Monroe-Style Mandolin with Mike Compton

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About This Course

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

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."

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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.

 
 
 
Monroe-Style Mandolin Overview

Latest Monroe-Style Mandolin Lesson

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.” You’ll learn his intro and solo from the 1950 recording in this lesson. With Exact Bill Monroe Transcription by Mike Compton in Notation/Tab and Play-Along Track

Peghead Play-Along Tracks

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. 

Mandolin Lessons

Subscribe to Monroe-Style Mandolin for access to all these mandolin lessons and new material every month! All Monroe-Style Mandolin song-based lessons include exact Bill Monroe transcriptions by Mike Compton in notation and tablature.

MIKE COMPTON

  • Mike Compton Remembers Bill Monroe Mike talks about his experiences with Bill Monroe and his music: meeting him, learning his music, and even plowing his garden.
  • Mike Compton’s 2002 Gilchrist F-5 Mandolin Mike Compton’s 2002 Gilchrist F-5 mandolin is made of sugar maple (from a 450-year-old sugar maple tree from around Syracuse, New York) and red spruce. Mike bought the first Gilchrist F-5 sold in the United States in 1979 and met builder Stephen Gilchrist shortly thereafter. He has owned four Gilchrist F-5’s, and this one was built by 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 (stiff, about 1.5 mm) and strings (D’Addario EXPs) he prefers. He demonstrates the mandolin’s sound by playing Bill Monroe’s “Whitehorse Breakdown.”
MONROE-STYLE MANDOLIN BASICS
  • Bill Monroe’s Rhythm Style Most people think of Bill Monroe’s rhythm playing as consisting of hard chop chords on the offbeat, but he did a lot of other things as well. In this video, Mike talks about Monroe’s rhythm playing, including his playing in the early days of his career when he played a lot of strummy, melody-based things that old-time mandolin players would play. He also talks about the different ways you can play chop chords to influence the tempo, either pushing it forward and letting it lay back, and how Monroe played with more rhythmic variety in some later recordings.
  • Traditional Bluegrass Tremolo Tremolo in Monroe-style mandolin has many speeds, but it always references the tempo of the song. Mike talks about how important tremolo is to traditional bluegrass mandolin playing (it’s the primary right-hand technique of the style), and demonstrates some of the nuances of Monroe-style tremolo. He also talks about the relationship of mandolin playing to fiddle playing and how early mandolin players would imitate the fiddle’s long tones with tremolo, especially with double stops. It’s also important to play the two notes of a double stop as one sound, rather than alternating between two notes.
  • Slidy Business The sliding double stops that are so prevalent in Monroe-style mandolin, and which Mike Compton is a master of, are an effort to play the in-between notes that the frets take away. Mike talks about Bill Monroe’s development of the sliding double stop style, and plays the tune (Monroe’s “Lucky Lady”) that made him want to learn the style.  

BILL MONROE MANDOLIN SOLOS 

Tennessee Blues

  • Tennessee Blues, Part 1 “Tennessee Blues” is the first original tune that Bill Monroe recorded (for his first solo recording for RCA in 1940). Mike gets started by playing “Tennessee Blues” all the way through, and then talks about playing with a very regular and smooth down-up stroke for the tremolo. He also points out the preponderance of C natural notes (flatted thirds) in the melody and shows you the double stops used in the shorter section of the tune. Then he starts breaking “Tennessee Blues” down phrase by phrase, talking about how Monroe “plays ahead” in the melody and pointing out the important accents in the tune. You’ll learn the A part of  “Tennessee Blues” in this video.
  • Tennessee Blues, Part 2 - SAMPLE LESSON! Learn the “fancy high part” (all the way up the 15th fret) of “Tennessee Blues” in this video. Mike takes it apart phrase by phrase, showing you the best way to finger the high notes. You’ll also learn the shorter A section, which features sliding double stops up the neck, and some variations on the regular A section.  
  • “Tennessee Blues” Play-Along Track Mike plays “Tennessee Blues” at a medium tempo so you can practice playing it along with him.

