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This popular, world-class duo bring a unique combination of Simon Mayor’s humour and virtuosity and Hilary James “honey dripping voice”… not to mention her enormous mandobass!
But it’s probably the diversity of their repertoire that surprises people most: from folksongs to blues, Berlioz, classical mandolin show-stoppers, swing fiddle and some of their own notorious comic songs. This hugely entertaining evening is not to be missed. Serious stuff – but don’t take it too seriously!

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Simon’s inimitable brand of off-the-wall humour as well as mandolin, guitar and fiddling wizardry meets Hilary’s ‘honey-dripping’ vocals and unusal basses! If you’ve heard them on Radios 2, 3, Oxford and Classic FM, you’ll know just what a treat is in store. Everything from beautiful folk ballads to lively mandolin tunes, as well as some of their hilarious children’s songs, reminiscent of Belloc’s ‘Cautionary Tales’ …Oh! And a step dance (if Hilary has any breath left!). Hear them at

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They’ve lost count of the number of air and road miles they’ve clocked up over the last few years, but with the twin passports of Hilary’s ‘wonderfully, honey-dripping voice’ and Simon’s standing as one of the world’s most renowned mandolinists – in any genre – they’ve taken on an impressive and diverse array of international engagements from Vancouver Folk Festival and The Stephen Leacock Humour Festival (Canada) to Rudoldstat World Music Festival (Germany) and guesting at the Classical Mandolin Society of America.
It’s probably the diversity that surprises most people who haven’t seen them before; the voice and mandolin playing isn’t even the half of it. Both highly talented guitarists, Hilary is also an occasional step-dancer and arguably one of Berkshire’s greatest mandobass players, Simon a dazzling fiddler.
With a repertoire easily crossing from traditional ballads to blues, Berlioz, classical mandolin show-stoppers and some of their own notorious comic songs, it’s all wrapped up in a hugely entertaining stage show and humour as dry as Somerset cider. Serious stuff – but don’t take it seriously! Find them at Hear them at

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“A witty and captivating mix of folk, swing, blues and classical showstoppers” (The Guardian) spiced with Simon Mayor’s unique brand of off-beat humour and Hilary’s “honey-dripping voice”. There can’t be many performers who can slide easily from a beautifully evocative Irish ballad into a mandolin and guitar version of Handel’s Arrival of the Queen of Sheba and finish with everyone singing one of their own notoriously children’s comic songs (reminiscent of Hilaire Belloc and Flanders and Swan). This talented duo have travelled the world from Vancouver to Singapore. Simon is one of the world’s leading mandolin virtuosos as well as a fine guitarist and fiddle player. He has had his own series on Radio 2 and an album in the Classic FM Top Ten chart, but his most thrilling moment was a journey through the square window on BBC’s Playschool! Hilary James’ “elegant singing” (Daily Telegraph) easily crosses the great musical divides from Celtic ballads to blues and Berlioz. Her CDs have been played everywhere from Radio 1 to Latvia and Los Angeles. Described on BBC Radio 4 as “one of Britain’s finest voices” she is also famed for an unusual taste in bass instruments (she may turn up with her giant mandobass or slimline acoustic bass) and she might even manage a step-dance if the wind’s in the right direction.

Simon Mayor answers some questions about the mandolin…
What is a mandolin?
A rather well known radio DJ invited me in for interview one day. It would be the usual thing no doubt: play a couple of tunes, talk about the instrument, that sort of stuff. I arrived at the studio in good time and chatted to him before the programme. What sort of questions did he have in mind? “Oh, just general things…” he smiled, waving the air. We went into the studio. “A tune now from Simon Mayor” he announced. A quick musical burst followed and then he let me have it right between the eyes: “Tell me Simon, what is a mandolin?”

Believe it or not, it was the first time anyone had asked me this perfectly reasonable question. Just because I had been nutty about the instrument for years, just because I could tell you what Vivaldi had for dinner on the day he wrote his mandolin concerto* didn’t mean that the average listener should know what a mandolin was.

There was a pregnant pause as I gave a mental gasp at the stunningly simple relevance of the question, and mustered what I like to think was an adequate answer. The interview went smoothly after that, but I hope the incident had a beneficial effect, in that I have tried since to assume no prior knowledge of anything.

