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Explore all the modern mandolin techniques, from tremolo, chords and double stops, and soloing and improvisation tips, with plenty of bluegrass, old-time and swing tunes to keep you moving forward.
Hailed by Nashville’s Music Row magazine for his “lickety-split mandolin work” and by Vintage Guitar magazine as “brilliant,” Joe K. Walsh is one of the best mandolinists of his generation. Walsh is known for his exceptional tone and taste, and his collaborations with acoustic music luminaries, including legendary fiddler Darol Anger, flatpick guitar hero Scott Nygaard, folk legend Jonathan Edwards, and pop/grass darlings Joy Kills Sorrow, have taken him all over the musical and figurative map. An avid mandolin educator, Joe is a mandolin instructor at the Berklee College of Music and teaches regularly at music camps throughout North America and beyond.
Learning to play melodies and solos in closed-positions allows you to play in any key. Learn to play a solo to the gospel classic “I’ll Fly Away” in a closed position in the key of G. With Notation/Tab
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MANDOLIN TECHNIQUE In these introductory lessons, you’ll learn three chord shapes you can use to play chords in any key anywhere on the neck; the basics of alternating picking technique, with some great exercises; and two positions for playing arpeggios in every key.
BLUEGRASS MANDOLIN TUNES AND SOLOS Learn some great bluegrass tunes and songs that are not only fun to play, and essential to know, but will help you work on mandolin techniques like tremolo, double stops, slides, and blue notes, as well as creating variations on basic melodies. With play-along tracks so you can practice what you’re learning.
SOLOING SECRETS These next lessons focus on techniques for soloing, including playing in closed positions, melodic improvising, double stops, and Mixolydian scales, using some classic song melodies.
MORE FIDDLE TUNES
Golden Eagle Hornpipe The traditional Scottish Tune “Golden Eagle Hornpipe” is a great workout for both hands, with long arpeggios and tricky string crossings. The A part is based on a G major arpeggio pattern that ascends through the different notes of a G chord while the B part has a much more complex chord progression that starts on a B7.
Cumberland Gap There are many versions of the old-time fiddle tune “Cumberland Gap.” Joe recorded this three-part version in the key of D on his album Borderlands. He learned it originally from the playing of clawhammer banjoist Adam Hurt and he was also influenced by Bruce Molsky’s version. In addition to showing you the basic melody he also shows you how to flesh it out a bit with chord tones below the melody.
SWING AND JAZZ
Lulu’s Back in Town The jazz standard “Lulu’s Back in Town” was first made popular by Fats Waller, and Thelonious Monk also recorded a great version that inspired Joe’s arrangement. In this lesson, Joe uses his arrangement of “Lulu’s Back in Town” to show you how to flesh out a melody with double stops and chord tones. Most of the chords in the song are dominant seven chords, so it’s a good song for working on dominant arpeggios and scales.
Bebop Blues Blues progressions appear in all sorts of music, of course, and you can often apply ideas from one kind of blues to another. In this lesson you’ll learn the Charlie Parker blues “Now’s the Time,” and get some ideas about using some more advanced harmonic concepts when playing the blues.
Russian Lullaby The jazz standard “Russian Lullaby” was written by Irving Berlin and has been recorded by numerous musicians, including, most significantly for acoustic string musicians, David Grisman and Jerry Garcia. It’s a simple melody with a somewhat complicated chord progression that moves between D minor and F major, and has four distinct sections. You’ll learn the basic melody, the “line clichés” you can use with the chord progression, and how to flesh out the melody with chord tones. Joe also talks about some different ways to solo on the chord changes using the line clichés.
Steppin’ with Stéphane David Grisman dedicated his tune “Steppin’ with Stéphane” to the great jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli. It’s a jazz waltz with some unusual chord changes, including a few diminished chords. Joe walks you through the melody phrase by phrase and gives you ideas on backing up a waltz and using different chord voicings. He also shows you a diminished scale you can use when improvising on diminished chords.
