Robin Bullock

Celtic/American "string wizard" Robin Bullock is a prolific composer, respected instructor and workshop leader, and virtuoso multi-instrumentalist, specializing in 6- and 12-string guitars, Irish bouzouki, mandolin, piano and bass guitar. A founding member of the innovative acoustic world-music trio Helicon (winners of the Association for Independent Music's prestigious INDIE Award for their Dorian CD A Winter Solstice With Helicon) and an alumnus of trailblazing Celtic groups The John Whelan Band and Greenfire, Robin has toured extensively throughout the U.S., Canada and Europe and appeared on over two dozen CDs. His own critically acclaimed recorded work includes three CDs on Dorian, Green Fields, the holiday CD A Midnight Clear (on which he alternates tracks with fellow INDIE winners Al Petteway and Amy White), and the soon to be released The Lightning Field, as well as Midnight Howl and Between Earth and Sky on the Maggie's Music label, Travellers with legendary bluegrass mandolinists Butch Baldassari and John Reischman on SoundArt Recordings, and Celtic Guitar Summit with California fingerstylist Steve Baughman on Solid Air Records. Robin's further credits include three Washington Area Music Association WAMMIE Awards, a Governor's Award from the Maryland State Arts Council, and a feature broadcast on National Public Radio's hugely popular Celtic music program The Thistle and Shamrock.

Born in 1964 in Washington DC, a major focal point for both bluegrass and Irish music, Robin began playing guitar at age seven, initially inspired by Doc and Merle Watson, Norman Blake and John Fahey. Robin's apprenticeship years were spent at fiddlers' conventions, bluegrass festivals and Irish sessions, mastering the subtleties of a half-dozen instruments in both American and Celtic styles. Today, Robin is recognized as one of the few musicians who can so successfully blend the ancient airs and dance tunes of the Celtic lands with the roots music traditions of the "New World."

In 2000, Robin relocated to France, and now lives in the tiny village of Tripleval, on the Seine river northwest of Paris. He continues to tour and record on both sides of the Atlantic, in a number of contexts: solo, in duos with flutist Michel Sikiotakis and guitarist Steve Baughman, and the annual "Winter Celebration" concert tour with Al Petteway and Amy White.

Whether flying solo or soaring with others, Bullock has an extraordinary command of timbre and dynamics...It's easy to overlook his brilliant technique, since it's always in service of the music. - Guitar Player

A musician whose technical skill and stylistic expertise are second to none...a time-served folkie of the highest calibre. - Classical Guitar (U.K.)

Celtic guitar god. - Baltimore City Paper


Q - Robin, one of my all time favorite recordings is your CD with Butch Baldassari and John Reischman, "Travelers". It is awesome. Any plans to do another?

A - Glad you like it! It's one of my favorites as well, and was great fun to do. I'd love to do a Volume 2, but I don't know that it'll be anytime soon... the three of us are pretty spread out geographically (Vancouver, Nashville and France) so it isn't very feasible to perform together as a trio, much as we'd all like to. (We've played in public exactly twice, both times at Kamp Kaufman!) And since live performances and CD sales sort of feed each other in this business, I'm not sure how practical the investment into a Volume 2 would be. But nothing's impossible!

In the meantime, there are a few live Butch-&-Robin tracks on Steve Kaufman's "Best of the Kamp Koncert Series Volume 4", and a John-&-Robin track on "Best of the Kamp Koncert Series Volume 1", if you want to be a completist... :)


Q - I use a three finger grip like yourself on the mandolin, and i find it's easier to go through the strings and keep the wrist flexible. My question is what caused you to go to a three finger grip and what pick do you use, also do you use a three finger grip on the guitar and what pick also...thanks

A - Nothing really caused me to "go to" a three finger just sort of happened. I played guitar fingerstyle before I learned about flatpicking on guitar or mandolin, and I suppose the 3-finger grip is what happened naturally when I first picked up a pick. It wasn't until much later that I found out I was in the minority among flatpickers and mandolinists, but the 3-finger grip works for me and the conventional 2-finger grip doesn't as well (I've tried), so I guess I've just never felt any particular need to change!

I also anchor my little finger on the top of the mandolin, which a lot of people consider heresy, but again, it works for me. It would probably be best if I could play without anchoring any part of the hand, but I've tried that too and it doesn't give me the power and control I want...I feel a need for some contact with the instrument, and I never liked anchoring my wrist or palm because that limits where I can attack the string. (You get different tone depending on where along the string you pick...basic string instrument physics. Fun to experiment with.) So there I am with my 3-finger grip and my little finger anchored on the top...there are plenty of mandolin and guitar teachers who would scream in outrage at that, but I consider it correct technique _for me_ because it allows me to do what I want to do comfortably, which is the whole point of technique. Most people do it differently, I suppose, and that's fine too. There's more than one "correct" technique!

(The only caution I would throw in, if you anchor your finger like me, is to do so VERY VERY LIGHTLY...never dig in or lean on it, because I use to do that, and wound up with an inflamed nerve in my little finger some years ago. As soon as I lightened the anchor, the problem went away. So learn from my experience. :) )

To answer your other question, yes, I use the same pick (Gibson jazz heavy, which Barry Mitterhoff turned me on to), pick grip, and right hand technique on mandolin, bouzouki, guitar, and even electric bass. The only difference is that on mandolin I pick with the rounded shoulder of the pick to cut the trebliness of the instrument and bring out the mellowness, and on the other instruments I pick with the point for clarity and definition.


