John Reischman is one of the premier mandolinists of his generation, a master instrumentalist capable of swinging between re-inventions of traditional old-time tunes, deconstructions of the bluegrass repertoire, and compelling original tunes, many of which have become standards.
John is also a powerful bandleader, touring all over Canada and the United States with his band the Jaybirds. But most of all, he’s an understated visionary, the kind of master craftsman whose music is virtuosic without ever being flashy and who is renowned for his impeccable taste and tone. John Reischman embodies the true spirit of acoustic music in the 21st century.
A Juno–nominated and Grammy–award winning artist, John is known today for his work with the Jaybirds as well as his acclaimed solo albums, but he got his start as an original member of the Tony Rice Unit in the late 1970s. With this band led by the legendary bluegrass guitarist, John helped define the “new acoustic music” movement in bluegrass with a series of high-profile albums for Rounder Records. Building this sound, John was influenced early on by Bill Monroe’s mandolin playing, but also by the playing of progressive bluegrass mandolinists like Sam Bush and David Grisman, as well as jazz mandolinist Jethro Burns. Living in the Bay Area in the ’80s, John toured and performed with the seminal California bluegrass band the Good Ol’ Persons, cementing his reputation as a powerful mandolinist with an original vision for the instrument.
John moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, in the 1990s and formed the Jaybirds, but he never stopped his musical explorations. In 1996, he won a Grammy as part of Todd Phillips’ all-star tribute album to Bill Monroe. Over the years, he’s collaborated with a remarkably wide range of artists, from bluegrass singer Kathy Kallick to guitarist Scott Nygaard, banjo wiz Tony Furtado, Chinese Music ensemble Red Chamber, Brazilian multi-instrumentalist Celso Machado, singer songwriter Susan Crowe, and more. This kind of cross-cultural trailblazing has always been at the center of John’s music, an extension of his curiosity about the stringed instruments and musical rhythms of other traditions.
John’s relocation to Vancouver in the 1990s led to his next big step as an artist: becoming a bandleader. Drawing from the very best bluegrass and acoustic musicians in the Pacific Northwest to form the band, Reischman led the Jaybirds on cross-country tours, five albums, and two Juno nominations. The secret to the band’s success lies in its innovative arrangements, powerful original songwriting and tune composition, as well as the mix of talents that make up the group. It’s a tight band that can turn on a dime and play with the kind of power and precision that is the hallmark of the original bluegrass greats.
In 2013, John released his third solo album, Walk Along John. Made up of traditional and original tunes, the album is a celebration of Reischman’s long career, featuring guest spots from old friends like old-time fiddler Bruce Molsky, banjo genius Tony Trischka, the Punch Brothers’ Chris Thile, bluegrass guitarist Kenny Smith, and members of the Jaybirds, plus friends from a new generation of bluegrass instrumentalists: guitarist Eli West, members of the Deadly Gentlemen, among others. Walk Along John follows in the footsteps of Reischman’s other acclaimed solo albums, like his debut, North of the Border, which was described by Bluegrass Unlimited as “monumental . . . it establishes a remarkably high standard for mature, tasteful mandolin music.”
In 2016, John teamed with guitarist Scott Nygaard and mandolinist/bassist Sharon Gilchrist to produce a recording of traditional tunes, The Harmonic Tone Revealers, about which Bluegrass Unlimited said: “The Harmonic Tone Revealers highlights three of today’s most accomplished and respected acoustic musicians. Filled with luxuriously gorgeous music and intriguing renditions of popular and obscure tunes, this CD can’t fail to please anyone who loves bluegrass and acoustic music.”
Learn the first part of John's tune “Itzbin Reel,” one of the first tunes he wrote. It’s a fiddle tune in the key of A, and John starts by showing you the A major scale and a couple of scale patterns to get used to the key of A major. With Notation/Tab
Peghead Nation is creating a library of accompaniment videos (and downloadable MP3s) for songs and tunes that are taught on the site, classics that you'll find at many jams and picking parties. As a subscriber, you have access to this library and can use the tracks to practice playing tunes and songs at a slow or medium tempo with guitar accompaniment. New songs will be added regularly.
Melodic Mandolin Tunes Lessons
A subscription to Melodic Mandolin Tunes includes:
More than 18 complete mandolin tunes
New lessons added every month
Right- and left-hand technique lessons
High-quality video with multiple camera angles so you can see close-ups of both hands in action
Detailed notation and tablature for each tune
Play-Along videos so you can play along with John
Downloadable audio MP3s of each tune
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JOHN’S MANDOLIN AND TECHNIQUE
John’s Gibson F-5 Lloyd Loar Mandolin John Reischman’s Gibson F-5 Lloyd Loar mandolin is considered by many to be one of the greatest mandolins ever made. It was built in 1924 and was signed by Gibson’s acoustic engineer Lloyd Loar early on February 18, a day that produced a number of great mandolins, including those owned by Chris Thile and John Paul Jones. John talks about how he acquired the mandolin in 1981 and how he changed the fingerboard to a radiused fingerboard early on. He demonstrates it by playing his waltz “The North Shore,” which showcases the deep bass sound of this instrument.
