Bob Applebaum

Well known in the California bluegrass scene, mandolinist and songwriter Bob Applebaum remains best noted nationally for playing on a pair of Béla Fleck’s Rounder releases. Co-leader of Grey Eagle, he’s experimented with bluegrass MIDI, worked in film and theatrical music, and also recorded with folks as diverse as Pat Cloud, Mason Williams, and Sharon Cort. Bob has played in diverse settings, from bluegrass to accompaning Playwright Stephen Legawiec’s "Hammergirl" for the Ziggurat Theatre Ensemble. He has played with the Modern Klezmer Quartet. The mandolin parts for the bluegrass Band in a Box was sequenced by Bob.


Q - Who were your influences - on mandolin and - on other instruments?

A - The players who influenced me when I was a young teenager growing up in the early 60's in Newark New Jersey, included the main stays of the recorded bluegrass world that were available on record. I had to look quite hard around the N.Y. area record stores to find albums by Bill Monroe, Jesse Mc Reynolds, Bobby Osborne, and John Duffy. Ralph Rinzler was a local hero and with the Greenbriar Boys distributed through Vanguard records had greater visibility. He was also the cousin of a high school friend of mine and that offered my first introduction to a real mandolin hero. Of these players I would say I was of course given the concept of Bluegrass mandolin by way of Monroe's recordings and initially by John Duffy's powerful and expressive lead and chord playing.

By my late teens I had been introduced to Frank Wakefield and was again motivated by his "Monroe" roots but inspired if at times erratic willingness and ability to stretch boundaries harmonically and rhythmically.

In the late 60s I attended the early festivals in Berryville and there met and befriended Buck White. He was a gracious and encouraging mentor and I took his "lessons" of clarity and elegance to heart.

Later in 1969 when I attended graduate school in Bloomington Indiana, I met the young Sam Bush. I immediately recognized the central place of great and powerful rhythm playing. Just ten minutes of listening to Sam play off stage taught me that I was not just playing a stringed instrument, but in fact I was holding a chordal drum.

Other instrumental players who have shaped my thinking include Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown and too many other insightful players to in numerate here on every possible instrument excluding spoons and accordion.


Q - What music do you listen to today and why?

A - What do I listen to today. That's actually a tough one. Currently there is so much that goes across my desk and through the CD player that I'm hard pressed to name a few favorites but....I have been introduced to the playing of Argentinean born, Brazilian Bandolin player, Hamilton De Holanda. He is simply extraordinary and with accompanist Marco Pereria they have "duo highhandedly" in my opinion raised the level of acoustic performance to a level far above what we are hearing in North America. He is my current inspiration on the meaning of "great" performance, arrangement and composition.


Q - What kind of a middle eastern group are you playing with? How has that stretched your abilities?

A - For the last year and a half I have been playing with a marvelous gathering of players from Middle Eastern, Eastern and Western European backgrounds under the direction of Palestinian conductor, violinist and oud master Nabil Azzam. It is the first time since high school that I have worked in a formal orchestra setting. It has been a joyful challenge to improve my formal reading skills and a rare opportunity to learn and perform Arabic and Eastern European music with players raised with the traditions. If you would like to learn more, I suggest you go to the Mesto web site.


Q - You stress the rhythmic role of the mandolin. What sources of rhythmic inspiration have you turned to, and how else have you developed this aspect of your playing?

A - In regard to rhythmic inspiration I turned first to the playing of Bill Monroe, and Sam Bush. But as I have a great love for American jazz I think my strongest instincts resonate to jazz percussion from the bebop era on.Since I started playing with Mesto I moved my chair from the string section over to percussionists. I now sit between the percussionists and the oud and Santur and Qanun. This has again opened my ears to a different genre of complex rhythms.


Q - Which is your favorite string or pair of strings?

A - Over the years I have tried a wide range of strings. At one point I even made my own Es and As from piano wire. I currently love the sound of the D'Addario semi flat wounds. The wound A string is a sonorous innovation and offers a stability and resonance that the unwound As are lacking. On the other hand, they have an exceptionally thin core and break quite frequently when I am in playing situations that require real projection.


Q - In your opinion is there any difference in the way the pick is held during a tremolo as opposed to the chop or the cross pick. I have recently started to hold the pick with 3 fingers instead of 2 and find it a bit awkward.

A - I definitely suggest and do myself, alter the angle at which I hold the pick for tremolo. Whether one uses the pads of one or two fingers on the underside of the pick, by leaning a bit forward (toward the nut) on the underside, the pick can be angled slightly upward, producing a kind of leading edge which facilitates the glide through the string chorus.

