Learn How to Play the Mandolin

Got bluegrass in your bones? Wayne Erbsen has the perfect tutorial so that you can learn how to play the mandolin.

| March/April 1985

Some people call it a 'tator bug because of its traditional round back, but most people know it as a mandolin. The instrument, a distant relative of the lute and (even more distantly) the guitar, was brought to America from eastern Europe during the last century. It wasn't exactly an overnight success, though — probably because the import's bowl-like back made it frustratingly hard to hang onto to play.

But in the late 1800's, an instrument maker in Kalamazoo, Mich., named Orville Gibson designed an easy-to-hold, flat-backed model that dramatically increased the mandolin's popularity. Mandolin societies and even mandolin orchestras sprang up everywhere and flourished. The Gibson company went into full production, building not only regular mandolins but also banjo mandolins, mando-cellos, mando-basses and even tiny piccolo mandolins.

The instrument's heyday continued up until the time America entered World War I. Then "hot" music became the country's passion, and the mandolin was usurped in bands by the tenor banjo, which of course was louder and could more easily compete with horns in the new jazz orchestras. The mandolin was put away to gather dust.

A Turning Point: The History of Bluegrass

A couple of decades later (in October of 1939, to be exact), Bill Monroe walked onto the stage of WSM's Grand Ole Opry for the first time and not only ushered in a new style of music, which we now call "bluegrass," but also rescued the mandolin from near oblivion. Before Monroe demonstrated the vast possibilities of the mandolin with his dazzling virtuosity, the instrument had played only a fairly minor role in country music; it had always taken a backseat to the fiddle and guitar. True, many of the old-time brother duets of the 30s (probably the most notable of which was Lester McFarland and Robert A. Gardener, better known as Mac and Bob) did use the mandolin for both lead and accompaniment. But for the most part, it was played in a rather laid-back, subdued fashion.

All that changed with the coming of Bill Monroe. Backed by his band, the Blue Grass Boys (which in the mid-40s included such legendary greats as Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs), Monroe forged new directions for the mandolin and brought the instrument to national attention.

In the years since, bluegrass has become a respected form of American music. Practically every bluegrass band today includes a mandolin. And a young contemporary mandolinist by the name of David Grisman has generated even more interest in the instrument by creating a compelling new sound he calls Dawg Music: an inventive, often complex combination of instrumental gypsy jazz (a la Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli) and bluegrass. American and Japanese instrument manufacturers are hard put to keep up with the current demand for mandolins, and no doubt the 'tator bug will continue to enjoy a steady rise in popularity over the years ahead.

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