So what is it? A mandolin is a small, plucked, stringed instrument. Most cultures in the world have an instrument that fits this description, and the mandolin is the Italian variety, a member of the lute family. It is played on the knee like a guitar with a piece of plastic called a plectrum, but it is tuned like a violin. Whereas the violin has four strings, the mandolin has four pairs of strings, each pair tuned in unison.
* Four Seasons pizza with extra anchovies

Why is the mandolin double strung?
A violinist can sustain a note as long as the bow moves across the strings. Once a mandolin string has been plucked the note dies away rapidly. The mandolinist gets round this problem by playing tremolos. On a double strung instrument there are twice as many notes for every stroke of the plectrum, and so a smoother tremolo. Simple!

So tremolo is a bit of a cheat really! It’s a way of giving the impression of a long sustained note by actually playing lots of short ones in rapid succession. Mandolinists, however, are skilled at making virtue out of necessity, and tremolo has became the sound the instrument is famous for, used in countless corny Hollywood B-movies by some actorrrrrr on bended knee beneath an open window serenading the object of his heart’s desire! Love it or hate it, tremolo is an important weapon in the mandolinist’s armoury.

Are there different sorts of mandolin?
Yes, there are two main sorts of mandolin, graced by descriptive titles. The round-back is of Italian origin. Its body is made from strips of wood, steamed and bent into shape, and the top is ‘broken’ at the bridge position to allow a more acute angle of the strings, hence a greater downward force and a more efficient transmission of vibrations to the body. Its sound is delicate but penetrating. The round back renders it less than comfortable to play, especially to those blessed with a beer gut. Serious players will sometimes be seen draping chammy leather over it to stop it wobbling about (the instrument, not the gut). The Italian or the softer sounding German style round-back is played by virtually all European classical players, but it is less popular West of the Atlantic.

The flat-back subdivides into those with a genuinely flat back and the more popular carved mandolins. Plucked instruments with tops carved into an arch, like a violin, were not unknown in Europe, but in the early 20th century the Gibson company (famous later for their electric guitars), and in particular their chief designer Lloyd Loar had huge success in popularising a carved top design of mandolin in the USA. In many ways it was a response to the failure of round-back instruments, many of which had been brought over by Italian immigrants, to stand up to the variable climate. The design is very similar to a violin with the top and back carved into a gentle arch and the neck angled back to create pressure on the bridge. Over the years it has proved to be structurally stronger, particularly at the neck to body joint.

While the Italians were fond of covering their more expensive mandolins with acres of mother-of-pearl, Loar experimented more with the shape for cosmetic effect. Some had a simple tear-drop shape like their Italian ancestors, but he designed the now famous F5 model with the body outline swooping gracefully into decorative points and a violin-style scroll not on the headstock, but on the bass shoulder of the instrument. He also borrowed f-holes from violin design which dramatically increased the projection of the instrument and became the choice of most serious players. The F5’s protagonists claim the points and scroll add ‘weight’ to the sound while cynics refer to the scroll as the £1,000 strap button, for such is the premium in value over an ‘A’ model with its simple tear-drop shape.

F5s are traditionally played by bluegrass musicians. While enjoying the luxury of not having a round back wobbling out of control, they create other difficulties for themselves by slinging the strap over just one hunched shoulder. Style is everything! Love it or hate it, the Gibson F5 is the prestige mandolin to own if your musical diet extends beyond the strictly classical. And me? Well, when was the last time you heard of a Yorkshireman paying £1,000 for a strap button?

What are the other instruments of the mandolin family?
The (tenor) mandola and mandocello are larger members of the mandolin family tuned respectively like a viola (C, G, D, A ascending) and violoncello (C, G, D, A ascending). In other words, a mandola is a fifth lower than a mandolin, and a mandocello an octave and a fifth. A mandobass is a very rare beast, tuned in fourths like a double bass (E, A, D, G ascending). An octave mandola has no violin family equivalent and is tuned an octave below a mandolin.

Hilary James originally played the double bass but a week before the quartet recorded its first CD fate intervened and she stumbled across the mandobass in a small music shop near Gatwick airport. Designed by an English maker it is, as far as we know, the only one of it’s kind in the UK. Unlike the other mandolin instruments it is single strung, the strings being too thick and heavy to be practical in pairs.

How do you choose your programme?
There is a wealth of music written for the mandolin. Unfortunately most of it is by minor composers you’ve probably never heard of. Of the major composers, Vivaldi wrote two beautiful concertos, both are in the quartet’s repertoire. For the rest of the programme we trawl far and wide, arranging a variety of works from not only classical sources but also
British traditional and world music as well as self-penned pieces and twentieth century American ragtime and swing songs. Anything written for the violin family can be easily arranged for mandolins; baroque music works particularly well; and since all four quartet members have long-held passions for traditional music, ideas for arrangements from all corners of the globe are never in short supply.