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Learn traditional bluegrass-style mandolin as exemplified by the father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe, with original transcribed solos and tips on reproducing Monroe’s sound, rhythm, and feel.
Mike Compton is a Grammy- and IBMA award-winning artist and a passionate teacher and advocate for the mandolin. Mandolin Magazine calls him "a certified mandolin icon."
Born in Meridian, Mississippi, Compton grew up hearing old-time country music and took up the mandolin as a teenager, drawn to the powerful mix of old-time fiddle stylings, blues influences, and pure creativity embodied in Bill Monroe's playing. By the mid-1980s, he was a founding member of the Nashville Bluegrass Band, which quickly became one of the most prominent and admired in bluegrass.
He recorded a half-dozen albums and toured extensively with the legendary John Hartford in the Hartford String Band. Working with producer T-Bone Burnett, Compton performed as a Soggy Bottom Boy on the Grammy-winning soundtrack to 2001's O Brother, Where Art Thou? and on the subsequent Grammy-winning Down From the Mountain soundtrack and tours.
Today, Compton performs and records widely both solo and in ensembles with guitarist/songwriter/banjo player Joe Newberry, Jumpsteady Boys (which includes Peghead Nation Old-Time Fiddle instructor Bruce Molsky), Helen Highwater String Band, and many others. He is an in-demand instructor and runs the popular Monroe Mandolin Camp in addition to teaching at high-profile workshops around the country.
Wearing his signature pressed blue overalls, Compton stuns not by tricks or artifice, but through his singing, his ability to engage a crowd, and through decades of honing his technique into the unique, one-of-a-kind Compton signature mandolin sound.
Learn the high part of “Tennessee Blues.” Mike shows you the best way to finger the high notes, and also shows you the shorter A section, which features sliding double stops up the neck. With Exact Bill Monroe Transcription by Mike Compton in Notation/Tab
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MIKE COMPTON Mike talks about his experiences with Bill Monroe and his music: meeting him, learning his music, and even plowing his garden. He also demonstrates his 2002 Gilchrist F-5 mandolin, which is made from a 450-year-old sugar maple tree and red spruce. Mike has owned four Gilchrist F-5’s; this one was built by Stephen Gilchrist in an attempt to match what Bill Monroe’s 1923 Gibson F-5 mandolin would have sounded like when it was new. Mike talks about getting the right action for the mandolin and also about the kind of pick and strings he prefers.
MONROE-STYLE MANDOLIN BASICS In these three introductory videos, Mike talks about some of the distinctive aspects of Bill Monroe’s mandolin style.
BILL MONROE MANDOLIN SOLOS Learn exactly the way Bill Monroe played these classic songs and instrumentals, starting with the early days of his career.
TENNESSEE BLUES “Tennessee Blues” is the first original tune that Bill Monroe recorded (for his first solo recording for RCA in 1940). Mike explains how to play with a very regular and smooth down-up stroke for the tremolo and points out the preponderance of flatted thirds in the melody. He also demonstrates how Monroe “plays ahead” in the melody and points out the important accents in the tune. You’ll also learn the best way to finger the high notes in the B part, and the sliding double stops up the neck in the shorter A part.
ROCKY ROAD BLUES Bill Monroe’s “Rocky Road Blues” has more of a western swing feel than the typical bluegrass offbeat chop feel. Mike explains the swing feel you should keep in mind as you’re learning it. “Rocky Road Blues” is played with all downstrokes, so Mike talks about the importance of staying relaxed and not traveling too far with each pick stroke.
TRUE LIFE BLUES This version of Bill Monroe’s “True Life Blues” is a pre-bluegrass arrangement with more of an old-time rhythmic feel that sounds a lot like western swing. You’ll learn two solos; the first includes octaves, flatted thirds, and slurred triplets and is played entirely with downstrokes. The second solo is quite a bit different and is played mostly with tremolo. Mike explains that the speed of the tremolo is essential to Monroe-style mandolin and that it should be metered off the beat, not played at an arbitrary speed.
