Saturday, December 19, 2009

Christmas Time's A Comin'

Here's an old Bill Monroe Christmas hit, written by Tex Logan. I made my own arrangement based on several I have heard. In the vocal version there is an extra half-bar of B in the middle section which is often left out when playing breaks or doing an instrumental version (I guess for obvious reasons), so I left it out too. I've embedded Bill's version below too so you can see how the full thing works out. Here's the tab for my version.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Jingle Bells

Here is my arrangement of Jingle Bells, you can download the tab here. Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Mandolin Sound Bad? Could Be Good News

A few weeks ago I was doing some recording and I started to notice there were some things I really didn't like about how my mandolin sounded. I wondered what the cause was. After all, I used to like the way it sounded, so what had changed? I thought at first maybe it was a setup issue, but couldn't find a real problem there. Maybe it was the way I was playing, or maybe I just needed a better mandolin? Fortunately, as you may know I've been doing quite a lot of recording, so I was able to go back and listen to recordings I made at a time when I felt quite satisfied with this mandolin's sound. Now I didn't really like the tone on those older recordings either.

I started to realize then that it was my ears that had changed. Gradually over the next couple of weeks I began to find my pick grip evolved very subtly, and without really consciously trying to do it, I was improving the tone and making it fit more closely to what I wanted to hear. I guess subconsciously I gradually fixed the problem, because it sounds a lot better to me now on new recordings, while I still don't like the sound on the older recordings.

So, if you notice your mandolin doesn't sound quite how you want it to, it could be a sign that you're about to make an improvement. It's an optimistic way of looking at it, at least.

Note: do bear in mind that in some cases if your mando sounds wrong it could well be a setup issue - I have found I usually need to make minor setup adjustments every 6 months or so. If you're handy you can do a lot of this yourself, but if you have any doubts at all, always take it to a luthier. Oh, or it might just be time for some new strings.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Old Joe Clark

Here's that old warhorse fiddle tune, Old Joe Clark. It's another one in the key of A.

And here is the tab for most of what I play in the video.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Three Things To Try With Your Metronome

If you haven't done these things before try them. They may be painful or unpleasant at first, but they are not really hard and will make you a better musician.

1. Try setting your metronome to tock on the 2nd and 4th beats of the bar instead of the 1st and 3rd while you play a tune you know well. If you've never done it before, it might be hard, but do it slowly and try it for a while. It gets easier, and your rhythm and timing get better. (Note: this isn't really a metronome setting, your head has to do the trick.)

2. Try just playing rhythm chops along with your metronome with the beat on the 1 and 3 or the 2 and 4. Try switching between the two.

3. Before you play a fiddle tune or try an improvisation, play the chords along with the metronome on the mandolin. Make sure you know the chords and then try to play the tune or the improvisation along with the chords in your head. Think of the chords while you play the melody or improvise. Keep the metronome going.

If you're interested in rhythm and timing and have 25 bucks, you could get John McGann's Rhythm Tune Up DVD. He also has a range of more advanced material if you're interested.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Improvising on Fiddle Tunes in A

A lot of fiddle tunes are like Kitchen Girl in that the first half starts with A major, and then goes to the G so you get a kind of myxolidian modal sound, and then in the second half they start in A minor and also go to G and other chords which I think makes them have a dorian modal sound. And then also in each part you can play pretty much straight A or A minor and G scales over the appropriate chords, plus you can play A blues scales over everything. All around there are a lot of options for improvisation - here's me messing around with some of those ideas over the chords to Cattle In The Cane, another very similar tune. You can probably hear shades of Cold Frosty Morning and Jerusalem Ridge in here too.

and here's the actual Cattle in the Cane, which I learned from the Bluegrass 95 CD:

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Kitchen Girl in AEAE Tuning

Here's a new way to play fiddle tunes in A that is surprisingly easy to do. I've only just started so I'm no expert, but tuning your two bass strings up a tone to A and E means you can play a lot more open strings on A tunes, which sounds nice. Some people call it cross tuning or sawmill tuning. Also because the tuning is that same as the top two strings just an octave lower, you can use the same scale patterns you use on the top two on the lower two, so it's very easy.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

This Is A Great Age To Be A Mandolinist

Or frankly any kind of musician. Never before was it possible to go online or onto iTunes and buy just about any tune you wanted. And then to get hold of a piece of software like Transcribe! or any of a dozen other applications that allow you, for little or no money, to play along with the finest musicians in the world on any tune you want to play at any speed you want to play it.

If you are not doing this yet, you are really missing out - start today.

Note that although a lot of music on iTunes is not copy protected, some of it is, but in that case you just need to burn it onto CD in order to be able to slow it down with the software of your choice. A lot of people use Audacity, which is free. But really, pay these developers, it's so little for creating such a world.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Kitchen Girl

Here's a tricky little tune that has a lot in common with other fiddle tunes like The Growling Old Man and the Grumbling Old Woman, and also reminds me a little of Jerusalem Ridge because of all the A minor possibilities.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Speed 2

The more I work on this and think about it, although it does seem to help a little to develop speed technique by working on things I can play well at high speed, it's counterproductive for more difficult material, which I have to play slowly until I have the technique down smoothly enough. So I think to expand a little on what I said in my first speed post, what I'll try to work on now is bringing up speed only in things I can play very easily, and keeping it very slow on anything more difficult.