In regard to one finger versus two on the underside, I would observe that two fingers can offer greater strengh and control. Particularly when you are in those musical situations that require you to punch out as much volume as possible, that second pad adds to the stability, energy transfer and more accurate balance of pressure between the upper (thumb side) and lower surfaces.


Q - Bob wrote: "For the last year and a half I have been playing with a marvelous gathering of players from Middle Eastern, Eastern and Western European backgrounds under the direction of Palestinian conductor, violinist and oud master Nabil Azzam."

Are you playing this material in 12TET, or are you trying to get the various maqam's quarter-tone intervals? The oud and violin is no doubt outside of the equal-temperament.

Ever do anything with east Asian musics?

A - Great questions. Needless to say, my "conventional" mandolin is locked into the 12TET. Fortunately, the orchestra material is enough of a mixture of Western orchestral form and ethnic thematic material that only a fraction of the compositions require the quarter tone intervals we refer to as "red notes." Other orchestra members like the oboe, bassoon, Western flute (we also have a Nay/Arabic flute )and clarinet are pretty much in the same musical boat as myself. I have been giving serious consideration to having one of my mandolin fretboards altered to include quartertone frets installed as half frets in stratigic positions. Finding the musical craftsperson will require some serious searching even here in L.A. For the while, I tacit (with some regret) the subsections that demand the red notes or my part gets rewritten to harmonize with notes in the scale that are full intervals.

In regard to Asian music my experience is limited to the brief visit to Mainland China some five years ago when I spent one of two weeks in Nanning City. My daughter Ella, now 6 was born there. Among the myriad cultural activities on going in the large central park of the city was a marvelous informal but large gathering of players and singers. They played traditional and I suspect a bit of popular material in the Cantonese style. They cheerfully invited me to sit in with my mandolin and what I soon realized was that I had minimal difficulty absorbing the scales and melodic lines but that it was the markedly different form of the music stumped me. By the time I had caught a phrase it frequently reappeared in places far from the structures I understood. We are planning to go back in the next year or two. I think I'll spend a little time woodsheding a few "local" tunes.

Interestingly, the one violinist in the group seem to have a complimentary difficulty. He knew two Western songs. "You Are My Sunshine" and "Moscow Nights" which he titled "Russian" When I accompanied him with chords he seemed to have great difficulty recognizing the 8 and 16 bar structure. Needless to say there was a lot of good natured laughter.


Q - I don't know your music well. But weren't you the fellow that played on Bela Fleck's first solo album, Crossing the Tracks? In particular, I remember that mandolin solo on Chick Corea's Spain. At the time I was blown away by adventurous nature of that arrangement and the wildness of your break. Even now it makes me smile. Can you tell us a bit about your relationship with Mr. Fleck, that project, and that tune in particular? And what is new with your music. I'd love to catch up.

A - In 1975 I returned from a year a half sojourn in Fairbanks Alaska with a band called the Pine Hill Ramblers. I had done two albums with them on the Revonah label and the band leader, a gifted song writer Carl Hoffman had taken us up north and got us set up in the bustling "metropolis" with a steady gig. Joining the band for that "tour" was the inspired and inspiring banjo player Marty Cutler. That gig included a month long tour of the entire Alaskan Pipeline while it was being constructed. We actually ran into the McClain family while on tour but the P.H.R. s were the only band of any kind to tour the entire run of twenty something construction camps the length of Alaska.When we headed back to the lower forty eight, Marty went back to N.Y. and I headed down to the Boston area. Soon after arriving I formed a band called "Cheap Trills" with Rob Hinson-guitar, Gene Schwartz-Fiddle, and Jim Guttman-bass.It was an "acoustic" instrumental band that drew it's material from everything from old time, Celtic and bluegrass to Swing, Bop, Latin and included Chick Corea's "Spain."

During that year, Marty Cutler told me about young Bela heading up to Boston to work with Jack Tottle's band. Bela and I got to know each other during that time and on various occasions "hung out" and played. Later in 1978 ( I had moved to Los Angeles where I was playing mandolin on two syndicated TV shows (Down Home USA and Country Serenade) Bela invited me back to Cambridge to play mandolin for "Crossing the Tracks." The core band (Mark Schatz-who I first got to know when he came to me for mandolin instruction) and Russ Barenberg spent three days learning the material and testing out arrangements. I don't recall exactly how we settled on the opening but it was some kind of collaboration between Bela and I. I do remember that all my parts were live and that we took a few passes at the improvised introduction on the Brazilian theme.

