Bluegrass Corner

The Mandolin in Bluegrass

The gold standard bluegrass band is comprised of a banjo, a fiddle, an upright bass, an acoustic guitar, and a mandolin. A significant, but not required, instrument in a bluegrass band is a Dobro. Rare, and sometimes frowned upon by purists, one may find a harmonica, an electric bass, or even drums. But a mandolin is pretty much required. Let’s take a closer look at the mandolin as a key bluegrass instrument.

History. The mandolin was developed in Italy and brought to the U.S by Italian immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These Italian instruments were round backed, often called “pill bug” mandolins because of their shape. In the early 1900s mandolin orchestras became very population in America using mandolins produced mainly by the Gibson Guitar Company. Gibson converted the Italian pill bug mandolin to the flat-backed versions we see today, the F model with a scroll, and the rounded A model with no scroll.

As the mandolin orchestra craze faded out, these new flat-backed mandolins remained active and began to appear in Appalachian mountain music in the Southern U.S. During the 1930s it was in that context that Bill Monroe took up the instrument and began his ascent to prominence. As a mandolin player, Bill Monroe brought his instrument to prominence along with him and is credited with developing a new and unique style of mandolin playing, considered the ”bluegrass style” or “Monroe style” that emphasized rapid sequences of single note solo leads, heavy tremolo, and a hard-chopping backup style. The recordings of Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys from the 1940s feature this mandolin style. Many who followed Bill Monroe studied and copied his style. Mike Compton is one of recent history’s preeminent players of this Monroe style.

The instrument. As noted, the Gibson Guitar Company dominated early mandolin production in the U.S. and there are many beautiful F and A models still in prominent use manufactured by Gibson between 1910 and 1920. Then, in the early 1920s a mandolin designer/ builder named Lloyd Loar began production for Gibson. These Loar mandolins are, to this day, considered the cream of the crop in terms of sound and beauty. Loar mandolins are the Stradivarius of the mandolin world and are highly sought after, sometimes selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars. By way of example, Chris Thile, John Reischman, and other top bluegrass players all play coveted Lloyd Loar mandolins.

The instrument itself is typically hand carved and supports four sets of double strings tuned in E, A, D, G, the same as the violin. It is this pairing of double strings that gives the mandolin its unique sound, and also what makes it so challenging to keep in tune! Today there are many top mandolin makers, including Gibson, Collings, Gilchrist, and more.

The players. There are so many players who have influenced bluegrass-style mandolin playing it is not possible to list them all. Some who standout over the instrument’s history include Bill Monroe, of course, but also Roland White, Jesse McReynolds, Sam Bush, John Reischman, Mike Compton, Adam Steffey, Ricky Skaggs, Mike Marshall, Marty Stuart, and Chris Thile.

Give a listen to the music of any of these great players and see what you think. Or, investigate the new crop of your talent on the way up. There is a boat load of great players in their teens and 20s carrying forward the Bill Monroe mandolin legacy. Listen to any hot young bluegrass band and there is sure to be a great mandolin player on the team.

Hear it locally. Come on out to any of the local bluegrass events and you are sure to hear great mandolin playing and to have a fine time. The San Diego Bluegrass Society hosts an open bluegrass jam every second and fourth Tuesday of the month at Fuddruckers Restaurant in Grossmont Center in La Mesa, and hosts a slow jam every third Monday of the month in North Park. The public is welcome and admission is free, but with a small charge for the instructed slow jam. Read the details on the SDCBS website at: www.sandiegobluegrass.org.

The North San Diego County Bluegrass and Folk Club hosts an open jam every first Tuesday of the month at the Round Table Pizza in Escondido at the corner of Washington and Ash. Admission is free and the event is open to the public. Learn more at their website: www.northcountybluegrass.org/.

The Thursday Night Pickers host an open jam every Thursday of the month at Round Table Pizza in Encinitas. It is also open to the public and includes pizza and salad for a donation. Find more info on their website: www.northcountybluegrass.org/node/386.

Stop by any one of these events, and I promise you will have a great time and will hear lots of mandolins. Ask questions as mandolin players love their instruments and are more than happy to chat about them. Bring your instrument, ask about lessons, try some jamming, and get to know some great folks!

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