Niles Hokkanen

Niles Hokkanen grew up in central Florida. Musically, he moved back and forth from Dan Hicks and Frank Zappa to Bill Monroe and Buck White for some time but eventually, his attention focused on acoustic folk music. Choosing a Gibson F-4 mandolin as his "instrument of torture," he launched into a career which was based on his belief that any style of music can be played on mandolin (or whatever your instrument of choice). What the instrument is capable of is up to you!

In only a few short years, he had self-taught himself into the top rung of bluegrass mandolinists. Over the years, in addition to publishing almost two dozen books on mando-related instruction, Niles has been a prolific musical journalist, writing for many music-oriented magazines in the U.S. and abroad and writing mandolin instruction columns for such publications as Acoustic Musician. In addition, from 1986 to 1998, he published his own mandolin-oriented periodical, The Mandocrucian's Digest. Niles also conducts mandolin and improvisation workshops throughout the U.S., Canada and overseas as well.

Having recorded and performed with such luminaries as Larry Rice, Howard Levy, Michael Doucet (of Bousoleil) and British guitarists Martin Simpson and Richard Thompson, Niles Hokkanen has been called "a musician's musician" and a "teacher's teacher". Seeing him go off on a nonstop 20-minute NORDIKA medley with his wife, which might include Snowflake Breakdown, Las Golondrinas, Whisky Before Breakfast, Merry Blacksmith, Summertime Blues and Purple Haze will definitely convince you that you aren't in Kansas any more. Welcome to the wild world of Hokkanen!


Q - Could you give advice to a new player wishing to become more steeped in playing Blues mandolin as well as Rock-n-roll (performing with other combined acoustic and electric instruments) who has otherwise been involved in the BG scene? What are the biggest differences to you between these two worlds of music (either technical and/or philosophical)?

A - Blues and rock are constructed a whole lot differently than bluegrass or old-time, in respect to the way the various instruments of their respective ensembles interact and function. And in both blues and rock and roll there are so many different substyles. Compare "Uncle Pen" to Muddy Waters stop-time "Hoochie Coochie Man" or to any of the John Lee Hooker boogies ("Boogie Chillun", "Boom Boom") or to something like "Every Breath You Take" (Police) or "All Right Now" (Free). Huge differences in how the ensembles function.

Compare just the way the rhythm guitar plays on a bluegrass tune and the rhythm guitar on something like "A Hard Day's Night" or "Ticket To Ride". Or the simple inlocking rhythm guitar parts on the Temptations' "Get Ready". It's like comparing building construction methods - a pole barn vs. framed house vs. concrete block vs. geodesic dome and so on.

One can look at ensembles in various styles as little ecosystems; each animal or instrument finds its place on the food chain depending on what other critters are also living on the island. Diet (playing style, instrumentental function) evolves to fit the enviromental circumstances. That super clean, evenly noted Texas contest style sounds great on something like "Limerock" or "Tom And Jerry" - the playing style evolved to maximized the aesthetics of that type of tune, BUT it will usually sound trite and wimpy on some raw gutbucket blues. When it is time for "Tutti Frutti" who do want to hear - Pat Boone or Little Richard? It's the same analogy of a classical violinist trying to play old-time fiddle music, or vice versa. You might be able to play the pitches, but pitch alone is only part of the whole deal.

In some ways, it simplifies everything to think in terms of vocalists. Ralph Stanley is outstanding in his particular specialty, but is he going to pull off "Mustang Sally" or "Built For Comfort" or "Jumpin' Jack Flash"? Of course not. So why should the instrumental styles which have evolved to compliment Ralph work on those tunes either? Can the sidewinder and Arctic lynx thrive in each other's environments? Not unless they radically mutate.

But as to mandolin.... blues/rock requires a different vocabulary(ies) and phrasing and different playing attacks and techniques if it is to sound "convincing". Just like the vocals. If there is no mandolin in the particular style or substyle of music you are wanting to play, then you have to look at the instruments (the closer or more related, the better) that are already present in that genre and study what they do and how they function and try to emulate them. Also, I think that examination of how the overall music is put together, by playing a bit of bass or banging on some drums, is very helpful. I'm not saying become a competent bassist or drummer, but do a little bit as a educational method of understanding what their parts are and how they interlock with each other and with what you will be playing.

However, chances are you'll find many of the same player prejudices in all styles of music, only the second-class and/or ridiculed instruments/musics have different names. The Ry Cooders and David Lindleys and the hybrid-minded types are a real small minority. If your instrument doesn't already have an established spot in a stylistic ecosystem........well, life might be a lot smoother for you if you just surrendered and strapped on an electric guitar or bought a keyboard instead. (If you want to play a certain kind of music in a band setting, rather than just in a jam.)


Q - You have a different take on rhythm than BG traditionalists. How are you using the instrument to back up other players? and does the number of people you are playing with vary how you would play?

A - The number of other people and the instruments which are present always has an impact on how and what you play, not to mention the style of music being played. Depending on the circumstances you might play strummed chords ala John Lennon, or rock'n'roll shuffles with chord stabs. Or some sort of riff -single notes or in doublestops, or walking 3-note chords. There are a ton of things you can do. A lot of these are derived from electric guitar (rhythm styles) or piano/organ figures.

On the old-time end, I do stuff which basically emulates clawhammer banjo. Or it's possible to fingerpick Misssissippi John Hurt, Piedmont blues style. Both these work fine solo, or with a bass player. There a bunch of stuff on ON FIRE & READY! which has no guitar in the ensemble. This stuff originated as solo mando but was expanded with drums, bass and harmonica. Sometimes some blues piano.


Q - Your instructional materials develop a progressive series of rhythm approaches, are you still developing more of these ideas?

A - Yes. I'm going to put out a series (4? 5?) of instructional books/cds on all this rhythm stuff, some of which (material) I've taught in workshops. The first one will be dealing with walking 3-string chords.


Q - I am working on reducing the tension and the related effort in my playing. What methods do you use to reduce tension?

A - I've been dealing with reducing tension for years with the martial arts. It's really made me aware of how much body (and mental) tension can slow you down. First off, you don't want some funky way of holding the instrument to be working against you. The collapsed wrist is not good, and neither is the opposite - the over arched classical guitar wrist. It's like crimping the garden hose which reduces the flow of water. Sometimes students have their left elbow jammed against their side, and that impedes mobility; move the position of the instrument so more of the neck sticks out farther.

