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The Mike Compton Interview

By Mandolin Cafe
January 7, 2010 - 7:45 am

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Mike Compton with his Gilchrist F5 #536. Photo credit - Dan Lofton. Mike Compton with his Gilchrist F5 #536. Photo credit - Dan Lofton.

From his work on the groundbreaking O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack and its chart-topping hit Man of Constant Sorrow to his recent supporting role on British punk-pop star Elvis Costello's brilliant new acoustic CD, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, Mike Compton has carved a unique place in contemporary music with his soulful, evocative mandolin sound.

Born in the Mississippi Delta in Jimmie Rodger's hometown, Mike grew up on old-timey blues and country music mixed with then-contemporary pop and country hits from the likes of Mitch Miller, Herb Alpert, Ray Charles and Hank Williams before emigrating north like so many other southerners; in his case to Music City where he quickly became one of Nashville's elite musicians.

A longtime mainstay of the highly respected Nashville Bluegrass Band and a frequent partner with leading acoustic players like David Grier, David Long and the late John Hartford, Compton was one of the players responsible for keeping the flame of Monroe-style traditional mandolin alive at a time when other players were moving in a decidedly new and highly original direction. His passion for honest, sincere music that speaks to the heart has made him a first-call player for producers such as T-Bone Burnett and others seeking a truly authentic American acoustic sound.

And if those accolades aren't enough, the split rail-thin man in the trademark bib overalls has unselfishly devoted himself to teaching and conducting workshops here and abroad to help pass the torch to a younger generation of players eager to grasp the essence of what Mike half-jokingly refers to as "Billisms" based on the style of Mr. Monroe.

Get inside his story, though, and it's a wonder he endured at all as a musician. For years, he doubted his unique talent and even quit the business to live in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York where he barely touched a mandolin. His recent success, we all should realize, is possible only because he persevered and took great chances personally and professionally to find the path that led him to where he stands today.

I've interviewed Mike for the cover story in Mandolin Magazine, spent a bit of time with him at workshops and talked to other friends who've known and worked with him over the years. I can tell you Mike's soul and personality are reflected perfectly in his music—no BS, no grandstanding, no hype of any kind. Just a warm, friendly, lovely Southern guy who has had a far richer impact on mandolin music than he would ever admit. Thanks, Mike, for staying with your music and for taking the time to do the following interview. We're all richer for both.

 — David McCarty

Listen while you read

Audience recording of Mike Compton playing Jimmy Fell Off the Wagon at the 2007 Mandolin Symposium.

Questions From Our Message Board Members

Question from Gerry Hastie: You have participated in such a variety of projects including film soundtracks and the Elvis Costello album. What is it about your playing that has led to you being asked to be involved in these projects? Can you comment on how you approach each different situation and how you use the influence of Monroe style to meet what each requires?

Mike Compton: In my opinion, the breaks I've gotten have been through being in the right place at the right time. All the Coen Brothers stuff, the soundtrack, came from my being in John Hartford's employ. I owe that to John's musical presence. One thing has led to another. The soundtrack to "O Brother" was a monster hit and that brought on the "Cold Mountain" soundtrack. I met and became acquainted with TBone Burnette during that time, who fortunately liked something he heard and put me on his "hillbilly" list, I reckon. Through his office I've obtained sessions with Elvis Costello, Sting, and recently shared a Willie Nelson session with Ronnie McCoury. Pretty much all the higher profile stuff has come from TBone. I've been very fortunate so far over the course of the last dozen or so years.

I don't know that getting the current work really has anything to do with my playing, save maybe that the style I'm known for is different than the new guys. I'm certainly no technical wizard. I don't get a lot of session work here in town because most any of a number of multi-instrumentalists can play more than enough mandolin to satisfy country session work. I'm not really that flexible, but if the sound they seek is what I've got, then I get the call. I remember hearing a story once about Roy Husky Jr. being given some advice from his dad Roy Sr. on doing session work. To paraphrase heavily, he told Roy to "do what the man says, collect your money and go home." That's pretty much my philosophy too.

I try to go in and fit what's going on and leave my opinions (ego) out of it. It could be that playing rhythm is what I need to do more than concentrate on lead, so I focus there. If there are guys like Stuart Duncan and Jerry Douglas around, I bow to the better players and take what's left. As for using Monroe's influence, there are a number of different voices/moods to the man's music. I merely attempt to use the one most suitable to the task at hand and use phrases that fit the movements of the song. Sometimes using just the opposite works well too.

1984 - NBB formed to tour with Minnie Pearl and others on the The Grand Old Country Music Show. Alan O'Bryant, Mike Compton, Minnie Pearl, Mark Hembree and Pat Enright. Photo credit: Nashville Bluegrass Band. Click to enlarge. 1984 - NBB formed to tour with Minnie Pearl and others on the The Grand Old Country Music Show. Alan O'Bryant, Mike Compton, Minnie Pearl, Mark Hembree and Pat Enright. Photo credit: Nashville Bluegrass Band. Click to enlarge.