It's more like an iterative process - working on a tune at speed shows me where the problems are, slowing it down lets me try to solve them. Speeding it back up again tests my solution.

Monday, November 9, 2009


You often hear the advice that playing something slowly is the key to being able to play it fast. I would certainly agree that if you cannot play a tune well slowly you will not be able to play it fast, so sorting out all of the difficulties of playing a particular piece and really getting it down at slow speed is a prerequisite of playing it fast.

But having done all that does not mean you will then be able to get up on stage and blaze that song at 150bpm. Even if you have worked on it at slower speeds for months, or years.

The problem is that in order for the advice about playing things slowly to be true you already have to be capable of playing at high speeds. I believe that's why you will quite often hear professionals recommend this 'play it slow first' method - they know it works for them. And it does, because they already have the technique they need to play fast.

So, at the moment I can play pretty well up to about 110 to 120bpm. By that I mean I'm able to play a lot of tunes cleanly and be fairly comfortable improvising up to that speed. But a lot of bluegrass songs are played at speeds of 135 to 155 bpm, and banjo instrumentals may go even higher. Bill Monroe played Rawhide up to about 195bpm when he was in the right mood.

So I guess my next project is to figure out a way to bring what I can do at 110bpm up to 130bpm speeds. My assumption is that the more time I spend playing well at speeds above 120bpm, the more likely I will be to achieve my goal. So in the hopes of tackling this, I'm going to work over some fiddle tunes I know pretty well, and see if I can get them all up to about 130bpm. I'm also going to try pushing my technique exercises up to those speeds and see if that helps.

Just to be clear what I'm intending here, it's not that I can't play at all at these speeds, just that I don't have the kind of control over tone and rhythm up there that I do at slower speeds. Here's an example

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Temperance Reel

Here's my version of Temperance Reel, with some stabs at improvisation. They don't all work but you get the general idea.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Conservation of Energy

I've been putting in a lot of work to try to develop my mandolin skills this year, and I've noticed a couple of key improvements. Recently I've been noticing that my left hand fingers don't gallop about the fretboard quite like they used to - they move much more quietly and calmly from place to place, in what I think of as an orderly fashion. This makes it easier to play faster and it also makes playing itself much less effort, and more enjoyable. I am able to use less downforce on the string too.

I've also noticed my right hand developing the ability to get more sound out of the string with less force, which also contributes to an increase in speed as well as improved tone.

I think the specific exercises that have got me this far are the ones on Mike Marshall's Mandolin Fundamentals DVD, but also the work I've put in on learning breaks by famous players and new arrangements of fiddle tunes has helped a lot too. I still have a long way to go, but it's encouraging to see progress.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Frost Bite - secret CD alert

The other day I was looking for the lyrics to the wonderful song Molly, which you can see here performed brilliantly by the Deer Creek Boys (its a .wmv file which you have to download I'm afraid, but it is worth it). I happened to recall that Wyatt Rice recorded this, I believe the song was written by Tim Massey.

Anyway, while I was on Wyatt's site, I noticed this new CD featuring Adam Steffey on mandolin that I had never heard of. I bought it on iTunes and it's just great, it's well worth the price of entry just to hear Steffey playing Wheel Hoss. The CD is called Frost Bite by Dan Menzone, who is a great banjo picker. It also features Rickie Simpkins, Rob Ickes, Wyatt Rice and others.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Paddy On The Turnpike

There are all kinds of bluegrass-style ways to play this tune, here's mine. Just about everyone has a go at this tune some time. Oh, new strings, that's weird.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Zombieland to Mandoland

In Zombieland, Columbus has 32 rules to avoid a typical horror movie death. I think most of these rules apply to Mandoland as well, especially when the time comes to go and stage, and you have to nut up or shut up. I'm only going to allow actual rules from the movie here, so of course many are missing that you can fill in.

Rule 1: Cardio. Practice. A lot.

Rule 2: Doubletap. Always end your break clean, and end the song clean.

Rule 3: Beware of Bathrooms. Avoid getting stuck in any small space where you're not developing your talents.

Rule 4: Seatbelts. You should always take sensible precautions, such as having your set list, making sure you have a spare set of strings, and anything else you will need on stage.

Rule 7: Travel Light. Don't do more than you need to. Never take an octave mandolin to a ukulele gig. Don't take a Chris Thile concerto to a Carter Family gig.

Rule 17: Don't Be A Hero. It's just not worth it. Play what you can play well, save the rest for your practice room. But when the time comes and you're ready, of course, go ahead and be a hero.

Rule 18: Limber Up. It's what the warm-up room is for.

Rule 22: When In Doubt, Know Your Way Out. When you start going into an improvisation, you should always have an exit strategy or fallback position in case it doesn't work out.

Rule 31: Check The Back Seat. Expect the unexpected. Be ready for when your buddy suddenly plays the wrong chords, the mics cut out, your strings break, etc. etc.

