Posted tagged ‘Mandolin Players I Know’

Sierra Hull

December 8, 2008

        Recently a young lady visited my blog who was a musician and had taken up the mandolin.  I realized I had not profiled any female mandolin players, and decided that oversight should be corrected.

        There are several excellent female mandolin players out on the circuit.  One up and coming young player is Sierra Hull.  Miss Hull looks like someone who might be on my schedule at the office for a cheerleader physical, but once the kid picks up  a mandolin she is a beast- one of the best  out there.  She was on Merle Fest Mandomania last year, which is a good indication of her stature.

        Her CD, ‘Secrets,’ has been a big splash in the bluegrass world.  She not only plays and sings, but writes original material too.  She’s more than just a talented kid-  Sierra is already a seasoned pro.

        Check out her web site at  When folks like Adam Steffey and Sam Bush sing your praises, that tells you what you need to know.  Sierra might be young, but she is already a first rate mandolin player.  Old Doc better keep his day job, but I do enjoy seeing these young ones come along who bring our music to a new audience.

Dr. B


The Ultimate Music Fake-out Mandolin Method

November 23, 2008

        O.K. here it is in one easy lesson.  How to play the mandolin and fake out the world.  I know- I’m an expert!

        Now before we go any further, this will not work for doctoring.  In fact, if your doctor gestalts his way around his right brain like this to prescribe your medical treatment, RUN!

        First of all, as we have discussed, don’t forget the mandolin is tuned in fifths.  Do not confuse this with corn liquor quantities, and whatever you do don’t partake of Galax strawberries.  (That is another lesson- they are soaked in moonshine)  Smell ’em if you aren’t sure – it’ll remind you of lighter fluid.  Don’t go to a doctor who’d eat them by the way.

        Now that you know the thing is tuned in 5ths, you have it made.  Unlike how that ‘B’ string on a guitar runs me crazy, the whole dang mandolin fretboard has geometric symmetry.  (It don’t change)  So, once you learn a chord all you gotta do is move it up two frets and lo and behold you are in a brand new key- ex. ‘G’ to ‘A’.)  It is so easy Bill Monroe made it against mandolin law to use a capo.)

        So find a “G” chord, then if you can count from one to seven you got it, at least if remember the phrase one major, two minor, three minor, four major, five major, six minor (relative minor- important there) and 7 is a diminished deal us bluegrassers don’t use much except for guys like Mike Marshall, and probably that Thile guy too.

        The modes are another lesson.  My daughter knows all of ’em , but here’s how to get by.  Think Ionian (ie start on the 1st note of the scale) for most of your western music like bluegrass and fiddle tunes, and the 5th note, or mixolydian, for your darker songs.  Tim Stafford of Blue Highway says most bluegrass bands have at least one murder tune per set to get all that traveling out of their system.  Use you mix mode there, and use a lot of Monroe down strokes.  Shawn Lane does the style very well- musta come from hanging out with Stafford.  Alan Bibey is great on those too.

        And if you get lost just learn to use the Penatonic scales (Five notes, not five sides as in Pentagon for heaven’s sake) and hang out with David Grisman or the Grateful Dead crowd, too.  Gris is an all time expert on the method and will point you in the right direction. 

         If your goal is for a bunch of women to chase you play those big rock n roll Barred Power chords.  They work best if you let out your mandolin strap a few notches so the thing hangs around your knees- a bluegrass Mick Jagger like Sam Bush comes to mind- he rocks.

        Only problem is that doesn’t work so well for gray haired doctors who wear pagers and shirt pocket pencil protectors.  Somehow it doesn’t come out sounding the same- better not give up my day job.

        The only thing I’ve found tough is to get my fingers to walk the talk- that has taken some practice, and is gonna take some more.  As they say about the PGA tour- those guys are good.

        More theory later.  Sorry to cut the lesson short, but my lovely daughter is here to visit and I don’t get to see her enough.  Talk to you soon.

Dr. B

Wayne Benson

November 14, 2008

        While I’m on a mandolin player kick, let me tell you about Wayne Benson.  I’ll get back to my book next week.

