John Reischman is one of the premier mandolinists of his generation, a master instrumentalist capable of swinging between re-inventions of traditional old-time tunes, deconstructions of the bluegrass repertoire, and compelling original tunes, many of which have become standards. A Juno–nominated and Grammy–award winning artist, John got his start as an original member of the Tony Rice Unit in the late 1970s and is known today for his work with his band the Jaybirds as well as his acclaimed solo albums.
Check out these songs featured in the Melodic Mandolin Tunes course.
John Reischman’s Gibson F-5 Lloyd Loar mandolin is considered by many to be one of the greatest mandolins ever made. It was built in 1924 and was signed by Gibson’s acoustic engineer Lloyd Loar early on February 18, a day that produced a number of great mandolins, including those owned by Chris Thile and John Paul Jones. John talks about how he acquired the mandolin in 1981 and how he changed the fingerboard to a radiused fingerboard early on. He demonstrates it by playing his waltz “The North Shore,” which showcases the deep bass sound of this instrument.
In this video, John talks about his pick technique, starting with the shape and thickness of pick he uses: a 1.2–1.5 mm. triangular pick with three rounded shoulders. Then he shows you how he holds the pick and the angle at which he strikes the strings. He also shows you how he rests his palm lightly on the bridge, how he sometimes locks his wrist and uses more of his forearm and sometimes he plays with a loose wrist. In addition he demonstrates how he plays tremolo and talks about how he practices tremolo with a metronome, starting with a very slow setting and playing triplets for each beat and then gradually speeding it up.
John demonstrates his fretting-hand technique in this video. He talks about using the proper fingers in open position, with the index finger playing the first and second frets, middle finger playing the third and fourth frets, ring finger playing the fifth and sixth, and pinky playing the seventh. He also gives you an exercise that will help you learn that fingering (and also work your pinky), and talks about playing cleanly by fretting close to the fret as well as creating a smooth legato line by letting the notes sustain into each other. You’ll also learn the two closed-position scale positions he uses.
One of the first tunes John ever wrote, “Itzbin Reel” is basically a fiddle tune in the key of A, although the form is AABA rather than the standard AABB form of most fiddle tunes, and the B section has ten measures instead of the standard eight. In addition to showing you the melody, John talks about keeping a steady up-and-down motion with your picking hand so you stay in time even when you’re not sounding a note. This is helpful in “Itzbin Reel,” because it has a few syncopated phrases that emphasize offbeats. You’ll also learn the chords and voicings John uses to play rhythm on “Itzbin Reel,” as well as an intro and ending.
John learned the Puerto Rican tune “La Arboleda” from a recording of cuatro player Pedro Padilla. It has three parts, the first in A minor, the second in C major/A minor, and the third in A major, and the form is AABBACCA, a fairly common form for ragtime tunes and Brazilian choros, among other kinds of music. The notes of the melody are relatively simple, made up primarily of the notes of the chords, but the rhythm of the melody is syncopated and somewhat tricky. To play rhythm to “La Arboleda” John plays more open-sounding chords than the usual bluegrass chop chords. You’ll learn the chord voicings he uses as well as a calypso-style rhythm pattern.
“The Road to Malvern” is a contemporary old-time (“new-time”?) fiddle tune in the key of A and it’s one of John’s favorites. After showing you the melody, he also shows you a couple variations he plays and talks a little about improvising on a fiddle tune like “The Road to Malvern.” For playing rhythm to old-time tunes, John often likes to use open chords and play with more of a regular eighth-note-based strum, with emphasis on beats two and four. You’ll learn the voicings John uses and his strum pattern.
John’s tune “Little Pine Siskin” sounds like an old-time fiddle tune and has three parts, although the B and C parts only get played once each. John shows you how he keeps his pick moving, playing open-string chords, when there are long notes in the melody, and shows you the drone notes he plays on each part of the A part melody. He also shows you how he plays the C part up an octave when he repeats that part at the end of a performance, and how to play “Little Pine Siskin” up an octave in closed position with your first finger at the fifth fret.
