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