Peter Rowan Interview
Q: [Referring to a guitar Peter was holding] Is this a Martin? PR: No, this one was made by Wayne Henderson. He's an independent builder in Virginia and makes replicas of old guitars. He works alone and his guitars sound like Martin. Q: It sounds louder than a Martin PR: Or rather, this one is patterned after an early 000 from 30's. It works really well for old-timy players like me Q: Is it smaller than a Martin? PR: This one is size 00, but it was called 000 [what Peter said did not make sense]. Earlier models had a 12-fret body but later became 14-fret. Q: SO you carry this one on tour? PR: Yes, this one is my main. Recently I started to use another made by Thompson from Oregon. These have similar body shape and Brazilian back and sides. I love both of them. Q: Does Wayne Henderson still build guitars? PR: Of course. I think he's here [interview was done at Merle Fest 95]. I heard he built a mandolin for Todd Ronson recently. You ought to visit his workshop. He also makes a D-28 type model. Lately I feel that I need a 14-fret guitar too. I play fingerpicking on this 12-fret guitar with light gauge, but I want to do "pull-up" [hammer-on? bend?] above 14-th fret. I love the feel. When I played bluegrass with Bill MOnroe, I used D-28 and I enjoyed the power. Q: You're interested in vintage guitars? PR: I have a few but don't take them along on tour. I have a Gibson H5 mandola (1929). I had a 1935 D-28 but it got stolen. I also have a 1935 000-21 and this is a wonderful guitar. I use this often when I record solo stuff. I have 1947 00-18. I have these for specific purposes and I don't consider myself as a collector. I also have a 1950's Gibson ES-335 with double cutaway, and some old Fenders. I spend more time writing songs than collecting guitars. Q: When did you start playing guitar? PR: About 12 years old. I grew up in Massachussetts and my uncle had many instruments like an accordion and a guitar. I saw him play it and got interested in. After World War II, he brought back an uke from New Caledonia [in Pacific]. He was not a professional but loved music and I learned uke from him. Anyway, thanks to him, I learned to play with four strings. By the way, I saw Elvis do a recording session around that time. Right after that, Folk boom came and I got to play with Jim Rooney, Bill Keith and Tom Rush at Club 47 in Boston. There were many types of music played in Boston then, like a country music venue called HillBilly Ranch. This started when the war was over and the vet came to Boston. People form the South brought over banjo and many styles of music were popular then. I was immersed in music simply because music was all over the place. Only after I started to tour with Bill Monroe, I began to listen to these styles carefully. Up until then, I was just listening. I also started to listen to blues and cajun music. Q: Bill Monroe was your first professional band? PR: No, I had a few bluegrass bands of my own. In 60's when I went to a college in upstate New York, Tammy Winnet and George Jones were popular and people came to dance party at college hall, dressing up in Nashville style. The hall had a capacity of 500 or so, and we played there. I dropped out and went back to Boston and played at Club 47 with Bill Keith. One day, Bill Monroe was in town and he came to see us there. Bill Keith had worked with Bill Monroe and he introduced to me Bill and then Bill Monroe invited me to join him on tour. At that time, I was playing mandolin but I could play guitar so I jumped at the opportunity. Bill Monroe influenced me a lot as he opened up the world of music for me. I was with Bill between 1964 and 1966, and I started "Earth Opera", a psychederic folk music with David Grisman. I did that for a few years and then moved to California to start "Sea Train" with Richard Greene. While I continued that band, I also worked with others and I once had three projects going simultaneously. Since 1978, I've been playing solo. I lived in Nashville 1980-90, in Texas for a while and moved to San Francisco recently. I feel that I have accomplished some musically only recently. Q: Could you elaborate? PR: Recently, I think I reach the level where I am able to perform solo guitar without losing the bluegrass feeling. I don't have to play flatpick always and I can throw in fingerpicking and include some blues. I've been listening to Jimmy Rogers and I enjoy his relaxed natural style. Bill Monroe incorporated his style in bluegrass. I see Bill several times a year and go on stage with him. Bill always inspires me. Bill worked with a number of people [song writing] and I was the first bluegrass player who cowrote some tunes. The contract was that I'd assist him on song writing, but we co-wrote some tunes, and there are some that I wrote entirely. I do see him and play with him but there are some business matters that needs to be settled between us. There is a plan to do some tour with Bill Monroe, Butch Robinson and Richard Greene, and we might go to Japan too [did it happen?]. We weren't a mere backup for Bill in his band but we worked together and we did fight due to differences in opinions. Even today Bill and I collide on stage occasionally
In a sense, I think it is necessary to create great music to have some tension. What's so amazing about Bill is that once he plays music, he removes the limits or the boundary of any type of music. That's why I really enjoy bluegrass music as interpreted by Bill Monroe, and I can say the same about blues. Because of this, whenever a new musician joins his band, his music changes. The band was really bluesy when Jimmy Martin was around. In bluegrass music, the rhythm is not dynamic but must be very precise, everyone must be accurate. It is a challenge to try different ideas under such limitations. Q: You started playing three-finger style because of folk music? PR: No. It started when I went to Spain and saw flamenco players. Until then, I only did flatpicking and was feeling that I should look into different styles after seeing country and classical guitarists. In addition, around 1988, I lived in Nashville where everyone tried so hard to succeed. I was stimulated by the atmosphere and felt my limitations. That's when I saw flamenco and decided to incorporate that into my style. I found it interesting that my main guitar was very similar in size and style to what flamenco players use. My guitar was made for fingerstyle players with sider spacing between strings. Martin D-28 is powerful and suitable to use in Bill's band but this guitar is small and comfortable to hold. Ideal for singers. I usually write songs using fingerstyle and it helps me to relax so it works really well for me. Once I learned flamenco, I can now try different possibilities. I wrote an African-flavored tune. I can do a lot more variety. Also I can play what I used to play in a different manner. Like some blues licks. Or I can flatpick flamenco tunes. That gives me different sound and feel. Q: Do you use finger picks? PR: I use them on stage. With bare finger, I sometimes over do it and break nails. These fingerpicks are made of sterling silver and are very soft and they sound good. Made by Ellington from Canada, not commercially available. Then fit my finger so well. Q: What about pick ups? PR: I use piezo pick ups from McIntyre. Usually you use two but this guitar is so thin I only use one [not clear what is thin. The body or the soundboard?] Q: Who takes care of your guitars? PR: I usually use Bill Gibitt in Austin, TX. He's refretting one for me. This one was refretted by McIntyre, who uses very hard material for frets. It's been two years but there's no wear on frets. Q: What strings do you use? PR: I use DR strings. The DR maintains the new string sound even when they get old. The inner core is small and the wrap is thin, too so the more can be wrapped, resulting in fat sound. A set can last 6 months to a year as long as the climate is OK. Very unusual.