Q - I met you at the first Kaufman Kamp in 1999. I am sure you will remember! :-) Seriously, my question is, will you be planning any trips to the West Coast, preferably the Los Angeles, area in the near future?

A - At the moment I've got a northern California mini-tour shaping up for mid-October with Steve Baughman, a wonderful fingerstyle Celtic guitarist who's one of my two present duo partners (the other being the French Irish flute champion Michel Sikiotakis). Steve and I will be at the Freight and Salvage in Berkeley on Thursday October 16th, with other dates in that general neck of the woods that weekend. Nothing around LA, though, I'm afraid (though I'm always open to suggestions for good gigs...if you have any ideas for places for us to play, do let me know!). Michel and I are looking at coming out west too, probably next March, so check in on the website from time to time...anything's possible.


Q - At Kamp you did a session on altered tunings for mandolin; really a good intro to the different options. Are you using other tunings much or do you typically stay in standard? Also at that session you did a song, The Golden Vanity, which was fantastic- simple but very beautiful and moving. Any plans to record that? Thanks.

A - I'd been using altered tunings for years on guitar, but it never really occurred to me to investigate the idea on mandolin. We have Steve Kaufman to blame for this :) year at Kamp all of the teachers were asked to teach two "class scrambles" on a topic of our choice. The only thing I could think of, besides some sort of "Intro to Celtic", was a class on altered tunings. Then I realized: there's the Monroe "Get Up John" tuning, and his "Last Days on Earth" tuning, and those are the only two I know, and that'll take maybe ten minutes, and then what? :)

And that's when it hit me: the mandolin is tuned the same way as a violin, and I'd been hanging out with old-time fiddlers who use altered tunings all the time, so I tried some of those fiddle tunings on the mandolin, and a whole world opened up. Playing old-time fiddle tunes on the mandolin using the traditional tuning for that tune can give you a HUGE sound, and it's great for playing solo, which I do a lot. (I've seen Mike Seeger do this in solo concert too.)

A few of my favorites are GDGD ("Boatman", "Stay All Night", "Foxhunter's Reel"), GDGB ("Jack o'Diamonds", "Lost Child", "Black Mountain Rag") and DDAD ("Coleman's March", "Bonaparte's Retreat") fact, I've already used this last tuning on a recording, "The First Noel/Good King Wenceslas" on the Christmas CD A Midnight Clear. No doubt there'll be more soon enough! The two G tunings are also used on the fiddle in the key of A (i.e. AEAE and AEAC#), but I don't want to tune mandolin strings above standard pitch, so if I want those tunings in those keys I use a capo. Yes, that's right: I use a capo on the mandolin and I'm not afraid to say it. :) After all, the whole point of open tunings is the ringing sustain of open strings, so the conventional prohibition of capo use on the mandolin no longer applies in that case, it seems to me. (How did that get started, anyway?)

So far, about all I've done with altered tunings on the mandolin is this sort of old-time fiddle-inspired thing...Radim Zenkl, for example, has taken it much farther than I have. But it's a lot of fun, and yes, I'm performing in altered tunings more and more all the time.

As for "The Golden Vanity", well thanks, I'm glad you liked that! I do that in the key of D with the mandolin tuned GDAD, a sort-of-standard sort-of-open tuning that's the primary tuning I use on the cittern. That's something else that I probably wouldn't have thought to do if it hadn't been for the Kamp Kaufman workshop. I got the melody from the incredible Maine folksinger Gordon Bok, raised it QUITE a few keys to suit my voice (Bok is a mega-powerhouse bass), and discovered that the starkness of solo mandolin in that tuning suited the song perfectly. I haven't recorded it yet, or any other vocals for that matter, but we'll see, we'll see...!


Q - Robin, I was fortunate to have seen Helicon several years ago at Beserkley's Freight & Salvage. I was very impressed with your rhythm playing and talked with you about it during the break. Any tips on rhythm playing for some of the odd time signatures? And could you talk a bit about that band, how you met Chris Norman, & Ken Kolodner. You all made some interesting music together, I enjoy several of the CD's.

A - I already owned a copy of Chris Norman and Ken Kolodner's duo album "Daybreak" when I met them at the Deer Creek Fiddlers' Convention in 1986. They were looking for a permanent guitar player and I was looking for a band, and so it began. We took the name Helicon from the mountain in Greek mythology that was believed to be the source of all artistic inspiration. At first we mostly played traditional Celtic and old-time music, but pretty soon we discovered that traditional dance music from other parts of the world suited our instrumentation of wooden flute, hammered dulcimer, and guitar or cittern equally well. So, after a few years our concert repertoire consisted primarily of tunes from South America, eastern Europe, Scandinavia, China, with the occasional Celtic or old-time tune thrown in to remind us where we came from.