        Most bluegrass folks know of Wayne.  He has been the mandolin mainstay for Russell Moore and iii Tyme Out for years.  Both Wayne and the group have more more awards than I can list.  If you are not familiar with the bluegrass genre iii Tyme Out is a good place to start.

        Not long ago, I saw on the Mandolin Cafe that Wayne had scheduled a few lessons.  I signed up for one.  He lives in upstate S.C. so it was a bit of a drive for me, but it was worth it.  Before you get confused and think these guys are ‘just bluegrassers,’ let me clue you in.  Wayne Benson is not only a master bluegrass mandolinist, but is deeply immersed in many styles of music.  As he says, “If you follow this road long enough, it’ll take you all the way to Bach- it is all music.”  

        (I told that to one of my buddies who said, “Did he write carry me bach to old Virginia?”)

        I signed up for my lesson in hopes I might get a few ideas that would bleed into my playing.  I thought my work in the key of ‘B’ had become stale.  Man, did he inject some life back into this old Doc’s style.

        The first thing we worked on was improvisation out of the “B” blues scale, then he moved into chord scales and arpeggios in ‘B’ and then the key of ‘G.’  I’ve always been a busy Doc and never studied my instrument like I should have, but in one lesson he unlocked the middle part of the fret board wide open.  What music theory I knew began to crystallize as we explored the concepts.   I was so impressed by the lesson that I urged him to write it up and promote it on the Net.  I found it fundamental to an understanding of the mandolin, or for that matter music in general.

       I think it was Charlie Parker who said this-  if I am wrong I hope someone from the Cafe will correct me-  “First you learn your instrument, then you learn your genre, then you just play music.

        Wayne has done just that.  Like all the best ones he makes it look easy.  In reality, he unlocked the keys via years of sweat and solitude.  He is willing to share his secrets for a very reasonable fee- I recommend him highly.

        And if you want to hear some fine traditional bluegrass, go see iii Tyme Out.  Modern bluegrass is a very sophisticated art form and often poorly understood by pop culture.  But as Wayne says, “We’re bluegrass and we aren’t going away.”  Tell ’em Dr. Bibey sent you and buy all their CDs, too.  Of all the bands of the second generation I find them to be a classic you do not need to miss on your journey.

         Chet Atkins used to say the man who thinks he knows it all from the bridge to the nut of the guitar is a fool.  That is true, but as far as the mandolin Wayne is getting close.  Check him out- ask some arpeggio questions- I assure you the cat knows his business.

        You can reach him via the band’s website or his myspace page as below:

Dr. B

Sam Bush

November 11, 2008

       Sam Bush has been a premier mandolinist for many years.  My guess is if you were to survey serious students of the instrument most would have Sam near the top of their hero list.

        I can’t say Sam is a personal friend, but I know him and have followed his career for years.  His old band, New Grass Revival, had a deal with Capitol Records years ago.  They toured around with Leon Russell as I recall.  All of us who followed the music felt New Grass was so progressive a lot of folks didn’t get it.  They mixed everything from bluegrass to reggae to rock ‘n roll, and were a house a fire every time I heard ’em.   For my money Sam has the best right hand rhythm of anyone on the business, and I think much of it was developed in all those years on the road with the Revival. 

         After the band split, all of them went on to front touring bands.  Sam played with the Emmy Lou Harris Hot Band and was the session mandolinist of choice for a host of recordings.  When you are the mandolin man of choice for Doc Watson, you are THE mandolin man.

         Sam came back to center stage with the Sam Bush band.  His line-up has been strong for years.  It is anchored by his old Bowling Green Kentucky high school buddy, Byron House on the bass.  I admire Sam’s loyalty, but the fact House is one of the best bass players in the country doesn’t hurt, either.  If you have never seen them catch their show.  MerleFest is his biggest venue, but don’t expect him to be able to do a lengthy meet and greet there.  At MerleFest, Sam has reached rock star status, and his autograph line is often a two hour wait.

        Visit Sam at his website or myspace as below.  He has tour dates, sound clips, pictures and more, and it is worth the visit.  As any mandolinist will tell you, Sam Bush rocks!    

Dr. B