Then there's death grip. Various wrist stretching exercises will help counter this. I learned a series of these at an aikido studio, and after doing these daily for several months, I noticed an improvement of my vibrato which also led to easier string bending on the 8-string. I'd been using vibrato for many years, but these stretches loosened me up so that I finally reached the "point of optimal finger pressure". There are probably similar or identical wrist stretches to be found in yoga, or rock climbing etc.

Breathing. When the going gets tough, the average person starts to hold their breath. But the opposite is what you should do. You can do exercises to counter this tendency. While playing a scale pattern, inhale for the duration of 2 bars (or 4 bars) and the exhale for the next 2 measures (or 4). One can also play tunes inhaling on the passage and then exhaling at the end of the phrase. Sort of synching up your phrasing to your breathing like a horn player or a singer.

There are also various deep breathing exercises which may or may not be combined with various body motions or stretches. You can find these in various martial arts, yoga, or various relaxation/meditational exercises. Here, you get into the area of mental perceptual shift, getting into the "zone" state that athletes of all sorts" describe. I figured if these things can enhance performance of fighters, it could also be applied to playing, or even to just listening.


Q - You seem to have played the same instrument for a long time - F4. What are the qualities you like about it? How does playing the same instrument improve your playing? Do you focus more on the music than the instrument?

A - I've had my F-4 for almost 30 years. I have a pre-truss rod Gibson A which has been with me for 10 years, and I tend to play this much more than the F4 nowadays. It has that slightly wider neck which I've grown accumstomed to and it has an aluminum bridge saddle which aids in getting more of an electric guitar tone.

I like oval hole instruments - they handle differently than ones with F-holes. There seem to be more variance of tone quality in relation to how hard you attack the strings. If I play hard, I can get a different sound out of the instrument which makes rock and blues stuff more convincing. I think of this as "overdriving the top" and a PLUS, while other people might consider this a negative and call it "breaking up". My opinion is that it's better to stick with one or two instruments long term rather than switching instruments every couple of years. Maybe this is more of an issue at the higher playing levels where finesse becomes a greater and greater issue. It's only after years of playing the same instrument that you really know all the tonal nuances and quirks of the particular instrument and can use them controllably. Maybe you can't really explain it, as it becomes much more of an intuitive and instinctual thing.....that while playing, you just know that the tone is more appropriate for the lick played on a certain string or a certain place on the neck. It really hard to quantify. But if you are to approach reaching a "oneness" with your instrument, you've got to stick with with an instrument or two long enough until it becomes an extension of your hand.


Q - Your commitment to unlocking the secrets of mandolin playing - both of this world and those from beyond this universe - is well known. What do you teach about mandolin playing that may not be covered by most other teachers?

A - There are several things happening - training of the hand, training the ear and training the mind/intellect. In my current system, I try to develop all three simultaneously. Not just the hand motor skills. A lot of it has to do with pro-actively rewiring your brain and burning in associative link between various techniques, or scales, or meters. I teach a lot about "process" - it's like understanding addition or multiplication; when you understand the process, you can plug in different numbers. The mechanical aspects of playing are analagous to learning how to type. But I try to teach creative writing at the same time. OK, so you can type 100 wpm, but can you write an article or story that a magazine will buy?

In terms of styles, I'll get into a lot of areas others don't deal with: rock and blues, R&B, various ethnic stuff. Techniques and vocabulary may come from a variety of instruments - electric guitar, acoustic guitar, bagpipes, fiddle, banjo, pedal steel, drums.....


Q - How about an update on your left handed playing project. What have you learned that a beginner should know? Where should they focus? How much of it is the mechanics of hand coordination versus the content between your ears (which presumably you left alone)?

A - I haven't been doing much on the lefty for awhile. Doing the left-handed thing has been very helpful designing beginner level materials. Nothing quite like handicapping yourself physically in order to appreciate the basic level struggles which occured so long ago that I couldn't otherwise remember what it was like.

Lefty has been all about the mechanics - physically it demotes me back to a beginner status, while mentally, I'm analyzing my own difficulties from the perspective of an advanced player/teacher. If I'm having trouble doing something, I can ask myself, "Why is this happening?" And when I come up with some reasons, then I can design exercises to bridge that gap.

The number ONE problem is TENSION, TENSION, TENSION!!! Things happen easier if you can relax. However, tension is a by-product of trying to run too many programs simultaneously on your cranial computer, it just slows down and gets jerky repsonses just as your pc is running too much stuff at the same time.

So, either simplify the exercise and/or reduce the tempo. Develop the down-up-down-up plectrum mechanics on half or quarter note pitch changes before trying to coordinate changing pitches with every plectrum-stroke. Get the technique of one hand smoother and ingrained, then focus on the other hand, and only then, try to put the two together.

I've got some "white belt" (beginner level) instructional materials in preparation and a lot of the process was aided by my lefty experimentation. I think that the various exercises and drills that will be in these will address many of the deficiencies I think exist in most of the beginner level books that I've seen. Well, I became aware of the deficiences that exist through my lefty switcharoo.

There were some interesting bits I became aware of. If I was playing the game of "Memory Jukebox", trying to pick out the melody of some song in my head I'd never played on mando before, I discovered that the right (fretting) hand fingers would respond and find the notes about the same as when I played normally, but of course, with the added mechnical slowness. The ear>>>finger wiring existed from ear>right-hand even though I had very little prior experience playing from that side.

But there is an odd mental/physical tendency to mirror the left and right sides. It's easy to wiggle the index fingers of both sides at the same time. It's no trouble to do the same action with both hands, but try to wiggle the index finger of the right hand while alternating between wiggling the ring and middle fingers of the left! So I think it's this opposite side mirroring ability which allows me to pick out notes by ear without much problem when playing lefthanded.

An unexpected benefit of playing left was that when I switched back, it felt easier to fingerpick or use plectrum+finger(s). The efforts expended in making the right-hand fingers fret the notes on the neck translated into more muscular control for fingerpicking or for two-handed tapping.

