Steve Kaufman

Steve Kaufman was born April 20, 1957 in New York City. He was introduced to music by his father, a jazz pianist, and his mother, a clasically trained pianist. At the age of four, Steve started to play the piano and later moved on to the cello. At 10 he began playing the guitar, but after a few years of strumming, he put the guitar under the bed. At 14, Steve started "picking" the guitar and he has not put it down since.

Steve is the only three time winner of the National Flatpicking Championship in Winfield, KS, capturing 1st place in 1978, 1984 and 1986. His music covers a broad range of styles including bluegrass favorites, popular swing standards, Irish and Appalachian fiddle tunes, folk and country classics and novelty tunes. Steve has been pleasing crowds from California to Austria since 1976, performing in a wide variety of settings from elementary schools and colleges, to major bluegrass festivals and concerts.

Steve is also an all around nice guy, and in the opinion of many, the best flatpicking instructor today. Steve has authored a considerable volume of work about flatpicking, to include books, tapes, CDs and videos. On most weekends you will find him delivering one of his outstanding workshops and concerts. Steve also hosts an annual Flatpicking and Mandolin camp in Maryville, Tennessee.


Q - I've got a pedagogical question for you. I have a lot of trouble improvising. I can learn written-down solos by others but get lost in the fog when I get a nod. Aside from practicing more, what have you found helps your students get into an improv groove?

A - Hi and let me say firstly, it is my priviledge to be a part of the CGOW program. I don't know yet what I can offer but I am here for you and willing to try.

A little current background: I have been working the last 10 years at conducting workshops for groups and this is very rewarding to me. I can see the frustrations and triumphs of the students which in turn helps me to hone what I do - teach music.

A way I have of getting my students to get out of the box of the written materials is to take the songs they already know and play them as close as they can to the way they already know.

I feel that the biggest obsticle in learning new songs is in fact learning the song itself and memorising it. Getting the song to be part of your soul. Whether it is a single variation, a multi part or section arrangement or an improvised practice tool of a song. Getting it into your mental "system" is difficult. So then my point of taking a song you already know and playing it in different keys allows you to play and prqactice in different positions and keys with a piece of music that is already in your fingertips and in your blood.

Try to take a song like Blackberry Blossom ... something that you are very familiar with in it's original key. Take it from the key of "G" and flip it into the key of "A" or "D" or "C". Don't write it down or arrange it. Just play it. You may want to do this very, VERY slowly. You will find you have to come up with a few different licks or passages on the fly because you may not be able to get all the notes of your original version or arrangement. This forces you to think of new things. The more you do this and realize that you are playing melodies and not just set arrangements the more the fingerboard and your mind will open up to improvising.

Let me know if this makes sense and if you want to go further on this as a group study or practice.


Q - Speed is obviously an important issue in bluegrass music. Do you feel the important components of building speed are somewhat similar for the various plucked instruments, i.e. guitar, dobro, banjo, and mandolin? If so what are those components?

A - The issue of speed is very important to most people. Keep in mind that speed is relative to each player. My comfortable speed may be out of sight to some people and their comfortable speed may seem too high to someone else. It's all relative to the individual.

I feel there are specific right hand techniques that have to be in place in order to improve speed. The right hand mechanics have to be thoroughly observed and eventually mastered in order to achieve high speeds. If you crash in the same place in the song or feel your right hand lock, or hear the tempo change, or feel your jaws and shoulders hurt you may have poor right hand mechanics. They need to be addressed and fixed in order to move on to the next level.

"If you don't got a good bow arm you ain't got squatt." It's the same with plectrum instruments and fingerpicked instruments. It's all (90%) in the right hand the rest comes from the head and the heart.


Q - I know there is a lot of varied opinion on these questions but I'm interested in hearing your perspective as a professional instructor/writer.

What is the thing about your mandolin camp that really seperates it from the rest (at least as far as what you know about the other camps available)? Not asking you to put down the other camps - just wanting to know what makes your camp a unique experience?

A - My Kamp series was designed to be both highly instructional and also fun.. One of the points that makes it so educational is that you will sign in by specific self chosen level. You are grouped with the same people through the entire camp and rotate to all the instructors classes. This does two main things.

1) it gives you the student conflicting data. You are getting the techniques and opinions from 4 different instructors and angles. YOu are intelligent humans with the ability to make choice so you can decide which techniques and opinions you think make the most sense. We give you that option at this kamp.

2) The classes are two hours in length and then you rotate to another instructor. This keeps it all fresh and fast paced. The kamp is actually over before you know it.

We have concerts every night with open mic. time and then a band scramble at the end of the week. Not just one event at the conclusion of the kamp. There are other BG instruments there as well so the ALL NIGHT jams are killer. These are jsut a few things that makes our kamp different than others.

