Simon Mayor is a musician's musician. His playing demonstrates exquisite technique, tone, range, feeling, and the ability to both lead and accompany flawlessly. Simon has recorded several albums including the genres of classical, celtic, bluegrass, and children's songs. In addition to mandolin, Simon plays mandola, mandocello, guitar, and violin. His line of instructional books and videos for mandolin has received much praise for the quality of their content and user friendly instructional style. He's participated in a number of BBC radio and television productions for children and for the public at large. Take
a good look through Simon's website for some very neat resources and a sense of what he brings to a performance.
I had the good fortune of seeing Simon and his partner, Hilary James, up close and personal at a house concert about 3 years ago or so. I found myself laughing in joyous disbelief at their incredible technique and musicality. He sounded as good live, if not better, than his recordings - and his recordings are masterful.
Q - My question is that I would like to know something general about your methods of composing and theme generation. Also, how do you connect with the old music traditions?
A - hanks for the first question - and hello to everyone on the list. I'm very honoured to have been invited to be a guest for a week. I think it's an excellent idea and I've already been absorbed by Roland White's contributions.
This is a very broad question. My methods of composing are a bit weird. The first thing to say is that, like most people I suspect, I go through creative phases and then have periods in the doldrums. Sometimes I write lots of tunes and I come back to them a week or even months later and they're all junk. I try very hard to write melodies rather than riffs and I seem to write my best ones when I'm doing something else, like watching the telly and doodling quietly on the mandolin. Bed time comes around (9.15 after a cup of cocoa and a digestive biscuit) and I realise there's a decent tune happening so I jot it down in case sleep wipes my memory.
I came up with one a few weeks ago that I haven't recorded yet, but I'm very pleased with. I was out for the day on a long hike over Ilkley Moor and started whistling it. I had to keep whistling it all the way home (another two hours walk) in case it disappeared before I could get back and note it down. It drove me nuts.
I can't remember ever coming up with something I was pleased with when I got out my mandolin or a piece of paper and said to myself: "let's write a tune".
On a lot of my recordings I've added other parts - mandolas, mandocellos. The melody must always come first, but then I tend to write the other parts straight onto tape. The bass (mandocello) line nearly always comes next and then the middle parts.
So far as connecting with the old music traditions, I have broad taste in music I like pretty much anything that might attract the term "ethnic" or "world". I find I listen to more and more romantic and classical music, but I'd say my first love is English traditional music and I suppose this must be my main influence. It's not as fiery as the Celtic stuff but it has very, very strong melodies. Ralph Vaughan Williams called English folk tunes "symphonies in miniature". I think he and some other schooled composers (Percy Grainger, George Butterworth, NOT Benjamin Brittain) managed to orchestrate these tunes without losing their essence.
Q - I just wanted to let you know that your compositions have renew my joy and energy for playing the mandolin... your arrangements are great , and i particularly love'"jericho waltz"... what are you listening to these days and what artist do you believe has an influence over your mando composition and playing? do you compose on the mandolin?
Q - Thank you very much for your kind words. I've never been to South America but I know there is a great mandolin tradition there, and many fine players.
I try to listen to lots of different things, more in the car than anywhere else these days. Violin/fiddle music is always a favourite. I recently got a 7 disc set of vintage Jascha Heifetz mono recordings. All the great violin concertos are there, and I never tire of his playing. The Sibelius and Brahms concertos are current favourites.
I listen to fiddlers also. I like Richard Greene, Alasdair Fraser, Eddie South, Joe Venuti and all those old swing players. I love the huge Russian folk orchestras. I like bluegrass, preferably the vintage variety, but I find it so intense that I have to switch to something else after about 20 minutes. After another 20 minutes I'll be back for more. As for singers, I'm not too keen on operatic voices. I like the way Fred Astaire interpreted popular songs and Jo Stafford is my second favourite female singer. And, of course I listen to other mandolinists. I don't think any single mandolinist or any other sort of musician has been a model for me, although like many British musicians, Dave Swarbrick was the player who first made me aware of the instrument. I suppose every time we get turned on by something it influences our own musical development to a certain extent.
