You can learn a lot of musical lessons by listening to certain musicians. Technical aspects of playing, the ins and outs of composition, performance that involves your audience. I wanted to present a video where we can talk about all these aspects of music. I came across this video of Marty Stuart doing a mandolin solo piece he calls ‘Mando Rip’ from 2011. If you’re not familiar with Stuart, he’s been playing professionally since 1972, when he joined Lester Flatt’s touring band when he was fourteen. He started out being best known as a mandolin player, but can certainly blaze on guitar too. In this clip he’s playing solo mandolin live. I think a live clip may be the easiest to use for this discussion as there are no punch ins, overdubs or any studio means to change or ‘fix’ notes. You can also physically see him playing the instrument, which gives you a better picture of just how fast your hands have to be (I, of course, would be happier if they just made videos showing the performer rather than panning through the audience). If you’re not familiar with the mandolin, it has four sets of doubled strings, going from a low G though D, A and and the highest strings being tuned to E. Compared to a guitar it has a very short scale, meaning the frets are much closer together. While string instruments will have different fret widths within the same type of instrument (guitars for example), the octave or twelfth fret on a guitar is a bout twice as wide as a mandolin. So although it might be an advantage to reach more frets without moving your hand on a mandolin, the target for a getting a cleanly fretted note is much smaller. This all leads to discussing the technicality of Stuart’s playing on this piece. For someone like myself who is a novice mandolin player, watching the performance he puts on here is jaw dropping. You have to have speed in both your left hand for fretting and your right hand for picking. And then to top it off, the sound is clean. Finally, you’re playing an acoustic instrument, which for me is a bit less forgiving than an electric instrument when it comes to missing a fret or a string when picking. I’m going to add the video here for you to see this first point before we continue discussing other aspects of the performance.
After watching this, let’s stick to the technical aspects for a bit more. You watch the beginning of the video, and boy, is he blazing. Then you keep watching the video. And the speed picks up. I like the part where he quiets the audience for a second then continues to pick up the pace. Now, for me, watching a five minute ‘solo’ performance isn’t always an exciting thing. I’ve seen plenty of fast guitar players, but simply running fast scales doesn’t really do it for me. You can find lots of speed demons on YouTube, but so what? This brings us to the next point that set sets apart a performer. Really listen to what Stuart is playing. It isn’t just about fast scales. There’s melody lines running though the entire song. So the song, although it’s just a single instrument, feels as if you added a second component, like a vocalist. You can hear an actual song in the playing, not just a blaze of notes. Now let’s add a third component. He’s also playing chord structures throughout the song. Many times you’ll see someone playing a song and they’ll be playing chords, then go in to a solo. Here, all the strings are often being played in a chord structure while the single note passage is also being played. And the strumming of the chords is as fast as the single note passages. There are times when he deadens some of the strings to create a percussive sound while playing the single notes on other strings. So instead of one person playing an instrumental solo, you have rhythm, melody and scales being played without even having a vocalist. He’s basically covering what an entire band would do playing one instrument.
Another important point in playing is dynamics. Part of making a solo piece interesting for the listener is having changes in dynamics. There are times the volume increases to add emphasis to a passage. Other times the volume is pulled back. These changes are not by chance. If you had a full band, players would increase or decrease what they are playing to change the volume of the song overall. With one person playing you have to be very conscious of how hard you are playing the instrument. The single player is responsible for the entire presentation of the song. Take some time and consider all the factors that go in to this performance. Then listen to it again. You might come away with a different perception of what it takes to perform a song like this at the level Marty Stuart is doing in this video.