Ten Mandolin Players You Need to Know
The following ten mandolin players aren’t only the best at what they do; they’re also among the most influential mandolin players of all time. Some invented new styles, some are creating the next mandolin sound, and others follow in the tradition of the great classical mandolin players. All these masters are amazing, and all mandolin players need to hear their music.
Bill Monroe (1911–1996)
Bill Monroe — the father of bluegrass — didn’t only play the mandolin with an energy that’s rarely been duplicated, but he also invented an entire musical genre. By blending old-time fiddle tunes of Scottish and Irish origin with blues from the American South and throwing in some gospel-style singing, Bill created the sound known as bluegrass.
Bill is the only person inducted into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame, Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His style influenced nearly all American mandolin players.
Chris Thile (b. 1981)
Chris Thile started playing mandolin at age 5 and by age 12 had won the prestigious national mandolin contest at the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kansas. Chris’s technique and imagination have put him at the front of the current pack of mandolin players. He has a certain charisma and performance style along with a skill level that makes incredibly difficult playing seem easy, such that he has inspired a whole new generation to start playing.
Jethro Burns (1920–1989)
Kenneth C. Burns is best known for his work as Jethro of the musical comedy team Homer and Jethro. Homer and Jethro parodied popular songs with rural American humor from 1936 until Homer Haynes died in 1971. Even though most of his career was based in comedy, Jethro’s mandolin playing is legendary: He was a pioneer in the world of jazz mandolin. Many people consider his 1978 recording Back To Back with Tiny Moore to be a landmark recording of jazz mandolin.
David Grisman (b. 1945)
David Grisman has been performing, recording, teaching, producing, and promoting mandolin music since 1964. He’s done more for the promotion of the mandolin than anyone alive today.
Jerry Garcia (of the Grateful Dead) gave David his nickname “Dawg” in the early 1970s. In 1975, the David Grisman Quintet (DGQ) released its self-titled album of what was to become known as Dawg music: a complex blend of bluegrass, swing, jazz, gypsy, and Latin, becoming its own unique hybrid.
David Grisman has also produced many albums and CDs. In 1990, he founded the Acoustic Disc label, a boutique CD label specializing in acoustic string music. David’s latest venture is Acoustic Oasis, a website where you can download some of the best mandolin music currently available anywhere.
Dave Apollon (1897–1972)
Dave Apollon was a Russian-born mandolin virtuoso who emigrated to America in 1919. He found work in Vaudeville, where he was billed as “the world’s greatest mandolin virtuoso.” Dave Apollon played a variety of styles on mandolin, including Russian gypsy, Latin, ragtime, and jazz. The best way to experience the mastery of Dave Apollon is to find The Man with the Mandolin.
Jacob do Bandolim (1918–1969)
Born Jacob Pick Bittencourt, Jacob do Bandolim was a Brazilian musician, composer, and choro mandolin virtuoso. Bandolim is the Brazilian word for mandolin, so his stage name translates to Mandolin Jacob. Choro music is an infectious blend of European classical melodies and Afro-Brazilian rhythms.
Americans were introduced to Jacob do Bandolim and choro music by two CD releases, Mandolin Master of Brazilian Original Music, volumes I and II. Thanks in part to these recordings, choro music and the Brazilian mandolin style are experiencing renewed interest in America.
Yank Rachell (1910–1997)
James “Yank” Rachell was the master of mandolin blues. In a career that spanned 70 years, Rachell was best known for his recordings with Sleepy John Estes. You can hear Yank Rachell late in his career on the 1986 recording Blues Mandolin Man, which features Yank backed by drums, bass, and electric guitar.
In many of his later recordings and performances, Yank played an electric mandolin that he plugged into a guitar amp. He’d tune his mandolin a minor third (in other words, three frets) lower than normal, so that when he played a G chord it sounded like an E chord. Guitar players like to play blues in E, and most mandolin players prefer the key of G, so this way of tuning down to the guitar enabled Yank and his guitar player to work together more easily.
Mike Marshall (b. 1957)
Mike Marshall has it all going on — speed, tone, imagination, and technique — and is one of the hardest-working players around. Mike is amazingly versatile on the mandolin, being equally comfortable with bluegrass, classical, Swedish fiddle tunes, Brazilian choro, improvisation, and anything else that he chooses to play.
Mike is also well known as an instructor and co-founder (with David Grisman) of the Mandolin Symposium, held annually in Santa Cruz, California, where over 100 mandolin students study with the world’s top players for a week.
Caterina Lichtenberg (b. 1969)
Hailing from Sofia, Bulgaria, Caterina Lichtenberg is one the world’s foremost proponents of the German classical mandolin style and currently conducts a mandolin course at the Cologne University of Music. In 2008, she was appointed professor at the Cologne University of Music, and currently holds the sole professorship of mandolin in the whole of Europe.
Caterina’s recordings include the music of Handel, Scarlatti, Bach, and Calace, along with the tango music of Piazzolla and the Brazilian choro music of Pixinguinha. Do yourself a massive favor and check out Caterina’s website for a complete list of her recordings and current concert and workshop schedule.
Carlo Aonzo (b. 1967)
Carlo Aonzo comes from Savona, Italy. He first learned mandolin from his father, Giuseppe Aonzo, although he went on to graduate with honors from Cesare Pollini Conservatory in Padua, Italy, in 1993. Since then, Carlo has toured the world, performing with many top orchestras.
Aonzo’s playing is based in the Italian tradition of classical mandolin, but his wide-ranging repertoire also takes in Italian folk music, original pieces, and the music of American virtuoso Jethro Burns. In 2006, Carlo founded the International Mandolin Academy, an annual week-long event that features an Italian classical mandolin workshop. Since 2001, he has also led a weekend-long workshop in New York City, through which he spreads his vision of Italian-style mandolin.
Carlo has many recordings available and has a very active performance and teaching schedule. Check them out on his website.