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Learn to play solos on classic bluegrass songs and instrumentals using bluegrass mandolin techniques like tremolo, double stops, two-string melodies, and more.
Sharon Gilchrist has long made her home in the American acoustic music scene. Whether she’s playing mandolin, thumpin’ the upright bass, singing a traditional ballad, or performing one of her original pieces, her music is steeped in traditional Appalachian sounds, delivered with a distinct spacious, graceful, and fiery style all her own.
Sharon has performed with Darol Anger, Peter Rowan and Tony Rice Quartet, Uncle Earl, Laurie Lewis and the Right Hands, the Kathy Kallick Band, Bill Evans, and many others. Her playing can be heard on two film shorts that feature her original music: Milagros and La Sevillana as well as Quartet, the Rounder Records release by the Peter Rowan and Tony Rice Quartet. Her latest project is a trio with Peghead Nation instructor and co-founder Scott Nygaard and mandolin master John Reischman. Their first album, The Harmonic Tone Revealers, will be released in September 2016.
Sharon is also a respected mandolin teacher, with numerous private and Skype students. She served as mandolin instructor at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design from 2004 to 2012 and has taught at music camps throughout the US. She earned a bachelor’s degree in mandolin performance from Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee.
Learn the bluegrass standard “I’m Going Back to Old Kentucky” using a common technique in bluegrass mandolin: playing melodies on two pairs of strings. With Notation/Tab
Download a PDF list of all the Intermediate Bluegrass Mandolin lessons so you can keep track of your progress.
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MANDOLIN BASICS In five introductory lessons, you’ll learn how to hold the mandolin and pick comfortably and get in-depth advice on picking-hand and fretting-hand technique, with exercises that get you started off right and help you develop efficient technique for both hands.
MONROE CHORDS The closed “chop” chords known as “Monroe chords” (after Bill Monroe) are what give your rhythm mandolin that classic bluegrass chop sound or bark. You’ll the Monroe chord shapes for G and C, and since they’re closed chords (with no open strings) you can move them around the neck to play any major chord. You’ll also get advice on fingering the chords easily and exercises to increase finger strength and get you used to stretching out your pinky.
MORE RIGHT- AND LEFT-HAND TECHNIQUES
BLUEGRASS FIDDLE TUNES AND INSTRUMENTALS Learn some great bluegrass instrumentals heard in jam sessions around the world. With play-along tracks for every tune.
BLUEGRASS SONGS Bluegrass is primarily a vocal-oriented music, so in addition to learning to play fiddle tunes and instrumentals you’ll need to learn to play breaks to songs.
FRETTING-HAND POSTURE If you’re having trouble with the fabled “death grip” (holding the mandolin so tight that you can’t move your hand freely on the fingerboard), Sharon gives you advice on playing with good fretting-hand posture. She reviews basic fretting-hand posture, how she likes to hold the fretting hand to reduce tension, and gives you some ways to get out of the habit of pushing into the back of the neck and squeezing the neck.
SCALE AND CHORD THEORY Bluegrass singers often sing in keys other than the usual keys of C, G, D, and A you’re probably used to playing in if you’ve mostly been playing fiddle tunes. So it’s important to be able to play in different keys. In these lessons you’ll learn how major scales and arpeggios are constructed so you can play them in any key, including two major scale finger patterns you can use anywhere on the neck. You’ll also learn about the importance of knowing about seventh chords, and how Bill Monroe used dominant seventh arpeggios to create a bluesy sound. In addition, Sharon gives you tips for practicing alternating between chords or arpeggios in the keys of A and D.
MORE BLUEGRASS TUNES
Sail Away Ladies There are many versions of the old-time fiddle tune “Sail Away Ladies.” This one comes from bluegrass fiddler Kenny Baker, who recorded it on his Baker’s Dozen album. You’ll learn how Kenny played it, along with a couple of variations. Sharon also gives you advice on how to pick some of the syncopated phrasing in both parts.
Ashland Breakdown Bill Monroe’s fiddle tune “Ashland Breakdown” is in the key of C major and has three parts. The first two parts use the second position, with your index finger on the third fret. Sharon’s version combines the fiddle version that fiddler Kenny Baker played on his classic album Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe with some of Monroe’s phrasing from his mandolin solo on that same album.