CONTEMPORARY MANDOLIN TUNES
Baltimore Jonny The contemporary mandolin tune “Baltimore Jonny” comes from the great Ronnie McCoury and was recorded by the Del McCoury Band. It’s a three-part tune in G dorian and shows hints of Ronnie’s two biggest influences, Bill Monroe and David Grisman.
The Open Road Béla Fleck’s tune “The Open Road” comes from his groundbreaking recording Drive, where it starts with Sam Bush’s mandolin, so it has the feel and sound of a mandolin tune. It has three parts and some unusual melodic phrasing, where certain phrases can sound like they start on a different beat than they actually do. The A part is melodically fairly simple but the first phrase anticipates the downbeat and the last phrase has a tricky three-over-two syncopation. The B part involves some shifts between closed-position fingering for C and B chords, while the C section is played over one chord (D7) but uses a lot of notes that aren’t just the three or four main notes of the underlying chord, including some three-note arpeggios and some syncopated phrasing.
Bow Wow David Grisman’s tune “Bow Wow,” from his recording Quintet 80, is one of his most accessible tunes, a fun medium tempo tune in A minor that’s easy to jam over. The A part has a signature phrase that gets repeated numerous times and the B part has a simple pentatonic melody, but with some tricky timing. As an intro to the tune, Grisman plays a melody that Beethoven wrote for the mandolin and you’ll learn that as well as the solo Grisman plays, which is a good example of how he uses a minor pentatonic scale with a flatted fifth to solo on minor-key tunes.
Pogo Big Joe’s tune “Pogo Big,” from his Borderland album, owes a debt to a number of fiddle players, including Darol Anger, Brittany Haas, and Bruce Molsky. It’s a happy fiddle tune in the key of G and includes some melodic lines you can use in other tunes. The chords to the B part of “Pogo Big” are a bit unusual for a traditional-sounding fiddle tune and you’ll also learn an alternate way to play the chords, using a descending line between changes. Joe also gives you ideas for soloing on “Pogo Big” using the diatonic scale.
The Crossing Tim O’Brien’s fiddle tune “The Crossing” is a great tune to play and is also great for working on your right-hand precision. It’s in the key of A major, but occasionally includes some G naturals in a melody with lots of G#’s. You’ll learn the melody, chords, and melody to the B part in the upper octave, which is a common variation.
Montgomery Ball The contemporary mandolin tune “Montgomery Ball” comes from fiddler/mandolinist Aubrey Haynie. It has some great “chop chord” vocabulary and is played almost entirely over a C chord. After showing you the melody, Joe shows you how to add double stops to the basic melody and how to move the melody to other keys, including G and D.
Tipsy Gypsy David Grisman wrote his great Gypsy-jazz influenced tune “Tipsy Gypsy” for the movie King of the Gypsies, and it was included on Grisman’s DGQ20 album. It’s in the key of D minor but there are a lot of accidentals, with some G#s, C#s, and F#s in the melody as well as the notes of the D natural minor scale. This requires some fingering choices, and as Joe walks you through the melody of “Tipsy Gypsy” he shows you his fingering. Joe also shows you the intro used on Grisman’s original recording and talks about how to use some of the chromatic notes in the melody in your solos.
Buck’s Run The three-part tune “Buck’s Run,” which comes from the great but under-recognized mandolin player Buck White, has become a bluegrass mandolin jam session favorite lately. It’s a fairly simple melody but uses some open strings and double stops in unusual ways. The melody of the A part is based around a B–C# hammer-on played up the neck on the D string, instead of the A string, which allows the A and E strings to ring with the melody line. The C section of “Buck’s Run” also uses some interesting double stops high up on the neck, played with a rhythm similar to the A part.
Big Country The simple melody of Béla Fleck’s tune “Big Country” combined with its unusual phrasing and interesting chord changes, makes it a great tune for improvisers of all stripes, and it sounds particularly good on the mandolin. Béla recorded “Big Country” in the key of E, but you’ll learn it here in the key of G. Joe walks you through the simple melody phrase by phrase, giving you a few suggestions of subtle rhythmic variations and double stops you can try.
