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Hi! My name is John Baldry. I live in England, and for thirty years I've been learning to play bluegrass mandolin, as an amateur who doesn't know when to give up. Most recently I completed a five-year stint with the South London/Surrey band Monroe's Revenge. I left the band with great regrets in September 2003, when my wife and I relocated. Thanks for a great five years, Dave, Dick, Roger and Richard! The good news is that Joe Hymas, one of the finest young mandolin players in UK, has now joined Monroe's - you really have to hear this guy! You can listen to the new band at YouTube by clicking here.


What is bluegrass mandolin?

Bluegrass mandolin – indeed bluegrass music – was invented by the late Bill Monroe. If you have read this far, the chances are that you have already listened to some bluegrass. Check out the website of Bluegrass Unlimited magazine to find out more about this exciting form of country music.

There is an excellent site for bluegrass links on the Net provided by About.com.

One of the best bluegrass websites, with lots of links, is Bluegrass Rules! Also check out iBluegrass.

Evan Reilly has an interesting page on Bill Monroe. A search at Google will find some biographies of Bill, including a good one at mp3.com.

Bill Monroe's style of mandolin playing has been developed and modified (often considerably) by other mandolin players. Personally I love Monroe's playing, which is at the heart of bluegrass music, but I don't want to get into a debate about the relative merits of different styles. I guess you will know what you like!

If the world of bluegrass mandolin is new to you, try to listen to as many of the 'name' players as you can. It's worth joining the CoMando e-mail list to find out what other mandolin players are listening to.

Perhaps the best mandolin websites to include a lot of bluegrass coverage and links are Mandolin Cafe and Mandozine. There are also two excellent hard copy magazines, Mandolin Magazine and the Mandocrucian's Digest. (The latter has now ceased publication, but most of the information-packed back issues are still available from Niles Hokkanen.)

Dr Bob's Nifty Little List Of Websites includes links to mandolin resources, and has loads of bluegrass and other musical links. Well worth a look!

A great way of sampling a variety of bluegrass mandolin styles is to purchase Bluegrass Mandolin Extravaganza, a recent double CD on the Acoustic Disc label. David Grisman and Ronnie McCoury invited other key figures in the history of bluegrass mandolin to participate in the recording sessions, which were restricted to mandolins with accompanying guitar. As a result you can hear what the mandolin is doing without the distractions of other instruments (no banjo!). As well as Grisman and McCoury, the participants comprised: Ricky Skaggs, Sam Bush, Jesse McReynolds, Frank Wakefield, Bobby Osborne and Buck White, with Del McCoury (Ronnie's father) and Terry Eldridge on guitar. While these guys have individually made many very distinguished recordings, Bluegrass Mandolin Extravaganza is the only place you will find them all together on one (double) CD. (The usual disclaimer: I have no financial interest in this product. I just love listening to it, and I think it would be a good place for the beginner to get a taste of what bluegrass mandolin playing involves.) More information from Acoustic Disc.

What you won't get from Bluegrass Mandolin Extravaganza is the full sound of a bluegrass band, complete with vocals (solo and harmonies) and other instruments, including 5-string banjo and fiddle. Check the bluegrass section of major record dealers for the thousands of fine bluegrass CDs which are currently available.

Established suppliers include County Sales and Elderly Instruments. Mid-Continent Music are building up an excellent reputation in bluegrass, particularly for hard-to-find items.


Why learn to play?

I've been a keen amateur musician since buying my first instrument (the classic second-hand acoustic guitar with a bent neck and impossible action) in 1964. I sometimes wonder why I have devoted so much time to what many would dismiss as a self-indulgent hobby. I think it is probably a matter of finding in music a personal challenge and a means of self-expression. Sometimes (!) other people will also enjoy what you do. I can't think of any other reasons for learning to play. Most of us amateurs do day jobs to earn money – if you can make music pay for you, that's wonderful, but no one ever starts playing in order to make money. (Country Gazette summed it up in a couple of their album titles: Don't Give Up Your Day Job and All This, And Money Too!)


How do I learn to play?

People learn in different ways – it all depends on the individual.

Some are able to pick up an instrument and find their way around it without much help. If you can do this, and if you can hear in your mind the notes you are trying to play, you belong to a minority who have a particular musical gift. PLEASE use it and count yourself very fortunate!

