Mike Compton

A warm welcome to our former CoMando, Mike Compton, this week's CGOW. Of course Mike needs no introduction to this group. Original member of the Nashville Bluegrass Band, long-time sideman for John Hartford, now back with NBB, stalwart of the O Brother film and the Down from the Mountain Tour, recording artist, teacher. Mike is perhaps the world's foremost expert on the Monroe style of playing. Mike was probably the first major artist to use a Gilchrist mandolin, which he still plays today. I have a feeling that there will be an over-abundance of questions for Mike. Please remember to send the questions to me as moderator so we don't drive poor Mike away the first day. Mike, a couple of people have asked about the A model mando(s) you played with Ralph Stanley on Austin City Limits. I have already sent Mike a few questions yesterday to chew on, so welcome to the list, Mike Compton.

Mike Compton is the MAN! In an age where the man playing the most notes wins the awards, Mike Compton keeps the Monroe tradition alive. If you want to play bluegrass mandolin instead of a bunch of scale patterns, Mike Compton's playing can guide you. (I'm not running for anything so I'll say what's on my mind )

Steeped in the Monroe tradition, Mike has absorbed Monroe so completely that what he plays now sounds like Compton. Many people who try to play Monroe style play the licks, but don't have the comprehension to make it real music from the heart. When Compton plays, you know you're hearing the real deal.

I don't know all of Mike's history, but he played for several years with the Nashville Bluegrass Band in its original configuration. After he left NBB, he played with John Hartford for many years. After John died and Roland White left the NBB, Mike rejoined NBB. As part of Hartford's band, Mike played on the "O Brother Where Art Thou" movie soundtrack and then on the "Down from the Mountain" tours. He was a big part of bringing old time country/bluegrass music back into its current popularity. Some of Mike's most lyrical and old time playing can be heard on Ralph Stanley's self-titled release produced by T Bone Burnett. Oh yeah, he also learned from the Father of Bluegrass in person, and you can hear Mike playing along with Bill on several cuts on Butch Robbins CD "Grounded, Centered, and Focused" where Bill gives Mike the lead on Tanyards.

Even though Mike's a great musician, he's a genuinely nice guy too and willing to share his knowledge and approach to the mandolin when you meet him, even if it's only on CoMando. I met up with him at RockyGrass a few years back and he was willing to sit down and show me some of his approach to the mandolin--something I'll never forget.

I could go on and on, but I'll just say "Welcome back to CoMando, Mike!"

Don Grieser


Q - What a great experience this CGOW has been! I'm sure Mike Compton has answered this question before, but what mandolins does he currently play in concert? He was great on Austin City Limits last night (with Ralph Stanley).

One of his mandos looked like a natural or white-faced old Gibson A, but I couldn't make out the other one.

A - Currently the mandolins I most often use on stage are my 2001 #500 Gilchrist F5 ,a 1927 Gibson A Jr. and recently, a 1922 Gibson A4. The white face mandolin you saw on Austin City Limits was a Gibson A3 belonging to Nancy Blake. It is one of the best roundhole mandolins I've ever played. She was kind enough to loan it to me for the show, as most of the songs required different tunings and I needed to work without having to retune one mandolin over and over.


Q - I'd be interested in hearing Mike talk about his work with Hartford and the style he played versus when he plays bluegrass and Monroe style. His backup work on Hartford's Live from Mountain Stage is terrific. I think there was a question to Roland about what to play when you don't want to play on the back beat, and Mike nailed it on that album.

A - The rhythmic thing you are referring to started with my work with David Grier. Beings there was only us two, I was at a loss for what to do when David took his solos because let's face it, a lone mandolin playing chop chords behind a guitar solo isn't much support. I was frantic to find something to play that was more full and supportive. The only thing that I could come up with at first was to play as many open strings as I could and let'em ring. Then, I started using "pseudo" guitar runs as well, then making an effort to vary my chord voicings to closer match the melody line.

When I began working with John Hartford, he told me to play pretty much whatever I wanted to. He had just started getting heavily into Kentucky fiddler Ed Haley and I listened to lots (I mean lots) of Haley then. Haley's wife Ela played taterbug (or roundback for you yanks) mandolin on the recordings. She played simple chords with a heavy-handed rhythm and that's what John said he really wanted me to do. I thought it was a very primitive way to play mandolin until I started to notice Ela seemed to be playing the melody line, but with chords. In other words, her right hand played the melody, her left played chords. It's sort of the same thing tap dancers do I guess.

Anyway, I took what I had used with Grier and added Ela to that. I don't currently have a copy of the Mountain Stage show you mentioned, but have heard a lot about it. I hope the answer to your question is in there somewhere...


Q - Hi Mike. We talked after your show in Woodstock, Illinois. I really enjoyed the show and was impressed by your playing. I have two questions:
1. When is your mando teaching video or book coming out and
2. When is the new NBB CD coming out, the one with you on it? Thanks.

A - I have begun to work on a draft for a video just recently. It will be as soon as I can get my outline done and get it shot. The NBB album is currently being recorded, the one with me on it. I can't give you a definite time line on either, just that they are both in the works. I will also begin working on a solo project soon. YIKES!


Q - Mike: when are you and David Grier going to do another duet album?

A - I have talked to David about doing another recording project sometime. We are both inclined to do it as soon as we both have the time and backing.


Q - At Kamp 2001 you spoke about your love and struggle with your mandolin and your music; and of how the full expression of emotions in your music sometimes requires you to struggle with the "dark side" to get the sound you want. Would you please say more about this?

A - It has been some time since I spoke of that and I don't remember what context it was in, but I suppose my comment regarding the "dark side" of music was basically meant to suggest looking at the material a person is going to play/sing and first understanding what it's about. Play the emotion in the song, look for ways to express the emotion the writer suggested in the words and music. A quick example, if the song is a blues, it probably wouldn't have nearly the impact if it was played as a breakdown.

My approach has been to focus on the emotional side of music and present it as strongly as I can in that realm.

In order to be able to express an emotion at its' strongest, I think it is necessary to understand its' opposite as well. That is why I said that it is important to become friendly with the dark side as well as the light or happy side. Of course there are many other emotions, but you get the picture I think. If you like we can talk about it further offline.


Q - I know Mike spent some time with Bill Monroe. I got the impression that he may have had a temporary falling out with Monroe. I'd be interested in hearing about his time spent with Bill Monroe. His personal impressions of the man and his music. I know this could be a book-length reply. But whatever Mike wants to share about Bill would be worth hearing, I'm sure.

A - I never had a falling out with Monroe. My problem with Monroe initially was a matter of my own ego. He wouldn't acknowledge me as someone who was persuing his musical language, and of course I have my pride too. So, my tact was to not acknowledge him either. Very juvenile behaviour on my part,and I lost about a dozen years of valuable time I could have had learning from Bill, or at least being around him. Actually, it sort of turned out for the best because I became more determined to learn it on my own. Bill was not easy to know and even harder to get close to. It was damn near impossible to hold his attention sometimes. I remember one occasion when I thought he was listening to what I was saying and he interrupted to tell me to look out the window at the chickens in the yard and how they'd follow him around like he was their momma. I went out one day with a Troybilt tiller and plowed his potato patch up. He warmed up to me after that.

There were some aspects of Monroe that I really didn't care for on a personal level, but the music is what I really was interested in. Being around him and watching his hands work, seeing his mannerisms and his attitude, just helped make it more understandable why he played and sang the way he did. As you said, there is a whole lot more.


Q - I know you listen to a lot of Delta blues players. Can you explain how your mandolin playing is influenced by, say, Robert Johnson or Charlie Patton? Any particular licks, riffs or rhythmic patterns, for example?

A - Yes, I do listen to a lot of country blues. As for "licks, riffs, etc", I am not technically experienced enough to give you a reasonable explanation to what you may ask along that line. There are certainly those on this list who can answer in technical terms. The main reason I listen to country blues,especially slide players is basically because their playing sounds more like voice to me, playing "in the cracks" as Hartford put it. It is more primitive and raw and straight to the point. There is certainly a hypnotic affect achieved by repeating a pattern over and over, repeating a theme. I prefer the notes in blues. It is one of the main reasons I am drawn to Monroe, because of his blues notes, his slides, etc. Sorry I don't have a more technical answer for you, but sometimes the answer is "because it turns me on."