Quite a few of those tunes were in what we Yanks would consider odd time signatures, particularly the tunes from central and eastern Europe. I actually started it by contributing a tune in 5/4, "The Storm Warning", to our second album, but after that the odd-time floodgates burst and pretty soon we were playing tunes in 7/8, 14/16, 15/8, all over the place. This probably sounds terrifying if you've never been exposed to it, but the way I deal with odd meters is simply to reduce each measure to combinations of 2's and 3's. For example, a measure of a tune in 7 will almost always break down into 2, 2, 3 (counted like this: 1-2 1-2 1-2-3 / 1-2 1-2 1-2-3) or 3, 2, 2 (1-2-3 1-2 1-2 / 1-2-3 1-2 1-2). The first will be perceived by the listener as short, short, long / short, short, long, and the second as long, short, short / long, short, short. Both of which are pretty natural-feeling once you get used to them...after all, this is a very common dance rhythm in Greece and elsewhere in that part of the world. It wouldn't have gotten that way if it was hard to dance to! By the same token, a "5" rhythm is either 2, 3 (short, long) or 3, 2 (long, short), depending on where the melody wants the stress to be placed. BTW, one of my favorite recordings of tunes in "odd" meters is "East Wind" by Andy Irvine and Davy Spillane...Irish musicians playing eastern European dance tunes. Nothing in 4/4, 3/4 or 6/8 on the whole CD. Lovely stuff...

Probably the high point of Helicon's time together was being the first American group invited to perform at the International Hackbrett (hammered dulcimer) Festival in Munich, Germany in '93. We thought we knew what a hammered dulcimer was capable of, but when we heard great players from China, the Ukraine, Iran, Switzerland and Romania we knew the bar had just been raised about a million miles. Unbelievable. We had a lot of fun as a group, and did a LOT of touring from '86 to '98...(my favorite Helicon story is the time we vandalized a gas station after they tried to defraud us, but that's a story for another day...) :)

Helicon went into indefinite hiatus in 1998. At that time, Chris was on the road with both the Baltimore Consort and Skyedance, I was on the road with both Footworks and the John Whelan Band, and Ken decided he needed to spend more time at home with his family, so we just sort of let it go and moved on. Now we play together only once a year, our annual Winter Solstice Concert at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore. (We did manage to get it together long enough to record one more CD in '99, "A Winter Solstice with Helicon"...which went on to win an INDIE Award for Best Seasonal Recording.) These days Chris has his own group, the Chris Norman Ensemble, and runs Boxwood, a flute camp in Nova Scotia; Ken plays solo and with Laura Risk, and teaches a lot; and I'm playing solo and in duos with Steve Baughman and Michel Sikiotakis. Our CDs are still out there, though...all but our first are on Dorian and are available at

Glad you both got to hear the group while it was active...we haven't any plans to revive it at the moment, but "never say never"!


Q - Hearing you and citternist Joseph Sobel jam on the last night of Kaufman's Kamp (02), it would be a good guess that you listened to and studied the playing of Andy Irvine. How much of an influence was he? What would you say are the unique aspects and/or innovations o Irvine's mandolin/mandola playing?

A - Andy's mandolin, mandola and bouzouki playing have been a huge influence either directly or indirectly on just about everybody in the present-day Irish music scene, myself included. He was one of the first to introduce the bouzouki to Irish music (along with Johnny Moynihan and Donal Lunny), and his and Lunny's arrangement ideas, with mando-instruments weaving layers of countermelodies behind vocals or lead instruments, made Planxty a revolutionary force in the music 30 years ago. You can still hear what they started in the work of countless other artists. So yes, I would say he was a big influence on my work, although probably less his actual playing than his ensemble concepts.

I got to meet him a few years back while on the road in Germany with a Baltimore-based Irish band called Dogs Among The Bushes...we were playing at the Leipzig Irish Festival (really!) and Andy was on right before us. So of course we were joking about Andy Irvine opening for us...We got to chat with him backstage for a few minutes; he was a lovely guy and we had a good time comparing our Sobells. :)


Q - Here's a "Coffee Talk" topic and contrast: the playing styles of Mick Moloney vs. Andy Irvine? Anyone else as influential as these two guys in the realm of Celto-mando?

A - I'm not as familiar with Mick Moloney's work as I am with Andy's, but it seems to me that Andy focuses on the mandolin more as an accompaniment/countermelody instrument, and Mick more as a melody instrument for tunes (if he wants to play accompaniment he switches to guitar). So it's kind of comparing apples and oranges. Both great players though. In the Celtic mando world, I've been thoroughly impressed with what I've heard by Simon Mayor and Chris Newman, Dave Richardson of Boys of the Lough is an old favorite, and of course Seamus Egan is brilliant on mandolin as on everything else he plays. Other than that, though, I don't think I've really been influenced by that many mandolin players in the Celtic world...I tend to get my inspiration and ideas more from players of other instruments, especially fiddle and flute, and to a lesser degree pipes, accordion, concertina, whistle and tenor banjo. Some of my favorite Irish fiddlers are Kevin Burke, Martin Hayes and Liz Knowles; on Scottish fiddle Alasdair Fraser, Johnny Cunningham, Elke Baker and Laura Risk; and on flute Matt Molloy, Grey Larsen, Cathal McConnell and Michel Sikiotakis (bien sur!) All of these folks play with the kind of lift, groove and tone that I strive for in my own playing.


Q - Do you also play fingerstyle on guitar? Fingerstyle on bouzouki or mandolin? Pick+fingers? Why or why not?

A - I play guitar both flatpicking and fingerstyle, but I've never really gotten very far with playing bouzouki or mandolin fingerstyle. I think it's because I tend toward alternating bass patterns in my guitar fingerpicking, which implies at least three bass strings for the thumb to move around on plus a sufficient number of strings on top to keep the fingers happy, so a four-course instrument feels a bit restricted for that. (Joseph Sobol can get away with it because he plays 5- and 6-course instruments.)


Q - Where in France do you live? Have you connected with the French trad. folk, folk-rock scene, and played much of that music? Any recommendations for listening? (aside from Gabriel Yacoub and Malicorne).