Rule 32: Enjoy The Little Things. Because that's all there is.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Wolf Is At The Door

Here's another tab with a canine theme again from Rambler's Choice's Blue Side of the Blue Ridge CD. This time it's in B, and it's a fairly straight ahead break. I think it demonstrates nicely how to create some interest and variety while keeping mostly around the same position on the fretboard. It contains a lot of the classic staple stuff you need to play in B.

Tab for The Wolf Is At The Door.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

You Let The Dog Off The Chain

Here's the whole break I was talking about in the post about the B to E lick. Here's the tab. This is from the Junior Sisk and Rambler's Choice CD Blue Side of the Blue Ridge. This isn't one of those masterpiece solos, it just demonstrates some good options and first position scales for the key of E, and although it presents a couple of small challenges, you don't have to be Chris Thile to play it.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Shady Grove

Here's a version of Shady Grove. I changed the chords a bit to make it more blues-y. See what you think.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

John Diamond's mandolin videos

It's well worth taking a look at John Diamond's channel on YouTube, where he goes by the name of dukeofearlbanjo. He's got some great new mandolin videos posted, mostly covering a monroe-style approach. He also has some excellent material on other bluegrass instruments, and some of his original songs posted. I believe he has had songs recorded by Spring Creek.

He also has a collection of banjo fingerpicks - until I saw his videos I did not even know people collected them. It turns out that certain ones will fetch a high price, so don't throw them out until you've checked, banjo pickers!

Midnight On The Water

Here's a version I did of this old time song by Luke Thomasson for the Mandolin Cafe group. My version is based on Butch Baldassari's from his CD "A Day In The Country".

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Useful Lick - B to E

Here's a great little lick that takes you from B to E very nicely (for songs in the key of E) and will spice up the end of any break. You can take it down one string and it will lead from E to A in the key of A, and move it around a bit to make it fit in G, C or D and all the other keys. Work it up until you can play it at a good speed like 110 or 115 bpm, then slot it in your next improvised break. It has a great rhythm and feel.

You can hear this played on "You Let The Dog Off The Chain" on Junior Sisk and Rambler's Choice's CD Blue Side Of The Blue Ridge. I believe the mandolinist on that album was Chris Harris. Maybe the lick sounds like a little dog barking - that's a good way to remember it.

It's very tempting to use too much left hand finger pressure when playing a lick like this - avoid it at all costs, it hurts your fingers and makes it too hard to play the slides. I've found it worthwhile finding and practicing the minimum pressure I need to make the notes ring out, but not sound clipped or whispery. It takes me a lot of practice.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Albino Skunk Bluegrass Festival

I went to the Albino Skunk Bluegrass Festival in Greer, SC this weekend, and it exceeded my expectations. I used to have quite a romantic idea of what a bluegrass festival was like, until I started going to a few, but the ASBF really took me back to what I hoped it was all going to be about.

We couldn't leave town until late on Friday, we got there just before 9pm. It was dark and raining and the parking lot was a muddy field - but no so bad that I couldn't park pretty easily. We walked down the hill and between a stand of bamboo and some trees we could see fires lit and smoking in the rain. I'm not good at estimating crowds, but there were probably about 100 people around the stage and several dozen more hanging out under cover. People were camping in tents nearby, and everyone had brought their kids and their dogs. The band I really came all that way to see, the Infamous Stringdusters, came on at 9pm. Even though there was no cover near the stage I had to go down there and stand in the pouring rain to hear them along with all the other folks. The Stringdusters were excited to be there - they are all excellent musicians in their own right, but they work together so well. Jesse Cobb on Mandolin, Andy Falco on guitar, I don't think I should need to say more. Jeremy Garret's fiddle work is totally distinctive and right on. They created a great atmosphere, and that along with the falling rain, the bonfires, and the excitement of the fans made it well worth the trip just for that set. I suppose you might see a better bluegrass band in your lifetime, but the odds are not in your favor.

We stayed the following day, and saw the Steep Canyon Rangers (just off their tour with Steve Martin), Junior Sisk and Rambler's Choice (awesome straight ahead bluegrass), and Town Mountain (well worth checking out), among an assortment of other bands - a few with electric instruments and doing country or roots type music rather than strict bluegrass, but the mix was enjoyable.

If you were only ever going to go to one bluegrass festival, then you know I think I would make it the Albino Skunk. You couldn't really do better. It was kind of rainy and kind of cold, but it just added to the great atmosphere. The crowd was enthusiastic and well behaved, and it didn't hurt that you are allowed to bring your own cooler filled with whatever makes you happy for the show. The only thing that was missing was some off-stage jamming, I hope the organizers will do more to encourage that in future. Maybe next year...

Rambler's Choice

Steep Canyon Rangers

Town Mountain

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Up In The Woods

Here's a new tune I'm working on. This is from John Reischman's CD of the same name from 1999. It's a collection of bluegrass instrumentals that are not so blazingly fast and tricky, with slower tempos and more emphasis on tone and dynamics. Although instantly appealing, the collection doesn't set the world on fire, but it certainly repays some careful study. I'm going to try to do my own version of the song, but in the meantime here's the tab for Up In The Woods. It's still not quite perfect but I think it's closer to the CD version than any other tab I could find out there.