Q - When playing a Monroe style break, what is your pick direction for a triplet? What fingers do you use for the typical ending phrase in the key of G where the notes are the following frets 7, 6, 5, 3, 4 on the G string? How do you structure a solo on a vocal tune? Do you think of playing a certain amount of melody then departing from that? Can you give us an idea about how you learned to do this?

A - Pick direction on triplets is most always 'down, up ,down'. The next triplet being started on a down stroke, not an upstroke as in playing a tremolo. The accent within the triplet lies on what note of the three is accented. The line you describe; 7,6,5,3,4, on the G string is, if I understand what you're asking about, a slide done with the pinky starting on the 7th fret slid to the 5th, then the middle finger sliding upward from the 3rd to the 4th. I use this choice of fingerings out of a full "chop" chord because it puts me back into a double-stop G chord for the ending notes, that being the 4th fret(B) on the G and the 5th fret(G) on the D. How to structure a solo for a vocal tune...

I look for the bare bones melody line, see what I can leave out, which notes are the most important to convey the melody, and work from there. I think it is important to at least insinuate the melody. There are many devices such available in Monroe's vocabulary to work from. I choose one and work around it.

How did I learn to do this? I am sure the answer you're seeking is not "lots of practice", so could you be more specific?


Q - On a recent interview with Sam Bush, there was a rference to his recording a few cuts for this [O Brother Where Art Thou] that didn't appear to make the final version; similarly, I read that Barry Mitterhof did the same.

A - There is more music in the can from the "Oh Brother..." soundtrack by far than was used. For one thing, there are at least 36-37 fiddle tunes cut by Hartford, there are other versions of most any of the material you care to mention. I was under the impression that there was talk of possibly releasing some of it at some time, but nothing definitely decided.


Q - I saw you at Darrington Washington a couple years ago do a solo on the tenor guitar. I was wondering what tunings you use on the tenor. I really enjoyed your performance that night.

A - Mostly I use one of the standard tunings on tenor, that being CGDA, and I use mostly a version of what oldtime fiddlers call "cross key" or "sawmill key" which for tenor would be either CGCG or DADA. I am working on others recently, don't really have a grip on it. I have a lot of tunings written down however.


Q - The first major artist to use a Gilchrist was the Dawg, way back in 1980. I believe it's the same instrument that Ronnie McCourey uses today. Art Stern can probably confirm or debunk this.

A - I bought my first Gilchrist from George Gruhn in 1979 for $1000. Steven says that I was his first customer in the USA. Who am I to argue. But then, you did say "major" artist, so I suppose your remarks still stand. The instrument Ronnie plays is a bit later than 1980 I believe. Gilchrist worked for Gruhn Guitars for approximately 18 months, during 1980 and 1981 I believe. The mandolin Ronnie plays was made after Gilchrist moved back to Australia if I am not mistaken.


Q - I'm curious as to what your 5 (or more) favorite recordings in this genre (country blues) are? And why. What about the urban stuff?

A - I've listened to a lot of different blues artists over the years as the path widens and progresses. I do not have a logical, methodical path to give you as I am sure you would , but I will give you a short list of some of the more memorable artists I listen to still...

Charlie Patton I listen to for the sheer intensity of it. Son House for the same reason.

Not so much Robert Johnson, but Blind Willie Johnson. I think his slide playing was the most smooth and "voicelike" of anyone. Most notable recording to me:" Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground".

I like most anything that Lonnie Johnson has done, but my favorite is his work with Texas Alexander. The reason being, Texas couldn't carry the beat and Lonnie was able to carry the song on his own regardless of where Texas stopped and started, and he used only a very few "licks" to do it. I will say that I have a fondness for some of his work with Eddie Lang as well.

Furry Lewis I like for his slide work, simple, somewhat raw technique. Easy to understand lyrics, cocky little man. Mance Lipscomb I put in here as well, and Mississippi Fred McDowell. Simple players, simple men, simple message. Honest hard work.

Skip James I like for the whispy quality of his voice and his guitar work out of that Belzoni, Mississippi tuning. He sort of puts me into a trance. Robert Pete Williams uses the same sort of tuning, but I like his songwriting.

I like Rosetta Tharpe's early work. Her singing strength goes without saying and peer, but I am impressed by her guitar playing as well. I am of a mind that it sounds like Monroe style downstrokes full of energy and unapologetic power.

I like some early BB King, back around the "Sweet Sixteen" era when he was playing more guitar. There are a few lines that he uses that are very close to some Monroe trademarks.

I like most anything the Mississippi Sheiks do. I enjoy the fiddle work.

Lately I've come to listen a lot to the McCoy Brothers, Charlie and Joe ("Kansas" Joe) and all the various bands they were in. One thing I am intrigued by is the octave strung banjo mandolin work there. Also, I got a few lps of Tampa Red, but have not had the time to give them their due.

There are lots of others thrown in, and I suspect there will be a steady stream through this house as long as I'm breathing. These are a few that I still listen to.


Q - Did you start out learning the notes and how music theory for mandolin or did you (as seems to be the suggestion from every beginner mando book I've been able to find) start with tablature and learn the music theory (etc)later? I've been playing for only a couple weeks with only voice experience before that. To me, tablature seems like a crutch. Your thoughts?

A - I started out copying sounds that I heard. Hunting them down, note by note, trying to remember where they were once I found them. Purely the hard, hard way. I didn't have anyone around that had any mandolin know how. I wish I had had some of the materials and instruction/instructors that are available today. Maybe I'd be farther along now.

As for tab, I don't read it, but to me it seems clumsy. I learned to play strictly by ear, although I had read guitar and trombone off the page, standard notation. Just in the last couple years I've gone back to reading again. It is a blessing to have all the music of the world at your fingertips.

If I had it all to do over again, I don't know what I'd do. Probably find an instructor and camp out at his/her door. Having a teacher would make your learning go a lot faster. Why not try some of the learned folks on this list? There are some very qualified musicians here.


Q - I noticed that you are teaching at NashCamp in June. Can a beginner get enough out of the camp to warrant its cost? Do you teach every year?

A - I am? Well, I should put it on my calendar.

The camp is in a great setting, great food, small numbers of students and ample instructors. I don't know how much it costs.

So far I have "taught" the past few years. My classes are only on Monroe style mandolin, and I ask that each student have at least some knowledge of how to play mandolin. Basically I only know how to play one style. And honestly, I am not a great teacher. I know that's not a great advertisement for myself, but I'd rather you know ahead of time that I don't have every aspect of the mandolin figured out so I can explain it to you in a logical fashion. Remember, I learned initially to play by ear. Oftentimes I learn as much about what I'm doing as the class, just by making an effort to disect it and explain it. There are other instructors there who are more qualified to teach beginning students, Butch Baldassari for one.

If students come with at least an interest in Monroe style I can send them home with enough to keep them busy for a while.


Q - I don't know if this has been asked yet, but I think I remember Mike talking about how he has "3 stages of Monroe" that he uses - early Mon, middle Mon, and late Mon (as in early in his career, etc), and he will pick a certain stage for a certain solo or tune. I was wondering if Mike could elaborate on this a bit more. Also, if he could give us some of his favorite licks he uses a lot that would be killer.

A - Oh boy. One has to be careful what one preaches. It always comes back...

I'd say a good way to simplify this question and tell you more of what I was referring to is:

Early Monroe would entail using a tremolo that is heavier on the downstroke than the upstroke, thereby giving it a sort of "lean". I would play lines that followed the singer's lines more closely, not much blues, very straight, squared off lines.

Middle Monroe refers to a much harsher sound, lots of downstrokes played closer to the bridge with lots of attitude. Note bending, short slides into and out of notes, double stop chords played erratically to insinuate melody instead of playing it out, use of triplets, so on and so forth.

Late Monroe refers mostly to playing as many notes as can be played at one time out of a chord position. The left hand sliding over notes rather than landing on them squarely. Bill was more calmed down by now, an older man with less ability, but no less attitude. Tremolo is even and constant. Far fewer downstroke leads. More use of the phrases as interchangeable components to complete ideas.

Okay. This is a very gross generalization of Monroes' career, but I think it will clear up the question some.

Licks? Man, we need to sit down and go over them sometime. I don't have a list written down.