Yes, I do compose with mandolin in hand. Sometimes guitar, but mostly mandolin.
Q - What are your primary instruments? How many instruments do you have in hand now? What kind of mandolin do you play now? What do you like about your current mandolin? Do you have a wish list of instruments (like the rest of us?)
A - The instrument I'm currently using is a new prototype Vanden long scale which at some point will become the SM signature model. Mike Vanden and I have been talking about this for ages and it's slowly coming together; there are some more little tweaks going to happen to the design but basically the idea is to build it about a fret longer than an F5 scale, and increase the body volume. Like the other Vandens I've used, it's teardrop shape with F holes. Mike's already sold a couple more long scales to British players, including one to Nigel Woodhouse, and I know a couple of American players I met when I was in the USA last year were seriously interested, although I don't know if they ordered.
The instrument I've used so far for recording is my 1983 Vanden; I have another similar one dated 1998, also an oval hole Vanden that I picked up secondhand. Unlike my mandolins, my Vanden mandola (1986) and mandocello (1987) both have scrolls and points. My partner Hilary James recently got a lovely Lyon & Healy A model. There's her mandobass as well, a huge thing, considerably bigger than a Gibson. She got it secondhand with a label inside saying Robin Greenwood of Bournemouth, England. We don't know why it was made, but curiously it has strap buttons.
I don't really have a wish list for instruments; I have a mandolin, violin and guitar that I love and I'm not the sort of person who is on a constant quest for the 8-string pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that probably doesn't exist anyway. But if something comes along like this long scale that I think is a real improvement, at least for what I want to do on a mandolin, I'll embrace it enthusiastically.
I started out playing round-back instruments and switched to a Vanden about 20 years ago after much wailing and gnashing of teeth. It was a major decision. They have huge sustain, which is very important for me; they're balanced across the whole fingerboard, and they don't die on you when you move up the neck.
Q - Could you please tell us about your custom Vanden mandolin? How did you choose the set-up, scale length, and other specifics of this mandolin? Example: Why F-hole vs. Oval hole? Also, please tell us about your choice of strings.
Lastly, any new recordings in the works?
A - It's a very simple looking mandolin because it's a prototype - no back binding, no position markers except tiny ones on the side of the fingerboard, no decoration, plain blonde finish. There would be all the usual options for customers of course.
Mike Vanden and I have had long conversations about the set-up but it's basically his idea:
The increased scale length has the slight disadvantage of increasing the string tension and making it a little harder on the fingers (I've not changed the string gauges I use). However, thanks to some computerisation creeping into the Vanden workshop, the accuracy of the fingerboard and fret positions is astonishing. It's the most in-tune mandolin I've ever played and the whole fingerboard is so straight and true that I'm able to use a slightly lower action than on my old Vanden while not getting any string buzz or any unwanted noises, not that I exactly had any problems with the old one, and it's still a great sounding instrument. The advantage of the longer scale is that while it's a bit more of a stretch in first position, the moment you move out of first, there's more room for your fingers than before. It suits me well.
I couldn't play an oval hole mandolin. To me they go "plop" whereas f-holes go "ping". To my ears, an oval hole gives you a fairly large burst of quite woody sound with a good low frequency content but they tend not to project as well as f-holes. The ovals have a seductive, instantly gratifying sound, but I've never really played one that I felt had anywhere near the variety of tone colours lurking within it that a good f hole has. I think you have to work a little harder at tone production with an f hole, but it's worth it.
I'll temper these comments by saying that it's a human trait to prefer what you're used to, and I've been playing f holes a long time. I'll also say how much I admire Andy Statman - who sounds amazing on a Gibson oval hole - so these things are not cast in stone.
Strings - I use 11 - 40, no strong brand preference. There's a small company called Newtone here in England who will custom wind you whatever you want; I don't use special gauges but it's nice to know they'd do them for me if I asked. I buy whatever I can find when I'm in the States and I can't recall being disappointed with anything.
