David Grisman Interview
Q: Is this mandolin F-5? DG: Yes, shipped on Dec. 20, 1922. AS far as I know, this is the best. Q: How long have you been using this? DG: About six years? Q: What are the differences between the 1922 and the 1923 models? DG: There are subtle differences but fundamentally there's no major changes. This one in particular sounds great Q: You released Tone Poems and used many vintage mandolins and guitars. How did you get that idea? DG: AS you probably know, I collect instruments. In my case, however, I'm more interested in recording different instruments. About ten years ago, someone loaned me an MTR [multi-track recorder, I think], so I recorded the same tune using all of the mandolins I had into sixteen separate tracks. Each using a different mandolin. I wanted to find out how each instruments sounded, and that was my main interest. When I built my home studio, one of the purposes was to record my collection of instruments. I'm always wondering "how I can sell more records"
and I thought this would make a nice record. I haven't finished editing but we are working on the second one. This time, we do jazz guitars with Martin Taylor. We're pursuing music more closely this time. For example, we play a tune composed in 1918 using instruments made in 1918. So the concept is more critically followed and it will be a good one Q: How did you start music? DG: My father was a professional trombone player. He had me take piano lessons when I was seven when we lived in New Jersey Q: What about the first professional gig? DG: This is an interesting story. When I was 14 or 15, I got hooked to mandolin and was influenced by Ralph Rinzler. He's a wonderful guy who "discovered" Doc Watson. He and I came from the same town in New Jersey. My mother taught him art/painting and I knew him and his family for a long time. I learned bluegrass from him and he took me to see Bill Monroe in 1961. He's my hero. There are three guys including me who were interested in this kind of music and I decided to play mandolin. I learned to play it by ear first and then Ralph taught me a little. One day, I was walking by a house where there was a wedding of an Italian family. They saw me and asked me to play a mandolin tune. So I rushed home and memorized "Return to Sorrento" [title?] and went back there in fifteen minutes and played it. I got one dollar for it and that was my first gig. Q: You played a Stephan Grapelli tune. It seems you play jazz and traditional bluegrass in parallel? DG: Well, I'm trying to separate these two. When I do old timy bluegrass, I try to make a record of that only, and I try to avoid mixing different styles. Of course, I play non-bluegrass tunes in which you can feel the energy of bluegrass music...... My philosophy is "any tradition results from free thinking". Bluegrass when it started was revolutionary. And now it is traditional. The idea must've been revolutionary back then, and it's simply the passing of time. I really like old timy bluegrass so when I perform, I try to sound like that. Q: So why do you use the jazzy sound? Do you get bored with bluegrass? Or Do you feel the need to deviate from bluegrass? DG: No, I just enjoy different kinds of music. You can't eat spaghetti every night. I love Japanese food, Thai, and the good old Southern Cholesterol . Duke Ellington told me "there are two kinds of music - good ones and bad ones". I think it's the same for guitar. Wonderful Martins and Gibsons, and Nationals. But you get bored if you have to listen to them everyday. I like variety. When I started listening to jazz, my compositions changed, too. I enjoy classical music, Latin, folk and ethnic music, too. In fact, I even wrote a string quartet piece, and I did commercial music. These are all challenge to me and I get to learn not only how to play instruments but the world of new music. It used to be that jazz players stuck with one style but nowadays a number of jazz players listen to bluegrass, and vice versa. Tony Rice listens to Ellis Marsalis Trio in his car stereo. He's been doing that for many years. He plays bluegrass but also plays jazz. I also think bluegrass music has been perfected and you can't play better than Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs and Stanley Brothers, can you? There's no place to go and it's frustrating. I prefer listening to 1954 Flatt and Scruggs to more contemporary stuff. So when I do bluegrass, I try to get the feelings right. And what Bill Monroe taught me was "to be myself". If I were to play like him, I'll be out of business. Q: You don't use a pick up? DG: Right, I never did. Well, in 1968, I was in "Earth Opera", a rock band, where I used an electric mandolin. I used a pick up on mandocello then, but that was the only time. I don't like the sound of pick up and I'm using a Neumann KM84 mic. I didn't bring it here [Merle Fest 95] but usually I use it for on stage and in studio. This instrument was not built to be listened with the ear on the soundboard nor from the inside. It was built to be listened to from across a living room so I try to sound that way. Q: You use a tortoise shell pick? DG: No, it's a Golden Gate. Richard Saga made them with my name on it. What I have now is a Japanese copy of it. We had an unresolved business dispute - he did not want to pay me the loyalty [of using DG's name] so I requested that my name be removed from the pick. He's still making them, however. I used to use a tortoise shell pick. Tony Rice modifies the shape for me. I like warm sound of a rounder pick. I'd like to locate a company and have them make a pick with my name on it again. These are much easier to play but don't last so long as tortoise shell. Q: Among the guitarists you worked with, who influenced you most? DG: I tried to learn something from everyone. I worked with Tony for four years. Clarence White was probably the first influence to me. In Old-timy bluegrass, guitar plays rhythm exclusively. I think Red Allen, Jack Cook who plays bass in Stanley Brothers, and Del McCoury are great rhythm players. Clarence and Doc were the first two who did guitar solo. Clarence had a unique syncopation and his musicianship was refined and polished. When he passed away, I thought I'd never hear that tone again until I met Tony Rice. Tony plays in a similar style but is louder. They may sound different but Tony's sense of accenting notes developed from Clarence's. I think Tony was influenced strongly by Clarence. Mark O'Connor is a tremendous fiddler but he was my guitarist for a year and a half. He was fresh out of high school. I got influenced by pianists and sax players equally. I learn things from any good plays so it is difficult to say what I got from from whom. Q: Are there any non-standard tunings for mandolin? DG: Yes, there are many. Do you know Radeem Sencle [spell?] from Checoslovakia [spell?]? He's great. His first album was "Galactic Mandolin", a solo mandolin stuff. He wrote original mandolin tunes, and each tune on that album is played on a different tuning. The first tune is in unison and the each subsequent tune has one half note moved. SO the second tune is in minor second between strings, the third was in major second etc up to the whole octave. [I have no idea what he's talking about - Trish! You know mandolins HELP]. Since he recorded one for each tuning, he's using at least 13 different tunings. Bill Monroe uses several tunings. I learned his tunes in his tunings but I hate to retune my mandolin In order to avoid it, I keep mandolins in various tunings. I myself have not looked into non-standard tunings. I don't know why. I do feel constrained if I keep using the same tuning. Maybe I just hate retuning I hate breaking strings, too Q: Do you practice everyday? DG: I try. When my band plays on stage, we practice two hours for four or five nights.