Here's me trying to play it:

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Rights Of Man

Here's a great little tune that I learned for the Mandolin Cafe Song A Week group - if you're into celtic music this tune will be old news to you but it's new to me. What I play is similar to the tab on mandozine, with a few differences and an improvised middle section. Here are the chords, which are just what I made up:

A part
|: Em / Em / Am / Bm /
Em / Em / Am Bm Em / :|

B part
|: Em / Em / Am / Bm /
Em D G Bm Em Bm Em :|

If you are new to celtic music, I should point out that my version is not much like what you will hear at a traditional session.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Sausage Biscuit

Here's a new tune I wrote this week. I've called it Sausage Biscuit. I'll develop a nicer version with an improvised section eventually, but I just wanted to get the main head down and see what people think of it. Here's the tab.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Rawhide - John Duffey version

I've been thinking about this tune for a while and worked out some of John Duffey's version from the Country Gentlemen's Smithsonian Folkways live CD "On the Road (And More)", which I recommend to all bluegrass fans.

I tabbed out his first break from that, and played it slowly - I'm doing it about 105 bpm here, Duffey plays it at about 165bpm. Monroe played this up to about 190bpm. Those speeds are the true technical challenge of this tune and I'll try to work up to them and post a fast version some day. Working on tunes like this really helps when you have to play breaks in fast banjo tunes like Shuckin the Corn.

Here's the tab.

And look, here's me playing it now at a reasonable speed with the Buncombe String Band (July 2010)

Monday, September 7, 2009

I Am A Pilgrim

I did this version of I Am A Pilgrim the other week on the Mandolin Cafe Song a Week group, and SteveJ from there was kind enough to tab out what I played over the first verse, so I thought I would post it here along with the tab. I also made a backing track mp3 you can download.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Can You Draw A Cow?

When I started learning the mandolin, some things that used to frustrate me then that seem a lot easier now. For example, I always wanted to improvise, but it just seemed impossible - it's still hard, but at least it's possible now.

I think the main reason was that I was inhibited from reaching the notes by my technical ability - at that time each phrase had to be practiced ahead of time to get it right, especially at speed. So I couldn't really play anything I hadn't practiced the notes for, over and over.

Another part of it was what they call "ear training" - it's really brain training. My brain took a while to develop precision about the sounds it wanted to hear in my improvisations. I knew the sort of thing I wanted to hear, but it was like the difference between being able to imagine a cow, and being able to draw a cow (with no cow in front of you - a lot harder than it sounds, try it!). I took singing lessons for about two years, which really helped with that - plus it improved my singing a lot too.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Change Your Strings

I had been hanging on to my old strings because I thought they sounded great. Finally I changed them. Now I realize how bad the old ones really sounded!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Look In The Mirror

Sometimes it's hard to hear the mistakes I make when I play, especially small ones. I think it works a little bit like looking in the mirror - perhaps you've noticed how your face doesn't really look how you expect when you see photographs of yourself. People have a "mirror face" they put on when they look at themselves, and my own experience is that my brain makes adjustments to what I see to make my mirror image coincide more with my own internal self-image.

I think the same applies when I'm playing the mandolin, and it's hard to stop my brain tweaking the sounds to make them closer to what I want to hear, but a few techniques help to fool it: making videos and recordings helps of course, but you don't get the immediate feedback while you're playing.

One is to go play in a room with different acoustics to my normal practice room. The other is to play into a mic and listen to the sound amplified in some good solid headphones (solid enough to cut out the acoustic sound). This makes just enough difference to let you hear what you're doing in a whole new way. It also helps to tweak the EQ (treble and bass) of the signal through the headphones to change the experience even more.

Monday, July 20, 2009

More about improvisation

People have a lot of different approaches to this, and I don't claim any great expertise in improvisation. I'm open to any suggestions of how to approach it, but here are my main thoughts, based on some discussions I've been having recently at Mandolin Cafe. I've included a couple of YouTube examples, the first kind of instructional.

When I approach an improvisation, I usually hope to be working on a tune I know well. If you don't know it well, all you can do, if you've had time to grasp the chords for the song, is play some appropriate scale runs and licks on the right chord. I play with a band who often have me go on stage with them on songs that I've only picked a couple of times. From this I have learned that both practicing and performing your improvisations thoroughly and regularly is the best way to get a successful result. I need to have played it in rehearsal four or five times, as well as practiced it in privacy quite a few more times, if the resulting improv is to be anything other than rather tedious chordal noise.

Improvisation is challenging, and preparation is essential. When I sketch out in my head what I'm going to try to do in a solo, I'll be thinking about licks I have under my fingers well, areas of the fingerboard that are good to explore in the particular key I'm playing in, and where I'm confident I can create some tension and excitement in my scale runs. While I play, I will also try to keep the melody running in my head. All of this is not easy, and the last part can be especially tricky if you don't know the song like the back of your hand. Many times I have come unstuck when the chorus of a song has a very different melody and chord structure to the verse, and I'm expected to solo over the verse right after hearing the chorus. I know from listening to other players I'm not alone in this.