Flatbush Waltz Mandolinist Andy Statman’s tune “Flatbush Waltz” is a contemporary mandolin classic. In addition to having a great melody, it features some interesting double-stop movement in the B part and some unique embellishments and tremolo.
New Chance Blues Norman Blake is probably best known as a guitarist and songwriter, but he has also written a lot of great mandolin tunes, including the “New Chance Blues,” a midtempo tune with a unique chord progression. Norman recorded it with Tony Rice and it’s also been recorded by Punch Brothers.
Emily’s Welcome to Portland Joe’s original tune “Emily’s Welcome to Portland” (recorded on his album Sweet Loam) is a Celtic-sounding melody that Joe wrote in honor of his sister Emily’s move to Portland, Maine, which was Joe’s hometown at the time. It’s in the key of F and has some challenging string crossings and tricky left-hand fingering.
The High Road “The High Road” comes from Tim O’Brien who recorded it on his 1983 solo album Hard Year Blues with lyrics. These days it’s usually performed as an instrumental and Bryan Sutton and Casey Campbell have recorded it that way. The instrumental version has also become popular at bluegrass jam sessions.“The High Road” is in the key of E minor and features an unusual chord progression with an F# chord in the B part.
Dawg Patch David Grisman’s tune “Dawg Patch” is also known as “Dawg Wood.” It’s a fast tune in the key of C, with a bridge in G and an AABA form, and it features some of Grisman’s characteristic syncopated phrasing. The B part uses some of the same syncopated phrases as the A part, and the last A part begins the same as the first two A parts, but the last four measures are different and there’s a different chord progression.
Cazadero A four-part fiddle tune in the key of E major, “Cazadero” was composed by fiddler Paul Shelasky and recorded by both John Reischman and Chris Thile. The version you’ll learn here is based more on Chris’s recording. The first two parts are very notey, with a lot of phrases with continuous eighth notes, so the picking is pretty basic, but some of the fingering in the key of E can be tricky. The C section of “Cazadero” includes a number of triplets, including two that come back to back. Joe shows you how Chris Thile picks these triplets by using alternating picking, reversing the usual pick orientation for a couple beats.
Janice The David Grisman tune “Janice,” from the album Hot Dawg, has a challenging chord progression, with a number of non-diatonic chords (chords that aren’t all in the same key). It’s also a great two-mandolin tune, so, in addition to learning the melody and getting advice on soloing over the chords, you’ll learn the harmony mandolin part.
Roots Waltz Andy Statman’s “Roots Waltz,” from his East Flatbush Blues recording, is a simple melody in the key of D but with some tricky tremolo and triplet phrases. Joe shows you the basic way that Andy plays the tune, but Andy varies the way he plays the melody continuously, so Joe shows you a few of Andy’s variations as well.
Dawg’s Bull David Grisman’s triple mandolin tune “Dawg’s Bull,” which he recorded in the late 1970s on Hot Dawg, is one of the most idiosyncratic mandolin tunes ever. It’s in the key of A major and the melody of the A part is based on arpeggios of the chords, but played up the neck (at the seventh fret or above) with some open strings and an unusual rhythmic syncopation. In this lesson you’ll learn the melody and both harmony parts.
Stumptown Chris Thile’s instrumental “Stumptown” was a highlight of Nickel Creek’s 2005 album Why Should the Fire Die? It’s a bright tune in the key of E major, and it has some unusual approaches to shifting and fingering.
The Eleventh Reel Chris Thile’s tune “The Eleventh Reel” (recorded on How to Grow a Woman from the Ground), is a beautifully constructed but very challenging tune. The A part features a continuous flow of eighth notes and includes some tricky fingerings and articulations, while the B part is much simpler than the A part, with long open sections for improvising.
Opus 38 David Grisman’s “Opus 38” is one of his early tunes, and can be heard on Early Dawg and DGQ20. On some live recordings, Grisman plays “Opus 38” on the mandola while Mike Marshall plays mandocello, but the D minor tune works equally well on the mandolin.