Q - Tell us about your right hand technique..pick, etc..thanks

A - Basically I hold the pick loosely between the ball of my thumb and the first joint in my index finger. The point is to create a fulcrum, to have a point of leverage. My remaining fingers are curled outwards in a sort of "fan" shape. (I heard someone say once that it helps to imagine holding a golf ball in your palm.) This loosens my wrist and forearm. Mostly the strings are struck with the pick held parallel to them , not at an angle. I like the tone a lot of pick pulls from the strings.

On tremolo I try to keep the pick physically on the string/strings I'm playing by moving the pick only far enough to play the string and then cross over in the other direction. More of like rubbing the notes out I guess. The point is to make the tremolo sound as much like one long tone as possible without having so much of the shoulders of each note audible.

Downstrokes (solos) are snapped off at the wrist with as little travel of the pick as necessary as it is hard to recover from this motion and get ready for the next. I tend to put a little more pressure on the pick with my thumb during downstroke solos.

On chop chords the idea is to play all the notes in the chord so that each one can be heard or picked out. It is more of a sweeping motion, a broad rounded stroke of the wrist that ends up back in position for the next stroke.

Of course there is a lot more to it, but that's enough for now.


Q - I'm most interested in hearing about your experience moving into your own after digging into Monroe's music for so long. As someone who plays in a Monroe style, how is this a help or hindrance when you're finding your own voice?

A - I don't think that Monroe style is hindering my search for my own place in the musical world. It is where I came from, it is what I understand, and sometimes is very helpful in giving me a reference point to go back to,something to lean on. In many ways all I am doing is taking different aspects of Bill's music and expanding on them some. The blues aspects have led me in that direction, the oldtime fiddle background he had has led me (in many ways thanks to John Hartford) to study the older music that was heard in the rural southern states and find sounds I know Bill heard when he was a boy, the singing style that came from church singing schools, "hollering", and black field hands has led me to seek a singing voice of my own, to let it out.

Bassist Mark Hembree told me once in a moment of confusion that all I had to do was "...play the style, it works almost anywhere." I will say that in many ways he was right about that. I am finding this to be true. Of course it is not always so, but it is a basis to work from when I am at a loss for what to play. I find it intriguing to expand on some of Monroe's ideas, to get even more abstract than he would have on occasion.

Because Monroe's musical language is so much the foundation for what I am doing, I don't see that I will really lose the accent, at least not completely. It is a firm footing to stand on and work from.


Q - At Kaufman Kamp a few years ago, you said when you get ready to take a break, you make a decision about whether to approach it as early, middle, or late Monroe. Could you give a brief rundown of what each is? Thanks, and thanks for being all over the movie screens, tv screens, videos, and records , the last year or so! Keep it coming...

A - I think I've answered this one already, or at least took a stab at it. As for last year's visibility, I have been very fortunate. Hopefully this is not the last hoorah.


Q - Another questions about the blues. Do you listen to any pure blues artists? If so who? Who do you listen to in general, blues, bluegrass or other?

A - I have given names of some artists on Niles' question. I forgot to anwer the second part concerning urban blues. I don't listen to much urban blues. I do have quite a few Muddy Waters recordings that I like fine, and a bunch of Lightnin' Hopkins.I reckon Lightnin' rides the fence. But most electric blues doesn't turn my crank. Although, who in hell can outplay Stevie Ray Vaughn?

I don't listen to bluegrass much. Some Monroe, some Del when we're on the same show, some Stanleys. I mostly listen to oldtime fiddling, country blues, and lately my wife Sadie has been bitten by hardanger fiddling, so I hear *lots* of that. Pretty stuff.

MC (who has a large collection of Ray Charles and Ella Fitzgerald)


Q - I have a question. As you know, I have been studying electric blues guitar for the past couple of years. A blues guitarist usually improvises his choruses (breaks)using the blues scales, usually the minor pentatonic scale with the blues notes added or the major pentatonic scale with the blues notes added. On some tunes there may be a hook that is restated, I hate to call it the melody. When you play blues on mandolin do you work out your solos in advance or do you improvise on scales, and if so, what scales? I guess even if you carefully work them out in advance you might focus on scales.

A - I improvise strictly on the sound I have in my head. I don't work out solos,but sometimes have a mental sketch of where I will go, or attempt to use a (dare I say it) "lick" from say, a Yank Rachel solo as the lead in to my solo and just let it flow where it wants to, just let the music be the guide. If I come up with something I like, I will oftentimes keep the basic outline of the solo and improvise on small parts of it.

I will say in all fairness that since I have been reading music more and learning more about music in general, I am much more interested in scales and how they work and what I might could do with that knowledge.

Blind Delta Ukelele


Q - Who are your favorite mandolin players that you like? And what specifically do you like about them. And no, despite my powerful position, you don't have to include me.

A - Your majesty,
Besides yourself I like:

Monroe, for more apparent reasons.

I like Frank Wakefield for his unparalled creativity, and he has an aspect of Monroe down that I have yet to grasp.

I like Adam Steffey for his ideas and extraordinarily clean execution.

I like Thile for his unspoiled youth and enthusiasm, not necessarily for his playing.

I like Hershel Sizemore for his attitude and slickness, his creativity, his melodies.

I like Coley Jones of the Dallas String Band for his ability to make a few scales sound like music, not just scales.

I like Joe McCoy because of what I perceive at this stage to be early jazz band influenced blues, plus he can make a damned banjo mandolin sound musical.

I like Roland White for the holes he puts in his solos, the way his left hand looks like a varmint on the fingerboard, his sense of time, and the way he makes everything he plays sound like his own fingerprints.

I like Grisman sometimes for his playing, but always for the support he gives to the mandolin scene.

Sam Bush. Sam has always been willing to stick his neck out and go beyond the fence without apology.

Ronnie McCoury I like because of his energy, his work ethic, and because he's such a nice guy it's impossible to dislike him.

Buck White. Nobody plays swing like Buck. Nobody plays happy and sparkle like Buck. Nobody thinks "piano" when they play mandolin like Buck.

I like Stephen Gilchrist because he causes me to push harder than I'd probably otherwise push, simply because he has implicit faith in my abilities, and for his dedication to excellence, and for his musical ideas.

I like David Long, David Davis, Marke Royal, John Conine, Lyle Meador, Jackie Greenwood, Paul Priest, Evan Reilly, etc. because they are following the same school I'm following and they help me learn more about it.

Shoot. That's enough. Everyone has something to contribute. I can't list everyone. These are some of the ones who have influenced my perception of the mandolin universe.


Q - Mike, a question occurred to me about styles of mandolin playing. How many different styles can we categorize in bluegrass mandolin playing, recognizing that we are being somewhat arbitrary in trying to find categories or labels? We can clearly identify the Monroe style. We have what I would call melodic or scale-based playing as represented by Chris Thile and John Moore. I play in the Monroe style in the sense that I basically play what Roland White calls "brush style," which is like Monroe style in the aspect of sitting on a note to lengthen the note out. My style is almost exclusively up and down strokes without focusing on using all downstrokes very often. I mention my style because I think a lot of players borrow the "brush style" from Monroe without incorporating all of the other facets of his playing. I know that there is duo style, as represented by Evan Marshall that few actual human beings can play.

Bobby Osborne described his style as just basically playing the melody with a few added notes. Jesse McReynolds has his cross-picking style which I have seen few players attempt on any extended basis. Herschell Sizemore has his more bouncy style, but can we call Herschell's playing a particular style or just Hershell's style. What do you say, how many distinct styles are there out there?

A - You asked how many "distinct" styles are out there. I don't have a clue. I understand what you are asking me, and I realize this opens a huge can of worms, but let me ask you this:What makes a style anyway? What constitutes a different style, considering there are only a few basic ways of getting sounds out of a mandolin? I mean, how much of a certain thing in a person's playing defines it as being so different that it becomes labeled as "another style"? Is this more a Western phenomenon than anything else, the need to pigeon-hole things for the sake of classification and clarification? In many ways I agree with a comment I heard Tim O'Brian make one time, which is that the music we play is all too intermingled and entwined, too tangled to seperate into this or that. We are all influencing one another. Where are the lines drawn, and by whom? How much does the geography of where a person grows up, the local customs, the period in time, have upon the way a person plays?

Your turn to answer. I'd be curious what his Niles-ness has to say about this, considering he's good with a phrase. Or any of the rest of the list for that matter.