What is new with my music? The most recent project that is "All The Way Home" on my label, Goodheart Records and is available at any of several distributors including and . The most glowing review is in Bluegrass Unlimited February 2001.


Q - I remember back 15 or 20 years ago I was up at the Grass Valley BG Festival and after the main stage entertainment was over, I was wandering around and came across a fella playing some outrageous mandolin. incredible pickin', the likes of a Dawg or a Bush. I stood around, my jaw hitting the ground, listening to this picker, who was frothing at the mouth, one incredible solo after another. This fella was totally smokin', just tearing it up, and I had no idea who he was. Sound familiar? I asked around & was told It was you! Do you ever get up to the Bay Area for gigs?

A - Now I'm feeling my age... I seem to recall that I played at Grass Valley and conducted workshops with a band I worked with for several years first called Yankee Bluegrass and later Circuit Riders. One of those years I had great fun playing along side a young Ron Block. So yes, it could have been me...and considering your exuberant response I sure hope it was.

I only rarely head far out of town these days: as my friends and students well know I am a thoroughly smitten "geezer" dad. I am fortunate to be able to make a living and get home to my own bed most nights. But, I do have dear friends in the Bay area and on occasion can be coaxed up North. My old guitarist friend, Barry Solomon is opening a music store in Alameda and there are tentative plans to fly up for some workshops and shows. That might very well happen in the coming year.


Q - I really enjoy your CD "Keeping the Homefires Warm" I hope you consider a new project soon. You have been a wonderful influence to beginners like myself. Who was your mentor or persons that influenced your playing and style.

A - Thanks for the kind words. I do want to observe for those reading in that the CD is actually entitled "All the Way Home" on which "...Homefires Warm" is included. I am considering several new projects and if there were 36 hours in a day I'd get to all of them quicker. Fortunately I am in this for the long haul.

As I mentioned in an earlier response I got a great deal of seasoned wisdom from Buck White in the late 60's and early 70's. In addition to Bill Monroe, John Duffy, Sam Bush and to some degree Jethro Burns, I should also include one great mandolinist who seems to get less discussion time then deserved...Jimmy Gaudreau.

I met Jimmy in the later 60's just after he replaced John Duffy in the Country Gentlemen. His precise, aggressive and creative playing just lifted me out of my seat. I affectionately began refering to his style as "martial arts mandolin." I realize in retrospect that it was his introduction to "Teach Your Children" that immediately taught me the importance of finding just the right doublestop (harmonization) for filling out a solo: that the most convenient harmonization i.e. proximity, was not necessarily the best aesthetic choice. A tasty and compelling player he was, and though I haven't seen him in "a hog's age", I'm sure he still is.

Also, as I implied elsewhere, I have also always looked outside the "mandolin world" for musical inspiration. I get ideas from pianists, horn players, fiddlers, etc. I regard my mandolin as my musical voice but my musical virtues are sourced in all the great music that the wider community offers.


Q - Thank you for spending time with us, and sharing your vast experience with >us this week! And please, let us Los Angelinos know when your middle eastern orchestra is performing - or if CD's are available.

Knowing your long history as a teacher, perhaps you could share with us as >what you see as common obstacles and/or pitfalls for the beginner/intermediate player, and perhaps some insight or exercises on how to overcome them?

Your mandolin is absolutely magnificent! Could you tell us about it?

Also, any plans regarding the re-release of your Passion Dance CD?

A - Let's see... the common obstacles and/or pitfalls for the beginner/intermediate player.... Yikes... this is truly a tough question to give a direct answer. Over the years I've seen hundreds of students and (I don't mean to be flip here)like snowflakes they really are all unique. But let me try some general observations then. Some significant fraction of complete novices who come for lessons are not only taking up mandolin but have never played any musical instrument before or had brief bouts of lessons that were abandoned early in their lives. What they first have to realize is that they are in fact taking up three distinct but integrated skills. One, they are going to have to learn to physically "drive" the mandolin. Now that's what most people presume the point of going to a teacher is. How do I hold my pick? Which fingers go where? How do I get that tone? When will I play fast like so and so? etc. But there are two other areas that are just as critical.

They are going to have to learn an appropriate amount of music basics: at least something about scales and arpeggios and chords and timing and meter and feel etc. Then there is the third matter of the musical "language /dialect they want to play. Is their goal to play Bluegrass or Old Timey. Or is it to play Celtic or Swing or classical...And all of this must precede that point, hopefully before they ask how do I learn to improvise?

Part of my job is to "hip" them to this without scaring them. So the first project is to help the beginner recognize or even decide what their short and long term goals are.

