Tony Rice Interview

(Background - This interview took place in January in Nashville, TN and

in April 1996 at Tony's house in North Carolina. Since he lost his house

in Florida due to the flood, he lives here all year long. He and his

wife, Pam, and three dogs and two birds live there. One of the dogs is

named "Django", after Reinhardt. His den is furnished with a lot of

Indian craft and cameras (his hobby) and high-end stereo.)

In January, we got a phone call from Tony who was recording at the

Nightingale studio in Nashville. When we visited the studio, Tony was

recording with Chris Hillman, Herb Pederson and Larry Rice (his brother).

Q: Is this going to be released?

TR: I think it will come out from Rounder at the end of summer or early

fall. The title would be "Out of the Woodwork". My elder brother [in

Japan, it is important to distinguish elder and younger brothers], Larry

and Chris, and Herb Pederson came up with the idea and I'm just playing

guitar here 

Q: So how did it happen?

TR: When Larry and I were young and lived in California, we (Chris and

Herb and us) used to play together a lot. They played bluegrass, too. We

used to be really bad, you know 

Q: You couldn't be that bad......

TR: For some reason, we never got around to record together so I'm glad

we finally got a chance.

Q: Could you give us a brief biography of yours?

TR: My father was an amateur musician, playing mandolin and guitar [His

father, Herb Rice, did play for Golden State Boys]. So it came naturally

to me to play music but I didn't play much in amateur bands. I was trying

hard to play guitar well.

Q: When did you decide to become a professional?

TR: It's hard to answer since there's no clear transition. I had a band in

1963 (Tony was 12) which performed with Kentucky Colonels and Golden States

Boys and we got paid. So I can't say when I became professional. I

started playing full-time in 1970 when I started working with Sam Bush.

My first album was released from Red Cray label owned by a Japanese

company B.O.M. [This company publishes a monthly bluegrass magazine,

"Moonshiner" and does mail order of CDs. Phone is 0797-87-0561.

Incidentally, the area code 0797 is my home town (a rather small town). I

wish I knew about it!] [I wonder if this album is still available]. After

that, I moved to Level [spell?] and then to Rounder.

Q: When were you born? [It is not impolite to ask age and birthdate in Japan]

TR: June 8, 1951. I was born in Virginia but grew up in Los Angeles, CA.

[Tony lived in LA until 1965]

Q: You were influenced most by Clarence White?

TR: Yes, Clarence, and Doc. For rhythm playing, Jimmy Martin and Del

McCoury. And I shouldn't forget Lester Flatt and Benny Birchfield who

played with Osborne.

Q: You started copying Clarence's tunes?

TR: Yes, I tried but I just couldn't do it. In retrospect, I think it was

good that I couldn't learn to play like Clarence. That helped me to

develop my own style

Q: Your "Mar West" is still considered one of the best album of all time

and received good review from the jazz musicians. What do you think of

this album?

TR: Well, I'd say "Mar West" lies on a line extrapolated from what I did

with Grisman [I'd love to see what Tony actually said in this sentence :-)

] I played with Grisman way too long. Don't get me wrong here. I enjoyed

playing with him a lot. Then he wanted to change the direction he was

going. I, however, wanted to continue the previous direction that we were

going. So I did "Mar West", and continued along the direction and did

"Still Inside" and "Backwater". My favorite and proudest work is

"Backwater", than "Mar West"

Q: You listen jazz often. Who's your favorite jazz guitarist?

TR: It's got to be George Benson. I have many other favorites but just

too many to name. I can't play jazz guitar but I really enjoy listening.

I also like John Scofield, oh and Chuck Rouk [spell?]. He's great. And

Wes Montgomery

Q: You've played Dawg and Space Grass. Can we think of these not as

bluegrass but as crossover jazz?

TR: I think so. After all, new acoustic music came from Richard Green and

David Grisman. If we have guitar, mandolin and fiddle, there's no

rule that we have to play bluegrass music. We can play any music we want,

especially since these instruments fit very well with each other. We can

extend this concept and say we can play any music that we can enjoy


Q: As to your guitar playing, do you play cross picking down-down-up?

