Taking mandolin lessons with Nickel Creek -- Our reporter learns how to play the instrument thanks to bluegrass virtuoso Chris Thile


Chris Thile has been playing the mandolin for nearly 20 years. I’ve been playing for nearly five minutes. Thile, the virtuoso mandolinist in bluegrass trio Nickel Creek, is giving me a lesson on the pint-size, eight-string instrument in his bare Manhattan apartment. ”Ouch, that’s like spikes in my soul!” he cringes, after one particularly nasty wrong note. Thile and his bandmates, the sibling pair Sean and Sara Watkins, began playing bluegrass as preteens and can blaze through tunes with jaw-dropping speed and fluidity — and still manage jazzlike improvisations. Most recently, the trio merged their down-home chops with mature, moody, and song-oriented material into a kind of enchanting emo-grass on their excellent third CD, Why Should the Fire Die?

But right now, in my hands, the mandolin is merely an instrument of torture. Plonk! Scrink! Thile patiently adjusts my hand position and teaches me the traditional bluegrass fiddle tune ”Wildwood Flower,” which he promises will be ”easy.” ”Bluegrass is mostly an oral tradition, so that’s how you learn all the songs,” Thile says, before singing me some simple lines, which I manage to mimic back on the mandolin, though my technique isn’t quite there yet. ”You’ve got to play through both strings,” he instructs. ”Otherwise, there’s no point. You might as well play a violin with a pick. One more time.” With guitarist Sean accompanying me now, I manage to make it through the first section of the tune once, with no flubbed notes or missed cues. ”See, it’s easy,” Thile says. ”Obviously, now you need to get a mandolin.”