BLUE YODEL #4 Bill Monroe’s 1946 recording of “Blue Yodel #4” is actually Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel #3.” It’s mislabeled on the record label. It was recorded at the beginning of the classic Blue Grass Boys lineup, with Lester Flatt, Chubby Wise, Earl Scruggs, and Cedric Rainwater, and the rhythm still has a western swing flavor. It’s primarily played with downstrokes except for a couple triplets that are played down-up-down. You’ll also have the opportunity to do something on the mandolin in this solo that you’d don't often get the chance to do: bend a string.
HOW WILL I EXPLAIN ABOUT YOU? The solo to Bill Monroe’s song “How Will I Explain About You?” is played mostly in the third position, with the index finger at the fifth fret. It has a lot of double stops and slides and is played entirely with tremolo. Mike explains how he fingers some of the double stops and melody notes up the neck and gives advice on sliding.
LITTLE CABIN HOME ON THE HILL Bill Monroe’s solo to “Little Cabin Home on the Hill,” which he recorded in 1947, uses slurs, slurred triplets, hammer-ons, and slides. It’s mostly played with downstrokes, except for when you’re playing triplets.
SWEETHEART YOU DONE ME WRONG Learn some Monroe-style backup using the song “Sweetheart You Done Me Wrong,” which Monroe recorded in 1946. Mike plays the backup on one verse and then breaks it down phrase by phrase. He also shows you a variation to the backup.
THAT HOME ABOVE The gospel song “That Home Above” was recorded by the classic Blue Grass Boys lineup of Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Chubby Wise, and Cedric Rainwater. The recording is pitched in Bb, but Bill Monroe plays the mandolin part out of A. The solo includes slurred triplets, lots of downstrokes, tremolo, and a bit of blues. Mike explains that Monroe’s tone on gospel songs was a little bit sweeter, with his pick striking the strings closer to the fingerboard and not so close to the bridge.
WHEN YOU ARE LONELY The old-time heart song “When You Are Lonely” is another one from the classic Blue Grass Boys band of Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Chubby Wise, and Cedric Rainwater. It’s in the key of G and the solo has a lot of arpeggiated lines over the chords, with some bluesy slides, slurs, etc.
CAN’T YOU HEAR ME CALLIN’ The Bill Monroe classic “Can’t You Hear Me Callin’” was recorded in 1949 with Mac Wiseman singing lead. The solo has a lot of passages that combine tremolo with slides and moving double stops. Mike shows you how Monroe uses open strings to change positions, even if the open string doesn’t “correctly” fit the underlying chord.
BLUE GRASS BREAKDOWN The instrumental “Blue Grass Breakdown,” recorded with the classic Blue Grass Boys lineup of Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Chubby Wise, and Cedric Rainwater, is one of Monroe’s best-known tunes. He originally recorded it at 175 beats per minute (bpm) and the tune evolved throughout his career. The version you’ll learn here is the first version Monroe recorded. The rhythmic variations in the right hand are probably the most important part of this tune, as Mike demonstrates, showing you how to use “phantom” pick strokes to get Monroe’s syncopation.
BLUE GRASS SPECIAL Bill Monroe wrote four “boogie-woogie” tunes over the course of his career, including “Blue Grass Special,” a 12-bar blues in the key of A with a lot of blue notes (C’s and G’s instead of C#’s and G#’s). You’ll learn the main theme along with some variations. The first variation is played around the third-position A chord and Mike explains that if you keep your fingers in position you’ll always have a reference point for where you’re supposed to go next. You’ll also learn a variation that uses tremolo up at the 12th and ninth frets.