Most of us need more help than this. (I know I did when I started.) Let's take the worst-case scenario. There's something that niggles away inside you, making you want to play an instrument. You don't read music, you don't know what a key is, but you can sing (or at least hear in your mind) a major scale (do, re, mi ...).

Get started! When you buy your first instrument you are the worst player in the world. Things can only get better.

Find a teacher if you can (music shops often have names of teachers, or you could try asking on the CoMando list). Or use an instruction book/tape/video – there are some recommendations below. But start trying to get sounds out of your mandolin!

Go to bluegrass concerts and festivals. Talk to other players. They will usually be very willing to help you. When you feel ready, try out your skills in a jam session at the appropriate level. Look at the Ten Commandments of Jamming. For a long read about jamming, go to An Introduction to Bluegrass Jamming by Tom Barnwell.

For the reflective musician, John Bird's Tao Of The Mandolin offers a unique philosophical angle on learning to play.

People sometimes ask, "How long will it take me to learn?" Answer: the whole of your life. Bill Monroe was still producing mandolin surprises for us during his eighties.

Your rate of progress will depend on how much natural talent you have and how you develop that talent. Regular practice will be essential, however. If you really want to play, you will find the time. Personally, I watch very little television, but I do manage to practise for an hour or two most days.

If you can find a teacher (and can afford to pay him/her), that's great. But don't sign up for lessons unless the teacher can play bluegrass. There are a lot of 'folk' mandolin players, and guitarists who turn their hand to a bit of mandolin, who may offer to give you lessons. That might be OK just to get you started. But if your ambition is to play punchy bluegrass mandolin solos, get the teacher to demonstrate this style of playing before you agree to take regular lessons.


With the experts

Go to Learning with Jethro to find out what it was like to learn from one of the world's best mandolin players, Jethro Burns.

Frank Wakefield, another of the veteran mandolin masters, is well-represented on the Web, at Jim Moss's site. This is a big site which is well worth exploring. There are interviews with Frank and other bluegrass masters, and you can even download an MP3 file in which Frank teaches you how to play one of his best-known tunes, Catnip. You will need an audio program like RealPlayer to play the file. One of the RealPlayer freebies should work fine, and will also play the live Frank Wakefield radio show.

By joining the CoMando e-mail list you can receive e-mails from the CoMando Guest Of The Week and take part in the discussion. So far CGOWs have included the likes of Roland White, Mike Compton, Jimmy Gaudreau and Simon Mayor! Check the links on the CGOW page for a collation of what previous Guests Of The Week have said about mandolin playing and music in general.

Well-known players who have personal web pages include David Grisman, Mike Marshall, Bobby Osborne, Sam Bush, Butch Baldassari, Niles Hokkanen, Simon Mayor and Roland White. David Grisman and Roland White also have some tablature pages.

The Seldom Scene website has some wonderful memories of the late John Duffey. There are a number of pages on UK sites which tell the life story and achievements of our own sadly missed Andy Townend, who died in 1998.


Bluegrass as a specialism

By now you've probably realised that bluegrass mandolin is a rather specialised style of playing. If you're not sure that bluegrass is precisely what you are looking for, you should first investigate a wider range of mandolin styles.

Nigel Gatherer's The Scottish Mandolin is well worth visiting, and is particularly strong on the popular Celtic mandolin music. Nigel also has some very useful tutorial pages. Another good introduction to the mandolin is at Paul Slater's site. Mel Bay author Mickey Cochran has some free lessons (basics for absolute beginners) at his Folk Of The Wood site.

A real 'must' is Simon Mayor's Acoustics site. While Simon has played with some of the bluegrass greats, his music is much more broadly based. He is without doubt the UK's number one mando player and ambassador for the mandolin family of instruments. He has also produced some excellent instruction material. If you are a beginner who is not sure what style of mandolin music to play, check out Simon's books and videos page.

Whether or not you find a teacher of bluegrass mandolin, it's a good idea to get some of the books, audio tapes and videos which will help you learn the bluegrass style. Probably the best course to get you started is Teach Yourself Bluegrass Mandolin by Andy Statman. This book with accompanying CD is by one of the real masters of the mandolin.