For a real game of "strain the brain", have both lefty and righty instruments on hand and alternate playing the same tunes on each side with both instruments. Sometimes you have to play an upside down instrument and mental flip the strings over in your mind, and then flip the instrument over an play off the other side. After a bit, you can feel your brain neuologically changing. Very odd, somewhat disorienting. Sort of like your gray matter has been turned to salt water taffy! (Try writing lefthanded. OK, now try writing left-handed and upside -down (your writing, not your physical position). OK, now try writing left-handed, upside-down, and mirror-imaged. Can produce a similar effect.)


Q - What do you do when you practice, how do you spend your practice time? Any good excersises?

A - I don't have any particular practice routine. It tends to be pretty free-form, and spontaneous. I like to "play" with the instrument, as much as 'play" on the instrument. For example, I might sit around playing some fiddle tunes with just the left index finger. Or maybe I'll just mess around with artificial harmonics or spend time fooling with various fingerpicking or plectrum+fingers rolls. Or I might use the stiff extended middle & ring fingers of the right hand as my plectrum, down up down up. They are games to me. Let's see if my brain can process this alternative fingering on the move. Sometimes I'll stumble on interesting sonic effects, or some sort of unorthodox technique or finger which actually simplifies certain things. Just your typical mad scientist type stuff. or maybe I'll just run over some tunes, or play rhythmic grooves and backup figures.

When I encounter some lick, idea or passage that gives me some trouble in execution, I might distill the essence of that idea into an exercise or exercises applied to a scale pattern and then practice it all over the neck. I've always been prone to design my own technical exercises as a way to zero in on the problem area and tackle it in an efficient way.

For example, back around 1975 or '76 was one of those pivotal points in my playing was learning the "I Am A Pilgrim" break out of the Happy Traum BLUEGRASS GUITAR book, on the mandolin. The Clarence White guitar break was just so good, I figured that if I could capture even half of the lyricism he was getting, I'd be doing pretty good. It wasn't easy - putting those same pitches on the mandolin neck meant that I'd have to do things up the neck, switch positions a lot and so on. PLUS, there were all those hammer-ons and pull-offs which was what gave the break it's lyrical quality. My left hand could do these without too much trouble, but the right, plectrum handalways wanted to follow along.

So, to break my L&R hands of lockstep coordination and gain some indepence of the hands, I devised some slurring exercises hung onto a very common scale pattern:

||--0-2-4-0---2-4-5-2----4-5-7-4--- etc., up the scale (D u d u)

^ = slur (hammer-on or pull-off)

slurring #1: ||--0^2-4-0---2^4-5-2----4^5-7-4--- (D ^ d u)

slurring #2: ||--0-2^4-0---2-4^5-2----4-5^7-4--- (D u ^ u )

slurring #3: ||--0-2-4^0---2-4-5^2----4-5-7^4--- (D u d ^ D u d ^ )

slurring #4: ||--0-2-4-0^^^2-4-5-2^^^^4-5-7-4^^^^5 (D u d u ^^ u d u ^^u d u)

Each rhythmic slur pattern has a different feel because different notes tend to be emphasized or deemphasized. So I'd practice these patterns on a G major scale or an A major, or Gm , Am etc. and eventually the right hand learned to stop tailgating the left hand slurs.

This really had a big impact on my playing, as it opened up a different way to interpret things. Imagine a fiddler who played every note with a separate bow-stroke and then one day somebody demonstrates bowings! While not so prounced an effect as with the bow on fiddle, it was more of the sound I was looking for than every note played with the plectrum.

That's just an example. I've probably got a 100 other ways of playing this same type of scale pattern - quintuplets, triplets, additive rhythms, w/spitting Moloney-style Irish rolls, using highland bagpipe ornaments, in harmony in 3rds (doublestops), using weird combinations of down& upstrokes, or with pick+finger(s).

For me, technical exercises are practiced as a MEANS, not an end. I'll practice technical exercises when I need to get some sort of control over a technique, rhythm or whatever. If I don't have a "reason" to practice an exercise, I usually don't. I guess it's the opposite of what is done in classical training - building up the technical ability before deciding how it will be applied. For me, I have an idea of what I want to do or play and then go about trying to acquire the technique to pull if off.

(In explanations I'll use the term "plectrum" because it is synonymous with the noun "pick" but distinctly different from the the verb "to pick", which helps avoid some confusion at times.)


Q - I am new to your instructional materials, but have feel in love with bluegrass up the neck. The whole approach just seems to have clicked for me. I am looking forward to your new instructional materials coming out.

The new backup lessons you have coming out (soon yes?), will they be in the same format as your previous materials (small format, handwritten tab)? Or will they be a larger format with more of a typeset layout. I like the grassroots look to "up the neck", but something a little easier to read off the stand would be nice.

A little while back, I think I remember you saying something about how you have some new instructional material you would be releasing soon. Can you give us more info on that stuff? I've gotten great results from Bluegrass/Up The Neck, keep the good stuff coming!

A - Glad to hear that BLUEGRASS UP THE NECK is producing positive results for both of you. It's kind of hard to believe that it is nearly 20 years ago (1984), but it holds up fairly well. I had a student, a woman newspaper reporter, who was interested in getting out of open position, and after devising some exercises for her, the whole book sort of shape in my mind. This gives an idea of my approach. Take an idea, develop it further, turn it sideways, transpose it. Every new stage is just a development or alteration or variation of something which has been worked on.

I'll have a stream of new materials coming out. These will be typeset annd use computer notation/tab (I use MusEdit). And it will be in an 8-1/2" x 11" format, comb bound.

I've mentioned the rhythm mando book/cd that's coming soon which deals with 3-string walking chords. This ought to explain some of what is going on with swing and blues figures. It'll be the first of possibly 4 or 5 volumes on rhythm/backup approaches.

Then, I think I mentioned, some beginner materials. One or two volumes (with cd) of beginner level material (white), which will be followed by the next progressive steps. One of the aspects of this 'system' is that there will be exercises for the hand and the ear along with some theory/terminology (mind). I want to try to link the neural wiring between the hand, ear and intellect from the very beginning, if possible. I've used some of this material successfully in beginner level workshops. Rhythmic and melodic variation comes in very early - even if the hands can't operate that well, that's no reason to restrict the understanding of what's going on and how to do some easy manipulation of the tunes.

I don't want these progressive books to be ones that take a year or two to get through, if ever. I want the student to absorb the ideas, and the general techniques as well as understnading the processes involved in practice and turning tunes into a number of exercises and drills. Hopefully it wouldn't take more than 6 months to absorb the material and move on to the next volume. Then yellow, orange, red, green, blue, brown and black levels.