Most people who take up the mandolin are doing it recreationally but still it's a serious investment of time and energy that has to be sustained. Almost every student does have some sense of their desire to "feel" the fun or joy of performance. But most beginners usually don't understand that the state of mind they were in as listeners, when they were "carried away" by some mandolinist's performance is fundamentally different then the mental state of focus that will be required to play in the manner that aspire.

Another way to look at is to say... "look, there's no music in the box. The mandolin is a kind of prosthetic voice. The goal is to get the music in your mind out through that piece of awkward machinery and into the air so that the feeling and "meaning" of the music can be shared with others.

Now that being said, I think the common problems of most begining and intermediate players is that they hold the mandolin improperly with their left hand, use their fingers inefficiently in pressing the frets, hold the pick wrong and generate the motion of the pick with the wrong muscles. I'm being facetious here of course. There are myriad technical problems with inexperienced players and without observing what the student is doing I'm reluctant to start recommending remedies. In that way I approach each student the way a physician treats their patients.

In regard to the Givens A-5 I've played for years, I'll say more in a later post. And "Passion Dance"? Well I started the process of remastering and releasing it on CD and then the current political disturbances took substantial wind from my sails. But it will get done and with encouragement maybe sooner than even I expected.


Q - I was fortunate to take lessons from you about six years ago while I was teaching in Los Angeles. You are a great teacher. I remember how patient and motivating you were as I was just beginning on the mandolin. I still vividly remember taking lessons in your garage/studio out back and then heading to the beach to practice after a lesson.

Due to getting married, I moved back to the east coast. Fortunately, when I asked for any advice for a teacher around the Baltimore area, you suggested Niles Hokkanen who I have taken lessons from for years. Thanks for the recommendation and I am lucky to have had two great teachers.

I love how you compose and also write. Your version of "Bucks Run" on your album is awesome. Also, I love your >instrumental "Gardener's Holiday."(I hope this is the exact title, it's off the top off my head) Any advice on >how you go about arranging a particular song and also anything you could share about your writing process would >be extremely helpful.

A - Thanks for the high praise... it really is a significant part of an artist and teacher's compensation.

I have always taken arranging music as an essential part of presenting a song. Even when I first started playing in bands I had little desire to identically replicate material that I heard from other bands and sources.

There is of course both an art and a craft to arranging and therefore no short answer to the how to question. But here are some general suggestions. I consider my first priority in presenting a vocal or instrumental is to recognize what the emotional feel of the music is that I want to convey to the listener.That gives me a handle on tempo and rhythmic "groove." If it's a vocal, then the first question is "what is the song about?" If it's an instrumental then I often have greater latitude as I can usually choose the feeling with which I want to present the music. After that, it's quite a bit like painting. Instruments have tonal colors. They can be mixed, matched, and contrasted. There are symmetries, contrasts, balances etc. As in painting, one doesn't use ever color in every section nor are all colors necessarily represented equally. And, just as in painting and sculpture, space...what is not there... is just as important as what is. Another critical quality for me is that technique and the complexity or subtlety of the arrangement is in the service of the musical intent. I want my listener to be drawn into the music not to focus on the artifact of the music. It's not about demonstrating how hot a player anyone can be or even how brilliant the arrangement is. Like a great film, I want to be swept up into the plot not watch the special effects or concentrate on the soundtrack. All that should follow the performance and be observed secondarily.

One profound difference between painting and music is that music must take place in linear time, so music is in that way like prose or poetry. It is about temporal development. Introductions, statement, developments, sumations and closure are part of the essential formula. To put it in the more daily parlance I tell my students..Invite your listener in, take them for a ride, offer some familiarity and suprises and eventually get them home. A kiss good night is optional.


Q - I became a big fan of yours long before I ever heard a single note actually played by you. I am referring, of course, to the "Virtual Bluegrass Band" program that Band-In-A-Box put out featuring your mandolin solos with other great pickers. The solos were taste personified of great bluegrass standard tunes. Can you go into how to input the solos into their program? While you're at it how about some ideas on how you improvise, how you visualize the neck, do you hear the music as you improvise it? Did you guys cheat and speed up the BIAB tunes after they were entered in the program? Lots of questions.