TR: No, I don't do it that way

Q: So you do down-up-down-up?

TR: I rarely play the so-called cross picking. When I do, it's not very

distinct and I don't do the Jesse McReynold's cross picking style, nor

the Clarence White's cross picking. I can't do these licks.

Q: Any knack to play cross picking well?

TR: I don't know if this answers your question but I always tell

guitarists to concentrate on what you hear in your head. Think of what

notes and melody you hear in your mind and try to express it on your

guitar. When you practice, pay attention to that aspect.

Q: What would you suggest to practice if you want to play various chords

in chromatic style?

TR: It is important to be able to play any chords in a chromatic sense.

You just have to do it over and over.

Q: Regarding flatpicking, your style is pretty straight forward.

Basically you use your wrist to add snap?

TR: Yes, I use my wrist a lot. And the way to hold a pick. I believe,

however, that I should not force anyone to follow rules like how to hold a

pick, the angle should be such and such, should use up and down stroke.....

Q: Yes, but our readers want to know how you do that. There are so many

things we couldn't tell just by listening to albums, such as the way you

use your arm.

TR: OK, I see. Doc uses his elbow. Dan Crary uses his wrist a lot. I use

my index finger and thumb. Norman Blake is similar to my style. He gets

his tone from his thumb and index finger. But when I try to express my

music on guitar, I don't think about my wrist, thumb, index finger,

elbow. I only think about how I would express on guitar what I hear in my


Q: You used to use choking [string bend] a lot. Less frequently recently?

TR: I used do that a lot but not recently

Q: You still use hammering on, slide and pull off?

TR: Yes, quite often. Oh and it's very important to use full force when

you practice hammering on and pull off. Try to get as much volume as you

would pick when you pull off. Then you can get very uniform sound.

Q: Your main guitar is the D-28 owned by Clarence White

TR: Yes [Serial No. 58957; Tony bought it from a guy named Joe Miller in

Pasadena, CA in 1975 for $550]

Q: Did you change the fingerboard to Gretsch's?

TR: Clarence's father bought that guitar from McCabe's in Los Angeles for

$35. That guitar did not have a fingerboard so his father asked McCabe to

put one on and that was the Gretsch fingerboard. It had the fret slots

already cut, so the scale is Gretsch's. It's a little bit shorter than

the standard Martin's scale length but it does not make too much of a

difference. The soundhole is larger. I hear so many opinions but I don't

think it makes any difference as far as the sound is concerned.

Q: The soundhole was already enlarged when his father bought it?

TR: I think so. The guitar was brought to McCabe's by a woman with

disability. She was a student at UCLA and she had polio. I heard that the

guitar had been around her house for a long time and she wanted to trade

it in for a new guitar. I think it was about 1959

Q: I heard the guitar was damaged in the 1993 flood. How bad was it? I

heard C F Martin offered to do repair work?

TR: It was drifting in water in my living room when I found it. It

couldn't be any worse.  Chris Martin and Mike Longworth called me about

it and I was going to take up on their offers. In the end, Harry Sparks

from Cincinnati, Ohio, helped me to restore it most. He came to Florida

and showed me how to dry out the guitar correctly. The main problem was

to dry the guitar without causing any structural damage. He did some

repairs and maintenance on my guitars previously and he helped me a lot

that time again. I owe him a lot. For two years or so, however, that

guitar did not sound good at all, it sounded like sh*t [even in Japanese,

it was clear what he said :=) ]. It got wet and it was twisted a little.

Today it sounds as good as I used to be, though.

Q: You have been using that guitar for a long time. What kind of repairs

did it need?

TR: The only time I felt that nothing could save it was the flood. This

guitar never needed any major repairs for a long time. The last time, it

was 1981. Hideo Kamimoto in California repaired a long crack on the side

and he replaced the bridge. Other than that, it needed refretting and

regluing of bindings. Nothing major.

Q: Do you still have the original tuners?