As to new recordings, yes I've got one nearly completed, and also one with Hilary James but I've been gigging a lot the last couple of years and I don't know where the time goes. I also have a follow up to my Mandolin Tutor book that's nearly ready, and a collection of fingerstyle guitar arrangements of English, Scottish and Irish traditional tunes that's nearly finished. I have no gigs in January and it's my New Year resolution to tie up all these loose ends before February.
Q - Interesting comment about a instrument dying on you when you move up the neck. Most F-5 type instruments (all) I've played have required quite a bit of additional effort to get sound up the neck. The best F type mandolins I've ever played for up the neck stuff were Hans Brentrup's instruments. My question for Simon is whether he thinks F's in general are harder to get sound out of up the neck.
A - I said in my last reply that I have a strong preference for f hole instruments, but I don't think the repsonse up the neck is an f hole versus oval hole question, I think it's simply a good mandolin versus bad mandolin question. I'd add that in my experience instruments can definitely respond better over the entire range if they are played a lot. I remember my mandocello seemed to come to life almost overnight when it was about five years old, although the mandolins I've used have responded superbly from new.
I'm not familiar with the name Hans Brentrup, but I do think there are many excellent makers around these days. The choice for mandolinists is mind-boggling.
Q - Thank you for being here! From the variety of your music, I'll bet you can transfer any idea from your head to your fingerboard. It seems that an idea can come but when I pick up the mandolin, standard patterns present themselves and the idea goes "poof". How have you made that connection between what is in your head and what happens on the fingerboard? Do you like to improvise, and if so, how do you approach that?
I think "Reelin' Over The Rooftops" is one of the best mandolin tunes of all time.
A - I think transferring an idea straight from your head to the fingerboard is something we all wish we could do better, whatever level of competence we're at. I know when I hear a truly great jazz musician I'm in awe of this ability. I do enjoy improvising.
When I was a child my Dad taught me to sing in tonic sol-fa (doh ray me fa soh la te doh), which certainly in his day was widely used in church choirs, he also taught me all the accidentals in this system. So for people like my Dad, who couldn't read music, it was a great way to be able to sight sing. The wonderful thing about it is that it forces you to recognise intervals - the key is irrelevant. I remember him being able to jot down a tune in tonic sol-fa as someone was singing it on the radio.
So I have a good ear, and once you're familiar enough with the mandolin neck it's not a huge step to transfer this skill. To this day I think of everything in tonic sol-fa, whether I'm improvising or playing a fixed part. But apart from that I have no calculated "approach", and in any case I don't consider myself to be a jazz musician.
Thanks for the comment about "Reelin' Over The Rooftops". I've not been doing it on gigs for about a year now, so perhaps it's time to revive it..
Q - Interested to read your comments on composing... when you talk about joting down the tune before going to bed, do you write it out in notation (or tab.) or make a quick recording? And likewise you mentioned writing the mandola/cello parts straight to tape - do you work out the part in notation first or do it by ear straight to the recording?
A - If the studio's switched on, I'll sketch something out there. Otherwise it's quicker to write it down than set up a mic and stand. I often jot things down in tonic sol-fa, sometimes standard notation if there's some manuscript paper to hand. I don't use tablature personally, although I think it's a useful tool.
The bulk of the time I record by ear straight to tape, which means a lot of the things I've recorded aren't written down at all; I have to go through all the multitracks to find out what I did. Occasionally I'll work stuff out on the notation software I've got, occasionally on a piece of manuscript.
Q - Simon, I went to your website to order up a couple of your CDs. I couldn't help but notice that the covers of all your albums feature you prominently holding what appear to be F model mandolins. You have sung the praises of the Vanden A model. Why all the F's on the covers of your albums?
A - ............ That's my mandola... I'm taller than you think.... We decided a scroll and point was a bit more eye catching on the shelf in Woolworths.
Q - What about tuning down a half step? Whole step? Guitar players tune down (Stevie Ray Vaughan). Why not on a mandolin? Have you done any experimenting with non-standard tunings? I would keep one of my mandolins on the bus tuned to play Get Up John --if I only had a bus.
A - Tuning down a semitone would be out of the question for me; I play with my quartet The Mandolinquents and I'd have to learn Sabre Dance in seven sharps. Seriously, the whole point of the exercise was to see how the new design worked with the strings up to pitch, and I think even a semitone either way drastically alters the sound you get.