Q - You have talked about rewiring the brain and creating new connections between ear, brain and hand. Can you elaborate and explain how you have taught yourself to do this?

A - Tricky question to answer. I think there is (my) realization that at the advanced levels playing is ultimately a mental thing. The "real instrument" you are playing is your mind, not the piece of wood in your hands. Yes, you have to train the hands to execute certain tasks, but once they are trained, then it's more about what you want to "say" and not about the physical details of how to get it out. As I've said before, understanding "process" is more valuable than the specific details.

Some of these ideas are like holograms or fractals. You can chop them up, but the idea remains intact in the various pieces. Like process over details. That idea can be applied to a tune which might be played major, minor, 6/8, ¾ or whatever. There's the "process" of manipulating the raw material (the basic melody) and the "details" of what form the tunes is mutated into. That's an example, but isn't the same idea - process over specifics applicable to "How does the brain learn?" vs. "How do I learn to play mandolin?" ? If there are some fundamental laws about the learning process, understanding those can be applied to whatever the subject matter or task is.

I've watched a whole lot of documentaries on TV on "Nova", Discovery Channel, etc about brain research/science, and read various books on the subject. Since you (I) now realize that it is about the process of learning in general, you (I) begin to take note of teaching techniques from other areas, whether it's from sports training, martial arts, or musical education systems and approaches. There's this new way about thinking of musical performance as "micro-athletics" - that musicianship is an atheletic activity physical, only using small specialized muscle groups, and this has opened up treatment of performance RSI to applications from sports medicine.

Now when I wanted to coordinate the two hands to handle fiddle bowings and slurring patterns without constantly tripping myself up, I devised some repetitive exercises which would allow the R&L hands some independence of each other. The goal was: "I want to use hammer-ons, oull-offs etc. but I' ve got to train the right hand not want to pick every note the left hand fingers. Of course, there are tons of these type exercises in the classical violin methods written in the past 300 years.

Now let's say the goal is... "Whenever I think up some lick in my mind, I want it to come out of my instrument as well." (TALL ORDER!!!) So what you really want is that a finger automatically goes to the correct pitch/fret when the mental ear "hears" the note. How do you train the finger to respond like that? There has to be some wiring connection between the ear and finger to accomplish this. When you flick the switch on the wall, the switch doesn't light up, it's the light bulb on the ceiling fixure that does. Why? Because there is a wire connecting the light, the switch and the power source.

Mental associations are the wires. How do you put a wire from the hand motor control area of the brain to the non-language sonic mental ear? Well, by hearing the note over and over everytime the hand plays it, maybe it starts to sink in. But if the ear has to generate the pitch directly to the voice (you can't sing it if you can't hear it) and you also make the hand motions to play that pitch, with repetition, the association between the two begins to get burned in. Okay..the speed the associative process, hum the pitches when you practice your scales, your tunes etc. Not only are you burning the sound of those tunes into your memory as audio files, but you are also stringing connective wires from the ear to the fingers, WHILE your are also training the hand/finger muscles to perform the task more smoothly and efficiently. So by doing two things, you are also getting a third benefit absolutely free, and in the same time period it takes to just do one!!!!

Now if you want to connect the logical/intellectual chunk of the brain into the loop, we have to give things a "name" so it has something to hang onto. G A B C.Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do. Now instead of just humming a tone, we've put lyrics to the scale or the tune. Of course, at the beginning, it's all gibberish to the brain until it starts making the association. (Like some foreigner who now is in your class or workplace. After a couple of days "Kumbaamu Lallabulah" doesn't sound like a funny joke anymore and seems "normal" - it's just that person.)


Q - If not discussed in the first answer, how do you use singing what you are playing, or something complimentary, as learning device?

What techniques have you used to develop your rhythmic skills?

A - Counting rhythms while you play them, or tapping them out on various objects (kitchen counter drumming) can ingrain the metric associations the same way you can ingrain pitch associations. Patternization of rhythms can teach the ear to hear those particular rhythms.

Can you describe what the Australian camelumplatus looks like? No? What if I showed you some photos or video?

If something hasn't been put into your mind, it's guaranteed that you'll never think about it. You won't even know it exists. That's why you have to feed your ear with new sounds.


Q - As a teacher, you present students with a vast array of materials (Finnish, Greek, Celtic, British Isles, Blues, Old Time and BG Fiddle Tunes) as part of your lesson plans and overall teaching philosophy. I know first hand the benefits of your teaching philosophy and skills, could you explain to the beginning mandolin player why you teach this way? What are the intended outcomes? Do you feel in some ways that through your unique style and attitude that you shape a newer mandolin player's direction?

A - First of all, there are good tunes from everywhere. Some tunes from certain places give you the opportunity to get into various meters other than 2/4 and 4/4. You get jigs (6/8) and slip jigs (9/8) from Ireland and Scotland, lots of minor waltzes (3/4) from Finland as well as some very old rune tunes in 5/4, as well as a different kind of 3/4 (at the 16th note level) with the polska (that's p-o-l-s-k-a), 9/4 and sometimes 7/8 from Greece and so on.

I can also make and demonstrate the point that all these forms are just various stops on the same continuum, and that technique is just digital technique and not particularly wedded to any one particular ethnic style. For example, I'll teach some doublestops up and down the neck by using a Greek tune called "Varka Yialo". It's a good tune which is not that difficult, as well as being an old standard of Greek music - so if the student ever is put into a situation where they've got a request for something Greek, they can use this. Some folks will be thinking, "What is this crap? I didn't come here for this, I'm into bluegrass." And my reply is, "Think of this as a technical exercise for doublestops." And when they get to where they can play the tune, then I'll go into "The Banks of The Ohio". Fine and dandy. Then, "Let's play the melody to "Banks" and add the harmony part above it and play it with doublestops. And you know what? The moves are very close to what they learned in "Varka Yialo." And hopefully I've made a point about keeping an open mind.

But I think it's part of my job to expose the new player to a variety of music, especially before they may end up in a possible situation where there is peer pressure from other players who disdain anything except their favored musical genre. If they've played good tunes from all over before that sort of attitude is unloaded on them, they'll be a lot less likely to join that club.