We are also proud of the fact that we won a Gold Award from Acoustic Guitars Reader poll for the best Camps, Workshops and Seminars over some other great Camps. This was an honor for us and I am thankful to the readers for picking us and seeing my vision.


Q - What do you think are the specific characteristics of the mandolin that require special focus?

A - If I understand the question correctly I think that your instrument should be the best you can afford and play easily. This means don't take food of your family table to buy that $10,000 mando where a $500 will get you through the year. Make sure that you can get the action to a reasonable if not perfect set-up. Some instruments can't be helped so check them out at length before purchase and make sure you can get them set up well. You should decide A model or F.

I play the "A"s because of my fatherly influence from Red Rector early on. They are more open with a bright high end sound and don't bark as loud as "F"s but I like the neck scale and wider fingerboard. Red used to always say he wished Bill Monroe would switch to an "A" so he could sell his for something decent.

I have 2 "A"s. One is a 1914 A and the other is a 1921 ( I think) A4 with engraved tuners. Both are great little jewels. I also have a Weber mandola and a Weber Mandocello. They are both the Yellowstone series I think. Then I fill out the lows with a 1919 "J" series mando bass. This is best described as looking like a big tick.


Q - What are your general thoughts about the components which make up a good practice regime?

A - I think that you should decide how much practice time you have and divide it in half. The first half you are practicing playing very slowly. Take tunes you normally play quickly and learn to play them slow and listen to them breath.

You will play your tunes 20-30 each at this session.
Anything old - old songs, chord progressions etc.

Then the second half you will practice, note reading, tab reading, new chords, new songs etc. Anythingn new. This way you constantly grow instead of just deedling on the mando.

When your time is up at half time you switch gears. When your time is over for the second half you stop. It doesn't matter if you are in the middle of the song - you quit. This way you can't wait until the next day to get back at it. When the end of the week is over and the bell rings , you stop. You only play on the weekends and don't practice. This way you can't wait till Monday again and pick it up again. It keeps it fresh, manages your time and gives you growth plus keeps an energy going and you worn't burn out like some people that practice 4-5 hours a day and then after a few months give it up.


Q - Do you prefer playing in certain keys on different instruments - especially mandolin? Is that determined only by the open strings, or are there other reasons?

What music do you listen to?

A - I prefer to play in A, D, G and C sometimes E, F and Bb. I am not what I would consider a great mandolinist and I am humbled to be giving my view on my mando picking. I can play almost anything I hear in my head on the mandolin though sometimes my hearings not so good.

Right now I am listening alot to Bereli Langreene a Belgian guitarist who plays like Django. I actually listen to a lot of different music - old and new. I am also listening to my new CD "Back Home" so I can remember what I played for the times I have to play the songs in public 8 * )


Q - Your book and CD-Twenty Solos Every Parking Lot Picker Should Know has been very useful. And you frequently remind the player to use the correct "up/down" technique. I find that taking the same song through three levels of skill a great approach. How about a follow up volume II?

A - I have full intent on knocking out another PLP for the mando to follow the PLP for guitar series. After years of my whining to Homespun they have agreed that it would be a good idea. I have a few projects ahead but I will get on it and you ought to see it out in the next year.

Be sure to work on all of the beginner versions first. Then move on to the intermediates. If the beginner versions are easy - you will quickly add to your list of tunes and can build from there. If the beginners are too hard than you are in the right spot.

Watch out for the down ups and happy picking!


Q - Steve, as a follow-up to Glenn's question, and as a convert from guitar, weaned on the SK Parking Lot Picker series, do you find that some of your guitar arrangements lend themselves to a literal transcription to mando, and some do not? (An example of the latter being Blue Ridge Cabin Home; I can't make that work on mando, I do my own simplified melody line, with a few sliding doublestops, version). If you agree, what is going on with that? Why is that?

And to your mind, is there a big difference in picking hand approach between the two instruments?

A - I think the biggest problem with multi-instrumentalists is that they don't play the instrument in their hands at the time. When you play the banjo - play the banjo - don't play it like a guitar. When you play the mandolin - play the mandolin and don't try to come up with guitar licks on the mandolin - it's a seperate animal.

You can do this for starters to try to find your way around the fingerboard but eventually you need to look at it as a different instrument. I use the same right hand technique for both but the left hand and the ideas are MANDOLIN. There are many ways right hand wise to play either instrument. I use the posted little finger as opposed to the ball fist approach. I can't get enough hit or gain with the ball fist and feel better with the depth guage that the post gives me.


Q - A week or so ago a comando posted a question about the right hand; specfically whether the right hand should rotate or move up and down. Steve, Mike, anyone? What is the current wisdom on this issue?

