Bill Monroe and the Mandolin

Bill Monroe and the Mandolin

Bill Monroe and the Mandolin

A popular joke in Bluegrass circles is that a Bluegrass picker dies and goes to Heaven.  When he arrives, he sees the best of the best Bluegrass players surrounding him.  But on a hill, above all the rest, is a large man in a white cowboy hat and a dark suit.  He’s picking a mandolin.  The picker turns to one of the players around him, and asks, “Is that Bill Monroe?”  The responders says, “Nah, that’s God, just pretending to be Bill Monroe.”

In death as in life, the mandolin is and was Bill Monroe’s instrument.  As the youngest child in the Monroe house, with two older brothers, Birch and Charlie, who played fiddle and guitar, the less desirable mandolin went to the young Bill Monroe. Birch and Charlie convinced him to learn to play on only four strings, so their guitars and fiddles would not be drowned out (considering the family was not wealthy, and the fact that Bill Monroe’s first real mandolin, a 1925 Lloyd Loar F-5, was bought from a barber shop in 1943, it is hard to imagine his earlier mandolin could have drowned out his brothers’ fiddles and guitars).

Monroe’s Gibson Loar F-5 is now an instrument of incredible history, a commodity whether it was Monroe’s or not, and the reason Bluegrass became the music it became.  The F-styled mandolin is the beautifully scrolled instrument with violin styled f-carvings embedded in the instrument’s tops.  The Gibson company made these mandolins for a relatively short period of time under the tutelage and engineering of Lloyd Loar.  They are considered to be the most outstanding Bluegrass mandolins.

This is for good reason – Loar not only changed the body of the mandolin, but lengthened the neck, leaving the neck floating above the body, instead of having it adhered onto the body.  This gave the mandolin a powerful sound that projected more easily.  With the addition of the finely crafted Loar, plus the addition of Lester Scruggs, Bill Monroe began experimenting more with the sheer diversity of the instrument, his harmony singing, as well as his song-writing.

Did Bill Monroe play fiddle?  It is logical that because mandolins and fiddles are tuned the same, it could be assumed that Monroe could have played both (from lowest note to highest note, the mandolin and fiddle are tuned G-D-A-E). Like the guitar, a mandolin of any style (beetle back, A-style or F-style) is a fretted instrument that is plucked or picked.  On the other hand, the fiddle is a fretless, bowed instrument.  Aubrey Haney, a world class Bluegrass fiddler and mandolin picker, once made a deal over a Loar guitar saying that it needed to be in a mandolinist’s hands, not a fiddler’s hands.

There is nothing showing that Monroe played fiddle, though he had some of the best fiddle players come through his Bluegrass Boys over a period of years.   He certainly had some of the best fiddlers in Bluegrass come through the ranks of the Bluegrass Boys over a period of years.  He may have played some guitar, but his instrument, and his musical base, was the mandolin.  This is the where the story of Bluegrass begins.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Finley C. Evans January 14, 2011 at 8:14 pm

I’ve played all kinds of music in my life,but when I came across bluegrass music,I stopped thhere and haven’t looked back. I learned to play mandolin by listening to Bill Monroe’s records.What better way to learn than from “THE MAN” himself,Bill Monroe!

Flatpicker January 14, 2011 at 9:47 pm

Hi Finley,

No argument here :). Thanks for your comment!

njpaddler January 15, 2011 at 5:49 am

A “writer” & long-time Bluegrass fan ? How many minutes ? “Lester Scruggs” ??? The man’s name was Earl Scruggs, his partner was Lester Flatt.

Flatpicker January 16, 2011 at 1:27 pm

Thanks for the catch…some times we write these late at night…BeanBlossom is a “passion” site…we are short staffed. We do out best, be we definitely make mistakes!

Brian February 8, 2011 at 9:50 am

Nice article about Monroe and the mandolin. Just started playing the mandolin at age 50. Does anyone know of a publication that is devoted entirley to the mandolin? I want to learn as much as possible.

Christa February 12, 2011 at 6:39 pm

Brian, there are lots of books out that can teach you the basics. Mel Bays has several good beginner books out You Can Teach Yourself Mandolin, comes immediately to mind. It will only teach you chords, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s a place to start. I am also a fan of Chris Thile’s Mandolin Method, which shows everything from how to practice to more advanced theory and technique. The amazing thing about this series is it was done when he was still a teenager, so it’s both extremely helpful in learning, and also amazing to watch! There are also some great sites on YouTube that can teach you everything from how to tune to how to play. Also check around locally, and see if you can find a mandolin orchestra, I have played with one for years. My skills develop with every practice.

Richard Mastenik April 26, 2012 at 1:29 am

Howdy, Nice to discover this site. When I was a kid my grandparents had a cabin in the piney woods on a little impoundment lake about a mile outside of Beanblossom. Bill hadn’t bought that southern Indiana farm yet and hadn’t started the Festival. As a child we went down to the Nashville (Indiana) volunteer fire department every summer Saturday night for the fire dept. fish fry and the square dancing. I always loved the pedal steel guitar best. Mighty glad Bill became one of our favorite neighbors over the years. bless you all,

Roy Bond May 22, 2013 at 2:14 pm

Bill’s mandolin was signed on “july 9, 1923” not 1925. Lloyd Loar F style mandolins were only made 1922-1924.

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