A - I live in a village called Tripleval, which is so small you'll only find it on the most detailed maps of's about 60 km northwest of Paris, right on the Seine, and about 5 minutes from Giverny, where Monet lived and painted. I'm sorry to say that I haven't really connected with the French trad music scene at all, other than my partnership with Michel Sikiotakis, and that's Irish music anyway. I've met a number of musicians but haven't made much headway into that scene. I suppose it's partly because my French is so bad :) , but it's also partly because there's not much of a trad music scene right around Paris, and partly because I focus my energies on my trips to the states, where the kinds of music I'm into are alive and well.


Q - Robin, I enjoy your playing very much (and your teaching...I had you for several workshops at both Cooks Forest in Pennsylvania and at Kamp). Anyway, I had a question about learning more than one musical style.

Most of your music leans to Celtic-styles but if I recall things I've read correctly you started playing music as a bluegrass musician and that you also play old-time music?

How did you make the transition to another style and did you have to stop playing one kind of music and immerse yourself exclusively in the new style?

The reason I'm asking is that I don't hear many vestiges of bluegrass in your playing now. Or even old-time for that matter. Although I hear more old-time/Celtic blend on Midnight Howl, but that's the sound you were going for on that album if I recall.

A - I currently play (or try to play) several styles as I find so many musical styles so interesting. But my own personal sound seems kind of strange now because I keep switching so much and so frequently.

What is the best way to learn more than one style? How did you do it (or were you able to)? I think you can because I remember you jamming some great breaks on some bluegrass down at Kamp a few years ago. :-)


Q - Do you find it dificult changing instruments and styles. I've seen you perform and you make it look so easy.

A - I don't see that there's any reason why a musician shouldn't play and enjoy more than one style of music. Having said that, I think it's important that, if the style is at all tradition-based (which most are), one spend time immersing oneself in the style to get a handle on the tradition, the standards, the fine points of style and interpretation...learning the language, if you like. And this requires a certain humility, because what works in one style might not be appropriate in another, and you need to suspend judgment and learn "how it's done" before you start adding your own twist to it.

In my case, the first music I was seriously bitten by was bluegrass, when I was 12 or 13, and I spent years learning everything I could about it: going to festivals, going to concerts, buying records, reading Frets magazine (RIP), and playing like crazy. That was when I first started playing mandolin, in fact. By the time I discovered Irish music, when I was about 18, I was already playing professional bluegrass gigs, and I repeated the process with Irish music: going to sessions, learning tunes, etc etc...scarfing up all the information I could. Fortunately for me, Washington was a really good place to learn both styles of music, because it had (and still has) very strong bluegrass and Irish music scenes. Old-time music showed up in there somewhere, probably the first time I heard the New Lost City Ramblers, but the line separating that from bluegrass has never been as distinct in my mind as a lot of people seem to think it is... If I haven't as much of a track record in bluegrass as in Celtic music these days, it's probably just because I haven't had much of a performance outlet for bluegrass in recent years. My first full-time gig, three weeks after graduating from high school, was playing mandolin six days a week in the house bluegrass band at the Sheraton hotel in Gatlinburg, Tennessee (the guitar player in that band was Richard Bennett). I also played mandolin with Bill Harrell and the Virginians for a brief period in 1988 before my gig schedule with Helicon created too much of a conflict. So I've done some bluegrass miles! I suppose I'm "known" for Celtic music in one form or another as much as anything, but I do think the three strands of Celtic, bluegrass and old-time show their influence in everything I do, sometimes more subtly and sometimes more obviously. "Travellers" was as close as I've gotten (so far) to a bluegrass/old-time/Americana sort of recording, and I loved doing it; I'm sure there are others yet to come!

I don't think there's anything necessarily wrong with this sort of combining of styles, but I do recommend keeping in touch with the purer forms of the various styles you're trying to combine, to keep your own hybrid from becoming completely schizophrenic. :) I listen to a lot of "pure drop" Irish music, a lot of hardcore bluegrass, and a lot of straight old-time music, and I like to think I can identify what elements differentiate the three well as what their similarities and commonalities are. And if I break the rules, at least I know that I _am_ breaking the rules, and which ones I'm breaking. :) But I can also participate in a jam session or a performance of any of the three and pull it off completely straight...not because I'm any great genius, but because I've spent the time hanging out with all those musics, accepting them on their own terms and loving them for everything they are. (I also listen to a lot of Bach and a lot of Grateful Dead...inspiration is where you find it!)

As for changing instruments, that's easy: you put one down and pick up another. :) Honestly, I'm not sure what to say about that, because I've never really thought about it...I consider the instrument to be the means to an end, not the end in itself. In other words, I don't consider myself a guitarist, mandolinist, or citternist; I consider myself a musician, and I use several different tools to say what I want to say. (I also find, in the words of piper Pat O'Gorman, "we don't choose the instruments we play, they choose us.") But I think everything I just said about learning different styles applies to different instruments as well: to feel comfortable with any of them, you have to put in the time. On a purely physical level, I try to remain as loose and relaxed as I can on any instrument; this helps to minimize the shock of changing from one neck width to another (for example). Hope that helps; I'll stop now before Yahoo truncates this post! :)


Q - I was lucky enough to be a student at Kamp Kaufman when you were teaching there. You had a concept about the "corners" of a tune. Can you share that with the list.