Rocky Road Blues

  • Rocky Road Blues Bill Monroe’s “Rocky Road Blues” has more of a western swing feel than the typical bluegrass offbeat chop feel. Mike plays “Rocky Road Blues” through a few times and then explains the swing feel you should keep in mind as you’re learning it. “Rocky Road Blues” is played with all downstrokes. There are no upstrokes at all. Mike talks about the importance of staying relaxed and not traveling too far with each pick stroke, because otherwise it will be difficult to get back to the next downstroke. There are also lots of slurs and hammers in “Rocky Road Blues.” Mike takes the solo apart slowly, phrase by phrase, and gives you a chance to play each phrase along with him, finishing by playing the whole solo through at a slow tempo.   
  • “Rocky Road Blues” Play-Along Track Mike plays “Rocky Road Blues” at a medium tempo so you can practice playing it along with him.

True Life Blues

  • True Life Blues, Part 1: First Solo This version of Bill Monroe’s “True Life Blues” is a pre-bluegrass arrangement that has 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. Mike gives you an idea of the rhythmic feel and shows you how to play the slurred triplets and then walks you through the first solo phrase by phrase. 
  • “True Life Blues” Play-Along Track: First Solo Mike plays the whole first solo of “True Life Blues” a couple times at a medium tempo so you can play along with him.
  • True Life Blues, Part 2: Second Solo and Tremolo The second solo you’ll learn to “True Life Blues” is a quite a bit different than the first and is played mostly with tremolo. Mike begins by explaining that the speed of the tremolo is essential to Monroe-style mandolin. The tremolo should be metered off the beat, not played at an arbitrary speed. If you play tremolo any faster or slower than the beat, it won’t work. Mike walks you through the second “True Life Blues” solo phrase by phrase and talks about making sure you play both notes of the double stops at the same time, not by alternating between the two notes.
  • “True Life Blues” Play-Along Track: Second Solo Mike plays the whole second solo of “True Life Blues” a couple times at a medium tempo so you can play along with him. 
  • “True Life Blues” Play-Along Track: Both Solos Mike plays both solos to “True Life Blues” with guitar accompaniment. 

Blue Yodel #4

  • 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. But whichever number you want to call it, you’ll learn Bill’s solo to that song in this lesson. It was recorded at the beginning of the classic Blue Grass Boys lineup, with Lester Flatt, Chubby Wise, Earl Scruggs, and Cedric Rainwater, and it still has a Western swing flavor to the rhythm. It’s primarily played with downstrokes but there are 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. Mike plays it through a couple times at a medium tempo and then breaks the solo down, phrase by phrase.
  • ”Blue Yodel #4” Play-Along Track Mike plays “Blue Yodel #4” at slow and medium tempos so you can play along with him.

How Will I Explain About You?

  • 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. After playing it through, Mike walks you through the solo, phrase by phrase, explaining how he fingers some of the double stops and melody notes up the neck, and giving you tips on sliding.
  • “How Will I Explain About You?” Play-Along Track Mike plays the solo to “How Will I Explain About You?” a couple times with guitar accompaniment, so you can play along with him. 

Little Cabin Home on the Hill 

  • 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. Mike plays the solo through and then walks you through it slowly, phrase by phrase, giving you time to play each phrase along with him.
  • “Little Cabin Home on the Hill” Play-Along Track Mike plays the solo to “Little Cabin Home on the Hill” a couple times at a medium tempo, so you can play along with him. 

Sweetheart You Done Me Wrong

  • “Sweetheart You Done Me Wrong” Backup In this lesson you’ll learn some bluegrass mandolin backup using the song “Sweetheart You Done Me Wrong,” which Bill Monroe recorded in 1946. Mike plays the backup one time through the song and then breaks it down phrase by phrase. He also shows you a variation to the backup. 
  • “Sweetheart You Done Me Wrong” Backup Play-Along Track Use this video to play the backup part to “Sweetheart You Done Me Wrong” along with Mike at a slow tempo.