The pop and jazz standard “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” makes a great solo mandolin piece played chord-melody style. John starts by showing you a versatile movable chord voicing he learned from Jethro Burns, and explains, for example, how a G6 voicing can also be used for Em7, C9, or A7sus4. Then he walks you through his arrangement of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” explaining how he tries to make each chord ring out with sustain, and allowing the melody notes, the top notes of the chord, to be heard clearly. You’ll also learn an ending, which alternates G and Ebmaj7 chords, and a variation of the bridge with a moving bass line that Jethro Burns played.
John recorded his tune “Birdland Breakdown” with the Tony Rice Unit in the 1980s, and it has since become a favorite of modern mandolinists. It’s in the key of D minor and uses a couple of minor scales, including D harmonic minor. John shows you how the melody matches the underlying chords and explains the D harmonic minor scale. You’ll also learn the chord voicings John plays on “Birdland Breakdown.”
John composed his minor-key waltz “The North Shore” in honor of Bill Monroe, inspired by his minor-key waltzes like “Lonesome Moonlight Waltz.” It’s in the key of G minor and features tremolo and double stops using a harmonized Bb major scale, with melody notes harmonized a sixth below in most cases. John shows you the Bb harmonized major scale, so you can get familiar with the double stops you’ll use in “The North Shore” and demonstrates the tremolo he uses in “The North Shore”: a two triplet pattern over one beat.
John’s tune “Nesser” is a happy tune in the key of A major that he originally conceived as a tune that would sound good on the banjo. The first part of the tune consists of phrases that contain many of the same notes, but are phrased in different ways. John shows you how to imitate clawhammer banjo with hammer-ons and how to add the E string as a drone. The B part has even more “frailing” phrases and open-string drone notes. You’ll also learn a variation on the A part that recalls a technique used in mandolin tunes like Buck White’s “Buck’s Run.” This involves playing notes up the neck so that you can use the open A string as a drone.
“Cazadero” is a four-part fiddle tune in the key of E major that was composed by fiddler Paul Shelasky and recorded by John on his North of the Border album. It was also recently recorded by Punch Brothers. The four parts are all distinct: the A part has some E major arpeggios, the B part includes some triplets, both picked and played with slurs (hammer-on/pull off), the third part has a more complicated chord progression and picked triplets, while the fourth part is less notey than the other three parts, with some descending half-note double stops and a crosspicked passage on the repeat.
John’s tune “Salt Spring” is another one of his “banjo-like” tunes, a relatively simple melody that imitates the sound of frailing banjo. It’s in the key of A, and the melody notes are mostly played on the second and third strings. Between melody notes, John plays a drone on the open E (and sometimes open A) string, which, along with his use of hammer-ons and slides, creates a banjo-like quality. John gets you started with a short exercise in which you play melody quarter notes played with a downstroke on the A string followed by two eighth notes (down-up) on the E string.
John wrote his lovely waltz “A Prairie Jewel” for his wife, who grew up on the prairies of Alberta, Canada. It’s a long-form melody with a somewhat complex chord progression, all in the key of D. You’ll learn the melody, the open-string chords John plays to accompany the tune, and a chord-melody arrangement of the A part.
John’s tune “Big Bug” is a fast bluegrass tune in the key of E major, with a lot of flatted sevenths and flatted thirds in the melody and a bridge that includes G and A chords. John shows you the E7 arpeggio you’ll use to finger much of the melody and then starts walking you through the melody phrase by phrase. He also talks about the tempo that’s best for the tune, and gives you a couple examples of how he would improvise on the E7 finger pattern.
The beautiful Venezuelan waltz “Como Llora Una Estrella” (“As a Star Weeps”) is perfect for the mandolin. It’s in the key of D minor and has two parts, the second of which is half as long as the first. The melody has a number of long held notes, and John shows you how to keep time by keeping your picking hand in motion, so you end up on the right pick stroke. He also shows you the open-string chord voicings and some of the rhythm patterns he uses to accompany “Como Llora Una Estrella.”