Years ago I used dadgad on guitar for some things but eventually I weaned myself off it and only use standard tuning now. It was such a drag retuning on stage. The challenge then was to get the effects that dadgad offers - but in standard tuning.
I've never experimented with non-standard tunings on the mandolin but I'd say I've carried that challenge across.
Q - I was fighting my new 4-string electric mando until I decided to tune down a whole step. It's now much easier to bend strings and do vibrato.
A - You could always put lighter strings on instead and leave the instrument in concert pitch.
Q - Simon, are you familiar with Bill Monroe's tunes in alternative tunings, such as "My Last Day's On Earth" and "Get Up John?" Which brings up a larger question, who are your main influences on mandolin? Was Bill Monroe someone you spent time listening to when you were learning?
A - I'm not familiar with these pieces, although I've probably got them on disc somewhere. Monroe is not an influence at all. I didn't become acquainted with him until I'd already been playing quite a few years, and I never got to see him play live although I know he did tour the UK at least once. I love his recordings for their sheer energy and of course respect him hugely for what he did to popularise the instrument.
My first exposure to the mandolin was hearing Dave Swarbrick of Fairport Convention - I think I mentioned his name earlier in the week. I listened to classical players as well when I was starting out and that prompted me to go down the round-back route for the first few years.
There are many mandolinists I admire - I think Mike Marshall and John Reischman are wonderful players, and I've heard some Russians who have left me flabbergasted - but I can't really call them influences. I listen to violin music a lot and do my best to capture the subtlety and variety of tone colour that is possible on a violin on an instrument that is in constant danger of being considered it's poor relation - but we all know that's not true!
Q - Simon, have you ever considered composing movie soundtracks? Seriously... I could easily imagine you scoring some dramatic movies.
No, not really. From what I gather it's very closed, cliquey world, and I'm not in it. Writing to order is something that only has limited appeal for me, and even when Hilary James and I used to write childrens' songs for BBC programmes we were careful to write things we knew we would be happy to use later for our own projects.
Q - Are you going to try the long scale mando with lighter strings? Seems like it would be trading off the extra sound from more downward pressure on the bridge for a "normal" finger workout - if you try it, I'd be interested in what you end up preferring.
A - No I won't try this. The extra string tension is slight - and like I said earlier, counterbalanced by the slightly lower action I'm using. After a week or two I felt quite comfortable on the new instrument. I can't for a moment think the tone would improve with lighter strings, so I'll stay with 11 - 40s
Q - Does anyone know if these albums are available from any sources in the US? or is the best way to obtain them directly from Acoustics Records in the UK?
A - Elderly Instruments, Mid-Continent Music and Dusty Strings stock some, but not all of my albums. You can also order securely in US Dollars or British Pounds from www.acousticsrecords.co.uk. Post from England to the USA usually takes about 5 days.
Q - I'm definitely anticipating your solo project CD that will be coming out soon. Please be sure to let us know when it becomes available (and also of any new tour dates, wherever they may be).
A - I'll put your email address on the list so you'll get to know when any new recordings are out. In any case there will be news at www.mandolin.co.uk.
It's been a pleasure to participate this last week, thank you all again for the invitation and the questions.
Q1 - These questions aren't so much about (directly) your own playing style, in a
technique sense, but possible influences and contemporaries, and the music
scene when you were developing your style.
Since you are English and mentioned Swarbrick as your first exposure to mandos, perhaps you could talk about the importance and influence, in the UK and in Europe, of groups like Fairport Convention and players like Dave Swarbrick , for the benefit of those folks who were uninfluenced by British/Irish folk/folk-rock, especially in the years the form(s) were being defined. Just as there were players in UK who may have asked "Doyle who?" because they weren't into bluegrass at the time, there are Americans who still probably ask "Swarb who?"
