• Tristan Scroggins Interview on the Release of Fancy Boy

    Tristan Scroggins
    Photo credit: Nico Humby

    Facebook and Instagram are full of energetic young mandolin players from all over the globe eager to share their latest videos. So many that it can be tedious wading through them all. If you were looking for something to really knocks your socks off, well, that takes a bit of effort.

    Enter Tristan Scroggins, drawing reaction from fans and fellow musicians of all levels for his unusual approach to the mandolin. His frequent postings on social media are providing, as we speak, a real time journey into his exploration of, and some might say, an expansion of the definition of crosspicking, sometimes tackling familiar tunes most would not dare to attempt in the style.

    Where it will take him even he's not certain. What the technique is ultimately called in the inner circles of the mandolin community matters not. It's great music, and that speaks for itself.

    More than a one-trick musician, he can stand up and belt hard core, up-tempo bluegrass breaks in modern or Monroe style or dive into classical violin music on mandolin to suite his performance needs.

    Growing up in a bluegrass band led by his father, Jeff Scroggins and Colorado, young Scroggins soaked up music from a wide range of influences, everything from bluegrass to classical and whatever was available within the rich culture of Colorado's Front Range acoustic music scene.

    As a relatively new resident of Nashville it's not unusual to see him guesting with Molly Tuttle, Dailey & Vincent, Missy Raines and other seasoned performers who recognize his talent, or appearing on videos at Carter Vintage Guitars playing a variety of fine instruments. IBMA awarded him an Instrumental Momentum Award Recipient in 2017, and his work with classical violinist Alisa Rose has been widely recognized for its originality and creative play between violin and mandolin.

    That might be enough for most 24 year old musicians, but add contributions to publications like Bluegrass Today, Banjo Newsletter, No Depression and Peghead Nation to the mix and you have a Renaissance man in the making. We were honored to sit down for this feature interview with one of the bright up and coming young stars in the mandolin community.



    What was the catalyst for your exploration into this style?

    I've always been more interested in banjo and dobro music than mandolin music so I feel like a lot of the basics of that sound came to me that way. I learned mandolin from this guy in New Mexico named Bob Fisher who developed a style of crosspicking for guitar that used two strings at a time. He showed me a bit of it the mandolin which helped facilitate what I was wanting to do early on. I didn't work on Jesse's style much in the beginning but I'd learn Bela Fleck and Jerry Douglas tunes and started to notice in my own composing a proclivity towards crosspicking patterns, not to mention growing up around my dad and hearing not only banjo rolls, but the really creative use of melodic patterns that he learned largely from Alan Munde.

    As for actually sitting down and working this stuff out, I had a few moments. I grew up in Colorado around Jordan Ramsey whom I believe is this generation's preeminent crosspicker. We both really admired the playing of Dave Peters. Jordan uploaded a compilation of footage of Dave to YouTube and at one point Dave takes this solo on "Turkey in the Straw" that's a melodic crosspicking kind of solo. I was blown away so I sat down and tried to learn it. That was my first real foray into the style.

    Then, when Jeff Scroggins & Colorado recorded our previous record, Ramblin' Feels Good, we played this Hylo Brown song called "Travelin Down the Road of Life," which we medleyed into "Home Sweet Home." Dad and I played "Home Sweet Home" together so I sat down and worked out his banjo solo note-for-note on the mandolin which tripped something in my brain and the crosspicking intro to the first song just came to me. Then most recently, I was just listening to some bluegrass on shuffle and Jim & Jesse's version of "Y'all Come" came up and just knocked me down. I went home and spent hours working on that. And that happened to coincide with this tour of Germany I was going on where I just had a ton of time to practice so I'd sit around and combine all of these things to work out Jesse tunes which came way quicker than I expected and then arranged my own melodic crosspicking versions of tunes which was really rewarding.



    There are many approaches to the style. Have you settled on one or make use of multiple styles (ie., down-up-down-up-down, down-down-up, down-down-down, down-up-up, etc.)

    I'm making use of multiple styles, letting the music dictate what suits the song best. In that sense, some might say what I'm doing isnít 'crosspicking' because it is in many ways fundamentally different from the style Jesse laid out. I still don't feel comfortable with Jesse's foundational down-up-up pattern and I'd like to get better at that. For now, I'm just doing whatever I can to make it happen. It's mostly alternating but there's a lot of double-downs and some other rolls besides the typical backward roll. The arrangements that are less roll based have a lot fewer repeating patterns depending on how the melody lays out so I have to utilize whatever I can. Because of this, they donít have the distinctive syncopation of traditional crosspicking mandolin.