A - I'll's easier with a mandolin in my hands... :) The concept and the name "corners" both came from Ken Kolodner, hammered dulcimer player with Helicon. He and I both noticed that students trying to learn fiddle tunes were having a rough time of it learning them from books, because what they saw there was a string of eighth notes and, reasonably enough, assumed that they had to learn every one of those notes and play them exactly that same way every time. He decided, and I agree, that it's a mistake to think of a tune that way, because...BIG SECRET COMING UP...not all the notes in a fiddle tune melody are equally important. Some notes define the melody, and some are only there to fill time between the more important notes. After all, no two players' versions of a tune are the same note-for-note...AND YET, there's some framework common to all of them that allows us to identify the tune as "Soldier's Joy" or "Salt Creek" or whatever.

So Ken came up with the idea of the "corners" of a tune, that is, the notes of a tune that define the overall shape of the melody. You could also call them the "skeleton" or the "frame" or whatever you want to call them, but the idea is, if you play the "corners" at the right time, or even most of them, then the notes you insert in between aren't really that important as long as there're stylistically appropriate.

For example: the A part of "Whiskey Before Breakfast". Written in a tunebook might look like this:

 |   |   |   |     |   |   |   |    |   |   |   |

 |   |   |   |     |   |   |   |     |   |   |   |

 |   |   |   |     |   |   |   |

Which is certainly the A part of "Whiskey Before Breakfast", but it's not the only way of playing it that will be identifiably "Whiskey Before Breakfast". Yet it's perfectly understandable that a student faced with this will assume that a) this is "the" way to play this tune and I better play it exactly this way, and b) all these notes are equally important. It's also understandable that they'd be a bit confused if they got hold of a recording of someone playing the tune or heard someone playing it live and tried to match it up with this written version...odds are that it would vary considerably, of course. YET IT WOULD STILL BE "WHISKEY BEFORE BREAKFAST" AND NOT SOME OTHER TUNE, EVEN THOUGH THE NOTES AREN'T THE SAME!

Why? Because the musician is playing the "corners", or most of them, and filling in as he or she pleases. (The farther away one gets from the "corners", the farther one gets from the tune being identifiable as what it is, and enters the world of improvisation.)

So what are the "corners"? The "corners" generally fall on the strong beats and/or at the point of chord changes...there's no hard and fast rule, you just sort of know it when you hear it. To continue our example, the "corners" of WBB might look like this:

 |   |   |   |     |   |   |   |   |   |   |   |

  |   |   |   |    |   |   |   |   |   |   |   |

  |   |   |   |    |   |   |   |
|----------------|----------------| other words, a completely bare, stripped-down approximation of the melody. But you can connect these notes with any other notes that fit the style of the tune (in this case, notes from the D major scale) and, more or less by definition, be playing "Whiskey Before Breakfast".

The beauty of this approach is that it allows you to think of a tune as a melodic statement that varies from player to player while maintaining its basic identity, rather than as a bunch of notes that are hard to remember. It also demystifies learning tunes by ear...when I learn a tune by ear, I listen for the "corners". It's much faster to listen past the flurry of melody notes and focus on getting those "corners", and once I've got them, I've basically got all I need to play the tune, or something mighty close to it.


Q - I'd love to hear you talk some about the mechanics of triplets and suggestions for their use in ornamenting tunes. Assume I know nothing (not a hard assumption!).

A - It's one of my most-requested topics as a teacher because they're used all the time in Irish trad music (in fact it's a big part of what gives that style its personality), but you virtually never encounter them in bluegrass or old-time. I personally prefer the term "rolls", because they're not always triplets, strictly speaking...

Rolls are those percussive flurries that drive along dance tunes like reels and jigs. They're played on all the traditional melody instruments in Irish music, fiddle, flute, whistle, pipes, accordion, concertina, tenor banjo, mandolin and even Celtic harp. But since these instruments cover several different instrument families, they all execute rolls slightly differently. A flute player, for instance, creates the percussive sound of a roll by quickly raising and lowering a couple of fingers in quick succession, thus breaking up the note the roll is ornamenting without allowing the other notes to be perceived by the ear as notes...more as stoppages of the main note. (With me so far?) A button accordion player, on the other hand, creates a roll by sliding three fingers down the same button, causing the same note to sound several times. A fiddler has the option of flicking a couple of extra notes with the left hand on a continuous bow stroke, or stopping and starting the bow with a flick of the right wrist. So it's not really the notes that are important, since they vary from instrument to instrument; it's the percussive effect. Ideally, you shouldn't really hear the notes in the roll, you should just hear the roll itself as a percussive augmentation of the melody.

The way I do that on mandolin is indeed a triplet...if I'm playing a tune in 4/4, such as a reel. Generally rolls are inserted at a point where the melody either sustains one note or has the same note several times in a row. Irish musicians consider this melodically static, and break it up with a roll. For example, take the first two measures of "Miss MacLeod's Reel":

  |   |   |   |     |   |   |   |

At the beginning of the second measure, the melody hangs on a B note for a beat and a half. So I might choose to break that up with a roll, and I would do so by breaking the quarter note into three evenly-spaced notes (a triplet):

  |   |   |   |     | (3) |   |   |

Now...assuming we're playing downstrokes on the beats and upstrokes on the notes between beats (DUDUDUDU), which is a hard and fast rule 99.9% of the time, how do we play three notes in the space of two? By playing them down-up-down, and (here's the secret) the next two up-up. I do it this way because up to speed there's no time to correct for the extra note either within the triplet or going from the triplet into the next "straight" melody note, but there IS time (just!) to make the correction with two strokes in the same direction right after that, hence two upstrokes...and you're back on solid DUDU ground in time for the next beat.