The classic manual by Jack Tottle, Bluegrass Mandolin, published by Oak/Music Sales, is about 25 years old and it is still the most comprehensive course. There used to be a recording which came with the book, but the most recent edition apparently doesn't have this - a pity, as it somewhat diminishes the usefulness of the book for the real beginner.

For a great value package with tabs and accompanying CDs you should look at Roland White's new instruction course for beginners and intermediate players, aptly entitled Roland White's Approach to Bluegrass Mandolin

Sam Bush, one of today's premier mandolin players, has done some excellent instruction material. Homespun has his audio tape series and his video, plus the two videos of Bill Monroe's mandolin playing – the first video is devoted to Bill, while on the second video Sam explains and demonstrates what Bill is doing. Check out Homespun Tapes.

Two inspirational videos which are popular with learners are The Mandolin of Norman Blake and Essential Techniques for Mandolin taught by Chris Thile. The content is rather different - Norman Blake's playing is more old-timey in flavour, while Chris is the young maestro in the progressive bluegrass band Nickel Creek.

Authentic Mandolin Transcriptions "as performed by Bill Monroe" are available from Sheet Music Plus. These comprise transcriptions of 16 mandolin solos from Monroe's Columbia period.

Niles Hokkanen's instruction materials are terrific value when you have got beyond the beginner stage. They are guaranteed to widen your musical horizons and to develop your understanding of the capabilities of the mandolin. For bluegrass players the Bluegrass Up The Neck and Pentatonic Mandolin courses are particularly good starting off points. I recommend this material unreservedly - I have no financial interest in saying this, I just know that many of us have learned a huge amount from Niles over the years.

Another author who has produced some excellent teaching material is Tom Ohmsen. His Fiddle Tune Method for Modern Mandolin: An Introduction to Improvisation offers lots of ideas for creating your own variations on some well-known tunes. Tom has also written the invaluable Music Theory for Modern Mandolin - not for the fainthearted, but it will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about chords, scales and modes, and their application in improvising and arranging. There is also a companion volume for guitar players. These books are now available through AcuTab.

If you are keen to get into the fiddle tune style of mandolin playing, have a look at Pete Martin's instructional material. Pete is a superb player, as witness his performance of Cotton Patch Rag on the CoMando Sessions II CD.

Butch Baldassari sells a lot of useful instruction material in various formats, as well as some nice recordings.

Nowadays there are all sorts of bluegrass teaching events ranging from half-day workshops to one-week "camps". Steve Kaufman's camps are well-known and very popular, and there are also the NashCamp weeks. In UK the annual Sore Fingers Week is the event. The (two!) mandolin tutors for 2006 will be Mike Compton and John Moore.


What about tab?

The fine guitarist, David Bromberg, once said: "Music doesn't exist on paper. There is no written music. There are symbols for sounds, you see, but that's not music."

Well, tablature (tab) is a system of symbols telling you where to fret notes to get sounds. Some like it, some don't. Tab has become something of a cult in bluegrass music, as it is a very effective way of telling you where to put down your left hand fingers and of indicating basic timing. But, as Bromberg said, that's not music! By all means use tab if it works for you. (I use it a lot as an aide-memoire when doing transcriptions, and I've published a lot of tab.) But you will not be a musician until what you are playing sounds like music.

If you are tab hungry, go to Mandolin Cafe. This site has a growing library of tablatures which you can download, as well as a mass of other useful information and links for mandolin players. Another equally valuable resource, maybe even better, is the MandoZine tablature collection. The MandoZine tabs are available in TablEdit (for PC only) and/or text format and/or ABC, whereas the Mandolin Cafe archive is all in a universal text format. The big advantage of the MandoZine TablEdit files is that you can get MIDI playback of the tab through your computer sound card. MandoZine also offers some 'stand alone' MIDI files which can be played back by Mac users as well. Go to MandoZine and have a look!

You can also find tabs on this site on the Tab List page.

Other folks offering free tablature include UK North West Bluegrass News, David Grisman, Roland White and Nathan Torkington. You could also try looking around at Bluegrass World - Bluegrass Lyrics and Tablature Links.