With techniques, it's good to at least demonstrate that what are perceived as non-mandolin techniques (vibrato, bending, palm muting, fingerpicking, clawhammer, etc) are possible on the instrument and that the instrument is capable of doing a lot more than people might expect, and that it isn't only a single-note line instrument or a chopper. Seeing me play some of these different types of stuff will hopefully expand their concept of what is possible on the instrument.

Whatever style of music a person ultimately chooses to play, that's fine with me. I don't have an agenda to steer anyone into any one particular genre. Exposure is something else - it's just giving them a sampling of what might be on their menu.


Q - Can you recommend any exercises for my tremolo?

A - I'm not really a tremolo type; my preference is for electric guitar style vibrato. I'll use tremolo now and then when the occasion calls for it, but it's not something I really practice. When tremolo is being used on medium or uptempo tunes, the one thing that is really import, imo, is to be able to stop on a dime , to come out on the first post-tremolo note perfectly in time without any any slop-over. Doyle Lawson is one guy to listen to to hear that being done to perfection.

I did publish a number of instruction "Technique" columns by Evan Marshall in THE MANDOCRUCIAN'S DIGEST. One of them, in issue #8, dealt with developing tremolo. He's got that stuff mastered. So I guess that would be my recommendation.

#8 - ALY BAIN (Shetland fiddler) interview ("Da Galley Watch", "Da Black Reel", "The Full Rigged Ship"), Accompaniment Workshop with Tony Cuffe (of Ossian), Bluegrass w/Baldry (Altered scales - "Old Joe Clark"), Technique w/Marshall (a new tremolo in 2 months), Irish Mandolin w/Moloney ("The Priest And His Boots" jig), Cajun Mandolin w/Doucet ("Jongle a moi"), Old-Time Fiddle Tunes For Mando w/Hyman ("Going Back to Israel"), Jazz/swing w/McGann (jazz phrasing), Street performance w/Grissom (being heard, holding an audience), books about lutherie, record reviews.



Q - Who is your favorite mandolin player? or players? Who are some of your favorite musicians? Is there any particular player you wish you could sound like?

A - I'm pretty partial to my own playing! :-) It took a long time, 20 years or so, at least, to get to the point that I was fairly happy with what was coming out of the instrument. I mean, the playing can always get better and improve (and it does), and there are players who can do stuff I'll never play, but I like the way I play. So I guess my favorite mando player is myself, but then, I'm biased!

I still listen to Andy Irvine (Planxty) and Mick Moloney from time to time. Moloney's version of "Arthur Darley's Jig" on STRINGS ATTACHED is just so tremendous; I'll hear it and think, "I really ought to put in some time and get my control of the rolls closer to Mick's. Ry Cooder's early stuff (on mando) holds up well. Other guys that I used to listen to and study in the past were Doyle Lawson, Larry Rice, Jimmy Gaudreau, Buzz Busby, Ricky Skaggs (when Ricky was playing really swingy Jethro/Grappelli influenced stuff) and Jethro.

I listen to a lot of guitarists - Hendrix, Ry Cooder, David Lindley, Richard Thompson, Mark Knopfler, BB King, early Clapton, SRV, Eric Johnson, Martin Carthy, John Renbourn. The guy who played on the early Chris Isaak records - James Calvin Wilsey , really great sound. Don Rich and some of the country Tele players.

Dave Swarbrick (probably my favorite fiddle player), along with Richard Thompson, were the guys that gave me the urge to start playing and I still will frequently slap on an early Fairport Convention album or one of Swarb's solo discs, and they still sound great.. . I also like (fiddlers) Jean Carignan, Chubby Wise, Curley Ray Cline, Sugarcane Harris (electric violin), Sid Page played some great stuff on the Dan Hicks & Hot Licks records. There's a lot of players on all kinds of instruments that I really like.

My number-one-favorite songwriter is Randy Newman.

As far as magically waking up one morning and having somebody's chops... I'd go for big help in the vocal department. I'd lke to be able to belt it out like Bob Seger (especially his early rocking stuff). And also Chris Isaak . "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man" and "Wicked Game" rolled into one? I could live with that!!! I'd hire a crew on bass, drums, organ and pedal-steel, and start booking the world tour!


Q - What skills, techniques, etc., do you believe are the most important for the intermediate mandolin player to concentrate upon, in order to reach advanced level playing skills? Thanks for your time.

A - Questions about "level" are difficult in that there are no universal standards about what beginner is or what is intermediate or advanced? Everybody has their own ideas, and the technical "requirements" may differ vastly according to the needs of the particular musical style you are studying. Classical music - there is a much greater emphasis on sight reading and technique while understanding the theory concepts of the piece, or improv skills are less important. Playing whatever is on the paper in front of you is a lot more important; and it may not matter if you can't explain or understand what you are doing, as long as the notes come out.

Of course, in other genres, reading may be nearly unnecessary while playing by ear and being able to instantly improvise are of paramount importance. I think that EVENTUALLY, in any established system, you'll probably wind up with many of the same skills although the prioritization, and when in time various skills are worked on, may be quite different.

In my way of thinking, there are THREE different mental development areas - Hands, Ear, and Intellect, and they perform different functions and having a balance between them with simultaneous development probably maximizes what you can play, in a synergistic sense. I'm calling my "system" of prioritization, "Mandocrucian Shin-Chou-Shu-Do" or "Mandocrucian Way of Mind, Ear and Hand". Yeah, I know, it sounds like some form of kung-fu! It's supposed to! And in terms of "levels" I've borrowed freely from the colored belt ranking system - white (novice), yellow, orange, etc. But that has provided an analogical comparison for me to think in, to ask, "what you be the musical equivalent necessary to pass your yellow belt test, or your get your green belt." That really takes a lot of thought - when the hands can do certain things, what should the ear be capable of, and what should the intellect understand of applied theory?

What's so complicated with talking about level, is that someone may be an intermediate in the hands, a beginner with the ear or intellect, or is advanced in theory, but rudimentary in both hands and hearing. I'm sure you have met folks that represent all manner of combinations. The guy who can spout plenty of theory and terminology but is not a very good player. Or the singer who can "hear" everything, but doesn't have the mechanical skills to get it out of the instrument. Or the natural-born monster player who can play just about anything but can't even tell you what a scale is.