Q - You mentioned in a response that you thought that B.B.King and The Mon actually played some of the same licks. I listen to a lot of B.B. King. I put on a new B.B. King CD at the office the other day and about fell out of my chair when B.B. started a tune with what was essentially the famous Mon opening to Mule Skinner Blues. Same exact lick. Now the question is ...

A - Oh man,
Here it comes.

In an effort to try and get ahead of you, in some of Blues Boy's autobiographical articles he mentions listening to Monroe on the radio. Maybe some of it rubbed off. I remember Mark Hembree telling me he answered a knock on the bus door one night in a truck stop parking lot to find what he called 'a huge black man' standing there. The man asked if "...this is Mr. Monroe's bus?" Mark assured him it was and invited him in after recognizing him as Albert King. Mr. King said he (too) had listened to Bill over the years and would like to meet him. Mark went and got Bill and said, "Bill Monroe, meet Albert King", and left the two of them to chew the fat. What a conversation that must have been.

Shoot, everybody that had a radio in the country heard Monroe at some point.


Q - I'm almost (no make that COMPLETELY) embarrassed to say this, but this beginner isn't exactly sure who Bill Monroe is. Could Mike give a quick synopsis of why this person is important to me as a mandolin player? I looked online and got some info (quite a bit there, actually), but I would love to know more from Mike. Can he give a few paragraphs on why I care about Bill Monroe and what is meant by Monroe style? How is it different from other styles? How did Monroe change music? How did Mike meet him? How did Mike grow from the experience? Etc.

Also, I'm playing a Kentucky 150s A-Style mandolin (one of the Chinese ones, not the Korean) and want to trade up. Any suggestions from Mike on a mandolin that I'll be able to play for years and potentially even perform with? An F-style, say, for under a grand? I'm thinking of the Morgan Monroe MMS-3 which is available for about $700. Is this a good one?

A - You're certainly getting your money's worth, eh? Okay. For a better understanding of who Monroe is/was, why he was important to the music world and mandolin playing, you need to check into a couple of books on Monroe. "Can't You Hear Me Calling" by Richard Smith and "The Monroe Reader" by Tom Ewing (an ex Bluegrass Boy). Although all the nformation in Smith's book isn't entirely factual, this will give you all the information on Monroe you need for the first part of your question. As to whether you will care about Monroe after that will be up to you.

Monroe took southern fiddle music and country blues and sacred singing and field hollers and made a hybrid. More of a "mutt" I'd say. Anyway, he crammed this sound down everybody's throats until they paid attention to it. He influenced everybody from early Rock & Rollers such as Elvis and Carl Perkins to the bluesmen that came out of the rural south, traveled the roads with the likes of Hank Williams and Deford Bailey and Ernest Tubb to the current roster of country and bluegrass players such as Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, Marty Stuart, Patty Loveless, so on and so forth. His catalogue of songs is one of the most extensive around.

I was formally introduced to him by Julia LaBella and Butch Robbins. How did it influence me? It has changed the whole course of my life. So, I suppose you would say that is significant in itself.

As for a mandolin that you can use for a long time that costs under $1000, I don't know. I have a couple mandolins made by Gibson, a 1937 f-hole A model,and a 1938 f-hole A model Kalamazoo, both X-braced, both in the $1000 range. Both sound good and woody, strong. I really don't have any recommendations for mandolins in that price range. I have been out of the mandolin market for a long time, except for the occasional frolic. You probably could get more reliable information from some of the other list members.

There you go.


Q - He (Mike Compton) and Mark Royal are the reason I play the mandolin anyway.They taught me how to HEAR and feel Monroe when I was just about to hang it up.> I imagine this was done in person and over time. Where I live there are no mandolin instructors within a reasonable distance - the closest is four hours away. Perhaps you could explain Monroe's style specifically in terms of scale use and identifying a song or two for each example so I can listen to Monroe and perhaps begin to "hear and feel" him too. I currently am using the blues scale but as I've only played since last August it's hard for me to hear if Monroe is changing scales over chords or staying in the song's key scale. His solos are often so short it seems to me he has to be staying in the key scale but I was told by an experienced player he's definitely changing scales with each chord change all of the time. Also, how often is the b7th used? I suspect it's an "ornamental" note because I don't seem to hear it too often, but as I can't yet trust what I'm hearing, I thought I'd ask this too. Thanks for your help.

A - I'm not entirely sure I understand what you're asking me due to the technical jargon, but I'll take a stab at it. I don't look at Bill Monroe's playing as consisting of scales played over chords. His style of playing is definitely played out of chord positions, but most times his approach was to look for the melody line within the notes of the chord he was in. Yes, he changed his fingering as he changed chords, but that was to more or less follow the melody line. Of course, there were times when he only vaguely represented the melody, but I still am not under the impression he was basing his statement on scale patterns. He did use arpeggios to good effect, played with downstrokes rather than with a rolling feel. For an early example, check out "When You Are Lonely".

The flat 7th is used quite a bit, as is a flat 3rd. They are reasonably significant to Monroe's playing. The 3rd is often used following a 5 slid downward, joined by a flat 3rd sliding back upward to a 3. The flat7 is played in various configurations, sometimes as part of a descending line towards the 4 chord, sometimes going directly into a double stop chord form with a flat7 and 5 being the shape. Or a reverse of that, the 5 being held in place and the flat7 slid to a 7, then the 1. Pretty scary sounding. There are others, but I suspect that is enough.

As far as being able to "hear and feel" what Bill is doing, I think it will take many repeated listenings to his music with an effort being made to play the sounds you are hearing. It is a matter of learning his vocabulary, just like any other language. The more you live with it and use it, the sooner what you ask for will happen. As for Paul Priest's remarks, you are most certainly right. It was done over time and in person.

Okay, tell me if I've cleared anything up, or just muddied the water more.


Q - A fellow mando player and I were talking just last night about early Monroe work. We both agreed that we came to the conclusion that there was stuff on the early recordings that neither of us had managed to figure out how to do, even though we both had spent considerable time trying, independently. In listening to some of those solos it just doesn't make any sense, though is sounds incredible. For me, some of it comes out in the "slurring" sounds he gets, which, try as I might (just for the heck of it and some additional variety), I cannot imitate no matter how slow I take it down. While I don't really focus on sounding like Monroe in my lame playing, it's just sort of interesting to find that others have the same feedback. Was it a different kind of string entirely? Incredible power in the hands to do some of those faster numbers, something that just isn't capable of being broken down and measured? Softer picks? (was he always playing with tortoise shell?).

I also didn't get the sense that someone like Butch Baldassari had got that stuff down either, though I admire his playing a great deal, and he has some great Monroe style when he wants to play that way. (I was at the workshop with him last summer (after you had been through) in Nashville.

With that windy preamble, my question is this. Were (are) there any "mysteries" to you in Monroe's style? Stuff that, even when you had spent time with him, in those later years, didn't add up to what you hear on the early recordings? Stuff you found that you were just not capable of playing? If so, what do you think created some of that?

I assume you have listened to most of his recordings, and probably have some opinions on the way that he played and changed over the years. The times I saw him in his later years, I wasn't as impressed with his playing as with his overall "being". (playing,singing, writing, stage manner, off stage manner, etc.) I wrote it off to health, age, etc. There comes a point when the mind is willing but the body won't follow.

I'm sure that some will say it's just the "magic" of putting it all together, but perhaps you have something that adds to the general understanding that so may of us spend time thinking about. Monroe's style is definitely a journey, not a destination.

A - I will give you a little information, and then I will ask for some from you...

Monroe used "regulation" mandolin strings. Bill played with whatever pick he had in his hand, but early on he used mostly a small teardrop shaped tortoise pick (according to Earl Scruggs) and went to a stiff celluloid pick later on. He *did* have incredible power in his hands, but it does not take power to play fast. It does however take endurance, which only comes from strength. There are certain aspects of Monroe style that are only reproduced by being very aggressive to a mandolin. Beat it, in other words. Most everything can be broken down and measured I reckon.

Were there any mysteries? You bet. There still are. But nowadays it's mostly me wanting to know why it's so hard to get my hands to play what I'm hearing. Say, the kickoff to "Roanoke". I hit that one about 1/3 the time. I mean, the right way. It's something about the way the notes on the E string are played on the way down...anyway, there have been all sorts of things that didn't add up. But a lot of them are making themselves known, oftentimes by attempting to explain an aspect of it to someone else, or just by playing a melody over and over and over...it tells you what you want to know eventually.

