The Gospel According to Ed

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I haven’t been playing my mandolin much in the past few years. Being in a band (playing banjo, banjo, banjo) will do that to you. But I miss the mando; mandolins are cool in so many ways.

The sound can be piercing when you are playing lead and thunky when you are chopping rhythm. The shape of the Gibson-style F-5 is to my mind one of those designs like the Fender Stratocaster: perfect from the get-go. Each curve seems organically related to every other curve.

Musically I dig the tuning system, like a violin, in which each string is a fifth up (or down) from the next. This means that a fretting interval that works on two adjacent strings will work on any other two strings.

I remember when I was young, messing around on an old, cheap mandolin we had around the house. When I figured that adjacent string thing out (so different from my guitar!) I was totally impressed. I might have become a real mandolin player except I was playing 1950s country music at that time and I didn’t know about electric mandolins.

When I heard on Ray Edlund’s ‘Pig in a Pen’ show a few weeks ago that Ed Neff had made a mandolin instruction video I sent off my $20 (to and in just a couple of days the video arrived.

The project was the bright idea of Ed’s wife, Brijet, who said on the radio that she happened to be listening as Ed was teaching a mandolin lesson and thought his clear way of explaining things musical deserved wider distribution.

With the DVD came a short note, which included this: “Since this is an ongoing project please feel free to contact us directly with your comments. It is my intent to make a DVD you can learn from and I need your input.”

Well, contacting Ed directly wouldn’t satisfy my promise to the Big Bluegrass Kahuna to supply a welcome column every month, so let’s hope Ed reads the CBA Web Site.

Somebody had a truly brilliant idea of filming the instructional parts of this video from a point directly above Ed’s left shoulder, so the mandolin looks just like it does when you are playing it yourself. Truly, this is an instructional breakthrough in my opinion, making it unnecessary to reverse everything in your brain as you watch Ed’s fingers.

I think including two slow songs, “Wayfaring Stranger” and “Virginia Waltz” and one up-tempo song, “Paddy on the Turnpike,” was a good idea, too. Face it, if you are fairly new at the mandolin it’s a bunch easier to play a slow song properly than to try to rip out a fast fiddle tune.

Playing fast requires what they call “ballistic” finger movements. Nerve impulses literally don’t have the time to travel from your brain to your fingers in a stimulus-reaction pattern. You have to launch a finger impulse well before it’s due on the fingerboard in order to get it there on time.

Better to build those neural pathways in your brain by playing slower tunes at first. Then, after the wagon ruts are worn in the dirt roads of your brain, you can let your mental horse pull the wagon without you having to steer. (Is that metaphor tortured enough?)

There are some things Ed and Co. could do to improve the next video. More attention to keys and chords would be welcome. It took me a few minutes with my guitar in front of the TV to figure out Ed was playing “Wayfaring Stranger” in G minor. And he never did explain the chords to that song.

What would be totally cool if Ed’s production people could do it would be to flash the chords on the screen as Ed plays through the tune. He did explain the chords to “Virginia Waltz” and “Paddy,” but graphic chords through all the instructional material would help a lot.

Also, each tune is played once by Ed’s band, Blue and Lonesome, so you can hear what it is supposed to sound like in ensemble. Next time they need to put guitar player Mike Wilhoyte next to Ed so the viewer can see his chording hand. I think one of the most important skills new pickers need to learn before jamming is to be able to read the guitar player’s chord positions. Alas, Wilhoyt’s left hand is mostly out of the frame.

There’s a lot of great stuff on the DVD. The view of the mandolin, Ed’s very clear instructions, an interview of Ed by Richard Brandenburg in which Ed talks about his opinion of bluegrass (he likes it), and a final slide show of Ed’s Nugget #1 mandolin.

The photos of Ed’s instrument are quite beautiful. He’s had it for maybe 40 years and has put in thousands hours of picking, as one can see by the wear on the finish and the various little dings it has accumulated over the decades.

Interestingly the label inside says “Gibson Master Model,” though maker Mike Kemnitzer did fill in the serial number blank as “F-5 copy No. 1.” Ed said on the radio that Kemnitzer abandoned that system after Gibson’s lawyers sent him an unpleasant letter many years ago.

Out of curiosity I googled Nugget Mandolins and found some web sites with photos of current models. On the DVD, Ed remarks that although he thinks the sound of bluegrass music became perfect in about 1953 as Bill Monroe finally found the exact blend he was looking for, musicianship has continued to advance.

“I think the average bluegrass musician now would be regarded as an extraordinary musician then,” he said.

I think the same thing can be said for luthiers these days. The Nugget, Collings, Gilchrist, Michael Lewis, Dearstone and some other mandolins look like they were carved by God His Own Self, or cut out with lasers or something. The edges are so perfect, the finish so immaculate, the binding so exact, it’s almost scary.

I look forward to more mandolin videos from Neff World Headquarters.

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