The other thing to remember is that a roll is an's not the melody itself. So I would play that triplet as lightly as possible, aiming for the notes to sound more percussive than notelike, and then I would accent the note that follows. (Yes, that would be the one on the upstroke...sorry about that.) This is all intended to help give the tune that undefinable yet indispensable quality known as "lift"...that which causes you to tap your feet and feel like dancing. Two of my favorite Irish musicians for "lift" are fiddler Kevin Burke and button accordionist Joe Burke (maybe there's something about the name Burke that gives you far as I know they're not related). But you can probably get a feel for where to insert rolls into a tune from listening to any Irish melody instrument players.

I'd love to hear more folks do this in bluegrass and old-time...I threw in a few rolls here and there in my melody sections of the "Travellers" CD, just to see how they'd sound in a basically American repertoire, and it worked for me! :)


Q - Is there a songbook or instructional method that you have found particularly useful over the years?

A - Honestly, I've been pretty out of touch with the instructional method scene since I left my old job at Baltimore Bluegrass years ago...there's a world of stuff out there, and I really don't know which specific books or videos to recommend, but there are certain publishers whose stuff seems to be consistently good, such as Oak Publications, Homespun, anything by Steve Kaufman, and I'll probably think of lots more as soon as I post this...

Anyway, there's nothing like studying with a live teacher, or just hanging out with a musician you respect even if it's not a formal teacher-student relationship. (A great way to have a concentrated dose of that is to attend a camp such as Kamp Kaufman, the Swannanoa Gathering, Common Ground on the Hill or Augusta.) The next best thing, I would think, would be video methods, where you can at least see and hear what's going on, and after that good books, preferably those with recordings included.

For repertoire, the Fiddler's Fakebook is excellent for a broad cross-section of standard tunes from bluegrass, old-time, Irish, Scottish, Shetland, New England, etc etc. It's in standard notation only; there's also a Mandolin Picker's Fakebook that's basically the same book in mandolin tab.


Q - What is the best way of inserting your own triplets into a tune? Is there is a certain place in the measure that they tend to fall on?

A - I talked about triplets in another post, so have a look at that, but briefly, triplets tend to come when the melody consists of one long note or several of the same note. In Irish music, that's considered melodically static, so a triplet or roll is inserted to break it up and keep things moving along. The best way to get a feel for where to insert triplets is to listen to as much trad Irish music as you can get your hands on, particularly recordings with only one or two melody instruments and light backup so you can really hear what's happening. (A good place to start: "Kevin Burke in Concert" on Green Linnet. Magnificent solo fiddle. I'd like to play the mandolin like he plays the fiddle.)


Q - Way back when at the first Kaufman Kamp your were playing a blonde Washburn mandolin. Do you still play that one?

A - No, I bought a Weber Beartooth a couple of years ago and promptly sold the Washburn to my website designer, Jerry Garland. It actually wasn't a bad recording mandolin, but wasn't really what I wanted for performing, and I just never got around to upgrading for a long time because I was playing in bands where I didn't play mandolin (Helicon, the John Whelan Band, Greenfire). But John Bird alerted me to a sale on Mandolin Cafe (thanks, John!), and I wound up with the Weber and am really enjoying it. I even got to meet Bruce Weber at Kaufman Kamp right after I got it, and I can personally testify that he's a hell of a nice guy.


Q - What do you look for in a mandolin for the Celtic style of music.

A - Most of the time Celtic mandolin players are looking for a ringing sound that's altogether different from the typical bluegrass mandolin sound...the sort of sound you'd get from an old Gibson oval-hole A-model like an A-2 or A-4, or a Sobell oval-hole mandolin, or even a Flatiron "Army-Navy" model. Way back in '87 or '88 I bought a cheapo Russian mandolin for $75 at House of Musical Traditions that just happened to have that "Celtic" sound, and I've actually used it on a number of CDs over the years (it's on the opening track of "The Lightning Field", for instance). But since I got the Weber I'm finding that it's versatile enough to handle the different styles I's got a fine bluegrass sound but it's not as "woody" as, say, an old F-5, so I can get away with playing Celtic repertoire on it too.


Q - Can you expound a bit on playing jigs. Things like pick direction, backing them up for a concert, and backing them up for a dance, etc. To me, there need to be more drive and rhythm for a dance, so instead of a DUDDUD or DUDUDUD it needs chop type chords and a D-u D-u for each measure.... well I guess more of a d-u D-u, d-u D-u..... where the d on beat 1 is a ringing 3 or 4 string chop chord, - on beat 2 is a rest, the u is a light up stroke on beat 3 and the D on beat 4 is a chopped chop chord, etc. Other chord formations would work, but you need the chopped chord to give some lift. Am I on the right track?

A - First off, for playing the melody, there seem to be three basic approaches to pick direction for 6/8 (jig) time: DUD DUD, DUD UDU, and DDU DDU. They all work, in different ways. DUD DUD and DDU DDU give you a bit more natural emphasis at the beginning of the second group of three notes, since you're playing a downstroke there which is easier to emphasize, but DUD UDU involves less physical work, which appeals to me. :) It _is_ possible, despite what you'll hear some people say, to get a convincing jig feel using this just means you have to learn to emphasize the upstroke when you need to, which is a good skill to have anyway. Myself, I mostly use DUD UDU, but throw in DUD DUD once in a while too. I've never been able to get the hang of DDU DDU, so I don't bother with it, but there are players that it works fine for. Vive la difference.

