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.