TR: Yes, except the 3rd string which has been replaced

Q: Tuners tend to wear out. You don't have any problem to keep it in tune?

TR: No, none at all

Q: What kind of tuner did you use for replacement?

TR: When Clarence had this, he had something really horrible. It wore out

quickly so I had an original replacement put on.

Q: How often do you refret?

TR: Somewhere between three to five years. Four years on average? I like

a flat fretwire so it needs refretting often. I ask Craig Hoffman in

North Carolina to do that.

Q: You use an Anvil case to transport the guitar?

TR: It's made by Viking, made in Saint Petersberg, Florida [the case can

be seen on the cover of "Me and My Guitar"]

Q: You had your guitar in this case when the flood came?

TR: Yes, but the guitar got very wet.... 

Q: When you're not playing, do you do anything special to your guitar?

[yup, the question again]

TR: No, I just leave it in the case

Q: What strings do you use?

TR: I started using strings specially made for me, made by D'Aquisto. I

have been using the Vinci strings. It was the best in the world and I

really liked them. The company disappeared when the president, Tom Vinci,

retired [I think Vinci still exists]. When that happened, Dan Duffy who

was the manager at Vinci, moved to D'Aquisto as the general manager. He

called me up one day and I asked him if he could make a nickel-wound

steel string". A few months later, he sent me a set and it was a really

wonderful string. I mean, nothing ever sounded that good. It's wound with

nickel, not bronze. The gauge goes 0.013, 0.017, 0.026, 0.035, 0.045, and

0.057. It feels good to touch and the sound is gorgeous.

Q: What about picks?

TR: Tortoise shell is the best. Of course, there are good ones and bad

ones. I can't use something too soft or floppy.

Q: So you find a good tortoiseshell pick and then modify it to your taste?

TR: I use a fine file to shape it to my liking and then I polish it

using a couple of drops of plexiglass polish [acrylic plastic] on a small

piece of leather until the surface gets very smooth.

Q: So you do all this yourself?

TR: I've been saying "do your own stuff - do not imitate others". I think

it goes true for my pick. If you can't find anything you like, make one

on your own.

Q: You use a McKenney capo.

TR: It's adjustable by screw so I can adjust the tension. It does not

affect the tuning and it sounds good. It's a little expensive but it's

worth the price.

Q: How did the Santa Cruz Tony Rice model come into existence?

TR: It was many years ago when I was in Grisman band and Darol Anger was

there. Darol was a good friend of Dick Hoover of Santa Cruz Guitars. So

we started talking about guitars and Dick asked me if they could make a

guitar for me. My answer was "of course", and that's how it got started.

They built several over a few years and I adviced them and they made

improvements in many fine details and we now have a Tony Rice model. It's

a wonderful guitar.

Q: So they enlarged the soundhole.

TR: Yes, but it does not alter the sound. It's only cosmetics, just looks.

Q: You mean the sound does not improve when you enlarge the soundhole?

TR: I don't think so. It's just the way it looks. Maybe the sound gets

worse if the soundhole is enlarged. Since Clarence's D-28 was so well

recognized with the enlarged soundhole, they built the Tony Rice model

with the larger soundhole. Good sounding pre-war Martins have the regular


Q: I see. Structurally, is the Tony Rice model exactly same as Clarence's


TR: May not be "exactly", but very very similar, including the bracing.

Each guitar sounds slightly different due to the age and wood, so no two

guitars sound exactly the same, even if the bracing pattern is exactly

the same. When they make a guitar, I play it for a while and then I send

them some feedback like "I'd like a narrower neck on next one" etc.

Q: So each one is made to a specific order?

TR: Yes, we spend a lot of time to bring it to perfection. I'm very happy

with the relationship with them. They listen to what I say very carefully.

Q: The regular production guitar of the Tony Rice model uses Indian

rosewood, while the custom Tony Rice made for you uses Brazillian

rosewood. Do you prefer Brazillian?

TR: Well, it's a matter of tradition

Q: You mean the tradition of Martin guitars?

