The Mandolin Picker´s Guide to Bluegrass Improvisation
Interview by Volker Dick
Jesper Rübner-Petersen, a Dane living in Germany, is one of the most distinguished mandolin players in Europe. Whether it is Bluegrass or Jazz: Over and over again, the artist inspires with his virtuosity. Now he has released a book with Mel Bay, the result of 5 years of work:” The Mandolin Picker´s Guide to Bluegrass Improvisation”. In the interview, Jesper Rübner-Petersen tells us why he wrote the book, who can benefit from it and why it helps to become a better musician.
VD: Dear Jesper, why you decide to write a book about improvisation on the mandolin, especially one that is specialized in Bluegrass.
JRP: During my musical career, I have had an interest in improvisation from the start. As an adolescent, I was fascinated by the musicians who were able to present an improvised solo during a bluegrass jam or on stage. When asking the artists about their improvisation secret, there was often no satisfying answer and the A-blues scale which my guitar instructor at the time showed me, did not sound like bluegrass either. Only when I discovered that I could transpose the “Lester-Flatt-G-Run” to the various chords and with it I was able to play my first “improvised solo”. I was finally on the right track! My interest in Jazz and in the study of theory books was also quite helpful when analyzing improvised bluegrass solos. Because I grew up with bluegrass and because there were no books on the market about mandolin improvisation that were as extensive, it was obvious to me to write the book that I wished I had had as an improvisation beginner.
VD: Who is this book primarily intended for?
JRP: I believe every mandolin player can learn something new from the book. The guide is structured in order to learn improvisation step by step. But there is also a different approach to the book: Advanced musicians will most likely choose the topics of their interest and continue working with them. We should also keep in mind that many techniques introduced in the book can be used to compose your own solos that will sound improvised. It is safe to say that everyone will find “their chapter”.
VD: Which are the most common mistakes when improvising on the mandolin? Where are the pitfalls?
JRP: It is pretty much impossible to improvise a solo by using one scale only, as some might be familiar with from blues and rock. Many beginners in bluegrass don’t know that improvisation requires a scale change pretty much with each chord change. Having to change scales often within in a song might sound complicated but it is actually not that hard. The biggest mistake one can make when wanting to learn to improvise is not to stay with it.
VD: How did your many years of experience as a music teacher influence your book?
JRP: I have tried many of the techniques in the book with participants in my workshops and with private students. And I am glad that I had these opportunities to test my ideas. When writing the book, it was quite difficult for me to stick to short explanations. With students, there is always the option to explain from different angles. That is of course not possible in a book. Furthermore, the American Spencer Sorenson who plays the mandolin himself, has been of great help proofreading the English used in my book. In addition, Spencer, took the time to try all examples and explanations. Subsequently, he was able to get back to me with some helpful feedback.
VD: Improvisation has also got something to do with expressing emotions through music – to which extent can the book help with that?
JRP: Improvisation in Bluegrass approaches the musical expression of emotions a bit differently from, let’s say, Blues in which the “suffering” of the musician can be heard in his solo. In Bluegrass timing and groove are more important. Of course, a musician can play more or less aggressively but the big emotions are not part of the solo on the Bluegrass mandolin. Every one has his or her own touch and for this reason such topics are not part of the book. Another difficult thing to describe is how to create a clear sounding tone. These days even Bill Monroe’s somewhat unclear playing style is being copied by the hardcore Monroe fans. Important for a good solo are technical elements like tone, timing, taste and groove, which can be nicely heard by the masters of the mandolin. Nonetheless, the top mandolin players all sound different because the choice of tones, together with musical interpretation of the musician, defines their style.
VD: You write that there should be the right balance between theory and practice when learning to improvise. Why is that?
JRP: Learning to improvise is quite similar to learning a language. When immersing into a new language, it is important to build up your vocabulary to be able to form sentences. The more words and sentences you master, the easier it will be to engage in a conversation. Just because you have read my book hundreds of times, it does not mean that you can improvise. Only once you start working with the techniques, will you be able to start playing the first improvisations.
VD: You write that the chapter ”The Pentatonic Sound” is possibly the most important one in the book – why?
JRP: The major pentatonic scales enable you to play the first solo that does in fact sound like Bluegrass. Additionally, the pentatonic scales are not that difficult to learn. The pentatonic sound is the foundation for everything that follows and because of this, it is very important to concentrate on it.
VD: How crucial is it to work through the assignments that you placed at the end of each chapter?
JRP: With the assignments I want to motivate the readers to compose their own licks and find their own style. Due to the many examples in the book, it might appear that everyone working with it will sound the same in the end. However, I do not believe so – as you can pick your own favorites and combine them with your own ideas, as well as other influences. The assignments based on improvisation can of course be combined with or exchanged for your own material.
VD: Double-Stops, Crosspicking, „The Blues Sound“, Monroe Style: The book appears to be a whole compendium of the bluegrass mandolin. Would you say that one – who consequently worked through all of it – is in the end an accomplished player?
JRP: I do not believe that you can become an accomplished player. It might not sound particularly encouraging but the more you learn, the more aware you become of where your gaps are. No matter how good you are, there is always room for improvement. Whoever works his or her way through my book or parts of it will become a better musician – and is that not what we all want to achieve?
VD: On the MP3-CD accompanying the book are almost 300 tracks, the book contains almost as many licks – how can this much material be managed?
JRP: I trust that everyone can find their own personal way to manage the material or parts of it. I bought my first jazz theory book 20 years ago, and I still take off the shelf now and then because I still find something new in it that I can use. I hope that my book can be like that for bluegrass players. The goal for those buying my book should be to learn to improvise. Luckily, not much prior knowledge is required to be able to improvise the first small solo. After that it will progress fast – if you stay with it. Of course, it would be great if someone someday will come up to me to tell me that my book has helped him to improve his improvisations. Then the five years I spent writing it, would have been more than worth it.
VD: Who will attend your workshops if everyone is busy working through your book?
JRP: I hope that the people buying my book will from time to time attend one of my workshops to ask me questions on the chapters. There is always an advantage to meeting with a more experienced player or instructor, since he can see or hear mistakes you may not realize you are making, or have gotten used to. So there is still a need for personal contact. Apart from improvisation, the workshops also cover subjects such as “The Bluegrass Sound”, back-up playing, tunes and techniques which are of course also relevant for an eager-to-learn mandolin player. The guide is intended to be an addition to learning tunes and other playing techniques. Having my book in front of you, it is without a doubt tempting to concentrate on improvisation only. When your brain is filled to the brim ,it is once again time to play a fiddle tune or a breakdown. Regarding the workshop registrations, I am not worried. Many of the participants do not just attend to learn something new but also to spend time with people with the same interest and to share experiences - Mandolin Talk, you know!?
Author: Jesper Rübner-Petersen
Title: The Mandolin Picker´s Guide to Bluegrass Improvisation
Publisher: Mel Bay Publications