I am with you, Al. Bill's performances in his later years were mostly lackluster. But I watched because now and then he'd pull out a plum.

Now, please tell me *specifically* what solos you are having trouble with and what the trouble is.


Q - Mike, would you have a recommended song list or progression for a student who wanted to develop at least a basic ability to play some Monroe style? Maybe some "try this first", or "must haves", or "stay away from (that) until you have (this) under your belt"?

A - My advice to you is to start at the beginning of Monroe's career and go through it. Listen to it from the very beginning starting with the Monroe Brothers and go right on through. The reason being, it is a work in progress (to state the obvious) and each era builds on the next. There are aspects(musical ideas) of each phase that stayed in the music as Bill went along. If you read music I'd say look for "16 Gems..." as it is written out clearly and gives good representations of what's going on during some of the early years. I don't have a copy of it handy so I cannot be more specific than that. Butch Baldassari was involved in that project and could no doubt fill you in more if you're interested.

There is a set of recordings put out by MCA for the Country Music Hall of Fame I believe, called "The Music of Bill Monroe, 1936 to 1994". I may have the first date wrong. Anyway, it contains 4 cds and is a quick overview of Monroe's career. If I was going to get just one collection that would be it. Of course there are the much more extensive collections issued by the Bear Family, but they are expensive and I don't believe you're really in the market for something that comprehensive.

A lot of the early tunes that are considered 'signature' tunes came from the band of Monroe, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Chubby Wise, and Cedric Rainwater. This band was considered the original bluegrass band. But to get a full understanding of Monroe, I think you have to go to the beginning.

Song list? Hmm. Probably "What Would You Give In Exchange For Your Soul","My Long Journey Home", "Dixie Home","Time's Comin' When the Sinner Must Die"(I think that's the title),"Tennessee Blues", "True Life Blues"(pre F&S),"Honky Tonk Swing", "When You are Lonely","Mother's Not Dead, She's Only Sleeping", " Bluegrass Breakdown", "Can't You Hear Me Calling?","Bluegrass Stomp". These illustrate most of Bill's early vocabulary. Should keep you going for a while.

The other thing is to find somebody who knows something about the style and get them to go through the above mentioned material with you. I'd be happy to help when ever it works out I can.


Q - Can you ask how the left hand affects tone? Thanks

A - How the left hand effects tone? It can be as small a difference as the minute changes using one finger instead of another makes because of muscle strength. It can be the difference in tone playing a note fretted instead of the same note played open makes. I think most mandolins sound/respond differently depending on where a note is played on the fingerboard, so there is that to consider. If a note is pressed down too hard, it is pulled out of tune. If it isn't pressed hard enough, there is a percussive aspect to deal with because of fret buzz. I think playing a note with the point (end, bone)of the fingers results in a more clear note, as opposed to playing with a wider portion of the fingertip (which is generally what I end up doing a lot of the time). How long a note is held before being released affects duration of tone and saturation I suppose. Then, there is the aspect of sliding over a note and not actually playing it at all, just hinting at it.

I'll stop there, as I am dangerously close to being too far out on a limb. I hope this is helpful.


Q - Just loaded to the TablEdit library at http://www.co-mando.com the following:

1. "Northern White Cloud"

I also vaguely remember Compton saying in Kamp class that the fiddler that did the original recording of it said when he went into the studio he'd forgotten what Bill had taught him so he just made something up on the spot and thus we have the current version of "Northern White Cloud"? Maybe Mike can fill us in on this, true or not?

A - Billy Joe Foster was the fiddler on "Northern White Cloud". He told me that Monroe had been working on this tune for a little while and decided to play it on stage before the band really had a chance to learn it. Billy Joe said he forgot it and basically made up something on the spot that was sort of like what he remembered. That is what we know as the current tune called "Northern White Cloud", or at least that's what he told me.

Also, he said that the title came indeed from something Bill saw out the bus window. But it wasn't in the air, it was written on the side of a semi...


Q - Can you tell us if you use(d) any special kind of picking excerices except just playing?

A - I don't have a set exercise I do before playing, but I have begun to develope a ritual of sorts before I get started that tends to center my mind a bit.

The first thing I do is a series of short exercises to loosen the muscles in my forearms, fingers, and palms. They are very similar to what some call 'reflexology'. You can find books on this subject if you care to.

I have a couple of old Christofaro mandolin tutors here that I have been using now and then to study different aspects of mandolin playing. The second book of the 2 book series has a series of exercises that I find helps to limber up and is reasonably easy to follow.The exercises go from page 58-67 and are basically a series of scales start simple and build. I found that they require me to use my left hand in ways that I normally wouldn't and have also found that my left hand is much stronger from having used them. Also, I find it is good tremolo exercise, as the tremolo is constant throughout. So, I get two benefits from this.

I don't do the entire 12 exercises but rarely when I have the time to sit down and do them, but I use bits and pieces of them to warm up with.


Q - Would Mike talk a bit about playing with the great John Hartford and what he learned about music (or whatever, really) from John, either directly or by observation. Thanks.

A - To keep this from becoming lengthy I'll just hit on the high spots. John was prone to play whatever came to mind at any given time. He would change keys, tempos arrangements at the drop of a hat, onstage most of the time. He played "Gentle on My Mind" one night on the banjo in one key, and would play it tomorrow on the fiddle in another, possibly even change the tempo as well. One thing is that I learned to be flexible.

Another, and an important one, is that I learned that it didn't matter where I was on the fingerboard, the style I play works the same. John was fond of playing in Eflat, sometimes in Aflat, Csharp even. Wherever. At first I was tormented by this, as I was not used to playing in "odd" keys, and I was having to do this in front of the audience, trial by fire so to speak. One night it dawned on me that it didn't matter that I was playing between the position markers (dots), the style worked the same. It was a revelation to me.

Another, and a stroke of genius on John's part I think, is his explanation of "style" in music. (You listening, Glenn?) He said that every person on the earth has, in the ideal situation, 2 eyes, 2 ears, 1 mouth, 1 nose, 2 eyebrows, a chin, a forehead, etc. All faces are composed of these elements. But within that very limited framework, there is unlimited variation. The same for music. I took it to mean the freedom lies within the boundaries sometimes, not necessarily outside them.

I have realized since John's passing that he had spent a lot of time and energy working on music and just getting through the day like all the rest of us do. He never wained from being himself, never apologized for it, never compromised. He was a prime example of the theory that you'll be surprised what you can get if you just ask for it. I wish I'd not been so annoyed by him sometimes because with his passing went a very large encylopedic knowledge of how to present a stage show and entertain a crowd. So, as you can see, my pride has got in my way yet again.


Q - That was a killer, killer post. He did an awesome job of explaining the 3 periods.

I was also wondering if Mike could talk about right hand technique, and if he has any RH excercises.

A - I think this has been covered at least partially. I remember addressing some right hand usage questions, and I just sent in a post concering hand exercises and warm up patterns. If you can't find what you're looking for let me know. I'll take a stab at answering your questions further.


Q - It was actually very cool that somebody asked the exact same question as me, before me! I like that kind of synchronicity. So here is a question, rooted in time:

Mike, today is January 8, so I am sure we are all playing the tune of the day, "The Eighth of January." How would you approach a fiddle tune like that from a Monroe style? What changes, what gets dropped, what special sound and shape would you go for? I love the way Monroe stripped down fiddle tunes, leaving out the connecting notes in the middle--if that makes sense!

A - Possibly play the tune out of that 3-fingered D position? You know; 7th fret D string, 5th fret A string, 2nd fret E string. Only lifting fingers up to play melody notes as necessary. Possibly using the 7th fret on the G string in the B part? The point is to hold the position as much as possible, keep a handful of notes ringing.

Oh, using the 1st, 3rd, and 4th fingers primarily, leaving the 2nd free for whatever changes in noting/positon need occur. Just an idea...


Q - Are you saying Monroe held the chord and picked the notes from that position and threw in additional notes? I ask because a 4-fingered G chord has four notes, one B, two Gs and a D. The G blues scale has 7 notes including the flatted 3rd (Bb) and 7th (F) which don't appear as part of the chord but which you say are vital. I think you're saying he was more of a rhythmic type of player with more right hand involvement than I thought, centered on the chord by keeping its shape but also moving from it somewhat to throw in "blue" notes as well the 1, 4 &5 which are also in the blues scale. As for your explanation, it was fine, I'm just going to have to get a video of Bill playing to totally grasp it. Can you suggest one? Also, a follow-up question if I may. Are the double stops found in each chord the double stops Monroe used most of the time? Let me thank you now for your help. And let me say that in spite of all my Big Mon Mania, I greatly admire your own work and consider you the most important player alive - and not just for keeping Bill's style alive -but for giving it new life.