Bill Monroe’s fiddle tune “Cheyenne” starts in the key of G minor and modulates to the relative major Bb for the second part. Monroe’s mandolin solo is a good example of his syncopated downstroke style applied to an instrumental instead of a song. In this lesson you’ll learn both the fiddle melody, originally played by Bobby Hicks, and a Monroe-style solo.
This jazzy waltz was written by guitarist Tony Rice. John learned it when he was a member of Tony’s band, the Tony Rice Unit, in the 1980s. You can hear Tony’s recording on his album Acoustics, which features Sam Bush on mandolin. John walks you through the melody phrase by phrase, showing you a few variations as he goes, including how to play the A part in an upper octave. He also shows you the chords he plays to “Old Gray Coat,” including some nice closed-position voicings of minor seventh and sus chords.
The old-time tune “Salt River” comes from fiddler Norman Edmonds and John learned it from Bruce Molsky. It’s not the same as the bluegrass jam favorite “Salt Creek” but has a similar modal tonality. You’ll learn the melody for both parts played mostly on the top strings as well as a version of both parts played in the lower octave.
John’s tune “Indian Arm” is featured on his recording Walk Along John. It's a pretty, medium tempo tune in E minor and uses the E Dorian scale. John walks you through the melody phrase by phrase, showing you how the melody corresponds to the chords, giving advice on keeping your right-hand moving during some of the sustained melody notes, and showing you some of the slides he uses on “Indian Arm.”
David Grisman recorded his tune “Dawg's Bull” in the late 1970s on Hot Dawg. It's in the key of A major and the melody of the A part is based on arpeggios of the chords, but played up the neck (at the seventh fret or above) with a unique syncopation similar to a calypso rhythm. The B part has a simpler melody and is played in open position. John walks you through the melody of both parts, phrase by phrase, showing you the picking and fingering as he goes. He also shows you how you can find high and low harmony parts for the A part by moving chord shapes up or down on the same strings as the melody.
John learned this Civil War-era melody from Nick Hornbuckle, the banjo player in John Reischman and the Jaybirds. It’s a nice stately tune in the key of G minor. John shows you how he moves between first and second position on one phrase and adds some double stops to the melody. He also explains the anticipation at the beginning of some of the phrases.
John learned the old Argentinian waltz “Palomita Blanca” from a recording by French fingerstyle guitarist Pierre Bensusan and then arranged it for the mandolin, recording it on his debut solo album North of the Border. It’s a complex melody, with syncopated motifs that are repeated on different steps of the scale to match the chords.
Frank Wakefield’s beautiful “Waltz in Bluegrass” is a fun tune to play and also makes a good exercise in measured tremolo. It’s in the key of F and is mostly played in second position with your finger at the third fret. John shows you how he plays all the single notes with downstrokes and uses the same shape for most of the double stops. He also talks about practicing the measured tremolo he uses on the double stops.
The old-time fiddle tune “Liza Jane” (also known as “Little Liza Jane” and “Old Liza Jane”) is often played on the fiddle in A, but John plays it in D, and recorded it recently in that key with Peghead Nation instructors Scott Nygaard and Sharon Gilchrist on the album Harmonic Tone Revealers. In addition to the melody, John shows you a few variations and how he plays the B part with a clawhammer-style rhythm and drone strings. He also shows you how to find the melody of the A part an octave up the neck.
The Puerto Rican tune “Aguinaldo Cagueño” is a simple, catchy tune in the key of G. An “aguinaldo” is a type of tune played among jibaro musicians in Puerto Rico around the Christmas season. The main melody instrument in jibaro music is the ten-string cuatro, which has five courses (double strings) and is tuned a little lower in pitch than a mandolin. John got this tune from a recording of the great cuatro player Pedro Padilla. It has a simple melody based on G major scales and arpeggios in the key of G, but the rhythm is syncopated, making the picking a little tricky.
When John wrote “Indiana Firefly,” which he recorded on his album Up in the Woods, he was trying to come up with something Bill Monroe might write. It’s in the key of A with an interesting chord progression in the first part (A, D, C, G) and a melody that has more of a minor or Dorian sound. You’ll learn the melody of “Indiana Firefly” as well as a solo to the A that John came up with for his recording of the tune. The solo is inspired by Bill Monroe’s playing, but includes a lot of John’s original ideas.