I don't consider myself to be a "specialist" but a generalist. (Maybe I am somewhat of a specialist in that whole rhythm/rock/R&B/blues realm cause I've spent so many hours on it, but I can also play (and do) a lot of other stuff). I've heard advice being given to the effect of, "Master one style first before working on something else." I guess that's OK if you've got a single particular genre you wish to excel in, but there are a lot of benfits to working on several different styles at the same time. It's like sports cross-training; there bleed-over benefit from one area into another.

This reminds me of something else I've heard said by some high level pickers. That... "Mandolin should be played like a mandolin; if you want to play banjo licks, then you should play them on a banjo. Etc." I completely DISAGREE with that. It inherently limits your playing development - it's a form of stylistic inbreeding. I don't think you'd mistake my mando playing (especially from the past 10-12 years) with any other mandolin player; there is just too much vocabulary and techniques borrowed from other instruments.

I think the "instrument of origin" SHOULD be IRRELEVANT. If you are learning stuff off records, why limit yourself to learning to just what other mandolin players have done? If you hear some electric guitar solo, or a fiddle break, or whatever, that gives you chills, your inner soul is giving you a DIRECT ORDER to work on that. (Within reason of course, I'm not saying a beginner should dive headlong into Eddie Van Halen's "Erruption" or something so technically advanced that there's no way they could handle it.). The combination of things you personally respond strongly to will tend be uniquely you, and the wider and more diverse your listening, the more individualistic it will be.

I've been asked who my favorite mandolin player is, and honestly, nowadays, I have to say "myself". That's because, I've tried to learn and absorb all these different things that have produced the "hair on neck" response, and understand what is happening technically on the instrument. "Nobody" else is melding all those favorite sounds that grab "me" together to the same extent than I am. And nobody is going to know what "you" like most, except "you".

I'd be flattered if some folks listed me as one of their favorite players (in spite of my non-touring status). My response would be "Thank you, but, take the ideas of mine you like the most and put them into your own playing, along with the stuff you like the most from your other favorite musicians and singers, until you reach that happy day when you realize you like your OWN playing as much as any other mandolin player." On the aesthetic plane, that's your goal - "you" should become your own favorite mando player. If you can learn from all those "neck hair" bits and figure out how to get that same sort of feel out of your instrument (although it may be hard work), you'll eventually be a happy camper!!!

Sorry to be so verbose, but although some interviewees may have alluded to some of this stuff, I think it is important enough to talk directly about some of these ideas. (Or maybe I'm just delusional! ???)

As far as specifics for technique you need to get to the higher playing levels.. (Well, maybe not that specific)

- Shifting ability and position playing. Familiarity with most keys.

- Past the position playing stage, you should work at being able to play up and down the neck just as easily as across the strings, until there are no distinct positions - only a unified continous fretboard. (And learn to NOT look, go by tactile feel).

- Sing what you play, play what you sing. Develop the ear>hand connection. It all becomes about "singing in your head".

- Rhythmic variety - get away from non-stop 8th or 16th notes. Leave spaces, think in distinct phrases. (Listen to people like BB King, or Sonny Rollins, or Mike Auldridge etc if you need examples)

- Transcribing solos sharpens your ear up. Also, you may have to develop new skills to actually play what they played, especially if the solo came from a non-mandolin instrument and lays out all crazy. These "puzzles" can be very educational if you can work out a "solution".

- DO NOT ignore singers as a source for transcription. This is the ORIGINAL instrument and the most direct expression of the soul. All the great players (imo) have a very vocal quality to their playing.

- Slurring ability. Hammer-ons, pull-offs, pick-glides, slides can enhance the lyrical quality of your phrasing. Study fiddlers and electric guitar players.

- The more advanced you become, the more and more it all becomes about the mental rather than the digital. You want to be singing in your head, not thinking about where your fingers are going next or what scale to play.

- Realize that there is no such thing as inherently BAD tone. There is only appropriate and inappropriate tone, depending on the tune/song. An unpleasant tone quality may be very effective used in the right spot to evoke a desired feel. The broader variety of sound/tones you have under control, the more colors you have to paint the picture.

- Pitch choice is NOT the whole game. There are all the hard-to-notate-on-paper elements of nuance and phrasing, but these are what make the phrasing breathe and the notes sing.


Q - In your experience as an instructor, what are the most common roadblocks encountered by students in their mando-velopment? Are they different at different levels? For extra credit, what are the best approaches to overcoming them?

A - I don't know, it could be various things. Maybe it's the availability of time, especially if there are competing family and work issues. A lot is dependent on the student's goals and expectations; is it a recreational hobby or is it something more than that? What is the student's primary rationale for playing the instrument? (and this can change over time) Social comraderie - my friends (or family) are picking and seems like fun and I want to participate? which is different than practicing, because the musical imperitive cannot be denied. Improvement on an instrument takes time and effort; it's a long-term project. I feel that this is an inadequate answer (from me). It would probably be a good question to submit to other CGOW's.


Q - In a similar vein, is pick direction really important? Why? Are there good picking patterns and bad picking patterns, or does any regular pattern serve the purpose?

A - Yes, it really is. The basic D-u-d-u eighths are a default setting to coordinate the right hand with the beats. It helps you keep track of the pulse of the music and keeps you from getting lost rhythmically. It's like walking: L-r-l-r, one foot after the other. In 6/8, D-u-d D-u-d is the basic default - this particular way of phrasing with the first note of each group of three with a down almost guarntees that you will hear a 6/8 phrasing, and not something else. D-u-d U-d-u without that accent on the fourth note may turn into 3/4: D-u d-u d-u.

Analogy seems to be one of the best ways of explaining some concepts. First you have to walk or march, Rlrl, in step. Okay, now speed up the pace and run: Rlrl. You've got to have that down before you can go on the obstacle course, jump the hurdles, pole vault and such. Walk backwards Rlrl. Walk sideways along a narrow ledge on a cliff face. Hop on one leg from here to there Rrrr Rrrr (= Dddd Dddd). Hop on the other leg Llll Llll (Uuuu Uuuu). And we haven't gotten to the "Ali shuffle"! Each variation of locomotion has a particular look/movement, and each particular pick direction pattern will have its own particular attack and rhythmic phrasing. If I have a sequence of notes on the E string and I've got an open A drone underneath - I will tend to use upstrokes because the string the picks hits first will tend to be lounder than the next one. So I want the notes on the e-string to be louder than the a-string drone for purpose of balance. This runs counter to what is given as desirable pick direction, but this is at a higher level of playing where finesse dictates the techniques to sonically enhance the tune as much as possible.