Question from fishdawg40: You have a tremendous right hand. I especially appreciate the intensity. Besides the general advice to practice, is there specifically a strategy/technique to get such a strong attack?

Did you ever experience any backlash about your playing style? Even though it is based on Monroe's I don't hear anybody play like you.

Mike Compton: If anything, I think it has to do with driving the strings from the wrist, from bringing the sound from the inside of you to the outside and spending the time when you're playing expressing emotions instead of thinking which direction your pick is going or how much pick is in the strings. All that should be thought about during practice time. Keep them separate. I try to maximize the amount of tone and volume I can get by keeping the pick as flat on the strings as I can and "rubbing" the notes out. I think that that way of looking at pick usage helps a lot. Your technique should be developed to the point that you can forget about it and PLAY. Of course, I'm not past the stage of struggling with technique either, but I have a better idea now how I think it should work in an ideal world.

I'm not sure I understand what you mean by "backlash." I sound like what I sound like based on what I'm listening to. Just happens to have been Monroe for a few decades now, that and country blues. I do have people complaining about the right hand usage/posture. No matter. If it's not for them, they can do whatever makes 'em happy. But the way I do it is done for a reason.

Question from SternART: I've been to a workshop where you compared Bill Monroe's music to Vincent Van Gogh, the Dutch artist. This has stayed with me, and I was wondering how you came up with this, and if you have any artistic talents, other than music?

Mike Compton: The Monroe/Van Gogh comparison really first came to light in my mind during the early 80's while I was sharing a house with ex-Bluegrass Boy Bob Fowler. He was/is a fan of Van Gogh (as well as other impressionistic artists) and shared his observations on the matter. At that time, I was in my early 20's and really was floundering trying to find a way to understand Monroe's mandolin style. I think Bob made an effort to help point the way using a visual reference to the sound. I'll say that it did help to have the reference, as well as give me more of an appreciation and understanding for Van Gogh's art. I've leaned on the impressionistic idea to help me understand what Monroe was up to ever since. I don't know why it didn't dawn on me before. Too young I guess. Too young, too confused, and too much to wrestle with all at once.

I went to school in Meridian, Mississippi at a small local college on an art scholarship and studied free-hand and mechanical drawing, among other things. But once I heard about Nashville, I dropped out. No, I can't say I have any "talents" to speak of. Most all of what I know has been learned through repetition and reckless trial and error, though it has been mostly focused in one vein.

Question from Wayne Stuvick: Are you still thinking about doing an instructional video? If so, which direction do you think you'd take and what are some of the things you'd include?

Mike Compton: Yes sir, I am. I was just contacted about it a few weeks ago. The issue has come up now and again, mostly by people saying that I really should do it because it makes money. But that's really not a good enough reason, as far as I'm concerned. Personally, I feel there's more than enough video floating around on how to play mandolins. So unless I can bring something new to the table, why bother putting people through it?

I've spent some time talking to an acquaintance of mine here that does special stories/projects for television. His idea is to do a series of videos on specific topics and tunes in interview fashion. The idea appeals to me more than the videos I've seen.

Topics? From techniques to tunes to why Monroe style is so hip to rhythm patterns in melody, implied phrases, slides, etc. And then Rachel Ray would come in and teach us how to make a very nice black bean soup.

Stomp - Mike Compton & David Long, 2006 Stomp - Mike Compton & David Long, 2006

Question from fAtHanD: I love the Stomp album and was just wondering what recording projects you have in the works.

Mike Compton: Currently I have no projects in the works. I do have a list of projects that I plan to do, those being:

Seems like there was something else and there probably will be by the time I get some of this done. I am also working on figuring out what to do with an acoustic/electric mandolin, so at some point I figure something will come out of that.

Question from Greg Wilson: What kind of practice routine would you suggest for intermediate players working towards adding complexity and speed to solo breaks.

Mike Compton: Hmm, I'm not sure you've come to the right place, on this one. My tactic is to take tunes and reduce them to a schematic, to take away until I have the "bones" and work with that to make it flow in the style. I do not work to add more. I assume that's what you mean by the term 'complexity'.

As for speed, it is a byproduct of good technique in my opinion, not an end unto itself. I have no different look upon it than most everyone else. I think the prescribed approach is to start off at a tempo you can correctly play the music at hand and speed up in small increments. I agree with that. A person has to learn how to play fast. It does seem some people are geared to fast tempos more than others due to reflexes, but I think a lot of being able to play at and sustain high tempos involves an intimate knowledge of the material as well as confidence in one's ability to pull it off.

Question from maj34: Your website indicated that you were taking fiddle lessons at one time. Has this influenced your mandolin playing, and if so, how? Are there any old-time fiddlers (living or not) who you find particularly inspiring?

