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Roland White's Approach To Bluegrass Mandolin

By Diane Bouska and Roland White
review by Terry Pender in Mandolin Quarterly
reprinted with permission

 

If you are interested in learning bluegrass mandolin, Diane Bouska has written a wonderful new instructional book illuminating the musical philosophy, wisdom and techniques of mandolin great Roland White.Roland has performed with the most important players and innovators of bluegrass music, including Bill Monroe (on guitar), Lester Flatt, Country Gazette (again on guitar) and the Nashville Bluegrass Band. He now leads his own group with his wife and co-author Diane Bouska. Of course most readers will be familiar with Roland from his early, ground-breaking family band that performed under various names, including The Country Boys, The Kentucky Colonels and the White Brothers.

This is an excellent book that is designed mainly for beginners, but contains so much valuable information that even intermediate and advanced players will find many useful insights and approaches to bluegrass mandolin playing that I haven't found in other books or instructional tapes. Diane Bouska wrote the book in such a way that you almost feel that each tune is a complete private lesson with Roland, including insightful commentary and stories. In addition, Roland and Diane play through each tune at both slow and medium tempos.

Here's how the book works: first Diane presents Roland's philosophy about learning music and his story, revealing how he learned to play at home with his parent's encouragement and his siblings' cooperation. The introduction is excellent, and they go through everything you need to know about the basics of music (from a bluegrass perspective). Topics covered include relaxing while you play, how to hold the mandolin, picking technique, tuning, fretting, pick direction, how to practice, mandolin set up and strings and general care of the mandolin. Diane presents a thorough section on reading tablature note values, rests, repeats, pick direction indications, etc. The introduction finishes off with a section on chords, covering three basic chord sets that are used to accompany the songs in the book. A few words on playing rhythm, coverage of tremolo and a set of introductory coordination and warm-up exercises round out the first section of the book. After this introduction, thirty tunes are presented and every one is a gem.

Included in the package are two CDs that include every tune presented in the book at a slow and a medium tempo. The slow versions are written out note-for-note and performed with guitar accompaniment. The mandolin and guitar were recorded on separate stereo tracks so you can use the balance control on your stereo to hear only the guitar or mandolin (or both).

All of the tunes (except those that are normally played slowly) are then presented in a medium tempo. The faster versions of the tunes include many variations on the themes and illustrate how to flesh out the tunes and create your own variations. Some of the more difficult pieces have a bare bones version of the tune to familiarize the player with the structure and melody and to prepare the student for the "real" version of the tune.

Where do these tunes come from? Most are traditional fiddle tunes and bluegrass standards from the songbooks of Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, The Osborne Brothers and Reno and Smiley. In other words, they're bluegrass classics. One of the great features of the book is the presentation of vocal tunes as well as instrumentals. Roland points out that he learned many fiddle tunes and played them well, but that whenever he had to take a break on a song, he often didn't know what to play. In this volume, Roland explains how he learned to play the melodies of these tunes and shows several beautiful mandolin versions of a lot of great songs fleshed out with harmony notes and double stops, slides and tremolo. On the vocal tunes, he shows the basic melody and then a more advanced version, always true to the melody, but with interesting twists and turns. On the CD, he often plays even more variations than are written out. This way the student learns to develop and transpose vocal melodies into meaningful mandolin breaks that genuinely embellish and enhance the melody, staying true to the song. All of the songs taught in this manner are real chestnuts: "Cabin Home On The Hill," "Salty Dog Blues," "John Henry," "Wildwood Flower," "Amazing Grace," "Kentucky Waltz," "Lonesome Road Blues" and "Blue Moon of Kentucky."

The instrumental tunes that are taught include many well-known fiddle tunes, such as "Ragtime Annie," "Soldiers Joy," "Golden Slippers," "St. Anne's Reel" and several more. Several of Bill Monroe's instrumental tunes are also taught, such as "Gold Rush," "Jerusalem Ridge," "Pike County Breakdown," "Wheel Hoss," "Bluegrass Stomp" and "Road To Columbus."

The real strength of this book is that Roland is really teaching you how to play bluegrass music. He teaches you what to look out for in each tune as well as what is unique about each tune or arrangement. He discusses what you should be listening for in a bluegrass recording the instrumental interplay and the various roles that each instrument plays in a group context. The end result is that Roland teaches you how to learn bluegrass so that you can continue to grow as a player long after you have digested all of the tunes from the book and CDs. He talks about how to practice and he gives tips for effective jam sessions, learning off of records, etc. Every tune is expertly arranged to sound great on the mandolin regardless of the original source. For example, a version of the Earl Scruggs banjo classic "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" is expertly arranged for the mandolin.

Perhaps the greatest achievement is the way that Diane Bouska presents the narrative aspect of the book. It feels as if Roland is speaking directly to you in a warm, encouraging and effective manner. Diane has distilled the essence of Roland's approach, and together they have produced a wonderful book, with insights and details that only a master teacher and player with over 50 years of professional experience could reveal,Roland White's Approach To Bluegrass Mandolin is the best introduction to bluegrass mandolin playing that I have come across. Although the book is intended for beginners, I believe that there is a wealth of information for players at all levels. I know I got a lot out of it and I've been playing for over 20 years now.

This book is currently only available directly from Roland and Diane and can be ordered through their web site: http://www.rolandwhite.com or http://www.bluegrassmandolin.com
[Note: also it is now sold at many music stores around the country, and on Amazon.com.]

The book and CD set costs $29.95 and is well worth every penny.

As an added bonus, Roland White and Diane Bouska have given us permission to re-print one of the selections from the book. Roland thought that his father's French-Canadian version of "St. Anne's Reel" would be a nice tune to share with the readers of Mandolin Quarterly, so here it is. Thanks Roland!

--Terry Pender, writing for Mandolin Quarterly