As for backing...I hardly ever back up jigs on the mandolin. Mandolin in Celtic music is almost always used as a melody instrument, at least on dance tunes. I do back jigs on guitar and bouzouki though, using the same pick directions as when I play melody, and my basic approach is lots of ringing open strings and the principle emphases coming on 1 and 4 (counting a jig 1-2-3 4-5-6 for the moment, to make this easier to put into words). If I'm emphasizing 1 and 4, I then play fairly small, ringing chords on 3 and 6, and nothing or virtually nothing on 2 and 5. However, once that basic pattern is up and running, I immediately start messing with it :) by moving emphasis from 4 to 3 and back again, to give the tune a kick. In other words, it's either ONE (two) three FOUR (five) six, or ONE (two) THREE (four) (five) six. Randomly back and forth between those two. If I want a smaller, more intimate sound, then I pick individual strings within the chord instead of strumming the whole chord, playing a bass note on the "one", but I use the same rhythmic patterns. That's the basics...

To back a jig on the mandolin, you could try it that way, using open chord's just my personal opinion, but I feel like chop chord accompaniment on jigs doesn't sound very Irish. Of course, it depends what sound you're going might work just fine for more of a New England contra dance sound. It's true that piano players in Irish ceili bands tend to play bass notes on 1 and 4 and staccato chords on 3 and 6, but for some reason that doesn't seem to translate to the mandolin that well. JMHO, YMMV!


Q - Robin, I don't know if you normally give lessons, but do you have any suggested practise regimens for different stages of development (however you define these), e.g., advanced novice, low intermediate, high intermediate, etc.?

A - I used to teach privately quite a lot, and still do group workshops in the summer at camps like Common Ground on the Hill and the Swannanoa Gathering (plug! plug! :) ..., ), and of course Kamp Kaufman now and then...I've no particular practice regimen, rather I generally make it up for each individual based on what they want to achieve and what I think they need. But in general, I recommend warming up on your instrument by playing something easy and slow to get the blood flowing and allow those small muscles to stretch in a healthy way, just like an athlete stretching.

After that, the best advice I ever heard about the art of practicing came from Dan Crary at one of the Kaufman flatpick camps, so I'll share that with you as best I remember it:

  1. SET A SPECIFIC GOAL THAT CAN BE ACHIEVED IN THIS PRACTICE PERIOD. Not something vague and long-term like "I want to play like Sam Bush someday", but something that you have a real chance at mastering during _this_ practice period, like "I will be able to play cleanly that passage in the A part of Arkansas Traveler that I always crash on."

  2. IF YOU'RE HALFWAY THROUGH YOUR PRACTICE PERIOD AND IT BECOMES APPARENT THAT YOU'RE NOT GOING TO REACH THAT GOAL, CUT IT IN HALF. Make it just the first measure of that problem passage, for instance. The idea here is that you want to succeed at reaching a goal every time you practice.

  3. ALLOW YOURSELF A SUCCESS EVERY TIME YOU PRACTICE. Positive reinforcement. And an important part of that is...

  4. SHARE YOUR SUCCESS WITH SOMEBODY. Spouse, bandmate, fellow student, dog, whoever, but Dan's point here was that having a support system in your musical life is very important to keeping your morale up. Tell what you succeeded in accomplishing to somebody who understands the importance of it!

To all of which I would add: practice with a metronome...yeah, I know, we all hate them, but I'm here to tell you it'll make a HUGE difference in your sense of timing before you know it. There are two ways to play with a metronome: one is to resent it and fight with it, the other is to surrender to it and work toward locking in with it effortlessly, so that you can anticipate when the next click is going to happen and be right there with it without any tension. A great way to practice with a metronome that I picked up from Steve Kaufman is to start with it clicking deadly slow, and not speed it up until you're completely comfortable and groovin' with the metronome there. Then raise the tempo a few notches and repeat the process, then raise it again, and so on until you reach your maximum. Great way to build both your speed and your overall sense of rhythm.

And finally: Play with other people whenever you can, and have fun!


Q - With the time you spend in France, Europe etc. what are you impressions of the skill levels and techniques of the European amateur mandolin players as opposed to the amateur mandolin players in the USA. Any difference in numbers of players also. Are better or more instructors available? Do you find the general public more interested and passionate about acoustic music (mandolin) in France as opposed to USA?

A - To be honest I haven't investigated the acoustic music scene in France outside of the Paris area, but what I've seen (and what natives have told me) is there isn't that much of an acoustic music scene here, in this part of France anyway. There's a weekly bluegrass jam session and three Irish sessions that I know of in Paris or the suburbs, but there aren't that many participants. (The ones that are involved in it, to be fair, are deeply into it.) And there's no concert or club scene to speak of...Michel and I wanted to do a CD release concert in Paris this spring and ultimately decided not to because there aren't any venues and not much of a market. Paris is a wonderful city, but it's not a center for acoustic/trad music particularly. Although there is a fair amount of gypsy swing...if you know where to find it...

Elsewhere in Europe it may well be a different story. I'm told that there's a thriving bluegrass scene in the Czech Republic, for example, and of course I would assume that there's mandolin activity in Italy - that's where the instrument came from, after all! Haven't been to those countries myself yet, nor have I made it to EWOB, the annual European World Of Bluegrass convention. There is a bluegrass scene in Europe, undoubtedly, just not too much around Paris.