Mike Compton: Boy, it's been a while since I had a fiddle. I miss it. I took up the fiddle in the first place because it was the instrument Monroe sought to emulate and I assumed that it would give me some insight into the style, but I found that when I played on the fiddle my brain and hands wanted to do something else than play mandolin music. I think the main thing I gained from messing around with a fiddle was a better knowledge of how to ignore the frets and slide over the notes.


Of course Kenny Baker's up there, but that's the bluegrass/Monroe connection for me. I really enjoy James Bryan's ability to squeeze the last drop out of a melody, not to mention his smoothness. Chirps Smith is another. Bruce Molsky is dynamic, gritty. He used old-time as a springboard and has taken it everywhere. Rafe Stefanini is another current old-time fiddle wizard. I really enjoy the styles of Doc Roberts, John Hatcher, Edden Hammons, John Johnson, Willie Narmour. Really, one road leads to the next, and I find new fascinations as I go along.

I work with one of my all-time favorite musicians, Stuart Duncan. I'd give just about anything to be able to play at his level.

Question from Joe Hinkebein: As a bluegrass mandolinist who has also spent time playing with old-time fiddlers such as John Hartford, and James Bryan, I would like to know whether your approach to each differs and how (i.e playing in a straight up BG ensemble such as NBB vs. OT String Band such as Hartford's)?

Nashville Bluegrass Band, 2009. L-R: Mike Compton, Alan O'Bryant, Pat Enright, Stuart Duncan, Andy Todd. Photo credit, Jim McGuire. Click to enlarge. Nashville Bluegrass Band, 2009. L-R: Mike Compton, Alan O'Bryant, Pat Enright, Stuart Duncan, Andy Todd. Photo credit, Jim McGuire. Click to enlarge.

Mike Compton: The roles vary quite a bit in old-time and bluegrass bands. In the NBB (Nashville Bluegrass Band), I basically maintain the standard bluegrass mandolin role in that I play rhythm primarily and solo when appropriate. I do use a little looser approach to rhythm than just playing backbeat chops all the time, but pretty much I stick to the script to make the ensemble sound right.

In Hartford's band, we were allowed to do whatever we wanted to as long as it pertained to the song that was a'bein' played. John's approach seemed to be about experimenting and finding our own voice as a string band. We played offbeat, onbeat, alternate leads, harmony, laid out, unison, bass lines, percussion, beat on top of our heads, you name it. I found that my technique suffered quite a bit there though, because I was concentrating on letting my mind run and do whatever came out and make it musical rather than concentrate on tone so much.

As far as old-time ensembles, I don't really recall there being an old-time mandolin figurehead, so I pretty much play a mix of rhythm and lead, taking cues from Monroe and Ella Haley.

Question from Tone Monster: I've heard you think it's best to learn all the chords of a Monroe song before learning the melody. Could you please expand on this?

Mike Compton: That story actually relates to Monroe, not myself. He said that when he was just learning to play that he focused first on learning the chord progression. Then he looked for the melody notes within the chord 'box'. It's not so much in the sense that you look for the scale in the chord, but the individual melody notes. Seems to work better that way. Another way of approaching the chord position idea is to play through chord tones using different voicings of the same key and emphasize, either with tone or rhythm, the prominent melody notes. If you prefer to hear another voicing, then it may be necessary to migrate to another position entirely. Then it's a matter of connecting the dots so that the transition sounds smooth. In its most abstract form, rhythm takes over for pitch in emphasizing melody notes. I think that if you listen to any piece of music you will hear a sort of 'rhythm melody' that underlines how the notes need to be accented. If you follow that grid it is often possible to make substitutions without sacrificing recognition of the melody.

Question from rnjl: I'd like to hear your thoughts on posture, holding the mandolin correctly, and staying relaxed while playing strong- on both right and left hands.

Mike Compton: Okay. I'm not the best example of how to stand or sit because I have a lot of visible quirks in my own posture, but I can say what I think works best. I find that the hardest thing to do is to square off with your audience, to face them and lay it on the line, to give them what you owe them, which is an honest effort to communicate. To me, all the rest involves being comfortable in that situation.

When sitting, it's best not to slump, to keep your feet flat on the floor about shoulder-width apart, back straight and shoulders relaxed. I feel more solid this way, and it's possible to move around a bit to get into the music. I set my strap length so that when I bend my elbow it rides just about the tailpiece. That way, my forearm rides over the edge of the binding on the top side in the same position many people put an armrest and I can change my tonal voice by simply moving my arm so that my right hand travels along the string lengthwise from just above the bridge to about the 10th-12th fret without any major adjustments. The mandolin angle is set so that my left arm bends at the elbow and pretty well just lays in a straight line from there to the fingerboard with my wrist in line with my arm, but remaining flexible in order to accommodate all the position changes necessary. So, I'm set up pretty loose, nothing real rigid to follow posture wise, but just what is comfortable.