Picking-Hand Technique In this video, John talks about his pick technique, starting with the shape and thickness of pick he uses: a 1.2–1.5 mm. triangular pick with three rounded shoulders. Then he shows you how he holds the pick and the angle at which he strikes the strings. He also shows you how he rests his palm lightly on the bridge, how he sometimes locks his wrist and uses more of his forearm and sometimes he plays with a loose wrist. In addition he demonstrates how he plays tremolo and talks about how he practices tremolo with a metronome, starting with a very slow setting and playing triplets for each beat and then gradually speeding it up.
Fretting-Hand Technique John demonstrates his fretting-hand technique in this video. He talks about using the proper fingers in open position, with the index finger playing the first and second frets, middle finger playing the third and fourth frets, ring finger playing the fifth and sixth, and pinky playing the seventh. He also gives you an exercise that will help you learn that fingering (and also work your pinky), and talks about playing cleanly by fretting close to the fret as well as creating a smooth legato line by letting the notes sustain into each other. You’ll also learn the two closed-position scale positions he uses.
MELODIC MANDOLIN TUNES
Itzbin Reel One of the first tunes John ever wrote, “Itzbin Reel” is basically a fiddle tune in the key of A, although the form is AABA rather than the standard AABB form of most fiddle tunes, and the B section has ten measures instead of the standard eight. In addition to showing you the melody, John talks about keeping a steady up-and-down motion with your picking hand so you stay in time even when you’re not sounding a note. This is helpful in “Itzbin Reel,” because it has a few syncopated phrases that emphasize offbeats. You’ll also learn the chords and voicings John uses to play rhythm on “Itzbin Reel,” as well as an intro and ending.
La Arboleda John learned the Puerto Rican tune “La Arboleda” from a recording of cuatro player Pedro Padilla. It has three parts, the first in A minor, the second in C major/A minor, and the third in A major, and the form is AABBACCA, a fairly common form for ragtime tunes and Brazilian choros, among other kinds of music. The notes of the melody are relatively simple, made up primarily of the notes of the chords, but the rhythm of the melody is syncopated and somewhat tricky. To play rhythm to “La Arboleda” John plays more open-sounding chords than the usual bluegrass chop chords. You’ll learn the chord voicings he uses as well as a calypso-style rhythm pattern.
The Road to Malvern “The Road to Malvern” is a contemporary old-time (“new-time”?) fiddle tune in the key of A and it’s one of John’s favorites. After showing you the melody, he also shows you a couple variations he plays and talks a little about improvising on a fiddle tune like “The Road to Malvern.” For playing rhythm to old-time tunes, John often likes to use open chords and play with more of a regular eighth-note-based strum, with emphasis on beats two and four. You’ll learn the voicings John uses and his strum pattern.
Little Pine Siskin John’s tune “Little Pine Siskin” sounds like an old-time fiddle tune and has three parts, although the B and C parts only get played once each. John shows you how he keeps his pick moving, playing open-string chords, when there are long notes in the melody, and shows you the drone notes he plays on each part of the A part melody. He also shows you how he plays the C part up an octave when he repeats that part at the end of a performance, and how to play “Little Pine Siskin” up an octave in closed position with your first finger at the fifth fret.
Somewhere Over the Rainbow The pop and jazz standard “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” makes a great solo mandolin piece played chord-melody style. John starts by showing you a versatile movable chord voicing he learned from Jethro Burns, and explains, for example, how a G6 voicing can also be used for Em7, C9, or A7sus4. Then he walks you through his arrangement of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” explaining how he tries to make each chord ring out with sustain, and allowing the melody notes, the top notes of the chord, to be heard clearly. You’ll also learn an ending, which alternates G and Ebmaj7 chords, and a variation of the bridge with a moving bass line that Jethro Burns played.
Birdland Breakdown John recorded his tune “Birdland Breakdown” with the Tony Rice Unit in the 1980s, and it has since become a favorite of modern mandolinists. It’s in the key of D minor and uses a couple of minor scales, including D harmonic minor. John shows you how the melody matches the underlying chords and explains the D harmonic minor scale. You’ll also learn the chord voicings John plays on “Birdland Breakdown.”
The North Shore John composed his minor-key waltz “The North Shore” in honor of Bill Monroe, inspired by his minor-key waltzes like “Lonesome Moonlight Waltz.” It’s in the key of G minor and features tremolo and double stops using a harmonized Bb major scale, with melody notes harmonized a sixth below in most cases. John shows you the Bb harmonized major scale, so you can get familiar with the double stops you’ll use in “The North Shore” and demonstrates the tremolo he uses in “The North Shore”: a two triplet pattern over one beat.
Nesser John’s tune “Nesser” is a happy tune in the key of A major that he originally conceived as a tune that would sound good on the banjo. The first part of the tune consists of phrases that contain many of the same notes, but are phrased in different ways. John shows you how to imitate clawhammer banjo with hammer-ons and how to add the E string as a drone. The B part has even more “frailing” phrases and open-string drone notes. You’ll also learn a variation on the A part that recalls a technique used in mandolin tunes like Buck White’s “Buck’s Run.” This involves playing notes up the neck so that you can use the open A string as a drone.