AcuTab publish some invaluable collections of mandolin tab by Butch Baldassari, Alan Bibey, Wayne Benson and, most recently, Herschel Sizemore. These guys are all top-class professional bluegrass mandolin players, who have tabbed the breaks they played on commercially released CDs. If you have the CDs, AcuTab have the mandolin breaks for you!

There is a lot of mandolin music on the Net in other formats, including regular musical notation and ABC. Speaking personally, I find that tablature is the natural medium for bluegrass notation, as I think in terms of licks and finger positions. Regular notation conveys melody more immediately, indeed a good sight reader (not me!) can look at a line of musical dots and sing the tune represented. ABC is a version of regular notation which is initially entered on the computer using letters of the alphabet. In its basic form it looks like a kind of code. However, you can get programs which will turn ABC into standard musical notation (for example ABC2Win) and even tablature (such as TablEdit). This is often in addition to MIDI playback. For more info, go to the ABC Home Page.

The MandoZine site is building up a good library of ABC files, including bluegrass tunes. Mike Nelson's Mandolin Page also has a range of good bluegrass tunes in ABC, as well as some interesting stuff about mandolin construction. There are many sites which have fiddle tunes in ABC, mostly Celtic music, but also some American tunes. Try searching at JC's ABC Tune Finder for your favourites.

You should also subscribe to the CoMando list. List members often send in URLs for particular tunes or music sites. You can also send an e-mail asking if anyone can help you find that tune you are desperate to learn! It's probably best to receive CoMando postings in digest format, which comprises one or two big e-mails per day. Initially you may be overwhelmed by the number of messages in each digest (50-100 daily), but you'll quickly learn to scan for the stuff that interests you.


UK North West Bluegrass News

UK North West Bluegrass News (NWBN) is a great resource for bluegrass music. There is a new issue every two months, and it comes out very promptly thanks to the efforts of the editor and webmaster Derek Brandon. There is a lot of tablature at the site on the Instrumental Workshop pages, including some of my mandolin tabs.


Are you Long John Baldry?

Sorry, no! Thought I'd better put this in, as it's a question I'm asked from time to time, probably as a result of LJB's fans doing searches. (I only wish I had a fraction of Long John's musical talent!) I remember him from the early 60s on BBC radio, with the Hoochie Coochie Men, and also the big UK hit in 1967, Let The Heartaches Begin.

At 5ft 6ins I'm usually introduced in our bluegrass band as Short John Baldry. If you've read through this far and want to know any more about me, you can find my bluegrass biog at NWBN. If by any chance you are interested in the genealogy of the Baldry clan you can get some info at Ken Baldry's site.


And finally …

Thank you for reading through to the end. I guess you are really interested in bluegrass mandolin!

You will have realised that this is a no-frills web page. I want to spend as much time as possible playing rather than publishing. So anything you see here will be useful (IMHO) rather than ornamental.

Further links and tablatures are added fairly regularly, so do stop by every few weeks and see what's new. However, updates have to be (to borrow an expression from Carter Stanley), "like the cat ate the grindstone, a little at a time".

I want particularly to note my gratitude to the late Paul Hawthorne for going the extra mile to help me get started in web publishing. In 1999 Paul e-mailed me to say "Any problems, just ask!" He certainly sorted out my understanding of browsers, HTML, web graphics and a whole lot else. I was shocked this year (2007) to hear of Paul's premature death a few days short of his 65th birthday. Paul was truly an inspirational person. Friends are still adding to his website, where you can read about his many interests and achievements. Requiescat in pace.

My thanks also to Derek Brandon and Ted Silverman for their helpful advice on website design.

Grateful acknowledgements to Paul Lutus for providing his Arachnophilia web authoring program free, through the philosophy of CareWare. You can read about CareWare and download Arachnophilia to create your own web pages. (I still like Arachnophilia 4.0 best for Windows.)

If you are new to the Internet (and perhaps also to using Windows) you may find some helpful links at my Use Your PC! site. If you want to set up your own site and are serious about learning to write HTML (which is not really very hard), a good reference site is Annabella's HTML Help.

Please contact me with queries, comments and corrections. Click to email me.

Enjoy your music!

John Baldry

27th April 2009


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since 7th August 2003.

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