That Home Above

  • 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. 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. Mike plays the solo through and then takes it apart, phrase by phrase. He also plays through another solo Monroe played on “That Home Above,” (which is included in the transcription), pointing out some of the most interesting parts of the second solo.
  • “That Home Above” Play-Along Track Mike plays the first solo to “That Home Above” a couple times at a medium tempo, so you can play along with him. 

When You Are Lonely

  • 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. Mike starts by playing the solo through and then takes it apart for you, phrase by phrase, pointing out where to push and accent certain notes to get Monroe’s feel.  
  • “When You Are Lonely” Play-Along Track Mike plays the first solo to “When You Are Lonely” a couple times at a slow tempo, so you can play along with him. 

Can’t You Hear Me Callin’

  • 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. Mike plays it through along with some of his own variations, and then takes Monroe’s solo apart phrase by phrase. The solo has a lot of passages that combine tremolo with slides and moving double stops. Mike also shows you how Monroe uses open strings to change positions, even if the open string doesn’t “correctly” fit the underlying chord.
  • Can’t You Hear Me Callin’ Play-Along Track Mike plays the “Can’t You Hear Me Callin’” solo a couple times at a medium tempo, so you can play along with him. 

Blue Grass Breakdown

  • Blue Grass Breakdown, Part 1: First A Part The Bill Monroe 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 his best-known tunes. Monroe 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, playing each section through slowly and showing you how to use “phantom” pick strokes to get Monroe’s syncopation. He also gives you lots of opportunities to play each section along with him as you’re learning. You’ll learn the first A part of “Blue Grass Breakdown” in this video.
  • Blue Grass Breakdown, Part 2: Second A Part The second A part of Monroe’s “Blue Grass Breakdown” includes a few variations on the first A part. Mike walks you through each one slowly, explaining how the sections differ and giving you a chance to play along with each variation. Mike finishes by showing you the transition from the A part to the B part.
  • Blue Grass Breakdown, Part 3: B Part You’ll learn the B part of “Blue Grass Breakdown” in this video. It starts up in a second-position G double stop followed by a C double stop up the neck alternating with another G double stop. Mike shows you the basic phrase and a few common variations on this section.
  • Blue Grass Breakdown, Part 4: Variations Mike ends this lesson on “Blue Grass Breakdown” by playing through some of the variations Bill Monroe added over the years at a medium tempo to give you some more ideas of things you can try once you’ve gotten comfortable with the original version. 

Blue Grass Special

  • Blue Grass Special, Part 1: Melody Bill Monroe wrote four “boogie-woogie” tunes over the course of his career, including “Blue Grass Special,” which you’ll learn in this lesson. It’s 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). Mike plays it through and then takes it apart, phrase by phrase. You’ll learn the main theme in this video, which Mike ends by playing the main theme all the way through slowly, so you can play along with him.
  • Blue Grass Special, Part 2: Variations The first variation Bill plays in “Blue Grass Special” is played at the third-position A chord. Mike walks you through it slowly, explaining that if you keep your fingers in position you’ll always have a reference point for where you’re supposed to go next. The timing and fingering is tricky, so Mike gives you plenty of chances to play along with him as you learn the second variation. You’ll also learn a variation that uses tremolo up at the 12th and ninth frets. Mike walks you through all the chord shapes you’ll play tremolo on, and shows you how the tremolo leads into the ending lick that you’ve already learned.
  • “Blue Grass Special” Play-Along Track Mike plays “Blue Grass Special” with variations at a slow tempo, so you can play along with him.
  • “Blue Grass Special” Performance Mike plays “Blue Grass Special” up to speed with guitarist Scott Nygaard. 