Moderators Note:
On the Mandolin Cafe site there is a section on playing out of chord positions in the instructional lesson section. Check out "Playing Up the Neck." There is a diagram of the useful notes out of the Big G bluegrass chop chord. I copied it and enlarged it and printed it out the other day (sorry Scott, so sue me!). Put the diagram down in front of you and your mando and learn where the notes are in the pattern. The diagram has helped me in figuring out how to play out of chord positions. This is all closed so it's moveable. Niles has good stuff on this in his book "Playing Up the Neck" but this one diagram will help you a lot.

A - Yes, more or less I suppose that's what I'm speaking of. But the chord position approach is a flexible thing. The voicing changes depending on what needs to be said. There are shifts in position to get to the desired notes. Or,and here is where some of the stylistic license comes in, the melody line is abstracted a bit because all the notes may not be easily reached out of the chord position, so alternates are chosen. Or, some are left out. I have heard Bill play entire solos out of the root chord position. So what if everybody else is changes chords?

Yes, Bill was very rhythmic. His right hand also had a sort of pulse or heartbeat built into it, very noticeable sometimes in the tremolo, and in his rhythm backup. I don't hear this sort of thing much in modern music. I do hear it in earlier music, where the rhythm section was the heartbeat of the whole thing, the backbone for the lead to play off of. Just to be opinionated, I really don't think there is much consideration or awareness for what the rest of the band is doing these days. Too much emphasis on the lead, not enough on the team. Although, in all fairness, I do hear bands now and then that are highly conversational. Run away, run away...

Videos; I am not up to date on what the current offering is, but there is positive feedback concerning the one that is out of Monroe hosted by John Hartford. There is also a followup narrated by Sam Bush. I believe there is an earlier one out too, but I'm not certain. The Monroe/Hartford video in my opinion isn't necessarily the best, but is what we have. I had at one time a copy of the entire taping session, out takes and all. The out takes were more interesting. Once the camera rolled, Monroe went into "legend" mode and wasn't nearly as candid.

Double stops; yes, as far as I can tell, Bill used the usual candidates. He did however slide the positions more and more from one to another for his solo work n his later years.

Thanks for your kindness. I am making every effort to show that Monroe style is a lot more sophisticated and valid than is currently shown in popularity polls. I was approached by Thile one night at the Station Inn not a year ago, and he said, " You know, I'm finding out there is a lot more to this Monroe stuff than I'd thought." You know of course that I was amused by his discovery.


Q - What are your thoughts on picking contests? Do you like them? Do you go to any? Have you ever won any? Has anyone asked you to judge one? Do you care about them? etc etc

A - I am not generally one who participates in contest situations. For a long time I didn't do it because I didn't have the ability/chops to do it. I probably still don't play in a stylistic capacity that is required for modern contest situations. Maybe I am mistaken, but I don't think there are many contests of any size conducted to illustrate Monroe style mandolin.

In recent years I have come to the conclusion that music is not a contact sport, a competition. It is for personal spiritual expression and enjoyment. Sure, it's also my profession, but my aim in the process of making a living is to make an effort to communicate with the audience, to share emotional content. I don't wish to sound like I have some kind of noble vision. I do indeed do it for the money and am blessed to be able to do so, but I would be doing it anyway regardless if I were paid or not. I would be doing it the same way as well.

I have been asked to judge on occasion, but seek to avoid such situations as I don't like to make judgements pertaining to who's "the best". I think that is relative to who one is talking to and has no bearing on reality of any kind. Playing contests is a good way to learn to discipline yourself I guess. It is a good way to find focus in your musical pursuits and obtain a peer group. It is a pretty good way to achieve notoriety and popularity, and some degree of money if you are winning.

Soapbox, soapbox...
I do realize that there is an element of musical competition that goes back for generations and we just have to do it I guess. It can be fun and getting together to play music and learn tunes/riffs/licks/etc. Indeed, it is very important. Music as a social event helps define who we are. But I really don't think that music is necessarily about who's good or who plays the fastest or how many contests you win or what your friends like. One of the main reasons I am not regularly a member of internet lists is because of this. It is very easy to begin to base your direction and feelings about your playing upon public opinion.

Okay, I'm sure this is more than you wanted to hear. Sorry to rant on so long.


Q - Thanks for taking the time to help out us on the list. Something that hasn't been looked at yet in much detail, is the psychological part of your playing. This is something that I've mulled over a lot, especially recently. Can you tell me what you're thinking when you're playing a solo, and getting ready to play a solo? Are you thinking ahead to the specific places that your hand will move, or do you just "feel" the music? I'm finding that when I improvise, I tend to fall to the back of the beat because of my mind is processing more information than when I'm playing a solo I've previously worked out. How far ahead are you thinking? I don't know how many mistakes you make in a show, or consider yourself to have made (though we might not have batted an eye), but is the best way to eliminate mistakes in playing, to simply practice more, or in taking a more systematical approach to using what little or much we do know on the fingerboard, and somehow sticking within those parameters without trying a whole lot of stuff that's running through our head?

A - The process of what I play on solos varies arbitrarily. Most all the things you mentioned take place. Sometimes I will work at playing a solo that I've heard Monroe play, just to see how close I can get to it. Other times I'll pick out one technique to use for the whole solo and give it a shot to see what I can do with it. That might be triplets, tremolo, downstrokes,predominantely slides, syncopated phrases, or any number of things. I let the music lead mostly, just let it come out. I work in mostly improvisational situations, so really the solos aren't written in stone.

I will stick closer to the program when the gig is more formal or scripted. In other words, not get too far out on a limb and not be able to get back. Sessions classify in this category. I have to follow what's been laid out.

Do I make mistakes? LOTS. I don't know what everybody else does, but I find that if I am thinking about what I'm doing too much I tend to make more. One thing that causes more mistakes is to get off in the middle of a solo and *then* start thinking about it. It generally comes apart from there. I am not one who worries about making mistakes too much. Unless it's on tape, it disappears into thin air.

I'm not saying don't pay attention, but I don't think it's a good idea to agonize over it too much. Just play what you know. You can only play what you know. I'm not saying don't push the envelope. By all means do that. Stick your neck out. Don't be careful all the time. Practice helps. Lots of practice helps more. But at some point you gotta have fun with it. Don'ttake all the fun and inspiration out of it for yourself by trying to be too perfect. Perfection comes across as "lifeless" to me. It's fine if there are a few goobers here and there. Some of my most favorite music is the worst recorded and roughest played of anything you'll ever hear. But it has plenty of heart. That is what makes the difference at my house.


Q - Thanks for your great answer to my question about learning from John Hartford. Questions about pride and annoyance are just as valid and relevant to playing or learning music as questions about finger movements--at least for me. In fact sometimes pride and irritation are much tougher things for me to work with than whatever my pinky won't do today. No scales, no warm-ups for them as far as I know. Wish there were.

Anyway, I really appreciate the candid (and hilarious) way you talked about those in your Monroe answers and now this one too.

A - Yea, that's a hard one. But you know, the pride/ego/attitude thing can work in your favor if you use it as a tool to get a particular sound. It's the only way to get some of the sound you hear on old Monroe records. Play close to the bridge and hit the mandolin like you're mad as hell. Sonny Osborne showed me that. I had never been able to find that tone, couldn't understand how to reproduce it. But there it was. It's the sound you hear on "The High Lonesome Sound" album. It's that biting midrange sound you hear on the old recording of "Wheel Hoss", "Scotland", "Panhandle Country" (which sounds suspiciously like "San Antonio Rose" speeded up),"Roanoke", etc. Of course, sometimes this "tool" is hard to turn off once it's turned on. Just so you know.

An amusing story about playing hard... Sonny said one time a fellow handed Bill an A model mandolin of some kind to play because he'd broken a string or something on his F5. Sonny said Bill played a couple songs on it, beat the hell out of it, and brought it back to the owner with only 2 strings left on it and said, "Here, I can't use this."


