Today’s mandolin song breakdown is on the Tim O’Brien tune the High Road. I was introduced to this tune in the Seattle bluegrass jam at Outlander Brewing late 2022 I believe. The more I play this song, the more I just love the melody. To me it feels like an old time fiddle tune wrapped up in some progressive bluegrass. While it’s a lot of fun to play it can be a jam buster, so be careful calling it at jams.
Here are the charts for the High Road mandolin song breakdown:
Before you can learn anything, you’ll need to listen to the song a bunch. Here are my two favorite versions of this song.
The High Road is a minor tune written in E minor. The main form is AAB which is how Tim O’Brien plays it. That said, Bryan Sutton’s version is AABB which is also a lot of fun.
Generally at a bluegrass jam, I’d recommend using the Bryan Sutton form (AABB) since it’s “square” (AABB) and therefore similar to other fiddle tunes. That said, this song could be a jam buster anyways – so the Tim O’Brien form is probably fine too.
This tune stretches out a bit from the standard 1 4 5 bluegrass tunes – but not too crazy. Mainly you’re just adding the VII (D), the II (F#7) and the VI (C). Below each chord, I’ve included the Nashville Numbering for this tune as well. The Chord Chart for this tune includes 3 voicing variations (the below plus two more).
Soloing over this tune is a ton of fun but can be daunting at first since the melody is so strong. One quick note – there’s nothing wrong with playing the melody straight or with a few ornaments as your solo break. That said, if you wanted to break out of the melody, here’s a few ideas.
You can also use the Em Pentatonic over this or think of this tune as being in E Dorian – that is the D major scale but starting from the E note – even though there’s a flatted 6th or C natural (in E Dorian, it should be C#).
Often songs like this I like to focus my solos over the chords rather than to a particular scale. By that I mean I try to highlight the chord being played in my solo to help keep the structure. I think this helps keep the idea of the song without getting bogged down in the unique parts of these types of songs. The best way to practice this type of soloing is to get really familiar with the arpeggios for each chord. The exercises chart contains two variations on the arpeggios in quarter notes. Use it as a starting point at a slow tempo just to get the basics. Then, play the same thing using 8th notes where the down beat (i.e. the 1 2 3 4) are chord tones and the upbeat (the &’s in 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &) are non-chord scale tones.
I provided 2 main variations on the fingering for the main melody in the main chord chart. I suggest focusing on the open position first and really getting that down before moving to the closed position here.
The closed position can be hard to bring up to speed but can really help with mastering this tune. If you can’t play it at speed right away, don’t worry – I couldn’t either 😉 Treat it like an exercise at first and play it slowly and with purpose. Eventually, the fingering gets easier 😉
For this mandolin song breakdown I decided to add two harmony options – a high and low harmony. I separated the harmony ideas from the main sheet music so you can see the main melody over the harmony idea better.
The High Harmony is roughly a 3rd above the melody in the tenor voice. The Low Harmony is roughly a 5th below the melody in the baritone voice. I say roughly because harmony writing isn’t really an exact science and not every harmony note is exactly a 3rd above or 5th below the melody. This is pretty common with writing harmony lines. The golden rule is always “does it sound good?” – if it doesn’t, then change the harmony note to fit the melody better. That could mean raising or lowering the note by half-step or full step in some cases.
That’s all for this Mandolin Song breakdown. I hope it’s helped and feel free to reach out with questions.
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