Tuning Tune “Tuning Tune” (or “Stämlåten”) comes from the Swedish folk trio Väsen, and it was written by the group’s guitarist Roger Tallroth and recorded on their album Trio. “Tuning Tune” has some similarities to the American fiddle tune “Blackberry Blossom,” with a similar chord progression in the A part. It also has some tricky melodic phrases and shifting, particularly the last phrase of the B part, which finishes up the neck.
Macedonia The two-mandolin tune “Macedonia,” written by Sam Bush and Mark O’Connor and recorded on Strength in Numbers, is a classic of contemporary mandolin. The tune starts with a call-and-response intro, and the first part features a simple melody with repeated notes, a motif that is continued in the second part, with modulations and rhythmic variations. In addition to the intro and melody of both parts, you’ll learn Mark O’Connor’s mandolin solo.
Sam I Am Matt Flinner’s tune “Sam I Am,” from his album Latitude, pushes the boundaries of contemporary bluegrass mandolin composition. It has some interesting chordal movement, tricky melodic passages, and an A section with a lot of space. Unlike the A part, the B melody consists of a steady stream of eighth notes with some interesting harmonic displacement and very unusual chords in the last four bars.
Amanda’s Reel “Amanda’s Reel” comes from the great bluegrass guitarist Kenny Smith, who recorded it on his album Studebaker. It’s in the key of G with an unusual form, two 16-bar A sections followed by one 16-bar B section, and all the parts end with a nice syncopated hook.
Peace Sarah Jarosz’s beautiful instrumental “Peace,” which she recorded on her album Follow Me Down, is a great solo mandolin piece. On her album, she’s joined by Edgar Meyer on bass and Stuart Duncan on fiddle, but Joe’s version is based on a video of Sarah playing “Peace” as a solo mandolin piece at the 2017 Marshall Mandolin Summit.
Tree King Creek “Tree King Creek” comes from fiddler Darol Anger, who recorded it on the Psychograss album Like Minds. It’s a fiddle tune in G with some tricky fingering, triplets, and phrases that will probably be new to you. The B part of “Tree King Creek” is 16 bars long with few repeating phrases. It has a twisty melody with some odd phrasing, landing on a C chord on the fourth beat of one measure, for example.
When It’s Over Joe’s new tune “When It’s Over” came out of a tune-writing class that he teaches at Berklee College of Music. It’s a contemplative tune that Joe originally wrote on the mandola, but it sounds just as good on the mandolin. Joe walks you through the A part of “When It’s Over” in this video, showing you the basic melody as well as how he fills it out with chords.
Raining at Sunset Chris Thile recorded his instrumental tune “Raining at Sunset” on his third solo album, Not All Who Wander Are Lost. There’s also a great version of him playing it on his radio show Live from Here. It’s in the key of A, and while there is a developmental part later on in the tune, it’s basically an AABA tune, and that’s how you’ll learn it here. It has a simple melody that Chris fills out with a banjo-style approach similar to John Reischman’s playing on “Salt Spring.”
Birdland Breakdown Mandolinist John Reischman (who teaches Peghead Nation’s Melodic Mandolin Tunes course) wrote “Birdland Breakdown” and recorded it when he was a member of the Tony Rice Unit on the album Still Inside. It’s in the key of D minor and includes a passage that uses the D harmonic minor scale, a sound that is unusual for bluegrass but common in Gypsy jazz.
Bach Two-Part Invention No. 1 in C Major Johann Sebastian Bach wrote a series of two- and three-part inventions for the piano that can be very fun to play on the mandolin with another mandolin player (or two). The parts interlock in an unusual, contrapuntal way, often mirroring or answering the other part, so it may be a challenge if you’re used to playing fiddle tunes in parallel harmony, for instance. In this lesson, you’ll learn both parts of the first two-part invention.
Check out these tunes and artists featured in the Advancing Mandolinist course.