A - I use more of a "V" attack which utilizes a wide swing and momentum with the right hand. I don't want the radius and ulna rotating but rather get most of the action from the wrist.


Q - Can you describe the essential techniques and mechanics of the right hand required for speed and competency?

A - My approach, as I work through during my workshops and on my SPEED video, is one of momentum with the right hand. I use momentum so I don't use muscle. The muscle will fatique and with momentum you don't get tired as quickly. It is setting up an arc and swing with the right hand so that it acts freely like a pendulum from the wrist. You swing as wide as the speed of play allows paying very close attention to the fact that "+" beats are always hit up and numbers beats are always down. Now your pendulum can come into affect and with the right hand understanding and acting on it's own of the pendulum and now the timing all you need do is oil your machinery (careful practice) and you will begin to improve speed. I mentioned the other day that my attach is a "V" swing. As you move side to side widely attacking the strings you will also have to go in and out to avoid hitting the adjacent strings.


Q - What is the secret to good timing? I use a metronome when I practice which is a big help but when I'm in a jam session or practicing with a band my timing gets off. I know some of it has to do with being nervous and playing to you ability. Do you have some helpful hints?

A - This is something that really urks me when playing with someone. Either having to drag them along or hold them back.

First thing about good steady timing is relax and LISTEN. People don't listen to the whole but usually themselves. When you listen to the whole band you will hear yourself and the others fitting in together and blending. When you play in a band with timing issues, you should discuss your concers without pointing fingers and hook up a drum machine through your PA to practice along with. You can turn the drum machine up loud enough that it can be heard. Drum machines are cheap these days. In fact I've got a Yamaha RX 15 for sale (ahem). They have come down so much that they are very affordable and a great tool.


Q - What excercises for technical improvement, practice or warm up do you recommend?

A - I think that people should practice playing very VERY slowly and steadily. Listening to how it sounds and adding in all inflections, cants, dynamics etc but in slow motion. You can hear if it works, you can feel the music better and you can hear what it will sound like at high speeds. If it is somewhat sloppy slowly - it ain't gonna get any better faster.

You can do this for your warm up time for about 15 minutes. You will find you can really pick a tune apart this way.


Q - What are the most common errors you see beginners committing or bad habits that need to be avoided?

A - The biggest mistake I see is they want to be intermediate/advanced too quickly. They don't see that it is not the destination but rather it is all about the journey. Understand that you will see steady growth with good practice but if a piece is too hard it is too hard and should be worked on when it doesn't seem too hard. This is supposed to be fun and not grueling.

They also do not pay enough attention to the right hand and end up with "right hand mechanical failure". This means they crash in the same spot in the song or run. The right hand doesn't know the system and crashes.

Take your time and enjoy each practice until it turns into what I do now - play. I don't practice anymore. My attitude has changed to "I play everyday" and it is more fun and not tedious.


Q - Would you please explain the "positions" on the mando? For instance, I've read that the first position is the open fret through the 7th fret, and that the second position is index at the 3rd, cover 3rd and 4th frets, middle finger covering 5th and 6th frets etc.

A - I use the 1st finger to cover the 1 and 2 frets; 2nd finger for the 3 and 4 frets; 3rd finger for the 5 and 6 fret and the 4th finger gets the 7th fret. So yes I would look at 2nd pos. being the 1st finger on the 3rd fret with the same finger spread though I would still call it 3rd pos. Maybe someone else can chime in on that one.


Q - I can't find a mando instructor so I rely heavily on this list and so would like to ask two more questions. What about pick angle? Do you recommend turning the pick and holding/playing at an angle or parallel to the strings and direction? If you recommend an angle how much of one and in what direction - toward the bridge or headstock - or is this a matter of what's comfortable?

A - I angle a forward pitch of about 20 and it remains constant through all the strings. This will mean that the point aims to the back of the mando and on a DOWN SWING the left bottom of the pick makes contact and on the up swings the right top of the pick makes contact.


Q - What about up/down strokes. I've been alternating up/down starting with a down stroke but I wonder if this is correct. It feels ok to me and forces me to keep my upstrokes as strong as the down ones, but I also just read at a Scottish mando site:

There is a general rule about pick direction: use downstrokes on the beat and upstrokes between the beat (often portrayed as D-u-d-u D-u-d-u). This is what Niles Hokkanen calls a "default setting" for the right hand which "...ingrains linear rhythmic location within the meter."

A - I have to agree here. You must get the right hand so mechanically sound that you don't have to think about it whatsoever. ALWAYS (unless triplets are involved) for fiddle tune type songs and breaks hit the numbered beats on the down and the "+" beats on the up. There are times for all downs or different configurations. Monroe stuff has a lot of down strokes and this is what seet the sound apart from the DU sound.