In the early days of the last century, the mandolin gained popularity both as a blues instrument and as the backbone of the early African American string bands. Several of these groups added mandolin to guitars, banjos, fiddles, jugs and kazoos to play energetic and heart-felt renditions of blues and ragtime songs. Bluegrass players, from Bill Monroe onward, incorporated blues licks into their playing. Steve James knows this music and its history well, and he brings it clearly into focus on this fun and funky lesson.
Mandolin novices will start out by learning a basic G scale and how to alter it to create a blues scale. After demonstrating his pick strokes and tremolo technique, Steve dives right into Divin' Duck Blues by the great Yank Rachell. Steve and John Sebastian, another jug band and blues enthusiast, perform the tune, and then Steve takes it apart, note-by-note.
Steve lays out some of the primary blues chords on the mandolin, showing how it can become a wonderful accompanying instrument with the use of partial chords for rhythm comping. Turnarounds, double stops and variations on a walking boogie-woogie line are all essential parts of a blues repertoire, and Steve shows several of these, including a variation he learned directly from the legendary Howard Armstrong.
From there he launches into some powerful and challenging songs, each one of which shows you something new on the instrument. The Lonesome Train That Carried My Gal Away, from the recordings of Charlie McCoy and the Mississippi Sheiks, is a good-time tune that Steve plays on banjo-mandolin while John accompanies him on 6-string banjo. Big Joe Williams' Juanita Stomp is played on a "high-strung" mandolin (the lower strings are tuned to octaves) and features a rockin' blues riff in A. Steve's raucous original, Saturday Night in Jail, contains double stops, chord comps, blues licks and scales and, as Steve puts it, "fun-lovin' high-jinks." Steve and John close the lesson with a performance of Shotgun Blues, which Steve plays on an electric mandolin that once belonged to Yank Rachell.