A - I don't really have the time to write the history of Fairport Convention and the whole folk/rock phenomenon. It'll all be there on the web if people want to investigate. Swarbrick was the person who really put folk fiddle and mandolin on the map in the sixties folk boom. I was as much, if not more excited by his recordings outside Fairport Convention than by the electric stuff. His acoustic recordings with Martin Carthy and also some stuff with Grappelli's then guitarist Diz Disley were (for me) milestones of their day. I grew tired of folk/rock fairly quickly as I've never enjoyed playing at high volume.
Q - You've also worked with Chris Leslie (now with Fairport). I know Chris
mentioned to me that he played in your group. Did you ever work with his
band, or with singer/songwriter Steve Ashley?
A - Chris Leslie is a good friend of mine and played second mandolin in the first line up of my group The Mandolinquents. Chris did a truly remarkable job when he was in the group as he always considered his natural instrument was the violin - and you are obviously aware of what a fine fiddler he is. That's the only context in which I've ever played with Chris. In the same line up Maartin Allcock (ex-Fairport) was on mandocello. Maart is also a very good mandolinist but because his training was on double bass he wanted to play one of the lower pitched instruments in the group - so became mandocellist-in-chief and played some mandola.
I have never met Steve Ashley, although I know his name.
Q - Perhaps you could mention some of the other important mando players from
the UK/Eire. Andy Irvine is fairly well known (and deservedly so), but
others are not ....Martin Jenkins, Terry Woods, Peter Knight, Dick Gaughan
(does he still play mando, he did 25 years ago?),...
A - Mandolinists really don't come any more tasteful than Andy Irvine, and I think he's a remarkable musician for the sensitivity and sheer invention of his song accompaniments.
Martin Jenkins used to play mandocello in Whippersnapper many years ago, but I don't know what he's doing now.
Didn't Terry Woods used to be in The Pogues? He played banjo in the very first Line up of Steeleye Span but I didn't know he played mandolin.
I was playing fiddle on a UK fiddlers tour a couple of years ago. Peter Knight was on it and I asked him if he played mandolin still and he said he hadn't played for years. He felt he had to choose between the two instruments and decided to concentrate on the violin.
I've never heard Dick Gaughan play mandolin, but I imagine he's probably very good - he's a fine flatpick guitarist.
Q - How do you like Martin Carthy's mandolin playing? He's one of my
favorite guitar players, but I love what he does on mandolin. I don't think
anyone but he could come up with some of that stuff on that instrument. (I
consider Carthy an influence in my playing - there are some tunes which I
just have to try to infuse with his guitar style or they just don't sound
'right'. ESPECIALLY morris tunes.)
A - I know Martin and saw him play about a month ago. Not a mandolin in sight! I can't recall ever seeing him use one on stage. He was revelling in the joys of his new signature model Martin guitar when I spoke to him. If he's recorded the mandolin I'd be really interested to hear it. Can you point me in the right direction, Niles?
Q - How do the answers in the previous questions converge in the development
of your own playing style?
A - They don't.
When I first started doing mandolin albums (1990) I wasn't aware of any UK or Irish players who treated it as a first instrument in an 'up-front' sense. Andy Irvine's use of the instrument has always been as an accompanist. Even Dave Swarbrick was always known primarily as a fiddler. Since then I've met a few other people list members might like to seek out, but for any North Americans reading this I should point out that it is a growing, but still small scene here.
Gary Peterson from Shetland has an unsurpassed command of Celtic style decoration. He played in a band called Hom Bru but I don't know whether they're still going.
I met an excellent player in Edinburgh called Kevin McLeod - mostly traditional Scottish material.
In England the scene is not so strong as Ireland and Scotland for traditional music, but Marc Woodward (on this list) is a fine bluesy/jazzy player.
Chris Newman is blessed of a dazzling technique. He's a guitarist really but has used the mandolin quite a bit on recordings. He plays regularly with harpist Maire Ni Chathasaigh.
Dave Pegg, bass player in Fairport Convention, is a nifty mandolinist. Phil Beer is a multi-instrumentalist who uses mandolin quite a bit, including some slide.
There's a small round-back scene here; prominent players are Nigel Woodhouse, Sue Mossop and Alison Stephens.
I did pretty detailed interviews with some of these people in my book New Celtic Mandolin and there are links from the links page at www.mandolin.co.uk