When standing, I use the same right and left arm positions, but I find I have to move around as the urge presents itself. I can't just stand still. I try to keep my shoulders down and remember to breath, tell myself to relax, relax, relax. Why do people tense up anyway? Nervousness? Insecurity, perhaps? I know that's what does it to me, feeling unsure of myself in any given situation. You just have to go out and play the music the way you want to hear it played and hope that people hear what you're trying to say. That's about all you can do, IMO. Loosen up and enjoy it.

Question from Bigtuna: Who would you like to work/play with that you haven't had a chance to as of now?

Listen while you read

Audience recording of Mike Compton playing Evening Prayer Blues at the 2007 Mandolin Symposium.

Mike Compton: As far as actual gigs/work, I can't give an answer to that. I've not thought about it much. It seems like every time I turn around I find myself in a situation I wasn't expecting anyway. So, mainly what I'd like to do is improve parts of what I do already by becoming better acquainted with people who do these parts better.

I'd like to spend time with Andy Statman because when I'm around him the fences I've put up for myself all fall down. He's a wealth of knowledge and he loves Monroe. I'm sure there's something more there I could learn. I'd like to spend more time around guys like Buddy Miller who seem to play the right stuff no matter what style song it is, play gritty and write good songs, plus learn more about amplified instruments. I'd like to spend a lot of time around percussion people to learn more grooves I could play, gain some options to use instead of just 1-chop, 2-chop, 3-chop, etc... I'd like to spend more time around guys like Buddy Spicher and Jeff Taylor and learn a lot more about music in general. I'd like to learn to sing like Pat Enright. I'd like to have the zest for music and discovering new sounds that Radim Zenkl displays. I'd like to have the all-around chops of Tim O'Brien. Of course, I wouldn't mind having the ability to tell a story like Elvis Costello, but I reckon there ain't much way I'll do that in this lifetime. And I miss John Hartford. I blew my chance to learn a lot of things from him that he was more than willing to teach. Just, I had my head too far up my ass to pay attention.

Question from roberto: Your compositions are so rich and full in every aspect. When writing a tune, it comes mainly from your head or from your hands?

Mike Compton: I've never heard it asked that way. I think it's a combination of the two, really. The melodic idea may be rambling around in my head, but usually upon working it out how it lays on the fingerboard comes into play. How and where does it work best? Where does it lay the most comfortably under my fingers? Maybe even the key would change to accommodate a sound that was hard to achieve in the original key. Or maybe the tune would come from just noodling around with a series of moves on the fingerboard that just felt good to do. I like to try and play versions of tunes that have a full enough sound that they can stand on their own, meaning that there is audible rhythm, a beat, plus some suggestion of the chord progression, not just a series of notes.

Question from Gerry Hastie: Economy of left-hand movement seems a particular feature of your playing. This has often been commented on by members of this forum who have seen your YouTube broadcasts. Can you talk about your approach to left-hand technique?

Well, I've covered some of it indirectly in previous questions, but I'll see if I can be more direct. Basically I work out of chord voicings more than anything else. So I'm usually hovering around the melody in chord boxes (chop chords often) and shift from one position to the next depending on the position of the melody notes I want to use or the voicing I want to hear. Of course, sliding is, to quote Lou Martin, "a way of life for me." I really love the sound of the slides, the implied notes in the phrase. Playing slides is not just about sliding down a scale but about making the shifts from voicing to voicing smoother. Sometimes it involves timing the slide so that I pass a crucial note at the right time, so the slide has to be calculated to punctuate a note while the hand is still in motion.

Of course, using slides all the time is not the way to go, is too much of a good thing. But it gives me the impression of notes I can't get due to the frets and it helps me get my hands into position to use more effective fingerings. It's just a more efficient use of my energy, I think. Also, I make an effort to keep my fingers down unless I need to move them. That way I can take full advantage of the chord position instead of flailing away and wasting motion, plus it gives me a point of reference so that I won't get lost so much. I hope that makes sense. It's really hard to explain.

Mike Compton with his Gilchrist F5 #536. Photo credit - Keith Case & Associates Mike Compton with his Gilchrist F5 #536. Photo credit - Keith Case & Associates

Question from grassrootphilosopher: As far as I know you had an (early) Gilchrist that had to be repaired after a bus accident on the road with the Nashville Bluegrass Band. Then you had Gilchrist No. 500 (on loan?) while a new instrument was built by Steve Gilchrist. Since I know where Gil No. 500 resides now I presume you have your new Gilchrist. How would you compare these three instruments to each other (similarities and differences in appearance, tone and feel).