Crosspicking.... Instead of the usual McReynolds backwards roll (d-e-a, d-e-a [strings] etc.) with D-u-u, D-u-u, I'll use Down-middle-up, or even Down-ring-middle, using right hand fingers in addition to the plectrum. Why? To me, standard crosspicking with just the pick sounds a bit unbalanced; that open e-string drone shouldn't be as loud or louder than the melody notes on bottom. Personally, I don't want it to sound like Jesse, I want it to sound more the The Byrds. But I'll still practice the roll with just the pick, because there may be times when that particular sound/attack is preferable.

There's a multitude of alternate pick patterns. You practice them because they give you certain sonic results and phrasing, or because once you throw in some ornamentation, the normal default pattern is going to get reversed, and you don't want that to immediately make you fumble when you have to start a phrase with an up rather than a down. In this regards, familiarty with alternate pick direction gives you the opportunity to roll the kayak back to the upright position, where you revert to the default Dudu.


Q - You mentioned earlier that brain science has informed your teaching philosophy. Could you recommend a book or two about the psychology or neuroscience of music?

A - Here are a few that might be stocked at the local library:

"Keep Your Brain Alive: 83 Neurobic Exercises" - Lawrence Katz
"The Brain Book" - Peter Russell
"Psychology of the Arts" - Hans and Shulamith Kreitler
"The Listening Book - Disocvering Your Own Music" - W.A. Mathieu
"The Inner Game Of Music" - Barry Green


Q - You mentioned earlier that you draw teaching material from a range of genres. You stressed the virtues of variety. On the other hand, do you think there's a common element in music that you like, for teaching, or playing, or listening?

A - Yes, it's all GOOD! To me, a lot of stuff are just different stops on the same continuum, or perhaps the same stop, but in a parallel dimension. I thought it was really appropriate that you had the Skip James stuff in O BROTHER along with Ralph Stanley. One was black blues, the other white, both from the same spooky graveyard. Barrelhouse piano (Pete Johnson)-Chuck Berry>Bill Monroe; Ry Cooder's acoustic slide guitar-Thai female singer, Pompuang Duangchan's vocal phrasing; Greek harmony vocals-Tex Mex harmonies; ragged Greek rembetica singing-gutbucket blues vocals. Whether it is coincidental or not doesn't matter; whenever you make a mental connection between the two ("this is like...") it can become your 2-way portal for transposing ideas from one genre into another.


Q - How did you choose the mandolin?

A - It was the compromise between wanting to be another Dave Swarbrick (fiddle) or like Richard Thompson (electric guitar). When I picked up a fiddle and tried it out, the sound was so atrocious I couldn't handle it. "I'll play mandolin for awhile, it's tuned like a fiddle but the right hand is played the same as guitar. Down the road when I have some mechanical ability, then I'll decide which instrument to shift over to." Two or three years in, I was at the point of going out and buying a Strat, when the Gibson F4 just fell into my lap as an "attic find". I took it as a supernatural omen/message. And here I am 30+ years later still playing the mandolin, but also still trying to sound like both a fiddle and an electric guitar!!! (and sometimes sound like a clawhammer banjo, Appalachian dulcimer, bagpipes, kantele, shamisen, or koto)

Perhaps if I HAD gotten the electric guitar, I would have found more success, which would have led to excess and the rock 'n'roll life, and a consequent early demise. Then again, I might burned out completely, but saddled myself with debt to the extent that I had to continue playing and wound up as 3rd guitarist for Yanni or some equally bizarre Twilight Zone scenario!


Q - Could you name one or more mandolin players who you think are under-appreciated?

A - Well, there is "under-appreciated" and then there is "unknown." You can't even be "underappreciated" until you make it out of the "unknown" category first! Or you can be a star in your particular genre in one country and still be completely unknown elsewhere to players of a different genre. The psychology of celebrity being what it is, there are plenty of high-level players who are both unknown and underappreciated. As Jerry Reed sang, "When you're hot you're hot, and when you're not you're not." Playing-wise, that has much more to do with media coverage, luck, personality, business breaks, pacts with the devil, and all that sort of stuff, than it does whether you can really play or not!


Q - Are there any teaching materials (other than your own) that you think are especially useful?

A - There's tons of it out there. There's 300 years of classical violin methods and repertoire which have worked out all sorts of ways and exercises to navigate the neck, and it's only the better etudes which have passed the durability test. You have to be able to read though. & Sax methods, electric guitar transcriptions, thousands and thousands of CDs to listen and absorb from. Some of it, maybe most of it, you have to be already be a certain level before the material is usable.

It's one reason that advanced players can still benefit from lessons or workshops. You need somebody much better than you who can see where your weaknesses lie, because it's really hard to self-diagnose, let along self prescribe. Your "coach" doesn't even have to play the same instrument, because at the higher levels, it's all about learning "Music" rather than specifically "Mandolin". In the early 80's I took lessons from a classical/jazz violinist named Nick DeCollibus who was one of Joe Venuti's buddies. On mandolin (my kid brother took fiddle lessons from him). I worked on a lot of standard classical violin etudes (Kayser, Mazas, Kreutzer, even some Paganini) and believe me, it really built up technical abilities in shifting and doublestops and pick-gliding/pseudo-bowing, which all ended up mutating into blues and R&B and whatever else I could apply it to. Maybe if I hadn't gone to Nick, I might have ended up taking lessons from a jazz sax player or pianist, who would have given me material which was beyond my reach to practice and work on.


Q - Tell me about all the special gadgets and technical inventions for a mandolin.

A - I have devised some things to help me get electric guitar effects. I have an "acoustic fuzz-tone" which works on the principal of the rattling belt-buckle, but better. And I've developed a technique for producing wah-wah effects and controlling volume after I've hit the note; maybe someday I will explain how it's done on an instructional video, but not yet. For slide mandolin, I use two short slides, which are on the ends of the first and third fingers. The tips are rounded like a pedal steel bullet, so I'm playing on the tips more than the tube. With these, I don't have to retune to an open chord to get a lot of the licks.


Q - How do you approach Finnish folk music in your music ?

