Jerry Rosa is well-known in the bluegrass community. He builds some high-end mandolins and has taught kids the instrument with an innovative method. He's one-of-a-kind, like the instruments he builds, the kids he teaches and the music he plays. Here's a little more about him . . .
The Jerome area is beautiful on an autumnal morning with the sun peeking through dark, menacing clouds. The bottomland shadows dance with frenzied yellow leaves dropping out of the sky in a cool north breeze. It’s a harbinger of cold, stark days to come. With ghostly Route 66 days behind it, it’s home to whopping chunks of discarded concrete, foraging white-tail deer and masked marauders, the coons that climb the sycamores. Take three lefts off of Interstate 44 at the Jerome exit and you find yourself at Rosa String Works, the homestead of Jerry Rosa and his wife Sue.
Jerry is well-known in bluegrass circles as a skilled luthier, mandolin player and music teacher. It’s not often you meet someone that has the ability to master both the creative and analytical sides of their brain. One look at his woodworking shop and Youtube videos showing his crafty side and you realize this guy is a Maker—someone that not only builds $6,000 mandolins, but can tear farm machinery apart and put it back together to perform in ways that shouldn’t be. He probably defies some principles of physics with his welder and band saw.
Growing up in the St. Louis area, he mowed lawns in the family lawn care business and later worked for Southwestern Bell as a systems analyst. He also played the mandolin.
“We always lived kind of a country life-style, so country music and bluegrass was about the only thing I ever listened to—the only music I ever cared about,” explained Jerry.
His mandolin-playing uncle, Don Brown was a big influence. He had a band called the Ozark Mountain Trio. “He was a big Bill Monroe and Jimmy Martin fan,” said Jerry. “One of the biggest songs he had, was written by Damon Black, who wrote songs for Tammy Wynette and George Jones. It was called “Tall Pines” and got a lot of air-play back in the 60’s, and maybe 70’s.”
When Jerry decided he wanted to play the mandolin, he started shopping for one. “My uncle said, ‘Boy, if you want a mandolin, get a Lloyd Loar mandolin and be done with it,’” said Jerry. The only problem was that they were rare to find and once he had found one, it was priced way out of his budget. Lloyd Loar was a luthier at Gibson Guitars in the 1920’s and 30’s and personally signed off on his signature instruments. Never to fret and always good with his hands and woodworking skills, he solved the problem by building one.
The first time Uncle Don heard Jerry play it in a jam session, he said, ‘it’s pretty good, but it has no “chop.”’ Chop refers to the sound of the percussive rhythmic strumming that is done to keep time within the band. Since there is no drummer in a typical bluegrass band, the mandolin, along with the stand-up bass keeps the musical time. Later that evening, Jerry noticed Uncle Don staring at him from a distance. “He was listening to my instrument,” said Jerry. “He came over and said, ‘I was wrong—that mandolin has a lot of chop—it’s the only thing (instrument) I heard!’”
That’s one thing about Jerry’s mandolins—he says they are known for the acoustic volume. They’re loud. He says it’s a culmination of the thin walls of the instrument body, airspace within the body, the placement and size of the acoustic sound holes and his saddles, carved out of deer antler to achieve maximum string vibration transformation into the body of the instrument.
The mandolin on his workbench he is currently building is a thing of beauty. With a curly maple back and sides, it has a thin spruce top. He cuts his patterns out of seasoned wood blanks to get the basic shape and refines the edges. But the real tool he says he uses 90 percent of the time is a finger plane, a small brass piece that fits on his finger. With this, he shaves slivers to get his precise millimeter-measured thinness. His instruments are a thing of carved beauty with intricate shell inlay in dark ebony mandolin necks or headstocks. His signature is a carved rose on the mandolin back or headstock that is later stained red. Due to his reputation in the luthier community, he was asked to build a 10-string (mandolins have eight strings) for a musician to play in the movie “The Godfather.” He built it, it was played in the movie and it now sits in a museum encased in a display with 360 degree lighting.
But he likes tearing things down—stringed instruments or machinery—to see what makes them tick. That’s why he not only builds, but restores, and refinishes. He likes the transformation process of taking something and improving on it to fulfill a real sense of accomplishment. It’s just like the shaggy yards he used to mow in Ladue as a kid, turning a well-heeled homeowner’s lawn into a well-manicured rondure of green turf. It’s the same satisfaction with his music students.
Out of all his accomplishments as a husband, father, luthier, musician and homesteader, he says (aside from his family) his biggest achievement is teaching his students to play music.
“I encourage people to try mandolin first because of my method,” he says. He stumbled across an easy way to play stringed instruments when his Uncle Don told him he needed to learn “double-notes.”
“I never knew what he meant by playing “double-notes” so I spent a year trying all sorts of things to learn how to play,” he explained. “That’s when I developed my own style. I play harmony to myself, so I’m playing two notes at a time while I’m playing lead. That’s just different from what most people (mandolin players) do.” That wasn’t what Uncle Don had in mind, but it took Jerry down a very original musical path, making it all his own. “It definitely made my sound different from anybody else!” he said, laughing.
His style (and teaching method) is a mix of finger pattern-shaped chords that are formed up or down the neck on the instrument. There are seven tones that comprise the musical scale and a basic chord is made up of three of those tones. He shows his students how a song is constructed, using the same tones that form a chord, to play the song. Each tone in a chord is assigned a number which also correlates to the frets to play the chord on the instrument neck, because— if a song in a particular key is made up of the tones 1, 4 and 5, a chord shape is moved up or down the neck by the same numbered increments. “It’s so easy!” he exclaims. It’s more difficult to explain than to see him demonstrate it.
Jerry says his method is a sort of hybrid, giving credit to “The Nashville Number System,” a method of playing that was developed in the studios of Nashville back in the 60’s.
“If you walked into a Nashville recording studio to record with a bunch of people—they’ll say this song is in [the key of] “B,” and it’s got a one, four, five in it, with a two,” explained Jerry. “That’s all they would say. All you have to know is what the numbers are [without sheet music].”
So he took the Nashville System and combined it with what he had figured out with his “double-note” style. He started deconstructing, breaking things down into bite-sized pieces until he identified some overlapping pieces that became 12 observations that always occur within music composition. By using numbers to refer to those 12 “rules,” he says anyone can learn to play a song within minutes, if they know the chords. That’s because, everything is relative from where you start fingering the chords on the neck of the instrument.
Some of his young students have gone on to win bluegrass contests and play with the current bluegrass greats. Natalie and Nathan Jacobson were a couple of his proteges. They have opened for many acts at Wildwood Springs Lodge.
“They’re incredible musicians now,” said Jerry.
Jenny Vaughn was another. Her family won the single mic competition in Silver Dollar City and she’d only been playing for a couple of years. Another student went on to star with big names such as bluegrass musician Doyle Lawson.
Jerry has his own bluegrass band called The Rosa String Works Band. They have played many bluegrass festivals and jams and hold a regular gig locally at Cookin’ from Scratch in Doolittle on the first and third Tuesdays of the month from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.. One of his band highlights was recording the John Anderson song “Seminole Wind” back in the 90’s.
“It was played all over the world and got fan letters from seven countries,” he said, while reminiscing. With different band members, he has opened up for country acts such as Diamond Rio, Charlie Daniels and Merle Haggard, sharing a steak dinner with Mr. Haggard backstage.
“I was eating by myself at a little round table and he walks over [with his plate] and asks, ‘Can I sit with you?’” shared Jerry. “Merle and I sat there and ate a steak dinner for almost an hour. It was awesome! He was incredibly kind and humble.”