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.