BLUE GRASS STOMP “Blue Grass Stomp” is probably the most popular of Bill Monroe’s “boogie-woogie” tunes. Monroe played seven variations in his solo on the studio recording of “Blue Grass Stomp.” You’ll learn the main theme and some of the most important variations. Mike shows you all of the nuances (triplets, slurs, etc.) of the main melody and the double stops you’ll use for the up-the-neck tremolo section. He also plays through the five other variations Monroe played, pointing out some of the more important aspects of each one.
BLUE MOON OF KENTUCKY “Blue Moon of Kentucky” is one of Bill Monroe’s most popular songs and has been recorded by Elvis Presley, the Stanley Brothers, and many others. This solo, which comes from Monroe’s original 1946 recording, is in the key of Bb and involves a lot of tremolo and sliding chord positions.
I’M GOING BACK TO OLD KENTUCKY One of the most popular songs from the classic Blue Grass Boys lineup, “I’m Going Back to Old Kentucky” is in the key of A with lots of ringing A and E drone strings. It’s played with a very deliberate right hand that matches Earl Scruggs banjo roll. You’ll learn a classic Monroe ending that he played on lots of songs in the key of A.
IT’S MIGHTY DARK TO TRAVEL Another song from the classic Blue Grass Boys lineup, “It’s Mighty Dark to Travel” is in the key of G and has lots of blue notes in the solo (Bb’s instead of B naturals). It has a little more swing or bounce than “I’m Going Back to Old Kentucky.” Mike gives you a couple of options for double stops and shows you where to put the accents that help spell out the melody.
MOTHER’S ONLY SLEEPING Another of the songs recorded by Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Chubby Wise, and Cedric Rainwater, the original Blue Grass Boys, “Mother’s Only Sleeping” is a beautiful slow song in the key of F. Monroe’s solo is predominantly tremolo, working out of standard key-of-F chord shapes and double stops, with some nice one-fret slides.
MY ROSE OF OLD KENTUCKY Bill Monroe’s solo to his song “My Rose of Old Kentucky” (in the key of B) is played out of a closed position centered around the seventh fret. This solo is an example of what Monroe calls “short notes and long notes,” combining chord “bursts” with short single-note intros. Mike gives you advice on supporting your little finger with pressure from the back of the neck and with the other fingers.
NEW MULESKINNER BLUES Bill Monroe recorded Jimmie Rodgers’ song “Muleskinner Blues” on his first recording session in 1940 and recorded a version with new lyrics in 1950, calling it “New Muleskinner Blues.” His solo from the 1950 recording is primarily played with downstrokes, and the intro starts with a rhythmic phrase (16th/8th/16th) that is repeated throughout the solo.
TOY HEART “Toy Heart” is one of Bill Monroe’s most loved songs, and he’s recorded it a number of times, in different keys. The version you’ll learn here is the original, recorded with Flatt, Scruggs, Wise, and Rainwater in the key of C. You’ll learn two solos; the second is a little different than the first solo but includes some of the same things.
TRAVELIN’ THIS LONESOME ROAD Recorded by Bill Monroe in 1949, with Mac Wiseman on guitar and vocals, Rudy Lyle on banjo, Chubby Wise on fiddle, and Jack Thompson on bass, “Travelin’ This Lonesome Road” is in the key of F, an unusual key for bluegrass songs. The solo includes some tricky fingering, sliding double stops, and shifts between positions. There are also some extra beats on the ends of the lines.
WHY DID YOU WANDER? “Why Did You Wander?” is one of the fastest songs recorded by the original Blue Grass Boys lineup of Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Chubby Wise, and Cedric Rainwater. Monroe’s solo has almost no melody notes, but instead consists primarily of arpeggios played over the chord changes with a few connecting scalar lines.
MY LITTLE HONEYSUCKLE ROSE The solo you’ll learn to Bill Monroe’s “My Little Honeysuckle Rose” comes from a live Grand Ole Opry recording of the original Blue Grass Boys lineup of Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Chubby Wise, and Cedric Rainwater. This is the first in a series of four solos that you’ll learn from that recording. The solo, in the key of G, includes a lot of eighth-note triplets, arpeggiated chords, and a 16th/8th/16th rhythmic phrase that Monroe uses throughout the live recording.