Mike Compton: Yes, I had #7953, the first Gilchrist bought in the USA. Marty Lanham fixed it up after it was damaged and brought it back to life. I kept that mandolin until sometime in the early 2000's at which point Aubrey Haney caught me at home during a bout with the flu and bought it from me. Ricky Wasson has it now. At the time Aubrey came calling on #7953, I also had #436, which I traded back to Steve Gilchrist for #500. I kept it for a couple years until early in 2003 when Steve appeared in town with #536 and more or less insisted that I trade with him. I realized that #500 was a milestone for him, so I didn't object much. But #536 has turned out to be the best by far of the four Gils that have passed through my hands. I didn't know at the time of acquisition that #536 is Gilchrist's version of Monroe's mandolin when it was new. So there was method to the madness.

The first was a good mandolin and sounded like a log, but the tonal characteristics were pretty much straight ahead, not too complex. It was good and loud and earthy, but sort of flat. I didn't keep #436 long enough to get used to it. To me it had odd overtones that I just didn't like, but I understand that it's not that way anymore. #500 was a marvel to me; dry and woody, but it screamed when it was called upon. It was really nice up the neck and down low, just a good overall bluegrass butt-kicking mandolin. But #536 has all that and more. Every year #536 changes and so far I have yet to be bored with it. The treble has come in this year to being rich and full, but still clear. The low end is clear too, more so than I remember #500 being. And it is by far the most even mandolin I've owned.

David Grier and Mike Compton with Mike's #565 F4 Gilchrist. Photo credit: unknown. Click to enlarge. David Grier and Mike Compton with Mike's #565 F4 Gilchrist. Photo credit: unknown. Click to enlarge.

The feel of the necks of #436, #500 and #536 have been pretty well the same. They are all the V shape and somewhat narrow at the nut. Both #500 and #536 have the yellow ground underneath which gives them the look of the '22 Loars or of some of the old fiddles. I don't remember offhand that much about #436's appearance. But #7953 is that old mahogany red with V neck. It has "The Gilchrist" in the headstock, whereas the rest just say "Gilchrist." Flowerpots all. #7953 started life as a parallel braced mandolin, then had the top replaced in '81, then became an X-braced mandolin. The other three are all parallel tone bars. #436, #500 and #536 are all of sugar maple from the "D" log with red spruce tops. I don't recall what #7953 is.

I almost forgot with all this talk of F5's that I also own #565, a sugar maple and red spruce Gilchrist F4. It has the same V neck shape as the F5's and basically the same woods as the F5's, but the oval hole. Scott Tichenor calls it "the hog." It's one of the few F4's I've played that can hold its own in a bluegrass ensemble. It does take some getting used to because the notes don't shoot out of an F4 like they do an F5; you sort of have to wait on 'em, but tonally, I think the F4 fills airspace better than any of the F5's I've had. The one-piece maple back on it comes from a tree that came off of Sigourney Weaver's property someplace. All the mandos I've had have flat fingerboards.

Question from sachmo63: For most bluegrass music of late the mandolin players mostly use the "newer" style of playing incorporating more notes to fill up space in they're leads or back up. For an aspiring mandolinist how would you recommend incorporating your style of playing into a traditional bluegrass format or band.

Mike Compton: I'm assuming you're asking more about how to go about playing the style than how to 'incorporate' the mandolin into a traditional bluegrass ensemble. The role of a mandolin in the old-time bluegrass style is pretty well defined by now, right? So I'll give a few ideas regarding the style.

The most obvious, and most utilized aspect, will be chop chord rhythm. Usually on the offbeat, but not necessarily so. Say in a 2/4 groove, you play a short strum-style stroke followed by a clipped "chop." You need to get comfortable playing chop chords because that's pretty much what you'll be doing most of the time in a traditional band format. I'd suggest breaking it up a bit to amuse yourself by playing chord voicings that have a prominent note sound that fits the melody, not just playing the same old positions all the time. As Roland White suggests, it can get like chopping wood after a while, so mix it up.

As far as playing leads, I'd use sparser melodic ideas and base them in tremolo, save the downstroke stuff. Now, I'm not talking about just any tremolo speed, but one that relates to the tempo of the song that's being played. It subdivides evenly. All your accents and punctuation and rhythms are built into your solos, built into your tremolo. Your solos should have a strong feeling of rhythm, they should emphasize the tempo, they should have life, not just a string of notes. I agree with your suggestion that the newer players fill with more notes. The old-school fills with chord voicings and rhythm figures, or at least that's what I hear. I'd say use the downstroke technique for sharp punctuation, for when you really want something to stand out. When it's your turn to lead, LEAD.

Backup should be sparse too; it should reinforce the lead. You can play a double-stop tremolo behind the lead using a loosely-fitting harmony or fill the holes between lines with single string fills or repeat what's been played/sang, etc. There's any number of ways to do this. Some people are masters at it. I'm not. Listen to the late Gene Wooten or Stuart Duncan.

These are just a few ideas. It would be a lot easier for you and me to sit down sometime and have a chat about this. Remember John Hartford's words too, that "this here is art and there ain't no damned rules."