    Some folks who have seen my videos online have described this style as the mandolin equivalent of "melodic banjo" vs Jesse's "Scruggs style." Because of that, some people *cough — Casey Campbell — cough* have cheekily been referring to it as "Scroggs Style" which I like and have adopted. Though I never really liked the implication that Scruggs Style banjo wasnít "melodic" and in the same way I wouldn't want to imply that Jesse's style wasn't melodic. These are just the limitations of language.

    What I'm doing is based on Jesse's innovations but utilizes other techniques and my own influences growing up in a house full of banjo. People have told me it reminds them of the "floating" guitar style or "arpeggiando" for keyboard. Other people just call it crosspicking.

    Tristan Scroggins - Fancy Boy
    Photo credit: Kaitlyn Raitz

    Listen

    The track "Cumberland Gap" from the EP Fancy Boy.



    Download

    Tablature to "Brandywine" and "Big Sandy River," arrangements by Tristan Scroggins.


    Jesse's original book is out of print and often lists for ridiculous amounts of money that probably aren't realized. Is it time to consider a book on these techniques?

    At some point in the future I could envision a full-length album but I'd want to put in a lot more work to feel comfortable. However, enough people expressed an interest in recordings that I recently recorded and released an EP called Fancy Boy with five of these arrangements along with a book of transcriptions. In the coming months I hope to publish another book with more transcriptions of standard tunes. And I'm planning on applying some of these techniques in maybe a less direct way to some of my work with Scroggins & Rose, my progressive instrumental duet based in San Francisco.

    What Iím doing is fairly different in approach to what Jesse created. While Iím excited and flattered that people are interested in learning my arrangements, I hope that people will also take an interest in learning more about Jesseís style specifically. I hope someone with more expertise than I comes out with some sort of educational material on those fundamentals.

    "Working with Tristan Scroggins is always a 360 degree proposition. He looks at every project, tune, and technique from each possible angle. He loves to combine research on the past with an eye toward the future. I believe Tristan is going to make a mark on traditional music in some surprising ways."

    Megan Lynch Chowning
    Seven Time National Fiddle Champion
    Grand Masters Traditional Fiddling Champion

    How do you arrange these tunes and what are some of the challenges?

    At the core, I'm taking the melody of the tune, arranging it in the 3rd and 4th position so that, as often as possible, I'm not playing the same string twice in a row. If I'm really familiar with the tune I usually do this by ear, but if not, I'll learn by ear and then notate it in tab, rewrite it in the melodic crosspicking format, and then learn that version by reading the notation.

    One of the first things I realized when I was arranging "Turkey in the Straw" was that this was ultimately just an effect. If I was playing just the melody, the only thing that changed was the sustain of the notes and a huge leap in difficulty, both of which weren't necessarily very perceptible. So I started taking away melodic elements to give it a little more noticable flavor. Mostly this just meant switching to an actual traditional crosspicking roll in places I usually wouldn't.

    In these arrangements that roll was mostly used for phrases with strings of quarter or half notes. This was especially effective in keys where the droning open E string added a noticeable but not too jarring dissonance. Ultimately this improved my style because it taught me how to find more interesting ways to interpret the melody in a roll by picking the most important few notes from a phrase and impling the melody using rolls.

    The hardest part is either the extreme left hand stretches necessary to play melodic runs or the pick direction stuff. Some of the arrangements have very challenging cross string passages. This has resulted in a noticeable improvement in my non crosspicking mandolin endeavours. It has turned out to be both the ultimate pinky and right hand dexterity exercise.

    Jeff Scroggins and Colorado - Over The Line
    Album photo credit: Nico Humby

    What do you plan to use this technique for?

    I don't intend to change my playing style to all crosspicking all the time. While my Instagram would currently tell a different story, I often find crosspicking can feel really repetitive if you hear it over and over; it starts to feel more like a schtick than an expression. Not always though.

    I am perpetually blown away by how creative, fresh, and expressive Jesse's solos are and the same for Jordan Ramsey who I always thought struck a tasteful balance in his solos. That's why I'd want to wait awhile to record any sort of full-length "crosspicking mandolin album." I'd want to wait until I had enough to creatively express something.

    My side-goal while working this stuff out was to figure out how to apply it to the music I'm creating with Alisa Rose for our duet. We spent the last year preparing to record another record composing more bluegrass/classical crossover music, this time with a partial focus on counterpoint melody. So part of that was studying some Bach and Mozart and attempting to perform some of those pieces with just mandolin and violin.