IF I SHOULD WANDER BACK TONIGHT This version of Bill Monroe’s “If I Should Wander Back Tonight” also comes from the live Grand Ole Opry recording of the original Blue Grass Boys. The solo features some light double stop strums that really showcase the sound of Monroe’s Lloyd Loar mandolin as well as G and D arpeggios and some cool syncopated chromatic lines. Mike walks you through the solo phrase by phrase and then plays through a second solo Monroe played, showing you where it differs from his first solo.
LOVE GONE COLD The final in Mike’s series of live Grand Ole Opry transcriptions of the classic Blue Grass Boys lineup, “Love Gone Cold” is in the key of Bb, and Monroe plays his solos almost entirely out of closed position. Mike walks you through the solo phrase by phrase, pointing out some of the cool slides and double stops Monroe uses in Bb and showing you a couple of fingering alternatives for the Eb arpeggio up the neck.
HEAVY TRAFFIC AHEAD Bill Monroe’s “Heavy Traffic Ahead” is a swingy song in the key of A. You’ll learn two solos, the solo from the original release as well as a solo from an alternate take. The first solo is played out of the A chop chord position while the second is played in open position, with some cool blue notes, syncopation, and jazzy A7 and E7 chords.
I’M TRAVELING ON AND ON Bill Monroe’s solo on the gospel song “I’m Traveling On and On” (recorded in 1947) is very similar to his solo on “Shine Hallelujah Shine,” a kind of stock gospel solo in the key of A. Monroe’s solo is based more on the chord shapes than a specific melody line. Mike shows you the “I’m Traveling On and On” solo phrase by phrase, starting with an intro/turnaround Monroe plays to begin the song.
SHINE HALLELUJAH SHINE Bill Monroe’s two solos on “Shine Hallelujah Shine” are similar to the solo you learned for “I’m Traveling On and On.” Mike plays through them both and then shows you how they differ from the “I’m Traveling On and On” solo.
MY LITTLE GEORGIA ROSE In this lesson you’ll learn two solos to Bill Monroe’s classic song “My Little Georgia Rose”: the solo that was originally released as well as an alternate take. The first solo is played with 32nd-note tremolo out of the C chop chord position with your pinky at the 12th fret. The solo on the alternate take is also played out of the C chop chord position but it mostly uses downstrokes and Monroe’s favorite 16th/8th/16th rhythm, as opposed to the 32nd-note tremolo of the original solo.
THE ALABAMA WALTZ Hank Williams’ song “The Alabama Waltz” was recorded by Bill Monroe in 1950. Monroe’s solo is typical of the way he plays in 3/4 time, using tremolo with a triplet feel, for example. Mike goes through the melody without tremolo so you can get a feel for the melody and then walks you through the solo with tremolo. He also gives you advice on keeping pressure on the back of the neck with your thumb as you slide double stops up and down the neck.
I’M BLUE, I’M LONESOME Bill Monroe's 1950 recording of “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome” is usually thought of as being in the key of B, but Mike discovered while transcribing the solo you’ll learn here that Monroe played it out of Bb, tuning his mandolin up a half step so that it sounds in B. The solo uses a lot of 32nd-note tremolo and 32nd-note ornaments, as well as slides into chord positions.
UNCLE PEN Bill Monroe’s homage to his fiddle-playing Uncle Pendleton Vandiver, “Uncle Pen,” is one of his most popular songs. In this lesson, you’ll learn two half solos, the original solo from the 1950s recording and another solo from the 1970s. They illustrate how Monroe's style changed over the course of a couple of decades.