Mike Compton with the Nashville Bluegrass Band

Question from GTG: you are known to mando players as the modern torch-bearer of the traditional Monroe style. How do feel about the balance between keeping this tradition alive vs. exploring newer sounds and styles? Do you consciously set out to maintain a certain sound in your playing, as a nod to the Monroe tradition, or do you just play the notes (and tones) that sound good to you?

Mike Compton: That's certainly a flattering comment. To think that I would actually be able to continue and represent the Monroe style would be admirable indeed. But I don't know that much about it. Time has proven that to me. The more I dig, the less I know. I can fake it well enough, but it only fools those who haven't sat down and taken a close listen to the style. I don't really play like Bill when I strap on a mandolin. I play at the style, but I can't repeat his work. Nor can anyone else.

I think that it is indeed possible to carry the style forward because it is an ingenious way of representing melodic ideas. The style's integrity and validity has not waned. The trend has changed, sure, and so Monroe style is not in style currently. No matter. It wasn't in style when Bill came along with it either. It has had it's time and will endure to some extent for a long time. I don't think that exploring new ground with it will diminish its strength or its link to the past. Monroe never stopped exploring new ground with it, did he?

Sometimes I do make an effort to maintain a "nod" as you say, to the tradition. But that is usually only limited to solos or songs and not as a general rule across the board. Most often I play what occurs to me to play without analyzing where it came from. You need to understand that I have followed a particular path for a long time and once the figurehead was not at the helm, my little ship was lost. I am making an effort to call my own shots now, to find my own way. It is based in the tradition, but I am exploring other traditions and bringing the Monroe style along. There is no other way I could do it because I've played at it this way for 38 years. It's mostly what I know, so it flavors everything I do.

Question from mandomedic: Your tremolo is one of the best in the business. I would like an explanation of your pick grip and depth of pick into the strings during your tremolo. Do you find you get a better tone with a tighter pick grip, or is it the sushi?

Mike Compton: No, it's not the sushi, but I can't hurt, right?

Pick grip... Start by placing the pick between the ball of your thumb and the first joint in your index finger (there'bouts). This gives you two boney points as a focal point for the energy you'll be using to drive the pick. Basically the idea is to grab a thick piece of pick material and let it 'wiggle' in your hand using a semi-loose grip. The rest of your fingers should be curled back slightly so that you have an open palm. It doesn't have to be picture perfect. Look at some of the old Grand Ole Opry songbooks. Everybody used this hand posture back then.

I use a larger triangular shaped pick with the three corners having the same shape and make an effort to play with the pick flat on the strings most all the time, not angled either way. This seems to draw out a fatter tone and more volume. The pick extends into the strings somewhere between 1/8"-1/4" (again, there'bouts). I find that if I think of rubbing the pick across the strings instead of picking the notes out I get a lot smoother sound. That part is merely a mindset that influences the final product, a shift in perspective. It could be said that there is what is commonly known as a 'rest stroke' at the end of each stroke, but there's no time to think about it. I see the pick as constantly moving in an elliptical path, an efficient flowing motion and don't think about all the mechanics of it when it's time to play. Just play.

Really, this grip is best for playing the old school style, because it gives you a better chance to emulate fiddle notes, it gives you a fighting chance to play smoother long tones I think. Being that's what the style revolves around so heavily, I feel it's the best grip. It's not for everybody or everything. I've never said that, nor will I. That's absurd. I've heard a few people complain about how they've had to "recover" from the grip. That's laughable. Those old boys apparently aren't playing Monroe style or at least with not much testicular fortitude.

I use the same grip all the time for downstrokes, tremolo, soft volume, loud volume, etc. I find this grip to be all-purpose. There's no need to change picks or grip posture for anything.

L-R: Charlie Cushman, Stan Brown, Pat Enright and Mike Compton in 1981. Photo credit, Click to enlarge. L-R: Charlie Cushman, Stan Brown, Pat Enright and Mike Compton in 1981. Photo credit, Click to enlarge.

Question from hank: After all these years of playing professionally with so many artist and their mandolins, how would you describe what you find desirable and exciting in a mandolin. I've heard people speak of the modern sound of a Gilchrist and that you were not a big fan of the classic Loar sound. Can you explain this more fully?

Mike Compton: I like for mandolins to sound like a log. I like to hear the sound of the box underneath the note, not just a bunch of 'ping'. I like to hear the box pushing air. Part of that is done with the pick grip/attack, but I think some of the modern makers really do a great job of building instruments that have the life and ability to do that. Not just Gilchrist, but of course he's an old friend as well and my favorite so far. There are quite a few others, independents, who have really got their act together more than the larger commercial companies. I just don't think an assembly line situation compares to the detail associated with small-batch production.