    One of the main challenges was that to express the music the way we wanted to, the mandolin just didn't have enough sustain. Most of what we were playing was music written on and for a piano and playing the pieces in a duet with an instrument that uses a bow, the mandolin just couldn't compete and it never quite sounded the way we wanted. I could play the notes but the music wasn't there. This melodic crosspicking style of arranging and playing gives a huge boost to the sustain and tone of the instrument which isn't always the best for bluegrass but I think will be great for Scroggins & Rose material. I haven't had the chance to test it out yet but I'm optimistic that a lot of this sound will make it onto that new record.

    What are examples of the Bach or Mozart you're studying?

    We're mostly working with Bach's two-part inventions. We're playing around with how the two voices sound on two instruments that sound so different. I really enjoyed Caterina Lichtenberg and Mike Marshall's of Bach's music. Mike actually told me once that after he learned all of the inventions Caterina had him go back and relearn them in the proper positions because the phrasing was off. I feel that way a lot with Alisa and part of that is just that I don't really have a feel for classical music. I'm learning though and it helps to have Alisa as a guide since she teaches at the San Francisco Conservatory. But we've been having challenges with making the note lengths match up especially because of the pick vs. bow thing.

    I think we achieve our goal of distinguishing the two different voices but it's been a challenge to make the music feel like it flows. For Mozart, we were working on Sonata no. 10 but scrapped it pretty quickly because I was having trouble making the left hand ring the way we felt it needed to. But now with this new style, we might be able to revisit it.

    Tristan Scroggins
    Photo credit: Snap Jackson

    Was the move to Nashville about seeking more work as a musician?

    More than anything I moved to Nashville seeking community. That's not to say I didn't have a community back in Denver, there's a great bluegrass scene there. But I had this feeling pulling me to Nashville. I've read a lot about beatniks feeling drawn to New York City or painters in the Renaissance feeling like Paris had an energy that they were always looking for. I've been to both of those places and like them fine but Nashville is the only place I've ever been where I felt like there was always something I wanted to do and an energy driving me to do and achieve more. There are so many great role models and peers that I can look up to here.

    I also do a lot of research and writing about the history of bluegrass and so being here where so much of that history took place and where so many people who were involved still live is really valuable to me. Not to mention that there are at least three archives within a half hour of me with a huge amount of resources and I'm only three hours from the Bluegrass Hall of Fame and museum.

    Tristan Scroggins with Dailey & Vincent on Grand Ole Opry

    Tristan Scroggins with Dailey & Vincent on the Grand Ol' Opry
    Photo credit: Megan Lynch

    I have ended up playing with some more people since being here though. Most notably I've played on the Opry a couple of times, once with Molly Tuttle and once with Dailey & Vincent at the Ryman. I've also done some studio work including an album from Jon Weisberger and Justin Hiltner called Watch it Burn that featured a lot of other young musicians. Justin, Molly and I, along with Shelby Means, were also on a track from Rachel Baiman's new EP called Thanksgiving.

    There have always been bluegrass musicians moving to and from this town but there's really a cool scene here right now and there's been lots of fun events and collaborations. James Kee and I just produced an event together called World Class Mandolin that featured a half dozen or so local mandolinists all playing a show together.

    Grana

    Tristan Scroggins and Alisa Rose blend bluegrass and baroque style improvisation to add to the growing lexicon of new acoustic music.

    Scroggins and Rose: Grana

    What are some things you're looking to do next with crosspicking?

    I think there are some more banjo-centric ideas I like that I could bring to these arrangements. I still feel like I'm either just rolling over chords or playing a more ringing version of the melody and so I'm obviously hoping to bridge that gap but I also think that adding things like the chromatic chord patterns that Bela uses a lot or the pull-offs that Alan Munde uses would be cool. I'd also like to get into experimenting with some alternate tunings. Nothing crazy but maybe just tuning the E down to a D. Not necessarily to change to droning note but I think it would open up more possibility for the more chromatic runs that are physically impossible in standard tuning.



    What do you ultimately hope to achieve with this endeavor?

    For me, this started out as a curiosity that I chased until it bloomed into something that inspired me to practice a lot more than I had been. Working on this stuff has helped my dexterity enormously and given me a greater appreciation for Jesse's music. He was truly virtuosic and so creative. My hope is always that the things that I create will give people the same feeling that made me want to pursue creating that music so I hope it inspires people and encourages them to check out some music they might not have otherwise heard.

    My crosspicking EP Fancy Boy and the accompanying transcription book will be available by the time this is published.

    Back in January Jeff Scroggins & Colorado released our latest record called Over the Line. It was first time working with Patuxent Music and we had Mark Schatz produce it and play bass and we're really excited about how it turned out. I really love getting to play bluegrass like that, especially with my Dad, and I'm really proud of how it turned out. Scroggins & Rose, as I said, are also recording a full-length album later this year. I'm sure they'll also be more stuff from here in Nashville but a lot of that comes up last minute so I'd say you could follow me on Instagram or Facebook to keep up with that stuff.