Denver Belle The fiddle tune “Denver Belle” comes from famed bluegrass fiddler Kenny Baker. It’s in the key of C, but modulates to the key of G for the B part. Sharon walks you through the melody and includes some minor variations on the A part that Kenny Baker played. She also gives you advice on playing the tricky triplet lick that the B part starts with.
Ashokan Farewell The beautiful waltz “Ashokan Farewell” was written by fiddler Jay Ungar and famously featured in Ken Burns’ documentary The Civil War. In this lesson, you’ll learn the melody as well an upper harmony part you can use when playing “Ashokan Farewell” with another mandolinist or fiddler. Sharon shows you how she embellishes the melody with hammer-ons and tremolo and uses downstrokes to play a lot of the eighth-note melody lines.
Dusty Miller There are many versions of the old-time fiddle tune “Dusty Miller.” This one comes from Bill Monroe, who recorded it in 1966. There are a lot of repeated notes in Monroe’s version so it makes a great exercise for keeping your pick strokes small and keeping the tip of the pick out on the surface of the string. Sharon walks you through the melody of “Dusty Miller,” pointing out the accents in Monroe’s playing and giving you advice on picking as she goes.
BLUEGRASS MANDOLIN SOLOS Learn solos to songs by some of the great bluegrass mandolinists.
Walls of Time: Bill Monroe Solo Bill Monroe’s solo on his recording of “Walls of Time” includes a steady 16th-note tremolo, eighth notes played with downstrokes, and a number of his characteristic arpeggio licks, as well as some subtle syncopations and variations on phrases. Sharon gives you advice on playing the 16th-note tremolo by using your arm and wrist together and then walks you through the solo, which is in the key of C and starts with a quick 16th-note run up to the C on the second string.
Big Sandy River: Sam Bush Solo The Sam Bush solo on the fiddle tune “Big Sandy River” you’ll learn in this lesson comes from a performance on the TV show Nashville Now featuring Doc Watson with an all-star band: Sam on mandolin, Doc and Pat Flynn on guitars, Ricky Skaggs on fiddle, Bela Fleck and Tony Trischka on banjos, and Edgar Meyer on bass. The way he plays the B part is a good example of how to use sevenths leading to thirds, which Sharon has talked about in her lessons on arpeggios.
Big Sandy River: Sam Bush Solo, Pick Exercises In this lesson, Sharon uses some of the trickier passages in Sam Bush’s solo on “Big Sandy River” to create picking exercises, showing you how to practice the difficult passages in any tune you’re working on or learning. In particular, once you’ve learned a melody and are trying to get it up to speed it’s important to look for and practice string changes. Sharon goes through the Sam Bush solo phrase by phrase, finding the sections with tricky string changes and creating pick exercises out of them.
Walls of Time: Sharon’s Solo Sharon revisits the Bill Monroe/Peter Rowan song “Walls of Time” in this lesson to show you the solo she played on the Peter Rowan/Tony Rice Quartet recording of the song. Sharon’s improvised solo has lots of bluesy accidentals and slides and is very syncopated with some across-the-bar phrasing. She walks you through it phrase by phrase, showing you her fingering and picking, which includes a lot of consecutive downstrokes.
CHORD INVERSIONS Chord inversions can add variety to your backup playing, providing an alternative to Monroe chords that create a feeling of harmonic motion and allow you to be more interactive and creative in whatever ensemble you’re playing in. You’ll learn three voicings of a major chord in this lesson, and learn to find those voicings for the I, IV, and V chords in the key of A in three “neighborhoods” on the fingerboard. Sharon also gives you ideas for combining and practicing inversions using a standard bluegrass chord progression that is used for songs like “Your Love Is Like a Flower,” “Bury Me Beneath the Willow,” and others.
DOUBLE STOPS Double stops are two-note partial chords that sound great on the mandolin and are helpful for getting a bigger chordal sound out of a simple melody line.
Double Stop Series Sharon begins these lessons on double stops by showing you a double-stop series (short, medium, and long) for a G major chord on the top strings (A and E). These shapes were used often by Bill Monroe and have a definite bluegrass sound. Sharon gives you advice on fingering each shape and sliding from shape to shape, and gives you some exercises to help practice moving from shape to shape with her. You’ll also learn the G major double-stop series on the middle strings (D and A) and bottom strings (G and D).