I don't know, I guess I've played a lot of old Gibsons that were in a sad state of disrepair over the years. I can't really blame anyone with a $200K instrument for having reservations about who they let work on it, but to me they're worthless if they don't work, no matter what the name on the peghead says. I don't have the "Loar ear" that guys like Tony Williamson have. He can probably tell you what year any of them was built by the way they sound and what Loar had for lunch that day. Of course, he's probably sold most of them at least once too. I don't really find the sound of most fern Gibsons appealing, though Bobby Osborne's is killer. There are about half a dozen signed and unsigned Loar F5's that I wouldn't push out of my case. But that's an awfully small percentage, ain't it? They sound sort of 'steely' and unfriendly to me for the most part, but that's a blanket statement that doesn't apply to them all. And I'm not sure they don't take a little bit different approach in technique to play. I don't know. I've never had one laying around long enough to really see what it would do. But most just come across cold to me. And I think that the mystique and price are way out of line.

Question from grassrootphilosopher: Is there a mandolin other than your own that you like best. If so, who's mandolin is it, what mandolin is it (make, builder, etc.), and why do you like it.

Mike Compton: Truthfully, not that many. I'm very happy with the instruments I have, but there are a few others I like.

As far as Gibsons goes, I like the '22 Loars that Dawg and Hal Johnson have. Seems like most all the Gibsons I've liked were built in '22. But it's for the sound of them, not for what they are. There was an ultra-dark sounding F4 that was owned by Fred Oster in Philadelphia. I reckon he's still got it. The lone Loar A5 is a really nice mandolin. Everybody ought to be able to play some on it, but I can't say I'd like to own it necessarily.

I like David Long's X-braced Gil. It's a hybrid of sorts and has an X-braced top of red spruce rather than Englemann (which is what Steve usually uses for his X-braced tops I think). It just has an unusual sound.

I'm still very fond of Raymond Huffmaster's Randy Wood "no. 1." It has a great tone and has a lot of sentimental value attached for me.

That's about it for mandolins that I've played on a lot. There are plenty of really great mandolins and players out there. There's just not time enough to get to them all.

Gear Facts

Main instruments: Gilchrist F5 #536 and Gilchrist F4 #565, Duff mandola #14609.

Strings and gauges: D'Addario EXP74's (phosphor bronze) on the F5 and EXP77's (80/20 bronze) on the F4, but occasionally I use D'Addario JS74's (stainless steel) on both. Currently I'm using D'Addario J76's on the mandola.

Picks: I use any number of things depending on what I've got in my pocket or what sound I want. Usually it's either a Red Bear Tortis or D'Andrea ProPlec. I do have some tortoise I use too.

Cases: The case for the F5 is an old Calton, the F4 is in a Golden Gate repro form-fit and the H5 is in a black rectangular Presto.

Microphones: No preference for brand name. I prefer to use one large diaphragm mic for both vocal and mandolin.

Mike Compton - Select Discography

Sound Tracks

Cold Mountain (2003)
Down From the Mountain (2001)
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
The Legend Lives On: A Tribute to Bill Monroe (1997)

With the Nashville Bluegrass Band

NBB: The Best Of The Sugar Hill Years (2007)
Twenty Year Blues (2004)
American Beauty (1998)
New Moon Rising - with Peter Rowan (1988)
To Be His Child (1987)
The Nashville Bluegrass Band - Idle Time (1987)
My Native Home (1985)

With Elvis Costello

Elvis Costello's Secret, Profane and Sugarcane (2009)

With David Long

Stomp (2006)

With David Grier

Climbing the Walls (1989)

With John Hartford

Hamilton Ironworks (2001)
Live From Mountain Stage (2000)
Good Old Boys (1999) (1999)
Speed of the Old Long Bow (1998)
Wild Hog In The Red Brush (1996)
No End of Love (1996)

Additional information

Mike Compton's personal web site
Nashville Bluegrass Band

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Reader Comments

Nelson Peddycoart
January 07, 2010 09:10 AM
As usual, Mr. Compton is accessible, inciteful and modest. If you don't know his work, you are doing yourself a HUGE disservice.

Denny Gies
January 07, 2010 09:20 AM
What a nice interview. I did a workshop with Mike and he is every bit as nice and warm as you have reflected in the interview. Thanks for the great work.
January 07, 2010 10:33 AM
i hate to gush, but how great is this? It's fourty below outside, but i can sit with a cup of coffee and read this great Mike Compton interview.

January 07, 2010 10:57 AM
Wonderful interview, there are many great ideas and inspiring moments in the piece.

Mike is so honest and forthright, what a braeth of fresh air.

Love ya Mike.

Dave B
January 07, 2010 12:52 PM
terrific interview! very interesting reading. much to think about. Big thanks to David McCarty and of course, to Mike Compton. Nice.

Dave B.
January 07, 2010 05:46 PM
A few years back I spent a week at California Coast Music Camp, where Mike was one of the instructors. He's a real down home, good old country boy.

