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A Beginning Bluegrass Lesson

One day, it just happens. You decide you really want to play the mandolin, and maybe you want to play really well. Or maybe you just want to play well enough to enjoy playing by yourself or with some good friends. Maybe you'd like to step into a jam session at a festival.

Lets take bluegrass. "So you there, Mandolin Cafe. What makes you so darn smart enough to think you can give a lesson?" Fair question.

In 1985 my band "Last Kansas Exit" won the SPBGMA National Bluegrass Band contest in Nashville. There were almost 60 other bands. We were too modest to think we'd win. The band was Mike Allen on banjo and vocals (1986 National Banjo Champion), Barb Hudson on lead vocals and guitar, and Ronnie DeLancey on acoustic bass with me holding down mandolin and vocals.

I learned a lot of lessons in that band and many, many others. What I've learned I'd like to share. Bluegrass is a big part of my "roots." I hope what is presented here will help you develop your playing. Enjoy.

Make a Smart Start!

"I can always tell a musician who has listened to the real stuff. Flatt & Scruggs, Monroe, Stanley Brothers, Jimmy Martin." - Tony Rice

Tony wasn't the first one to make such a statement and won't be the last. Look around at the mandolin players we dig and you'll see all were rooted firmly in an earlier tradition. Jethro knew 30's jazz. Grisman and Bush can play Monroe note for note. So can Ricky Skaggs and Doyle Lawson. Evan Marshall has studied Dave Apollon.

But herein lies one of the biggest problems with learning to play mandolin. It's easy to think that old stuff isn't cool. After all, the recording quality is bad, sometimes the boys sounded a little weary . . . we get turned onto the music by a modern group and then spend months (maybe years) trying to use them as our model. That's OK but there's wisdom in study of the old stuff. Ever wonder why most of those Grisman wannabe's don't sound like him? They haven't studied Monroe, a strong part of his influence.

It's not a guarantee of success but studying the masters is a sound start. With busy work schedules, families and other time drains, the best thing you can do is to get some good brain food for your ears. Listen to some of the right stuff and listen carefully. There's magic in Monroe, Stanleys, Jim and Jess, Flatt & Scruggs, Osborne Brothers, Louvin Brothers and others. If it's good enough for Sam Bush, Grisman, Doyle Lawson, Butch Baldassari, Tom Rozum (there are many more), it's good enough for the rest of us.

"He really didn't need lessons, but there was something missing in his playing. I suggested he sit down and work the Scruggs book. You know the rest . . . " - Tony Trischka talking about giving a banjo lesson with a very young Bela Fleck

So this doesn't mean you should throw away those new CDs. The more you can listen to the better. But if you really want to put some soul and power into your playing here are some suggestions:

  1. Make every third or fourth CD you buy one of the "classics." There are terrific new CD releases of the oldies with great old photos and history. Some of those gems are available for a steal in used record stores.
  2. Pick one tune off of something like "The Bluegrass Album Band" recording and then seek the original by a Jimmy Martin or Flatt & Scruggs. It's cool.
  3. If you're lucky enough to have a local NPR station with a good collection and an on air show, call in and request those old recordings.

The road to success starts with an educated ear. Listening to and learning the early material provides a road map to the music. Give the classics a good listen and you'll have a lot better idea of what's going on in today's bluegrass.

Play Along with the Recordings

Seem like a stupid thing to do? I get endless requests for "which is the best video," or "what's the best book to buy?" Hey folks, I'm here to tell you there's no substitute for putting on the CD's, tapes or records and trying to play along. It's great for your timing, good for your ears (and hands), and forces you to really LISTEN. Until you get the sounds in your head you'll never be able to play them on your instrument.

I'm not saying books and videos aren't good. I'm saying there's no substitute for playing along with (and listening to) the good material. Just don't get caught dancing around by your friend or spouse in front of a mirror imagining you're on stage at Winfield. Some of you know exactly what I'm talking about. Of course, I never did anything like that...

The Big Three!

G, C & D Chop chords. So named because the mandolin serves the purpose similar to a drummer in a bluegrass band by playing a percussive "chop" chord that falls on the 2 & 4 beat. The bass plays on the 1 & 3 beats and combined you've got the basis of an acoustic snare and kick drum!

These three chord "positions" form the basis of literally thousands of songs. They are the universal chord fingerings in that they're moveable up and down the neck and create other chords. Learn these three and you can easily move them up to play in the keys of A, Bb, B and C.>

The "G" chop chord is the hardest chord to learn when you're starting out. The first time I made that chord I looked at the person showing me and said something like, "you're kidding, right?" Well, it's a good starter because once you get that and the four-finger "D" chop chord you've done the hardest chords there are in my opinion.

G, C and D

If you don't already know, the fingerings for the chords lie below the chord diagram. Many people have tried these and have problems with them. Don't get discouraged. If you're having problems moving between the G and D, try this: leave the pinky PLANTED when changing chords. G and D share the same note. A good rule is "never lift a finger unless you have to."

I could put a sound file out here to demonstrate but any good bluegrass recording should have that percussive "pop" of the mandolin on the 2-4 beat. I did tell you to play along with recordings didn't I?

So How Do You Get the "Chop?"

Good question. Many people try to hold the strings down on the frets all of the time like you would on a typical guitar strum. DON'T! It's far too much work. The chop works like this: as you are moving the pick towards the strings to strike them, your fingers should be "resting" on the chord you're prepared to play. Before the pick strikes, quickly depress the strings and let up as soon as the pick strikes all of the strings. In other words you're quickly dampening or muting the chord once it is played. Your ability to cut off the ringing sound defines the amount of "pop" sound you want.

Be aggressive! Most people are afraid they'll make too much noise. I'm here to tell you that with a guitar, banjo and bass there's not a chance in hell you'll be too loud. But remember, it's not loudness but "quality" that matters. However, you have a role to contribute and you can't do it unless you're heard.

This Lesson Lasted Too Long

OK, ya get what you paid for.

Here are 10 good basic beginner tips to go home with.

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