Double Stop Neighborhoods In this lesson, you’ll learn to find double stop “neighborhoods”: I, IV, and V chord double stop shapes that are closest to each other on the fingerboard. The first neighborhood Sharon shows you is based on the short G double stop on the top strings, which is combined with a long C double stop and a medium D double stop to make a double stop neighborhood in the key of G. The next double stop neighborhood is based on the medium G double stop shape on the top strings and the final neighborhood is based on the long G double stop. You’ll also learn seventh chord versions of the major double stop shapes in each of the three double stop neighborhoods and get some practice tracks using the song “Rocky Road Blues,” which has a 12-bar blues progression that’s also used a lot in bluegrass songs.
EVEN MORE BLUEGRASS TUNES
“Bluegrass Stomp” Backup Sharon shows you how to vary your backup chords on “Bluegrass Stomp” (or any 12-bar blues in D) using the chord inversions you learned in the lesson on Chord Inversions, which used the three inversions and “neighborhoods” in the key of A. Sharon shows you the three inversions of the major chords and the three inversion neighborhoods in the key of D, as well as the inversions of seventh chords.
Hartford’s Real The instrumental “Hartford’s Real” was written by David Grisman and Sam Bush in honor of their good friend John Hartford. They recorded it on the album Hold On, We’re Strumming, which features lots of twin mandolin playing.
“Hartford’s Real” Harmony “Hartford’s Real” was written and recorded by David Grisman and Sam Bush on their great twin-mandolin album Hold On, We’re Strumming, so it makes sense to learn the harmony line as well as the melody. The harmony part faithfully follows the melody, so if you’ve learned the melody it will make learning the harmony part much easier.
“Hartford’s Real” Solos In this lesson, you’ll learn the solos that Sam Bush and David Grisman played on the first solo section of their recording of “Hartford’s Real.” For this section, which is one pass through the entire AABA form, Sam plays the first, second, and third A parts and Grisman takes the bridge.
My Father’s Footsteps Bill Monroe’s instrumental “My Father’s Footsteps” was never recorded under Monroe’s name. Sharon’s version comes from banjoist Butch Robins, whose recording of the tune features Monroe on mandolin. Sharon also recorded the tune on her recording with fellow Peghead Nation instructors John Reischman and Scott Nygaard, Harmonic Tone Revealers. In this lesson you’ll learn the melody as well as the harmony part that Sharon played with John on the record.
Cattle in the Cane The fiddle tune “Cattle in the Cane” is unusual in that the first part is in A major while the second part is in A minor. There are a few different versions, but Sharon learned hers from Tony Rice. She walks you through the melody, stressing the importance of fingerplanting in creating a smooth melodic line as you move across the strings and giving you advice on keeping your picking hand relaxed.
Road to Columbus Bill Monroe’s tune “Road to Columbus” is a bluegrass standard in the key of A and a great jam session tune that hasn’t been overplayed. The version Sharon teaches you is based on fiddler Kenny Baker’s playing on the original Bill Monroe recording.
OLD-TIME FIDDLE TUNES
Yew Piney Mountain The old-time fiddle tune “Yew Piney Mountain” is in the key of A and has some irregular phrasing. It’s what’s known in the old-time music world as a crooked tune. Sharon’s version comes from West Virginia fiddler Wilson Douglas and includes a lot of drone strings and some position shifts.
Maiden’s Prayer Bob Wills took the old classical melody “Maiden’s Prayer” and turned it into a Western swing fiddle tune. It has since become popular in bluegrass, old-time and swing circles. In this lesson, Sharon shows you the melody and gives you some different ways to accompany it using chord inversions and passing chord motion.
The Road to Malvern “The Road to Malvern” is an old-time fiddle tune in the key of A that comes from fiddler Jim Childress. Sharon recorded it with John Reischman and Scott Nygaard on the Harmonic Tone Revealers as a two-mandolin tune, Sharon playing harmony and John playing melody. You’ll learn both the melody and harmony parts in this lesson.
Old-Time Rhythm with Two-Finger Chords Sharon shows you a style of backup using two-string chords with open strings, which is used a lot in old-time music. It can also be used to backup songs or as a variation in your usual bluegrass backup style. Sharon demonstrates the style using the fiddle tune “Soldier’s Joy” and the double-stop neighborhoods you’ve already learned. She starts by showing you how to play the old-time backup chords on the chord progression to “Soldier’s Joy” in three different neighborhoods, and then shows you how to mix up the neighborhoods and move from one to another smoothly.