He was teaching advanced mando, which turned out to be too much for me. So, I switched to flatpick guitar class with Wayne Henderson (another good old country boy). Quite a "second choice". smile
San Rafael
January 07, 2010 06:06 PM
Good interview. Some really good instruction, too, right there for the taking. Thanks Mr. C.
Dan Hoover
January 07, 2010 06:33 PM
Another great interview guy's..thank you Mr.Compton...for your time,insight and instruction..what a treat...Great job.
January 08, 2010 01:32 AM
that was a great birthday present smile thanks
Mike Bromley
January 08, 2010 06:18 AM
Great resource, Scott.

I'll be busy learning "Jimmy fell of the Wagon".....
January 08, 2010 10:12 AM
I'm really enjoying this interview series and this has been my favorite so far. Probably because Mike describes approaches he uses intentionally to which I aspire. I also liked the instrument discussion as I took the message to be to 'get a mandolin to which you like to listen' as opposed to others expectations.
re simmers
January 08, 2010 10:41 AM
Great interview.

Rick Schmidlin
January 08, 2010 10:46 AM
Very informative, and cafe was well represent with great answers to questions.
Big Joe
January 08, 2010 01:48 PM
A number of years ago while I was working for the big G, I asked Mike about becoming and edorsee of ours. He just looked at me a bit askew and said, "I've already got a good mandolin. Why would I want another one?" I was both a bit suprised by his comment and also quite amused. I appreciate his love for 'enough'. I worked with a number of artists that were what we referred to as "instrument whores". I will NEVER name names, but Mike's honesty was certainly refreshing and compelling.
January 08, 2010 02:11 PM
i got to see mike a few months ago up close, when our bands were booked together - i had always heard about his great right hand technique, but it was really eye opening to see how smooth it really was - there are so few people playing the mandolin that way and its refreshing.
David Rambo
January 08, 2010 06:33 PM
Thanks Scott. I really appreciate the work you put into this.
Marcus CA
January 08, 2010 10:23 PM
This series is becoming an absolute treasure! I was expecting 10's, but these are 15's. The amount of time and thought that the musicians are giving to their answers is unbelievably generous.
Erik Gran
January 09, 2010 05:02 AM
Quite a coincidence, the same day I registered to go to Mike Comptons class at Sore Fingers Week, this interview came up, and made my expectations even greater!
Gerry Hastie
January 09, 2010 05:43 AM
Mr Compton's insights into a philosophy of and how to think whilst playing the mandolin are invaluable. "Rythym meldody" can't say I have really heard that phrase to describe something so fundamental! This is great stuff and a testament to the quality of the cafe that people like Mike are willing to share their thoughts via this forum. Well done as always to Mr Tichenor!
January 09, 2010 05:37 PM
Great interview. Thanks for taking the time to answer the questions Mike. Your music has always inspired me. I'm going to go back and read it again. Eric
January 09, 2010 05:47 PM
Quote from Big Joe: A number of years ago while I was working for the big G, I asked Mike about becoming and edorsee of ours. He just looked at me a bit askew and said, "I've already got a good mandolin. Why would I want another one?" I was both a bit suprised by his comment and also quite amused. I appreciate his love for 'enough'. I worked with a number of artists that were what we referred to as "instrument whores". I will NEVER name names, but Mike's honesty was certainly refreshing and compelling. End Quote

i think Mike would rather be thought of as a "music pimp"...
January 10, 2010 12:08 PM
Thank you Mike for taking the time to share your unique take on mandolining. Your experience and ability to share some of your insight is a valuable resource to the mandolin community. As always my hat is off to Scott for his efforts to make the Cafe' a place musicians can find new ideas and inspiration.
January 10, 2010 08:22 PM
fabulous! true talent. love the addies though. *insert smilie face*
Michael Gowell
January 19, 2010 09:26 AM
Agree about the added performance clips...greatly enriching, repeatable for all of us now a bit smarter for having read this.
May 20, 2010 06:11 AM
Thanks to everyone concerned with bringing this interview to fruition.

I had not been too aware of Mr. Compton's work before this interview but prompted by the tone of his answers to the questions i decided to invest some resources into discovering more about his music.

I have to say its been well worth the effort, i have been drawn to his sound. I really do appreciate when somone can play a fistful of notes pretty quick and clean, and i get that with the mandolins limitations sometimes thats what is needed to fill the space, but its not what captures and holds my attention, nor where i want to go with my own playing. I much prefer the open soundings Mr. Compton gets from the mandolin, for me, his approach allows the mandolin to open and express almost as if it is being bowed but without sacraficing the percussive dynamic that also comes with the mandolin also being a rhythmic instrument.

Listening to Mr. Compton's recordings have given me a lot to think about with regards my own playing not only that but its also been the prompt for yet another personal re-appraisal of Mr. Monroe's playing... its amazing how much i have ignored Mr. Monroe's recordings through sheer wilfull stubborness and closed ears.

Now, if i can only concoct some sort of convoluted scheme to get see Mr. Compton play in nearby Vienne as part of the Sugarcanes that'd really top my summer.
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