LETTER FROM MY DARLING The solo Bill Monroe played on his 1951 recording of “Letter from My Darling” is one of his feistiest, played near the bridge with lots of downstrokes. It’s in the key of G, with lots of blue notes and bluesy slides. Mike walks you through the solo phrase by phrase, giving you advice on playing with authority and where to put accents.
BEN DEWBERRY’S FINAL RUN “Ben Dewberry’s Final Run” has been recorded by Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Snow, and others, including Bill Monroe, who recorded the song in 1951. The solo you’ll learn here is from take four, the take that was released. It’s played at a medium tempo with a bit of swing feel in the key of G, with downstrokes and some of Monroe’s typical open-G position blues phrases. It also includes some second-position double stops on the IV chord (C).
SUGAR-COATED LOVE In this lesson, you’ll learn two solos that Bill Monroe played on “Sugar-Coated Love,” but not the solo that was released on the commercial recording. The first solo you’ll learn is from the first take at the 1951 recording session. It has some cool Hawaiian guitar-style lines, as well as a bit of a ragtime flavor, and starts with a two-octave jump from the C on the G string all the way up to the C at the eighth fret of the E string. The solo played on take two of “Sugar-Coated Love” starts the same way as the first take and then changes halfway through the first measure.
RAWHIDE “Rawhide” is one of Bill Monroe’s most famous instrumentals, a fast mandolin showcase in the key of C with a bridge that moves around the circle of fifths. You’ll learn the A and B parts from the first solo on Monroe’s 1951 recording as well as an alternate A part.
MEMORIES OF YOU Bill Monroe recorded “Memories of You” in 1950 with Jimmy Martin on guitar, Rudy Lyle on banjo, Vassar Clements on fiddle, and Joel Price on bass. It’s one of the tunes where Monroe retunes the bottom strings on his mandolin, dropping the top G string to an F# and raising the bottom G to an A. You’ll learn the solos Monroe played on take one and take four, which is the take that was released commercially.
BLUEGRASS RAMBLE Bill Monroe’s multi-part instrumental “Bluegrass Ramble” comes from the 1950 session that included Jimmy Martin on guitar, Rudy Lyle on banjo, Vassar Clements on fiddle, and Joel Price on bass. It’s another of Monroe’s “crosstuned” pieces, this time in a tuning that resembles the tuning that fiddlers call “Black Mountain Rag” tuning. The G strings are tuned up to A, the D strings up to E and one of the E strings is lowered to C#, which makes an A major chord: AA EE AA AC#. You’ll learn the A and B parts of “Bluegrass Ramble” as well as some variations of the A part (A2, A3, and A4) and the C part, which sounds strikingly like “Dixie.”
CABIN OF LOVE Bill Monroe’s brother Birch wrote the song “Cabin of Love,” which Bill recorded in 1951 with a band that included Carter Stanley (guitar), Rudy Lyle (Banjo), Gordon Terry (fiddle), and Howard Watts (bass). It’s in the key of A and the solo uses a lot of Monroe’s typical phrases, including sixteenth-eighth-sixteenth rhythms and quick hammer-ons and slurs on blue notes. Many of the lines are simple note-wise but have tricky syncopated phrases.
GET DOWN ON YOUR KNEES AND PRAY Bill Monroe recorded “Get Down on Your Knees and Pray” at the same 1951 session (and with the same band members) as “Cabin of Love.” It’s a powerful and spooky song and there were a number of takes. Bill played an intro and two solos on the take that was released. They feature 32nd-note tremolo, triplets, and a lot of hammer-ons and slides. Mike walks you through the intro and first solo, phrase by phrase, and then plays the second solo, which is mostly 32nd-note tremolo on different G double stops, through at a slow tempo.
THE FIRST WHIPPOORWILL “The First Whippoorwill” is another Bill Monroe classic from 1951. It’s in the key of G and uses some of Monroe’s favorite key-of-G licks, as well as lots of tremolo and some 32nd-note and 16th-note triplet phrases.