Q - Mike, my Key Imperials have a lot of brass hardware on the front. How do you keep from scratching up the back of your instrument? (This can be off-list ). Haven't noticed you using a Tone-Guard.

A - I don't. Steve Gilchrist told me to "teach it some manners". Last time I saw him he picked up the mandolin and exclaimed, "But, you promised!"


Q - Mike, we all know that you are great at arranging. Have you written any tunes or songs yourself? Is that something you would like to explore in the future? What are your professional goals in the coming years? BTW, if you talk to the Coen Brothers in the near future, tell them I am available for their next picture. I see myself in a kind of Nelson Eddy role!

A - Yes, I've got a few 90 minute tapes full of tunes, but most are not all that great I'd say. A couple of decent songs is all I've been able to squeek out over the years. I have not been nearly as creative in the last 2 years (let's see, Eli will be 2 tomorrow). But, I am working hard on other musical aspects, so I hope it will all come together before long.

What do I want to explore? What are my goals? As of right now, I am pondering that very thing. It is something I spend quite a bit of time with. To get my writing back up to speed certainly, to become a more than competent singer. I am knee deep in fiddle lessons, working on my tenor guitar playing. Thinking of working up some Lonnie Johnson style stuff on the 4 string. I've entertained that for a while now. Looking at finding material that holds its' own with just one voice and one instrument. I've had some contact with Bruce Molsky about working up some duet material there, and the possibilities there are exciting to think about. I talked to Grier on Tuesday, and he says he'll be happy to work most anytime, so that's encouraging too. I reckon for the time being I'll keep after the NBB routine and see where that goes, but I realize that at some point, possibly now,I'll have to start relying on myself more, to get out and work more on my own. I keep thinking that if I had some sort of grand vision like some of he legendary players we all admire that my next move would be easier to make. But I am convinced that Monroe had no clue where he was going either.

He just kept following the road and fortunately it worked out for him. Hopefully it'll work out for me too. The music business seems to be a fickle mistress.

As for the Coen's, I'll pass the word along.


Q - A little cross-polination is probably good for everybody. I have heard a lot of your stuff, but that Grasscals stuff is really good. You sounded very sharp. Are you doing SPGMA? If you are going to be in Nashville that week, I might come out for my long-delayed Monroe lesson.

A - NBB is playing the fesival out there on the weekend and doing a Station Inn gig the same night. Please call me while you're here. That goes for any of the other listmembers who would like to run over some Monroe.

I'm a firm believer that variety is good for us. Hearing/playing music that isn't what I'm used to helps define what I *do* play.

You touched on a subject that I can't seem to remember to comment on; confidence. You are secure, confident you can play, therefore you can. You know as well as I do I'm sure that having confidence that you can play up tempo, difficult passages, whatever is basically dependant on whether or not you feel you can do it. One atta-boy.


Q - Since questions have seemed to slow down, I'll ask another. In my first question I made a mistake. I wrote "How often is the b7th used? I suspect it's an "ornamental" note because I don't seem to hear it too often..." I meant the flatted fifth, the difference, I believe, between a blues scale and a minor pentatonic. Is the b5th "ornamental?" Your first answer worked out well because it gave me information I may not have picked up on my own, but because of my error I'm still curious about this. Thanks.

A - Boy, you're working my little brain hard... I just went over some of that stuff last night at fiddle class, so just maybe I can give you a very slightly educated guess.

Yes, the flatted 5th is generally played in the context of a slide or hammer on later in Bill's career, but it is used more actively as a significant part of the melody during the period of time when downsroke soloing was so prevalent. Now, I think I may have actually got that right.


Q - Could you ask Mike what are his favorite all-time Monroe tunes or songs and maybe his favorite Monroe solos as well?

A - Hmm. Favorite solos...

I'd say that one of my favorite songs/solos is on "That's Alright". Not a well-know song. Some of my favorite work of Bill's is on the two gospel lps,"I Saw The Light" and "I'll Meet You In Church Sunday Morning". I'm not that big on organized religion, but the mandolin tracks on those two is purely a religious experience. I am fond of a few of Bill's numbers that were recorded while Jimmy Martin was in his band. "Letter From My Darlin'', and "Memories of You"are of note. Very off the wall solo on "letter". For zany,there are a couple that come to mind, the early version of "Prisoner's Song" and his mandolin work on the later version of "Columbus Stockade Blues", not the Clyde Moody version. I love the tone of the mandolin on the original "Pike County Breakdown" and on "Bluegrass Special". I love the feel on the original version of "Tennessee Blues". Of later material, I'd have to say that "Tanyards" is about my favorite. There are a couple very good versions of "Dusty Miller" , "Kentucky Mandolin" and "Get Up John" on some live stuff I have, much better than the store recordings. And, a very good version of Bill with 3 fiddles singing "Put My Little Shoes Away". He sang his heart out(Charlie was playing guitar that day;the sibling rivalry thing).

I will stop. The list will grow if I keep on. Solos scattered all over the place. Songs too. I'm sure I've forgotten some.


Q - You mentioned a couple of Bill's songs. I have heard you talk about Bill on several occasions as to his songwriting. I remember you said that Roanoke was a lot like Soldier's Joy moved over a string. That's how I learned to play Roanoke. I went home and moved Soldier's Joy down a string and learned the little B part. Bill seemed to . . . er . . borrow quite a bit. Wasn't there a dispute as to whether he or Kenny Baker really wrote Jerusalem Ridge? Do you want to stick your neck out and comment further on The Mon's songwriting? I am a lawyer. I am used to people taking the 5th!

A - Yep, Bill "borrowed" quite a bit. So did everybody else. It was very common. I am sure that it happens everywhere, in every art form. If you get very deep in southern fiddle traditions, you'll see a lot of it.

If you sit down with it and listen for quite some time you will begin to hear familiar passages poping up all over the place. I have come upon at least half a dozen melodies that were changed very little, minutely, and called something else. I am sure there were more. There are a few melodies that were "cleaned up", or straightened out from the originals. As in "Pike County Breakdown", it was a matter of speeding up "Sweet Betsie From Pike".Change the key, the tempo, the rhythm and call it something else. Hell,there's 4 "stomp" tunes out there that really have the same structure, those being "Honky Tonk wing", "Bluegrass Special", "Bluegrass Stomp", and "Bluegrass Twist" or "Part One". The main difference is that they are in different keys. As in the case of "Get Up John" it is a take off on "Sleepy-Eyed John", only played out of a D tuning. Many of the older songs/tunes were not protected by copyright laws. So "arrangements" of those can be claimed. So on and so forth.

I don't know all the history of who all wrote what. There has been vigorous debate over ownership of tunes. I don't really see why it matters.


Q - A question occurred to me based on one of your posts this evening. Did Bill know a lot about music theory? Did he know all of the scales and the various extended chords? I played with some (veteran) guys a while back and took a break on a song I didn't know. I commented afterwards that the old pentatonic scale saved my bacon on that one. One of them looked at me incredulously and said: "Do you know the scales?" Apparently none of them knew any scales. I guess they all played by learning tunes by rote or by ear. Did Bill use music theory or did he go by his feel and intuition, or, I guess, both? Aren't all of the "stomp" tunes just 12 bar blues? "Bluegrass Stomp" is a 12 bar blues in D and "Bluegrass Special" is a 12 bar blues in A. Right?

A - Right, all the stomps are 12 bar blues.

No, Bill didn't know theory. He never used it conciously. Everything that he played as far as I know was by ear.


Q - How do you approach backing a singer? To me that is the coolest thing yet the hardest to achieve and I love the way you do it. I've heard all the fast stuff and although I'd love to be able to do it the best time for me is when I hear the mando, pedal steel etc. play the perfect three note fill.

A - It depends on the singer sometimes as to what you do. Somebody like George Jones wouldn't leave much for you to do except maybe play a very simple trailing line at the end, or a lead in to the next line. Others leave more holes. Oftentimes I play double stop harmony to whatever the melody is quietly so as to not distract the singer. Support is the most important thing. We are talking about "backing" a singer. Helping out. You can fill the holes where the song pauses between lines, where the singer takes a breath, or leave it blank. Music has to breathe, so it's not always necessary to fill *all* the spaces. But when you do fill, I think the simpler the better. Repeating what was just sung is a nice way to go about it, only simplify the line. Sing it back to the singer. The 3-note fill is a good way to go, with sustain/tremolo. Playing long notes.