A - I play it fairly straight-forward, along the lines of what you might hear on the albums I listed below. I will use the techniques at my disposal which are complimentary - Irish ornamentation, adding some drones/chords underneath the single-line melody to give emphasis or fatten up the sound. I may try to imitate Finnish instruments like kantele by working out of crosspicking type positions so that I can have overlapping ringing notes. We do Polska 55 (Rinta-Nikola collection) as an interlude in a SRV kind of blues/rockabilly arrangement of "Matchbox" and it sounds great that way. But the SRV thing is needed before as a booster rocket to put the polska into space, really adds "power" to have stop time bass/chords while drumming never quits. The tune however, is played straight. Hoven Droven or Hedningarna would like that arrangement!

I did write a whole book about "Techniques for Finno-Nordic Mandolin" a few years ago. It something that never came out. I've typset some of the music on my computer, but I'd have to do the rest of it and record the demonstration CD before I could put it out. It's on the list, but it's a low priority because I don't think there would be a huge demand for it.


Q - Who do you listen to in Finnish folk music ?

A - All the "usual suspects." There are certain albums that I like the best, so I'll list 12 of our favorites:

* Ottopasuuna - "Ottopasuuna"
* Järvelän Pikkupellimannit - "JPP: New Finnish Folk Music" (the second album, the 2-LP has more tracks than the CD, including two of the best tunes)
* Maria Kalaniemi - "Maria Kalaniemi"
* Koinurit - "Yllätyspaartit" and "Askon 3-Rivinen"
* Loituma - "Loituma" (first album, called "Things Of Beauty" on the US Northside issue)
* Värttinä - "Seleniko"
* Pirnales - "Parasta Ennen / Bäst fore / Best Before"
* Tallari - "Lunasttetava Neito"
* The Helsinki Mandoliners - "Helsinki Mandoliners" (first album)
* Niekku - "Niekku" (first album)
* Various - "Kuulas Hetki"
* Heikki Lahti - "Traditional Finnish Mandolin" and "Mandoliinimestari"


Q - What tunings do you use for mando family instruments ?

A - Pretty much standard GDAE. Occasionally I'll tune that down to FCGD, or to drop the E-string to GDAD. I have a 5-string electric mini-Strat conversion which has a 17" scale and is tuned GDAEB an octave down into the guitar range. I want to build a double-neck (8-string + 17" 5-string) solid-body electric.


Q - Three most important things for a mandolin student to learn first ?

A - How to hold the instrument and to hold the pick
- Coordination of the left hand fingers changing pitch with the right-hand down strokes.
- Keep the left-hand fingers down - when playing a scale, the first finger stays down (instead of popping up) when the second finger plays the next note.
- It's also important to learn the names of the notes on the neck - this can be done by singing/speaking the names G A B etc when the are played with slow scales or finger exercises. I also recommend using the Europeanized chromatic names - Fis (feece) rather than the 2-syllable F-sharp - since they are more tongue friendly.


Q - Where are you with those bass pedals nowdays ? Please tell us more about it.

A - I haven't been playing with those lately. Playing bass lines (with the foot) while playing mandolin was a great way to experiment with rhythm figures and chord voicings. And you learn how to play off the rhythms of the bass and get these interlocking grooves going. I discovered and refind a lot of ideas which I probably wouldn't have otherwise. A rhythm riff on mandolin can sound completely different when superimposed over a different type of bass line. I tried out a lot of stuff to see just what would happen. Definitely improved my overall musicianship.

I wouldn't mind having a set of bass pedals with three rows of pedals in a 5-row chromatic accordion keyboard layout, rather than the normal linear organ.piano scale arrangement. I'd have to have that custom built, but I know that would be a lot more versatile and would give me 2-octaves instead of just one.


Q - Your latest recordings and how to get them?

A - On-line catalog of books, recordings, back issues of "The Mandocrucian's Digest"


Q - Any chance for the Mandocrucian´s Digest to reappear? How about online issues?

A - Very unlikely. Every now and then I'll think about giving it a low-key electronic after-life, but I regain my senses when I think about the work involved. But I still have "info-packed" back issues available! (see catalog for issue indexes) Lots of instructional columns and in-depth player interviews in those. Even some 2-mandolin/octave mandolin scored group arrangements of Helsinki Mandoliners tunes contributed by Mandoliner Arto Järvelä!


Q - Do you have any workshops coming up? How far do you travel?

A - I've got a couple of boot camps scheduled at the Northern VA 4-H Center, Front Royal, VA for the fall. Oct 12-15, 2003, I'll be doing one on just "Mando Position Playing". During the same time, Jerry Rockwell will be doing an advanced improvisational (lap) dulcimer class, and lutheir Don Kawalak is teaching a hammer dulcimer building class. So it'll be a mini music camp with the three different classes going on. It's a nice place and the food is way above the norn for a camp cafeteria.

The next month, I'll be doing a "Blues Mandolin" workshop. November 9-12, 2003 and Don K. will be holding another mandolin making course at the same time. These start around 4 PM on Sunday and run to 11AM on Wed. The class descriptions, details and prices are all now up at the 4-H center page, see the link below.

Oct. 12-15, 2003: Mandolin Position Playing Up The Neck (intermediate)
Nov. 9-12, 2003: Blues Mandolin (intermediate and up level players )

From time to time, I'll hold a Saturday 6-hour workshop at my house. I haven't scheduled anything yet for the summer, but I suppose I should think about holding one in August, which is only two months away.

I've decided that my mando workshops will now have a much narrower focus, rather than being more generalized ones, subject-wise. Really zero in one specific topic and only examine that in detail. If the subject is "Pentatonics 101", then it's only about various pentatonic scale usage. Or if it is "Melodic embellishment" (making simple tunes/songs more notey but still retaining the essence of the tune), it'll only be that material. So if I hold several workshops over the course of a season, there's no ambiguity about each workshop being different from the previous one.

I don't do a lot of travelling, but I'm available to teach 1-day (6 hour) Saturday or Sunday workshops within the mid-Atlantic region: VA, MD, PA, WV, southern NY, NC. - within a maximum one-way drive-time of 6-7 hours. [3-5 hours drivetime from Winchester would include Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Richmond, Baltimore, Dover DE, etc.]. I use a lot prepared visual aid materials that I use to avoid wasted time and to keep the focus in front (instead of rustling papers), and driving is the only convenient way of bringing this stuff with me. A longer (2 or 3 day) workshop/camp is necessary if I am going to travel further afield.