I will also try to have planned out some simpler, fallback positions if things don't go well and I find my solo wandering too far out of my control. It can be very deflating to miss a few notes or hit some wrong ones when I'm supposed to be creating a soaring climax to a song, and once I lose confidence it all becomes more difficult.

I guess my main point is, people like to think of improvisation as something wild and free requiring no preparation. Well, it would be great if it were like that, but my own experience is not like that at all. For me, it's much easier to learn a fiddle tune or a solo note for note, than to work up the scales, licks and expertise to improvise a solo effectively.

Anyway, here are those YouTube examples so you can watch me struggling with these ideas:

Friday, July 10, 2009

Pick Hold

I recently decided I really ought to be using a more conventional pick hold. Until a few weeks ago, although I would usually use the standard pick between thumb and forefinger hold for playing chop chords, I would tend to use a three-finger hold for picking single lines. This is mainly because that's the pick hold I ended up with from teaching myself how to play guitar when I was 15, and it does have a few advantages.

I should add that I had been considering doing this switch for a very long time, but I kept putting it off because I was not sure what the result would be, and besides I liked my three finger grip, even though it sometimes felt quite awkward...

But anyway, I decided to do the switch, and here's my diary of the days that followed:

Day 1:
Well, it feels a bit weird, but it does make it easier to play consistently at volume, so I will stick with it. I can always change back to my old hold.

Day 2:
This is terrible, I can't play anything, and I don't even seem able to switch back to my old pick hold. How miserable and frustrating, my whole life sucks (etc. etc.)

Day 3:
Ah, okay, this seems to be starting to work.

Day 4:
This is great, it's so much easier, my tone is way better, and I am never going back to that ridiculous three-finger grip.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Play Very Slowly

If I set my metronome for about 80 bpm and play two 8th notes per tick, I've found it's really easy to fix problems I'm having playing a tricky passage. It really works, and I notice the difference when I bring the piece back up to speed.

Salt Creek, Adam Steffey

Here's a link to the TablEdit file of Adam Steffey's break on Salt Creek from the CD "Mountain Tradition", by Mountain Heart's Clay Jones. It's a great album full of traditional tunes like this, and a wonderful place to learn Steffey's approach to fiddle tunes (as is his AcuTab DVD).

Adam Steffey Salt Creek mandolin tab.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Ricky Skaggs is clever

He really is, and here's why: he always manages to sound absolutely impressive with the minimum amount of effort. This is a talent that is well worth emulating. In this snippet, playing with Boone Creek in the early 70's, Ricky only has a half a break on Head Over Heels to make his statement, but he does it perfectly.

Even though, when you break it down, this is seemingly a rather ordinary selection of stock Monroe-style phrases, the slides, hammer-ons and syncopations somehow convince you that a virtuoso has just stepped up to the mic. Here it is:

Notice in the third bar how he's moved on to playing out of an A chop chord shape while still on the D chord (the A chord is in the next bar) - often a very effective move.

The song is on iTunes, and well worth a listen, as is the rest of the album, One Way Track, an absolute classic. You will also notice Ricky's tone, which is fabulous.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Squirrel Hunters

Here's my version of the Squirrel Hunters, along with the tab.

Have a look for Mike Compton playing this with John Hartford to see how it should really be done.

Here's a slow version with no backing:

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Video Yourself

This is something I've just started doing, and I've been surprised at how much I can learn from watching back what I play - all my mistakes become glaringly obvious. Of course, this can be painful at first, but the thing about mistakes is that once I've seen them, it's usually easy to fix them. Here's an example, with plenty of mistakes:

I made this as part of the Mandolin Cafe song a week project.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Reasons To Love Your Metronome

I've recently stopped using Band In A Box most of the time and switched over to just using the metronome for practice, just set to a single beat. It's much quicker and more convenient, requires no setup, and perhaps most importantly, lets me just work on the segment of the song I'm having problems with. I find I'm more inclined to adjust it to build up (or down) gradually in speed. I also feel like listening for its pulse is somehow giving me better timing all around.

And it's great to work on placing my chop right in the center of the space between the metronome's beats.

I should add that it took me some practice to begin to work with a metronome effectively. It's worth making the commitment to do it, but if you're just starting out, it's probably more helpful to work with band in a box or backing tracks you record yourself, because at that time you have enough to worry about. Practicing with a metronome is a skill in itself.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Perfect Makes Practice

I used to get a bit confused when I was learning from method books as to when I should move on from the exercise I was working on. The text seemed to compel me forward, the very fact that there was another page with more things to learn made the page I was on seem like something to leave behind. I'm used to reading novels, so I would always read ahead.

Turns out, I should not have moved on to the next page until I had everything on the current page down perfect. I know, sounds crazy. But that's really how it is.