Blue Grass Stomp

  • Blue Grass Stomp, Part 1: Main Melody “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 in this lesson. Mike plays it through and then starts taking apart the main melody, showing you all its nuances (triplets, slurs, etc.).
  • Blue Grass Stomp, Part 2: Tremolo Section The next solo is an up-the-neck tremolo section. Mike shows you the double stops you’ll be using for the tremolo and then plays it through, counting as he goes, so you can see when to change double stops. Then he walks you through the solo, phrase by phrase.
  • Blue Grass Stomp, Part 3: More Variations In this video, Mike plays through the five other variations Monroe played on his solo “Blue Grass Stomp,” pointing out some of the more important aspects of each one.
  • “Blue Grass Stomp” Performance Mike plays “Blue Grass Stomp” up to speed with guitarist Scott Nygaard, playing many of Monroe’s variations and some of his own.
  • “Blue Grass Stomp” Play-Along Track Use this video to practice “Blue Grass Stomp” at a medium tempo with guitar accompaniment.

Blue Moon of Kentucky 

  • 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 comes from Monroe’s original 1946 recording. It’s in the key of Bb and involves a lot of tremolo and sliding chord positions. Mike walks you through the solo, phrase by phrase, showing you all the double stops and how to make the shifts between them, and finishes by playing the solo through a couple times slowly.
  • “Blue Moon of Kentucky” Play-Along Track Mike plays “Blue Moon of Kentucky” at a medium tempo with guitarist Scott Nygaard, so you can play along.

I’m Going Back to Old Kentucky

  • I’m Going Back to Old Kentucky “I’m Going Back to Old Kentucky” is one of the most popular songs from the classic Blue Grass Boys lineup. It’s in the key of A with lots of ringing A and E drone strings and is played with a very deliberate right hand that matches Earl Scruggs banjo roll. Mike takes Monroe’s solo apart phrase by phrase, showing you a couple of rhythmic and drone variations you can play if you wish. You’ll also learn a classic Monroe ending that he played on lots of songs in the key of A.
  • “I’m Going Back to Old Kentucky” Play-Along Track Mike plays “I’m Going Back to Old Kentucky” a few times at a slow tempo so you can play along with him.

It’s Mighty Dark to Travel 

  • It’s Mighty Dark to Travel “It’s Mighty Dark to Travel” is another song from the classic Blue Grass Boys lineup. It’s in the key of G and has lots of blue notes in the solo (Bb’s instead of B naturals). It also has a little more swing or bounce than “I’m Going Back to Old Kentucky.” Mike walks you through the solo phrase by phrase, giving you a couple of options for double stops and showing you where to put the accents that help spell out the melody.
  • “It’s Mighty Dark to Travel” Play-Along Track Mike plays “It’s Mighty Dark to Travel” a couple of times at a slow tempo so you can play along with him.

Mother’s Only Sleeping

  • 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. Mike starts by showing you the positions you’ll work out of, and then takes the solo apart, phrase by phrase.
  • “Mother’s Only Sleeping” Play-Along Track Mike plays “Mother’s Only Sleeping” a couple of times so you can play along with him.

My Rose of Old Kentucky

  • 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 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, which Mike explains as he walks you through the solo phrase by phrase. He also gives you advice on supporting your little finger with pressure from the back of the neck and with the other fingers.
  • “My Rose of Old Kentucky” Play-Along Track Mike plays Bill Monroe’s solo to “My Rose of Old Kentucky” at a medium tempo so you can play along with him.

New Muleskinner Blues 

  • 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.” You’ll learn his intro and solo from the 1950 recording in this lesson. It’s primarily played with downstrokes, and the intro starts with a rhythmic phrase (16th/8th/16th) that is repeated throughout the solo. Mike starts by showing you the intro, phrase by phrase, making sure you understand the rhythm of the phrasing and then proceeds into the whole solo, which includes a couple of extra bars of 2/4 added to the blues form. Mike also suggests that you play this solo with your pick close to the bridge to get more “bite.” 
  • “New Muleskinner Blues” Play-Along Track Mike plays “New Muleskinner Blues” at a medium tempo with guitarist Scott Nygaard so you can play along.


See Other Peghead Nation Courses

Monroe-Style Mandolin Source Material

Check out the original Bill Monroe recordings of songs featured in Monroe-Style Mandolin.

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