John wrote “Daylighting the Creek” recently and it’s featured on the John Reischman and the Jaybirds recording On That Other Green Shore. It’s a fast tune in the key of A and played in John’s “clawhammer style”: a simple melody articulated with numerous hammer-ons and slides accompanied by ringing open strings. The form is AABB, but the B part is different when it repeats, with a new opening phrase and an extra measure that takes you back to the A part.
John recorded his fiddle tune “Eighth of February,” named for the day he wrote it, on his album Up in the Woods. The A part to “Eighth of February” mostly consists of eighth notes, and none of the phrases repeat, while the B part is more syncopated and has more repetition.
The fiddle tune “President Garfield’s Hornpipe” is in the key of Bb and is a good exercise in playing arpeggios in Bb. John starts by reviewing the Bb major scale and arpeggio before showing you the A part of “President Garfield’s Hornpipe,” which mostly consists of Bb and F arpeggios and a Bb major scale on the top two strings. The B part of “President Garfield’s Hornpipe” is a bit of a workout for your pinky. It starts on a long Eb arpeggio, followed by a Bb arpeggio, and then a tricky F arpeggio.
John recorded his tune “Greenwood” on Up in the Woods. It’s a medium tempo tune with a simple melody that can be enhanced by slides and hammer-ons. Along with showing you the melody in standard position, as well as some embellishments, double stops, and melodic variations, John shows you how, by practicing the melody with your second, third, and fourth fingers, instead of your first, second, and third, you can easily move the melody of “Greenwood” up an octave.
John learned the beautiful Puerto Rican melody “Juramento” from a recording of the great Puerto Rican cuatro player Pedro Padilla. It’s a slow melodic tune, with some unusual syncopation and a complex chord progression. In addition to the melody of “Juramento,” you’ll learn the montuno that Pedro Padilla plays at the end of his recording of the tune.
Tony Rice’s jazz waltz “Devlin” was first recorded for David Grisman’s Hot Dawg record, and John also recorded it with Tony a few years later. It’s in E major and features a vamp between Emaj7 and B7sus4 chords. The first part of the melody is played up the neck in a couple of E major positions, followed by the same melodic phrase played down a whole step, over a D major chord.
John recorded two versions of his tune “Side by Each” on his album Walk Along John, one as a duet with old-time fiddler Bruce Molsky and one with a full bluegrass band. In addition to walking you through the melody phrase by phrase, John shows you a couple of variations of the melody and how to play the melody in the lower octave.
John’s tune “Red Diamond” is a bluesy bluegrass instrumental in the key of E. The melody of the first part is based on a series of double-stop positions played with a syncopated rhythm. The second part goes to an E minor sound with major chord accompaniment. John walks you through both parts, showing you a couple variations on the melody as he goes.
John recorded the mysterious original tune “Ponies in the Forest” on Up in the Woods. The tonality is a little vague, hovering between the key of G and D, and on his recording, John tuned the E strings down to D, although it’s not necessary to do that to play the tune.
John’s arrangement of the traditional song “Little Maggie,” in which he plays the melody as a low air and as a frailing banjo tune, was influenced by a recording of Mike Seeger and Paul Brown. You’ll learn both versions in this lesson. John starts by walking you through the melody of the slow version, which is played rubato (without a regular pulse) and giving you advice on making the notes sustain into one another. Then he shows you the “frailing banjo” version, in which the melody is played in time with the addition of strums on the top two strings.
John wrote the jazz waltz “Brooks” more than 30 years ago, and recorded it on his debut solo album North of the Border. It’s a beautiful, mellow tune that requires a lot of sustain. John walks you through the melody phrase by phrase and also shows you the chord voicings he uses to accompany the tune.
The old-time fiddle tune “Half Past Four” comes from the great Kentucky fiddler Ed Haley, who was recorded by his son in a series of home recordings in the 1940s. It has also been making the rounds of bluegrass jams lately, and John recorded it with Sharon Gilchrist and Scott Nygaard on Harmonic Tone Revealers.