IN THE PINES “In the Pines” is one of Bill Monroe’s most popular songs and he recorded a number of different solos over the years. The one you’ll learn here was recorded in 1952. It’s in the key of E and is played out of E chord positions up the neck. The second half of the solo features downstroke triplets on double stops.
MEMORIES OF MOTHER AND DAD Bill Monroe’s 1952 recording of “Memories of Mother and Dad” is pitched in the key of F#, and so there are a few odd notes (open strings) in his solo. Most of the solo is played with the index finger centered at the fourth fret (F# on the D string) and it includes some 32nd-note tremolo passages up the neck, which can be tricky if you’ve never played in F# before.
DON’T PUT OFF UNTIL TOMORROW Bill Monroe’s song “Don’t Put Off Until Tomorrow,” recorded in 1952, is one of his most powerful vocal numbers, and the solo is played to match, played with aggressive downstrokes. The song is in G and the solo includes a lot of first-position arpeggios and full chords, as well as some of Monroe’s typical blues phrases.
MY DYING BED Bill Monroe’s “My Dying Bed” was recorded at the same 1952 session as “Don’t Put Off Until Tomorrow,” “Memories of Mother and Dad,” and “In the Pines.” The solo includes a new sound for Monroe, an open drone D string against fretted notes on the A string up the neck, starting with an octave D at the fifth fret.
ON AND ON There are numerous live recordings of Bill Monroe playing “On and On” throughout his career, and he seemed to approach the solo differently every time. This solo, from his 1954 studio recording, includes a lot of Monroe’s usual blues phrases and arpeggios, along with a few idiosyncratic variations and some chimes (harmonics).
NEW JOHN HENRY BLUES Bill Monroe’s version of the traditional song “John Henry” was recorded in 1954, with Jimmy Martin, Rudy Lyle, Ernie Newton, and Charlie Cline. Monroe’s solo on the fast tune starts with octave G’s and a syncopated sixteenth-eighth-sixteenth rhythm, which recurs in places throughout the rhythmic solo.
WHITE HOUSE BLUES You’ll learn three solos from Bill Monroe’s 1954 recording of “White House Blues” in this lesson. The song was played at a very fast tempo in the key of B, and Monroe’s solos combine closed-position licks with open strings, creating some bluesy, jagged lines.
PIKE COUNTY BREAKDOWN Bill Monroe’s instrumental “Pike County Breakdown” was based on the old folk song “Sweet Betsy from Pike.” Mike has transcribed five pages of Monroe’s solos on “Pike County Breakdown” for you, but instead of walking you through everything note by note, he shows you the first two solos, which are played in open position, and one that moves up into a position up the neck.
GET UP JOHN Bill Monroe’s instrumental version of the traditional song “Get Up John” is in open-D tuning, F#A DD AA AD, which gives the tune its distinctive sound. Mike’s transcription of Monroe’s 1953 recording includes a number of variations. The C part is mostly played on the lowest string set and Monroe plays three versions of this part. You’ll learn the A and B parts and all three variations on the C part.
SITTING ALONE IN THE MOONLIGHT Recorded by Bill Monroe in 1954, “Sitting Alone in the Moonlight” was one of his biggest hits and it continues to be a favorite in the bluegrass world to this day. It’s a waltz in the key of A with a triplet feel, which means that each beat of the 3/4 measure has an underlying triplet feel. You’ll learn Monroe’s 1954 solo on “Sitting Alone in the Moonlight” in this lesson.
HAPPY ON MY WAY The solos Bill Monroe played on his 1954 recording of “Happy on My Way” are good examples of his “gospel vocabulary,” in which he rarely plays the melody of the song and uses many of the same phrases he plays in other gospel songs. “Happy on My Way” is in the key of A, and you’ll learn both of Monroe’s 1954 solos in this lesson.
Check out the original Bill Monroe recordings of songs featured in Monroe-Style Mandolin.