Improvising Kit Bag 3: Steal from Other Instruments

If you want to add licks to your bag, you don't have to stick with what other mandolinists play. Fiddlers, banjo pickers and guitarists have all kinds of great licks, so I don't see why I shouldn't steal from then too. Tony Rice loves this lick, he plays it at the end of his break on "Your Love Is Like A Flower" (Bluegrass Album Band), and quite a few other places too. Try playing it in a lot of different keys, I found E was good too, but here it is in G and A:

It sits nicely over any I-V-I change. You can also use the first half in many other situations, and you can vary the second part (over the V chord) to suit the song or how you feel that day.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Practice Hint: Relax

If I'm having trouble playing a particular passage at speed, usually I find that at least part of the problem is tensing up during that passage. The way to fix this is to play it slowly, of course, but even more important is to focus on keeping your left and right hand relaxed while you play it slowly. If I can learn to play a piece slowly and stay relaxed, I can then speed it up succesfully. If I learn to play it well slowly but don't relax, I can never get it up to speed.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Closed position movable solos

Here is an example of a great little closed position solo, in this case in the key of C. The wonderful thing about these is you can play them in just about any key by moving them around, so it's really well worth putting in the effort to learn to play a number of these really fast, and to develop licks to embellish them.

Keeping this solo on the same strings but moving it up or down by one or two frets you can play in keys Bb through D. By transferring it to the next set of strings down you can play in E through A.

When I first started playing on stage, that was pretty much how I played every tune. It's surprising how often I hear something that sounds very cool and new on a recording, and when I start to transcribe it I find it's built out of this position.

The example below is from Wanda Vick's charming album "Bluegrass Hymns". It's about 19 bluegrass gospel standards but with no singing, just instrumental breaks, and I think Wanda plays all the instruments. Her fiddle playing is fabulous, and the rich variety of mandolin breaks is very instructive. She also has a perfect chop. This is played over the verse of "Shouting On The Hills of Glory".

Notice how in bar 6 and 7 when going to the G chord, she uses what I suspect is (and play as) a 2nd finger bar at the fifth fret over the 2nd and 3rd strings, and then comes out of it with a slide - a great little move. For the last 2 bars you'll want to back up with your 2nd finger on the 2nd fret.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Improvising Kit Bag 2 - Key of A

Here are two more endings in the key of A, both of them over a standard I-V-I chord sequence. The first is in the A chop position, with your index finger at the fourth fret, and second is in the open position. For the third bar of the first example, try to maintain your position and use your pinky if it's up to it. If not, you can reposition your first finger up to the fifth fret. You can hear very similar licks to these used on many professional recordings.

The best way I have found to try to incorporate new licks into my improvisations is to first practice the lick so I can play it at almost any speed in isolation, working with Band In A Box or a metronome. Then I try it out in breaks that I do regularly, playing along with recordings of my band. And then I try pulling it off in a live situation.

When you're working on building a new lick into your reportoire, I don't think there's any shame in slipping it into as many solos as you can, just for a while. You may bore your bandmates for a few weeks, but they'll be grateful in the end to have a more versatile mandolinist. At least, that's my theory.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Improvising Kit Bag 1 - Key of A

To start packing the improvising kit bag, here are a couple of simple turnarounds in the key of A. The first can be used wherever you have two bars of E resolving to A, and the second, where you have just one bar of E. This is typical in a song like Hallelujah I'm Ready or dozens of others, where the longer V chord falls in the middle of the verse and the shorter one comes at the end. If you're just following the melody in that song, you've got nothing to say over the long E in the middle of the verse unless you're prepared. Think about where the melody falls in that tune, and then try slotting these licks in at the appropriate places. Then try them in all the other suitable tunes you know. Try them next time you're in a jam or playing a show. It's the only way to expand your kit bag.

Notice how each lick contains a little element like a slide or a blue note that gives it its character and flavor. Unless a phrase has something unique and memorable, it doesn't belong in your kit bag.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Improvising Kit Bag

Improvising's a controversial subject so I'll try not to make too many generalizations about it, but from what I've seen - especially when forced to put together a break on the spot for a fast tune - instead of hand-crafting a beautifully nuanced brand new composition right there and then, most folks, even pros, just follow the tune as best they can, and then copy and paste in their favorite licks for kickoffs and endings.

Usually the place they do this most obviously is in the joins - by that I mean the places half way through the verse and at the end of the verse, at the end of the vocal line. Often there is no clue what to play here from the melody, since it's where the singer pauses for breath. Mostly it's where either there's 2 bars of the V chord resolving to the I, or else one bar of I, and one of V, then back to I.

So, you need some licks prepared for these situations. Not only that, but if you have some fancy licks to insert here, in my view it makes it easier to be faithful to the melody in the other parts of your break. The reason is, you're not under any pressure to make up something impressive on the spur of the moment, because you have something up your sleeve, like the best magicians.

In my next few posts I'll be showing you some of the goodies I'm working on for my kit bag. The good news is, just about every mandolin break you ever hear can give you ideas to expand your bag, so you don't have to rely on me - you can rip them off from everybody.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Lonesome River Band - Heartless Love

Should it just happen that you are the one bluegrass mandolin fan who doesn't yet own a copy of "Carrying the Tradition" by the Lonesome River Band, face up to the inevitable now and make the purchase. You will not be disappointed.