John wrote and named the uptempo bluegrass instrumental “Bluegrass Signal” for the San Francisco Bay Area public radio show “Bluegrass Signal.” It’s in the key of B minor and has two parts. The melody is not challenging, but it’s often played at a fast tempo, though it sounds good at a medium tempo as well.
There are a number of versions of the old-time fiddle tune “Cousin Sally Brown.” John’s version is influenced by the one recorded by old-time fiddler Joseph Decosimo, who called it “Sally Brown.” John recorded this version with Sharon Gilchrist and Scott Nygaard on Harmonic Tone Revealers.
The great jazz mandolinist Jethro Burns recorded Benny Goodman’s “Slipped Disc” on a record with banjoist Larry McNeely back in the 1970s. It’s a fun but tricky swing tune full of arpeggios and chromatic lines, and it’s a good workout for your pinky.
John recorded the Canadian fiddle tune “Old French” on a record with Butch Baldassari and Robin Bullock called Travelers. “Old French” is in the key of D, with a B part that only uses A and G chords, and the A part features triplets, both picked and played with hammer-ons.
John wrote this calypso a number of years ago and recorded it on his album North of the Border. “Belize” has a simple, catchy, syncopated melody in the key of G. It also has an extended ending: a syncopated vamp for soloists to improvise over.
“Suzanne McGehee” is a recent tune of John’s that he wrote while on tour in Ireland. It’s a fiddle tune in the key of G with a standard AABB form and, appropriately enough, has a bit of an Irish flavor, with some triplet ornaments and minor chords. John walks you through the melody phrase by phrase and also shows you the chords and a minor variation.
John learned the old-time tune “Last Chance” from a recording of banjo player Hobart Smith, and recorded it with his band John Reischman and the Jaybirds on the CD Vintage and Unique. It’s in the key of F, an unusual key for an old-time tune, with some syncopated phrases.
John’s new tune “Sarafina” is a beautiful waltz in the key of D. It’s not a particular challenge for either hand; the challenge with a lyrical tune like this is to get the notes to sustain and ring with a full tone and play with a relaxed feel.
John wrote his tune “The Deadly Fox” on the mandola in the key of G, but he found that the melody also sounds good on the mandolin in the key of A, so he recorded it on Walk Along John in the key of A with a capo on the mandola at the second fret and overdubbed a mandolin part playing the melody an octave higher. In this lesson John shows you how he plays “The Deadly Fox” on the mandolin in the key of A. The basic melody of “The Deadly Fox” is simple, but, like with his tune “Salt Spring,” John adds a banjo-style drone on the A and/or E strings to the melody.
Django Reinhardt’s sprightly uptempo tune “Swing 42” was composed by the jazz guitar legend during World War II and has become a favorite of string jazz and bluegrass musicians, including David Grisman, who recorded it with Tony Rice on Tone Poems. It’s in the key of C and has an AABA form, with a chord progression for the first part commonly called “rhythm changes,” because it has the same progression as “I Got Rhythm.” The bridge modulates to the key of E and has a similar progression. In addition to the melody of both parts, John shows you a simple harmony for the bridge melody and the chord voicings he uses.
“Samba de Orfeu” was written by Brazilian guitarist/composer Luiz Bonfa and appears in the movie Black Orpheus. It’s a samba with a nice relaxed tempo and a typical AABA form, and John plays it in the key of D, though it’s often played in the key of C as well. John walks you through the melody of “Samba de Orfeu” and shows you the samba rhythm and chord progression.
“The Girl Who Broke My Heart” is a traditional Irish tune in the key of G that John recorded with Sharon Gilchrist and Scott Nygaard on The Harmonic Tone Revealers. It’s in the key of G but has a lot of F naturals, so it has more of a G Mixolydian sound, although there are a few F#s at the ends of phrases.
“Bud’s Bounce” is a country instrumental written by the great steel guitar player Bud Isaacs. It was originally written in the key of F, but in adapting the tune to the mandolin, John moved it to the key of G. It’s played with a medium tempo western swing feel and has some cool double-stop moves that will be applicable to many tunes.