Ireland, of course, is absolutely crawling with music and musicians, although on my last trip there I didn't see many mandolin players...but there are boatloads of great fiddlers, flute players, pipers, accordionists, bouzouki players, etc. That music is in good hands! And I'm told that Brittany is a happening scene, mostly Breton trad music of course, which I'm not as familiar with, but Michel assures me that there are some killer Irish players there too. Again, though, I'm not sure how much of a role the mandolin plays in that scene...

It may just be tunnel vision on my part, but after three years here it looks to me like the folk/trad/acoustic/bluegrass and even Celtic scene is in as healthy a state in America as anywhere else (and probably healthier than most places), and that there are a lot more mandolin players there, both amateur and professional. Fortunately, I spend several months of the year on the road in the U.S., so I get my "fix" then. So, to answer your last question, the players that _are_ here are certainly passionate, but there aren't nearly as many of them...where I live, anyway.


Q - On the guitar, when using pentatonic scales, there are five positions per key and then they (of course) repeat in order up or down. I've drawn out mando blues pentatonic and major pentatonic scales but failed to see any such obvious or connecting patterns covering the entire neck. There are connecting scales but I don't see such a simple way to move up and down the complete nec, using all strings. Right now I know "cross string) octaves and am adding a third up from the second, which seems to always lead you to same the same neighborhood of the key. (I chord in another shap) I'm mostly playing G -B# chop cord based keys) Are they any such patterns on the mando that cover the entire neck? ...this is the sort of info I really need from this list as there are no instructors around here. (I'm not referring to the basic fingering positions as derived from the violin).

A - I'm afraid I'm not following you on most of that. Maybe it's because I don't usually think in terms of scales, pentatonic or otherwise, when I'm improvising up the neck, but rather (I guess) in terms of chord positions...even two-note chords. (Yes, I know two notes is only an interval, not a chord, but let's not split hairs...) For example, if I wanted to go up the neck on a solo in G major, I might start with the two-note G "chord" created by the B at the 7th fret of the 1st string with my 2nd finger and the G at the 10th fret of the 2nd string with my 4th finger. From that jumping-off point I have easy access to the G major scale between the 5th and 10th frets if I use all 4 fingers. But I don't think of it as a scale shape, I think of it (if I think at all...) as coming off that two-finger G "chord" on the top two strings.

To learn my way around the neck of the mandolin, I always played tunes and songs, right from the beginning...not scale exercises. I've never been much for scale exercises because that's not what you play in the real world. If it helps you understand how things lie on the fingerboard, great, but for me the time was better spent learning how to play actual music in unfamiliar positions on the neck, and then observing and remembering where I found things. For example, I would set myself challenges like "Play Sailor's Hornpipe in A without ever going below the fifth fret." Then: "Do it again in B flat...then in B..." Torturous, but you emerge from that sort of thing with both some practical experience of the fingerboard and a much better instinct for what positions to use when, in a real tune.

Maybe we're both doing the same thing and verbalizing it two different ways. I'm not sure. Fortunately, if all else fails, the mandolin neck is short enough to make emergency position shifts in midstream if you need to! :)


Q - It seems to me that major pentatonic scales automatically give you the "corners" of melodies. Do you agree or am I missing something here?

A - Actually, I don't think that's a safe assumption. Right off, the tune I used as an example, "Whiskey Before Breakfast", had G as one of its "corner" notes, which isn't in the D major pentatonic scale. The D major scale, yes, but that's a different thing...

Most fiddle tunes tend to be diatonic (i.e. within a seven-note scale), but only some are truly pentatonic..."Sandy River Belle" comes to mind...and "corner" notes can come from anywhere within the scale the tune is in. Furthermore, when I speak of a diatonic scale, I don't just mean major...there are other modes to be considered. (Modes! Oh boy, here we go!) A tune in the mixolydian mode, for example, could have corner notes from anywhere in the mixolydian scale (for the uninitiated, do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti-flat, do). The corner notes might _happen_ to all fall within the major pentatonic scale, which is contained in the mixolydian scale, but it would only be coincidence, not something you want to base your understanding of the tune around.

To further complicate matters, there are lots of tunes in the Irish and Scottish traditions in what's called the "gapped" scale, i.e. the mixolydian mode without a third (do, re, fa, sol, la, ti-flat, do). This makes the tune neither major nor minor, strictly speaking. (Examples: "The Tenpenny Bit", "The Killarney Boys of Pleasure", "John MacKenzie's Fancy".) A major pentatonic scale will actually violate the neither-major-nor-minor-ness of a tune like that, as one of the five notes in the major pentatonic scale is the major third, which we're specifically trying to avoid. And the "corners" of such a tune can be any notes from the gapped scale, but the major third won't be one of them in all likelihood.

In short, the major pentatonic scale is useful for certain things (as is any kind of scale), but it's not an automatic corner-finder. One tip: corners are usually on strong beats, and that's where chord changes are likely to occur too, so notice what the chord is at any given moment and chances are the corner there will be one of the notes within that chord.


Q - What 3 finger grip? Is there a pic of it?

A - I don't have any pics, but it's basically that the pick is held between the thumb on one side and the index and middle fingers side-by-side on the other, forming something of a triangle. All three digits are in contact with the pick not at the tip exactly, but between the tip and the pad. Different from the typical two-finger grip where the index finger is curved and it's the side of the finger that touches the pick. As I say, it's a less common approach, but it works for me...