Here is a transcription - in a TablEdit file this time - of Dan Tyminski's solo on Heartless Love. For my money, you can't do a better bluesy mandolin solo than this, so I don't know why Dan bothered to learn to play all those other instruments and sing so well too.

Heartless Love TablEdit File.

If you're anything like me, this will take at least a week or so to get under your fingers, so don't get discouraged.

Finally, here is a YouTube of it:

Saturday, May 9, 2009

John Duffey, Redwood Hill and triplets

Here's a nice little triplet workout. Redwood Hill is a very pretty tune. Written by Gordon Lightfoot, the Country Gentlemen made it bluegrass. Eddie Adcock's banjo part in the first part of the break is beautiful, as is John Duffey's 2nd half. I have two recordings of this, and on each they do much the same break twice in the song - and why not when it sounds this good. On the "Live in Japan" album, Duffey goes triplet crazy towards the end of the second break. Notice how he uses hammer-ons, especially in the first triplet in measure 6, to keep his pickstrokes orderly. That particular passage is difficult for my right hand, and I think most people who aren't John Duffey would need to work that up slowly to nail it like he does at 220bpm.

In measure 10 I shift up to A position (fourth fret) because I think that's how it sounds like he did it, but you may find a better way.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Poor White Folks

I just wanted to link some good things together: here's Bill Monroe playing "Poor White Folks" and here's a link to John Bird's tab and intro in the CoMando archives.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Sliding exercises

Adam Steffey is one of the great sliders, and this exercise is inspired by his style. It's a whole break in G, but it's mostly just repeating licks to get your fingers into shape for Steffey-style sliding. Listen to him doing something like East Tennessee Blues, or just about anything really. Notice how I vary the note order slightly over the G chords to add interest. Experiment with sliding or not sliding wherever it's possible to get different effects.

Note how I use the open E string to facilitate the movement up the fretboard for the D position towards the end of the 4th measure - but there are other ways to do that, equally valid. It ends with a classic bluesy, sliding G lick. Get this up to around 240 bpm and you can wow the crowds.

I try to work these kind of new licks into just about all my breaks for a few weeks until I really get them solidly under my fingers - after that I try to pull them out only when they will actually sound tasteful.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Study technique

As a follow up to the last post, I've found it was a really good idea to follow a planned approach to developing my technique. I've only really been able to actually improve my playing by studying and repeatedly working on technique exercises. While it's a lot of fun and useful to work on music theory and add new pieces and licks to my repertoire, without a strong foundation of technique I found playing the mandolin to be hard work.

And when I get out there under the lights (when they have lights), the only thing that stands between me and miserable failure is technique. A while ago I bought a DVD that I didn't have high expectations from, this one:

Mike Marshall's Mandolin Fundamentals For All Players #1-Building Technique Through Exercises and Melodic Studies

I hadn't done much technique work previously, but I followed Mike's advice carefully and persevered diligently for several months, and it has made a huge difference to my playing. The main difference is that I actually enjoy playing a lot more now, knowing that I'm capable of making those licks and runs under pressure, and I have some technical expertise left over for improvisational flourishes and unexpected situations. Thank you, Mr Marshall.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Work that pinky

My little finger really wants to do what the other fingers do, but it has special needs. I've been working on exercises like this one for about 3 months now, and it's getting better. I expect to have to work on it for at least another 9 months before it shows the kind of improvement it aspires to.

In this exercise, use only your third and fourth finger. Your third finger plays the notes at the fifth fret, and your pinky handles all the others. Repeat the exercise for as long as you can stand it, but don't overstress your fingers. Watch that your first and second fingers stay hovering just above the strings and don't start to pull away, and also watch your general hand and thumb position, make sure everything stays where you normally want it.

At the same time, try make each note ring clear and true, and make sure your pick follows through on every stroke. Go as slowly as you need to, speed will come - this is a long-term investment.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Walking in Jerusalem - just like John Duffey

Speaking of awesome pickers, what about John Duffey. People talk about his great vocal range, but what most impresses me about his work is the tone and taste of his mandolin playing.

Here's his intro to "Walking In Jerusalem" from when he was with The Country Gentlemen in the 60's. Ricky Skaggs uses almost the exact same licks in his Boone Creek version of the same tune. Maybe they both got it from Bill Monroe, of course, I don't know because the version I have by Bill, he doesn't even bother to get out his mandolin (Anthology).

Anyway, here's the tab, the tune is in A.

Here's a YouTube of me trying to play it:

Just a note to say I finally figured out where Duffey got the idea from: it's basically the second half of Monroe's break from Uncle Pen - wouldn't you know it.

Play with great pickers - if you can

Yesterday I had the pleasure of picking alongside Joe Johnson on stage - every time you pick with someone who has really studied the music and their instrument, you learn something new. Here's a link to Joe's myspace page. If you get the chance to see him play the banjo, take it. What a nice guy.

Oh, what I learned was, when you're on stage with a great banjo picker, tone down your mandolin so they can hear him.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Play something you don't know

I think I waste a lot of time practicing things I can already play or come easily to me, when I should be practicing the things I find hardest of all. Try this, if you need some practice with sliding (I know I do) - be sure to listen carefully to the Dan Tyminski CD this comes from to get the slides correct.