Cazadero “Cazadero” is a four-part fiddle tune in the key of E major that was composed by fiddler Paul Shelasky and recorded by John on his North of the Border album. It was also recently recorded by Punch Brothers. The four parts are all distinct: the A part has some E major arpeggios, the B part includes some triplets, both picked and played with slurs (hammer-on/pull off), the third part has a more complicated chord progression and picked triplets, while the fourth part is less notey than the other three parts, with some descending half-note double stops and a crosspicked passage on the repeat.
Salt Spring John’s tune “Salt Spring” is another one of his “banjo-like” tunes, a relatively simple melody that imitates the sound of frailing banjo. It’s in the key of A, and the melody notes are mostly played on the second and third strings. Between melody notes, John plays a drone on the open E (and sometimes open A) string, which, along with his use of hammer-ons and slides, creates a banjo-like quality. John gets you started with a short exercise in which you play melody quarter notes played with a downstroke on the A string followed by two eighth notes (down-up) on the E string.
A Prairie Jewel John wrote his lovely waltz “A Prairie Jewel” for his wife, who grew up on the prairies of Alberta, Canada. It’s a long-form melody with a somewhat complex chord progression, all in the key of D. You’ll learn the melody, the open-string chords John plays to accompany the tune, and a chord-melody arrangement of the A part.
Big Bug John’s tune “Big Bug” is a fast bluegrass tune in the key of E major, with a lot of flatted sevenths and flatted thirds in the melody and a bridge that includes G and A chords. John shows you the E7 arpeggio you’ll use to finger much of the melody and then starts walking you through the melody phrase by phrase. He also talks about the tempo that’s best for the tune, and gives you a couple examples of how he would improvise on the E7 finger pattern.
Como Llora Una Estrella The beautiful Venezuelan waltz “Como Llora Una Estrella” (“As a Star Weeps”) is perfect for the mandolin. It’s in the key of D minor and has two parts, the second of which is half as long as the first. The melody has a number of long held notes, and John shows you how to keep time by keeping your picking hand in motion, so you end up on the right pick stroke. He also shows you the open-string chord voicings and some of the rhythm patterns he uses to accompany “Como Llora Una Estrella.”
Cheyenne Bill Monroe’s fiddle tune “Cheyenne” starts in the key of G minor and modulates to the relative major Bb for the second part. Monroe’s mandolin solo is a good example of his syncopated downstroke style applied to an instrumental instead of a song. In this lesson you’ll learn both the fiddle melody, originally played by Bobby Hicks, and a Monroe-style solo.
Old Gray Coat This jazzy waltz was written by guitarist Tony Rice. John learned it when he was a member of Tony’s band, the Tony Rice Unit, in the 1980s. You can hear Tony’s recording on his album Acoustics, which features Sam Bush on mandolin. John walks you through the melody phrase by phrase, showing you a few variations as he goes, including how to play the A part in an upper octave. He also shows you the chords he plays to “Old Gray Coat,” including some nice closed-position voicings of minor seventh and sus chords.
Salt River The old-time tune “Salt River” comes from fiddler Norman Edmonds and John learned it from Bruce Molsky. It’s not the same as the bluegrass jam favorite “Salt Creek” but has a similar modal tonality. You’ll learn the melody for both parts played mostly on the top strings as well as a version of both parts played in the lower octave.
Indian Arm John’s tune “Indian Arm” is featured on his recording Walk Along John. It's a pretty, medium tempo tune in E minor and uses the E Dorian scale. John walks you through the melody phrase by phrase, showing you how the melody corresponds to the chords, giving advice on keeping your right-hand moving during some of the sustained melody notes, and showing you some of the slides he uses on “Indian Arm.”
Dawg’s Bull David Grisman recorded his tune “Dawg's Bull” in the late 1970s on Hot Dawg. 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 a unique syncopation similar to a calypso rhythm. The B part has a simpler melody and is played in open position. John walks you through the melody of both parts, phrase by phrase, showing you the picking and fingering as he goes. He also shows you how you can find high and low harmony parts for the A part by moving chord shapes up or down on the same strings as the melody.
Bell’s March John learned this Civil War-era melody from Nick Hornbuckle, the banjo player in John Reischman and the Jaybirds. It’s a nice stately tune in the key of G minor. John shows you how he moves between first and second position on one phrase and adds some double stops to the melody. He also explains the anticipation at the beginning of some of the phrases.
Palomita Blanca John learned the old Argentinian waltz “Palomita Blanca” from a recording by French fingerstyle guitarist Pierre Bensusan and then arranged it for the mandolin, recording it on his debut solo album North of the Border. It’s a complex melody, with syncopated motifs that are repeated on different steps of the scale to match the chords.
Melodic Mandolin Tunes Source Material
Hear some of the original recordings of tunes featured in John Reischman's Melodic Mandolin Tunes course.