TR: Yes. Just like Gibson uses the prettiest curly maple for their F-5

mandolins. Indian rosewood can be as gorgeous as Brazillian. I don't

think they are any different sound-wise.

Q: What do you think about using a pick up? Even for bluegrass music in

which we care about acoustic sound

TR: Right. Like Doc Watson. His guitar sounds so beautiful, but someone

told him to use a pick up. I don't like the results at all.

Q: So you won't use a pick up?

TR: No, I will not, never

Q: You pay close attention to mic positioning on stage and in studio?

TR: Yes, I'm very critical

Q: Do you have any preference or just leave it to engineers?

TR: If I have a choice, I'd use two Neumann KM-86's [I wonder if this is

a typo of KM-84, a small condenser mic, $1500? or so]. One points to my

pick and the other points to the upper end of the soundhole. I can get the

three dimensional sound and the stereo effect. I like Sony mics, like

C-48. AKG C-451 is another good one. I use two of these.

Q: When you go to festivals, can you ask for these mics?

TR: No, almost never. I have to use whatever we can find

Q: I'm curious about "Tone Poems". The sound is wonderful. How was it


TR: We it it in a two track open reel machine.  One half inch, two

tracks. We did not use noise reduction, and the speed was 30 inches per

second. The mics are Neumann.

Q: 30 inches per second, 1/2 inch tape and two tracks. You couldn't go

wrong with that.

TR: No, you couldn't. I still like analog recording, although it has to

be a good machine

Q: Which Neumann mics did you use? I heard the new KM-100 is superb

TR: Yes, KM-100 is good, but I used two KM-84's. No, wait. I use one

KM-84 for treble and one U-87 [large diaphragm condenser mic from

Neumann, multi-thousand bucks] for bass. Grisman used two KM-84's. We use

the same mics in the same set up for every track

Q: So you can hear the differences in instruments. How much rehearsal did

you have?

TR: A little. Grisman had prepared chord charts and I learned pieces from

these. We went to studio, looked at a chord chart and played a few minutes

and then we recorded it. Of course, I knew some tunes previously. I knew

traditional bluegrass tunes and we did Swing 42 many years before.

Q: How long did it take to record the whole thing?

TR: Three or four days. It was fun

Q: You did not do any overdub? I guess you can't if you used two tracks

TR: Right, and each instrument leaked onto another track anyway.

Q: So did you managed to relax at all with no rehearsal and no

possibility of overdubbing?

TR: I was quite relaxed. And we were not trying for the artistic guitar

solo instrumental CD. We aimed to hear the differences in instruments.

You can hear some minor mistakes but I did not worry much about the mistakes.

Q: Who decided which instrument be used on which tune?

TR: Mostly Dexter Johnson. He owns Carmel Music and deals with vintage

instruments. If you combine his collection with David's, there were so

many to choose from.

Q: You use so many guitars on that project. Was there any that you wanted

to keep for yourself?

TR: Well, we used so many. I liked the cheap, small bodied black one. Was

it "Le Do Re Mi" by Regal? It wasn't cheap-looking. It was a cheap guitar

but was very easy to play and sounded very nice. I also remember the

original D-45, owned by Rick Rickart. I played East Virginia Blues. That

guitar was good, but not as good as my D-28. No matter what it is, my

D-28 is the best. I think I did my best track on that D-28.

Q: You mentioned that Tony Rice Unit does not exist now

TR: We are part-time. Jimmy Goodlowe plays in Chesapeake. My younger

brother, Wyatt, has his own band. Ronny Simpkins plays in Seldom Scene.

When we get a gig, Ricky Simpkins will play with me for sure. If others

are available, they will join me. If they can't, I'll find someone else.

It's working out OK.

Q: Any future plan?

TR: No, I don't know. It's decided that we'll do an instrumental album for

Rounder. We'll record it during this summer [1996] but nothing after

that. It all depends on my voice but it's getting better slowly.

Pictures from the interview

Tony with The One

The headstock, front and back

The One in the case