Some of the most melodic licks you can possibly play on guitar are those you steal from mandolin players. In my first lesson feature in Guitar Player [“Fire and Flow,” July ’02] I showed you one of my favorites [Ex. 1], a fantastic little repeating lick in the key of D major that I learned from [mandolinist] Matt Mundy, who played with me in Aquarium Rescue Unit. He would improvise stuff like this on the fly, all day long. It just fell off of him.
Another great bluegrass melody you can play on guitar is the famous traditional “Blackberry Blossom’’ [Ex. 2]. Most bluegrass guitarists will typically play this way down the neck in an open position, such as G major, where they can take advantage of all the open strings—and real bluegrass guitarists can play the dogs**t out of this stuff—but while I, too, play it in the key of G, I play it on electric guitar an octave higher up the neck. In other words, I play it in what I think of as “mandolin range.”
Some people—flatpickers like Tony Rice and mando players like David Grisman, for instance—can absolutely fly on a tune like “Blackberry Blossom.” But honestly, to me this song is just a great exercise. Part of the reason mandolinists can play faster and more fluidly than most guitarists is because of their tuning. I’m not saying their instrument is easier than ours—it’s definitely not—but certain intervallic lines play more conveniently on a mandolin because it’s tuned in fifths, like a fiddle. That’s why fiddle tunes lend themselves so nicely to mandolin.