribers. Brian says that further developments are in the pipeline. “We plan on continuing to expand our library with new tunes and instruction. We’d like to include more tips from the instructors and a forum for our members and we will add new instructors to our roster.”