    I've also been writing for publications more lately. Last month I had a piece on Roland White published on No Depression and I'm still occasionally contributing to my blog on Peghead Nation called Monroe Mondays where I track down, learn, and write about some more obscure Monroe tunes. All the links for that sort of stuff can be found on my website.

    What he plays

    I've had this Stelling mandolin for what seems like forever now but its probably only been six or seven years. It's settled into a really great, woody sound that's perfect for bluegrass and it has a resonance and tone in the middle of the fretboard that makes this cross-picking stuff a lot of fun. I've become very attached to its sound. It needs some setup work right now but the last time I had it set up I had Rick Ferris put EVO banjo frets on it which I've enjoyed cause they're a bit thicker than mandolin frets. I picked the EVO just cause I like gold hardware.

    I've been using Straight Up Strings for a long time now as well. Those strings just have a really great response. I feel more instant gratification when I have those on.

    I recently got an armrest from BanjoLit. I was never much of an armrest kind of guy but they sent me one to try and since it keeps my arm off the top of the mandolin the top can vibrate a little better and I like how that sounds plus it is actually more comfortable.

    I have one of those kangaroo leather straps that a friend got me. I play with it around one shoulder mostly because I think its easier to work a single mic that way. I also have a tone guard on the back of the mandolin. I've pretty much always used tortoise shell picks. I think they have a warmer tone than a lot of the other picks on the market. They do wear down but I don't actually mind. I like when they have a point but I've been known to use picks well into them becoming just a circle. But I do need them to be pretty thick

    Additional information


    Tristan Scroggins in Germany
    Photo credit: Nico Humby
    Comments 10 Comments
    1. AlanN's Avatar
      AlanN -
      Great interview. This young man has it going on!
    1. Mark Gunter's Avatar
      Mark Gunter -
      Really enjoyed this interview, and I became an instant fan of Scroggins & Rose! Thanks for linking to that album. Fresh take on trad tunes, Monroe tunes, and a Paganini caprice by stellar players - what's not to like?
    1. addamr's Avatar
      addamr -
      I like this young mans attitude. He seems to have a the idea of rather than rush out and try to make a name for himself, To take it slower and learn all you can about what it is you are doing and the name will come. I believe he will be around along time, not just a flash in the pan.
      I like this quote from his interview.
      "I am perpetually blown away by how creative, fresh, and expressive Jesse's solos are and the same for Jordan Ramsey who I always thought struck a tasteful balance in his solos. That's why I'd want to wait awhile to record any sort of full-length "crosspicking mandolin album." I'd want to wait until I had enough to creatively express something."
    1. bigskygirl's Avatar
      bigskygirl -
      Nice interview, Tristan is only in his early 20s and heís a monster player, I canít wait until his 40s and beyond, I hope Iím around to watch. I got the Grayna album shortly after it was released and if it was vinyl Iíd have worn it out listening while playing golf last summer. Iím looking forward to their next release.

      I was inspired to work out Clinch Mtn Backstep in this style and Iím messing around with Salt Creek now. Itís a great way to work on picking and learning the fretboard up in 4th and 5th position.
    1. David Lewis's Avatar
      David Lewis -
      The mandolin doesn't stop with Grisman, Bush, Thile or even Hull. It has a future in people like this. This is great.
    1. TimB989's Avatar
      TimB989 -
      I started learning mandolin in December after playing guitar for several years (I still play guitar). I have been seeking out inspiring and exciting mandolin music and players. After reading this interview, I listened to Grana. I must say, I was really blown away by what Scroggins and Rose were able to accomplish. I canít wait to hear more in the future.
    1. ccravens's Avatar
      ccravens -
      Great interview!

      Am I the only one who sees Thelonious Monk's Brilliant Corners album cover when I see the top picture? Great shot, BTW.

      Even better playing!
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      He's at it again today...

    1. dan in va's Avatar
      dan in va -
      Quite a sweet sounding and articulate mandolin. David Houchens had finished some wonderful work on my Stanley's neck and we talked about this mandolin last night. It seems that Sherry Stelling and another knowledgeable mandolin/fiddler think that David built this one for Geoff. i'm not surprised, as his Bryce guitars and mandolins are exceptional sounding and have stellar workmanship. NFI
    1. dan in va's Avatar
      dan in va -
      A correction to my previous post: i had missed Tristan's video on Peghead Nation where he revealed some history of this mandolin, and it was actually made by John Hamlett. Turns out there's an identical twin to it, in both wood and sound. Excellent work, John and thanks very much for the link to the video.