A - Thanks... you know occasionally I listen back to those mandolin solos on the Virtual Bluegrass Band and think "Gee, I'd like to play like that guy!" By the way, though the "box" information read "with other great pickers, in fact Marty Cutler was all of those other great pickers except for about one quarter of the fiddle solos and all the mandolin leads and rhythm which I performed. In answer to "Can you go into how to input the solos into their program?" if you mean how did we input the data for the Bluegrass Band the answer is that we played them in real time through three MIDI interfaced controllers. I have a Schwab 5 string electric mandolin that I retrofited with a Roland GK2 pickup and processed through a now antique Roland GR50 Synth. Marty used a specially designed 5 string banjo controler he refers to as his "strangolin" and a more standard MIDI guitar.

The usualy procedure involved Marty emailing me binhexed Mark of the Unicorn Performer MIDI files that had, at the least, completed rhythm tracks. I would reconvert them into Performer MIDI files and then play in the rhythm mandolin and leads. Then there was a fair amount of cleaning up spurious false notes and on occasion correcting a note here or there for compositional reasons. Most of the effort in fact went into generating a convincing rhythm mandolin track. The GR50 was not exacting brilliant at handling multiple string inputs, particulartly mando chops. At times I would complain to Marty that it felt like flying loops with the Wright brother's first plane.

Did we "cheat" and speed up the tunes? Well I'd prefer not to call it cheating in this instance. Yes, some of the tunes were played in at speeds less than full tempo but the goal was to generate live performances that were also creative and they were in fact quite spontaneous. Nothing that you heard was beyond our abilities but the procedure did allow us to create many great solos in different bluegrass styles at production speed.

The answer to how I visualize the neck is best answered by getting a copy of the recently released book "Mandolin Fretboard Roadmaps" Hal Leonard 2002 by Fred Sokolow and Bob Applebaum. The system I've been using and teaching for three decades is layed out there. Fred has been doing this series for many instruments and asked me to assist him on this one. The concept of what I call the "chop/K position" mapping is the core of the concept.

The book also includes mapping for essentials scales and chord contruction.

Now, how do I improvise? I'm afraid I have no brief answer to that one. I have listened to countless hours of music of all kinds, practiced and analyzed myriad musical structures and patterns and yes indeedy I hear that stuff in my head... the challenge is getting it out artistically when I'm supposed to.


Q - Stepping beyond the specifics of "mando playing", do you have any thoughts concerning the issues of:
- artistic integrity (musician's bushido)
- musical growth
- artistic/musical compromise with the business end particularly in regards to the advanced+ level player?

PS: Done anything with Sid Page since the Barry Solomon guitar LP years ago?

A - Beautiful questions... now I'm certain we have to sit down and talk in real time.

Fortunately or perhaps unfortunately, I've got lenghty thoughts, ruminations and open ended questions myself on these issues. But I'll take the risk of attempting these questions with some brevity.

On artistic integrity: I would first suggest that most musicians which includes mandolinists here, approach their music as primarily craft, that is, they are producing the work as a kind of product that will culturally or educationally enrich, amuse or entertain. It may be commercial or not but the focus of intent is directed toward utility (i.e. here's something important to listen to or you can dance to or buy etc.) or personal demonstrativeness (i.e. watch me write/perform etc. -ain't I great!) Considerable attention can be given to form, correctness and certainly elegance too but even as these are valuable or understandable goals they are not sufficient to be characterized as art when it comes to music.

Art , I would argue, has an essential additional element of an attempt at personal communication. The artist uses the art form as the vehicle to express and hopefully reach others with some manner of emotional message. It may not be and usually isn't expressible in verbal language otherwise other artistic forms (writing,painting etc.) would be effectively interchangable. One most also be careful not to confuse personal "style" with artistry. Just being able to clearly recognize the individual performer by simply listening to the performance is certainly an eminent achievement but it does not necessarily demonstrate the artistic intent of the player.

Okay, so now where's the integrity issue? Certainly "artists" live real lives imbedded in society where most of us have to pay the bills. So the question arises something like... how much "nonart" (i.e.craft) can an artist make to pay the bills before they are primarily a craftsperson and not an artist. I'm reluctant to make this a percentage issue. Rather it may be more important for the player to be clear about when they "are making art and when they are making craft." Then the issue of artistic integrity is better defined within the context of the task at hand. Now we can ask whether one's art is consistant in adhering to the values of courage and honesty (bushido).

Now when it comes to musical growth, I take a perfectly mundane perspective....if it ain't growin' it's dyin'. Musicians who are also artists don't really make any choices in this matter. It is an inevitable component of artistic expresion.

I'm in touch with Barry Solomon we are fine friends but we haven't performed any music together in quite a while. I did one studio session with Sid some years ago but otherwise...boy! L.A.'s a big town.

Thanks for the chance to think on "paper" about these questions, these are matters that will forever remain open and evolving parts of the musical conversation.