Two people I have great admiration for in the backup department are Stuart Duncan and the late Gene Wooten. I used to stand next to Gene every Tuesday night. Not only was he a metronome, but he played the prettiest backup you ever heard. I asked him to show it to me, how he did it. He just said he didn't know, he just listened to the song and tried to play something pretty behind it. Stuart can read the situation and be on top of it before it gets there and most always play just exactly what you would have wanted to hear.

I hope this helps a bit.


Q - I have a question for Mike Compton. Actually two: What's the most significant Recording you believe you've done? Why? When do you believe you started to really play music?

A - The most significant recording for me on a personal level is probably the "Grounded, Centered, and Focused" recordings because I was sat in a chair right in front of Monroe and learned more about his right hand feel (at least, at that point in time. It did change over the years) and sense of time in those sessions than I had learned all the years previous. Also, it was the first time Monroe acknowledged my effort and said that he felt I was "really doing it right".

Musically, I don't know what I'd say my most significant work is. The "Climbing the Walls" recording was important for me in that it was my first effort in going out and making a statement with somebody else simply because I wanted to say something. Bill Evans' "Native and Fine" was my first producing effort. Working/recording with Hartford was educational, as you might imagine, in many ways. I recently did a session for James Monroe and had the priviledge of watching Jim Buchanan and Buddy Spicer work out twin fiddle parts. That was wonderful to watch. The "Oh Brother" stuff was significant because I'd never worked on a project of that magnitude and I met and recorded with many of my heros, played music with a lot of very talented people in venues that I would never have had occasion to play with otherwise. The recording with Dr. Ralph was significant for what I learned about Ralph's singing. I'd never really listened to Ralph that close before.

So on and so forth.

So, what has been significant to me has been for various reasons, not necessarily for the musical content. They have all been parts of my own growth.

You ask when I really started to play music...My answer to that is, hopefully any day now.


Q - Mike, I haven't seen many Gear-Head questions coming to you. What are the playing/tonal characteristics of your Gil which impress you the most, as compared with other instruments you have played? When (for what songs or types of music) do you switch to an oval-hole, and does your playing style/technique change with an oval hole instrument? Any strong preferences on strings, picks, etc? Do you prefer a low action, or a bit higher? Do you prefer standard mandolin fret wire, or something larger? Flat board or radius, and if radiused, is it compound? Still have the rattlesnake rattle in your new Gil?

A - I have answered some of this already, but here goes...

The #500 gives me everything. It has tones from mean and dirty to sweet as a bell. The mandolin is built with a heavy dose of midrange. It is even from one end of the neck to the other to my ear. It will do anything I ask it too and has more to offer than my current technical skills can get out of it. It has plenty of volume if I need it and won't bottom out if I play it hard as I can. The neck is a dream. I don't understand how a man can take a slab of wood and carve it to where it feels like it is part of your hand. It is one of the best F5 mandolins I have ever played, including Loars.

I usually keep all the mandolins I have set up around 5/64's at the 12th fret. That seems to work fine. I have to adjust the action during the year as the temperature changes, but usually only at the bridge. I used to play real high action with very heavy strings, but have come to think that was just silly macho BS, and very hard on the instruments. Currently, I use several different kinds of strings. I have come to the current selection out of a lot of trial and error. On my F5 I use D'addario J75 EXP. I used to prefer steel string tone over anything else, and probably still would, but recently I have been unable to find steel strings that aren't noisy, that don't rattle.On my AJr I use D'addario Flattops. On my A4 I use GHS Silk & Bronze or Silk & Steel. I tried 4 or 5 different string sets on this mandolin, and had one set of S&S left, so I put 'em on. The mandolin really woke up. On the other two A's, I really haven't settled into anything definite, but will more than likely settle for a medium/light gauge string,as the Kalamazoo has no truss rod, and the f-hole A is plenty loud and rich with a lighter string.

I generally use D'Andrea Pro Plec picks. About 1.50mm. Faux tortoise. Golden Gates still ride in my pocket, but I usually don't use them on the EXP's. They seem to drag. I change picks occasionally to alter my right hand tone slightly.

I prefer a flat fingerboard. I never have been able to get comfortable on a radiused board. I used to swear by heavy fret wire because it is so much easier to play slides on, but after a dealing with intonation problems for years, I've gone back to the regular mandolin wire. Seems like it is better for intonation and doesn't have the metallic sound the bigger ones have. The main reason for me trying the coated strings in the first place is that they feel fast on the smaller frets. So now I have the thump and speed of the coated strings with the intonation of smaller frets.

I use the A roundhole mandolins mostly for oldtime and blues(when I'm solo),or for anything outside of bluegrass really. I am enjoying them more and more. I find the F5 too powerful or "brash" for some applications. I do love the F5, but I like that roundhole tubby sound. The A4 is lively, the AJr. is very dry. Playing roundhole is a bit different than the f-hole mandolins. I'd say the A4 works better if I play it from the wrist with a little less flexibility in the pick. I haven't had time to learn them all well, but every mandolin I have has it's own voice and works in different situations.

I have rattles in nearly everything around here. You know where I can get some really big sets? Say 25+ rattles?


Q - Here's a question. We know you are a Gilchrist man from way back but if you had to go with another mando, what makers would you look at?

A - As for looking at another brand name mandolin besides Gilchrist, I think I'd look Nuggets first,then probably Collings A models,even the new Gibsons. I played an assembly line 'reject' Gibson that was a big surprise. Good to see Gibson coming back. A Dudenbostel would be something to behold, but who can wait 6 years? I'm really out of the loop the last few years. I know there are quite a few very good independent builders out there, but I am not up on who all is making mandolins.

"Give me Gilchrist or give me death."
---- Patrick Henry Compton ---


Q - I just want to thank Mike and all those involved in getting him as CGOW. I've been awed by his playing for a couple years and hope to see him in person sometime. If I didn't have 3 little kids and a mortgage I'd be at Mando Camp for his session. My question for Mike: Where's the best regular place to hear you play live in person?

A - The Station Inn in Nashville. Every Tuesday night.


Q - Did you see this comment from Tut on Bill's mandolin? I asked him if Bill's Loar was really as great as Bill claimed it was or was it just Bill's mandolin. Did you play the famous July 9 Loar? What did you think of it? Why was Bill apparently so careless with this beloved instrument?

A - Yes, I saw the post. Was the mandolin great sonically? Yes. Why did Bill claim it was so good? Because it was his. Just another way of playing mind games with other mandolin players("It ain't as good as my mandolin"), of creating his legend.

I had the mandolin over at my house for about a week. Bill wanted the action raised a little. Whoever had worked with it last had assumed he didn't have strength in his hand to play a higher action. He seemed insulted. "It needs to be higher, don't you think?" he asked. I changed the strings on it too, as there were about 3-4 different kinds/ages of strings on it at the time. It sounded like Bill. That's all. He had beaten it so hard and so long; that's all there was in it. Most anybody could've made it sound that way. When I got to keep it that once for that long, you know I played it. A lot. Damn near made love to it. But, it was after it had been damaged so badly. Really there wasn't any way that I could see it would be good for anything else but a museum piece. It sounded good, but seemed impossible to play in tune. It was just played out.

I really don't think that Monroe was the kind of guy to sit and polish his instruments. They were tools, not collectibles. I know he loved that mandolin and became more attached to it as the years went by. It did the job for him and never let him down and was one of the few things he could really count on I think. But, consider who we're talking about. Mr. Attitude. The instrument was there to serve his needs. It was there to help him prove that he was Mr. Bluegrass. No. 1. So, if that meant beating the daylights out of it, so be it. His ego was more important to him than keeping the mandolin pristine. Just a guess....

From: Mike Compton
Subject: So Long from Mike
Date: Saturday, January 11, 2003 2:24 PM

I am officially unsubscribed. But if there is anything left that needs answering, please send it along and I will take care of it promptly.

I am very happy to have been of service. If I had only one thing to say about playing music it would be...well, you know by now that I can't say only one thing. If there appears to be the need/interest later this year I'll take another week of it. I have a lot of work to do here. Many self-appointed projects.( I just got a Brazilian tenor guitar cd from listmember Larry Klose that has got me pinned to the floor.) A lot to learn.

Have fun with it. I think we all began to play music in the first place because it feels so good.

Life is good yet. Your servant,