Carry Me Across The Mountain, in G:

I believe Adam Steffey is the mandolin player on that track. Here's me playing it, in case that helps:

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Blue Chip Picks

I recently bought a Blue Chip Pick. They're kind of expensive for a pick, but they are very, very good. Previously I used a Wegen pick, the TF140, and that was a huge improvement over the ordinary picks I had used before, but this Blue Chip TAD 50 wipes the floor with it. The difference is particularly noticeable on the wound strings, where with other picks my mandolin can often sound muddy.

I didn't really want to part with 35 bucks for a pick, but considering it's improved both my sound and my playing ability, it really wasn't much to pay.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Doyle's Backup: Take Me In Your Lifeboat

Sometimes I think I learn more from a player when they're doing backup than when they're playing lead. There's no need for any flashy flourishes, or the mandatory excursion up the fretboard. I get to see how a player survives through each chord change, and learn what their real stock phrases are.

So I was delighted to find this gem from Doyle buried in the right stereo channel and played behind the verse of "Take Me In Your Lifeboat" (on The Bluegrass Album Band Compact Disc, vol 1), just after the fiddle break. It's another one in G, and has many of the same repeated phrases you'll recognise from the other transcriptions.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Stand Up

If I don't practice my breaks and other pieces standing up, I can't play them as well when I do. There's a different balance to the mandolin when I stand, and various muscles seem to have to compensate in different ways. This can be very confusing when I try to play a piece on stage for the first time that sounded great when I played it sitting down.

Moving licks from G to other keys

Doyle has some great licks in "On and On" and "Head Over Heels" that can be easily transposed into other open position keys like D and A, especially those that use the two lowest strings: just move them up to the middle two strings for D, and the top two strings for A.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Er, but I can't play that...

If you're having trouble playing through some tab, the chances are you're trying to play it too fast. Most times if you slow down the problem goes away. Then you have to gradually increase the pace until you can play it at a speed you're comfortable with.

Everyone gives that piece of advice, but I find it much harder to take and to stick to than you would think. One problem I often find is that I can play most parts of a tune or break up to a certain speed, but there might be a few passages that I can't quite make. It's more fun to play the piece up to speed, so sometimes it will take a long while before I realize that I'm fudging a certain section every time.

Sometimes, in order to play the problem section properly, I have to slow it down so much that it becomes hard even to keep track of the timing. Mostly I find that by isolating and playing the difficult passage over and over very slowly, I can eventually get the whole tune up to speed.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Doyle's break: Head Over Heels (Key of G)

This time from The Bluegrass Album Band volume 4, another G tune where Doyle does his stuff. This time he does a couple of leaps to the top of the fretboard and back, but mostly it's a variation of the same approach he uses in On And On, just a touch more bluesy this time. Here's the TableEdit file. Taken together, these two breaks give a pretty good idea of Doyle's basic technique, at least for the key of G.

Transcribing Breaks

If you want to figure out how to play a break from a recording you have, a good way I have found is to use a piece of software called Transcribe!. This lets you open a track on a CD or an MP3 and slow it down to whatever speed you like without changing the pitch. It has another feature that lets you loop the section you're working on.

It will also let you change the pitch without altering the speed, which can occasionally be useful too.

Doyle's break: On and On (key of G)

Here's an example of Doyle Lawson's break on the song "On and On" from The Original Band album. It's in TablEdit format - you can get a free reader for the format here. I very much recommend buying the full program if you ever want to write your own mandolin tab (or any other kind of music notation).

There are a lot of things going on in this break and plenty to learn. He starts out with some commanding strums, standing in loosely for the opening of the refrain line "On and On". The second bar has a bluesy fall from high Bb to low E on the second string. In bar 3 the chord switches to C, and the mandolin climbs back up to D for a shorter fall that echoes the first. Then we're in to some space filling in G again, until we have the standout G motif in bar 6, followed by a copy of the same lick but played in D. Notice how the short chromatic runs in each lick are placed differently: the first run seems like ornamentation, but it sets up the second run which leads the melody line into the D chord, taking it from E to F to F# - the defining note of the D chord.

There are lots more characteristic ideas in this break: some very useful stock phrases are run together so that each follows naturally from the last, and always respects the underlying chord structure, while giving cursory attention to the tune. But that's how it should be: Doyle's break is the second - the tune has already been stated by the banjo, and in this song the verse and chorus are the same, so this break creates the first relief.

When Bill Monroe recorded this tune, he took the third break and played a very bluesy and rhythmic improvisation which I'm sure Doyle had heard too.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Doyle Lawson's Mandolin

If you've ever listened to much Doyle Lawson, you'll have noticed he has a very distinctive style. It seems to me there are two parts to it: 1) a rhythmic approach that gives a strident quality that seems to cut across the established rhythm of the song and 2) repeating melodic patterns that flow up and down scales and across chords. I'll get into more analysis of both of these parts of his playing in later posts, but first off, listen to an album like The Original Band, and tell me you wouldn't like to just break into one of his solos whenever you felt like it.

Well, that's my first goal, to be able to do a quick Doyle Lawson break when I want to, and that's what's coming next.