October 9-15, 2000
The "Artist of the Week" web site feature highlights a new flatpicking guitarist each week. And this week we have decided to feature flatpicking master Tony Rice.
Reprinted from Flatpicking Guitar Magazine, Volume 3, Number 1 (November/December 1998)
by Bryan Kimsey
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I'm willing to bet that most flatpickers remember the first time they heard Tony Rice play, and I'll bet their reaction was similar to mine -- a mouth opened in astonishment. I'd never heard such power, tone, timing, and fluidity coming from an acoustic guitar before. Even today, after hearing countless great flatpickers, there's still something about Tony Rice's playing that sets him apart. I asked Jon Sievert, a professional photographer who has seen and heard Rice many times, about his reaction upon hearing Tony Rice for the first time. "My first thought was that the spirit of Clarence (White) was alive, especially in his tone and timing. I never thought I'd hear that again.... I was absolutely floored by Tony's incredible sound and rhythm. I couldn't understand how anyone could play with such power, tone, and projection without breaking up, and I still can't." Todd Phillips, who played bass with Rice for many years, also clearly remembers hearing Tony for the first time. "(David) Grisman brought him in to play guitar with us. I'd never heard anything like that. I'd played with guitar players before, but not like that!"
Besides being a peerless lead player, Rice is regarded by many as the quintessential rhythm player. Virtually every great rhythm player younger than Rice cites him as an example. Jamie Clifton, of New Tradition, had this to say (FGM V. 2, No. 4) "...he clicked in one of his Tony Rice tapes and I was just absolutely blown away....That is when it really hit on me that I needed to learn how to play rhythm guitar." Richard Bennett, no slouch as a flatpicker himself, called Tony Rice the best bluegrass rhythm player ever (FGM V. 2, No. 2). Although he certainly serves as a standard for rhythm guitar playing, mimicking Rice isn't easy. Phillips: "A lot of people that try to work out his stuff don't really do it. There are so many upstrokes, the little down brushes...a lot of the little subtle stuff that weaves it all together--it's not a simple thing to analyze."
For a long time, Tony's singing voice added a triple treat to the overall Rice package. Although quieted by a voice disability in recent years, Rice's voice was a major attraction for many years and, fortunately, was amply recorded. Many consider him one of the finest of the modern bluegrass singers, with impeccable articulation, intonation, and phrasing. That Rice can handle traditional bluegrass as well is well documented on the "Bluegrass Album" series, a 6-volume set featuring J.D. Crowe, Bobby Hicks, Todd Phillips, Jerry Douglas, Doyle Lawson, and Vassar Clements playing super-charged traditional bluegrass. In the mid-90's, Rice's voice began failing due to over-use and strain, and he entered a period of rest and therapy which is still underway.
As you might expect from a person with such a mastery of the instrument, Tony Rice can't even remember when he started playing guitar. His father, Herb Rice, was an amateur musician and was probably Tony's first influence. Older brother Larry also played and it wasn't long before the two found inspiration from another brother pair in Roland and Clarence White, who were living and playing in California. California was not a hot bed of bluegrass in the early 60's and the Rice family took every opportunity to hear the Whites play. Thus, Clarence White became Tony Rice's early flatpicking guitar role model. White was playing his famous enlarged soundhole guitar, and that guitar was the first Martin D-28 that young Rice had heard. Rice acquired this instrument in 1975 and it has become strongly identified with him.
Although White was an early inspiration and guide, Rice was soon forging his own style. Upon joining the Bluegrass Alliance in the early '70's, he found another influence in Dan Crary, the departing Alliance guitarist. Crary had already established some trademark licks on Alliance tunes, and Rice mimicked some of these to keep the Alliance sound intact, until his own signature began to get bolder and stronger. Rice left the Alliance in 1971 to join J.D.Crowe's band, and this is where he really began to develop his lead guitar playing. His timing, right hand attack, and left hand efficiency were all strongly influenced by banjoist J.D. Crowe, well known for his strengths in those areas.
The next stage in Rice's development came when he joined the embryonic David Grisman Quintet in San Francisco in 1975. This move allowed Rice to stretch out in a purely instrumental, improvisational setting and his chops developed exponentially. In addition to Grisman and the band itself, another major influence in Tony's playing at this time was John Carlini who was hired to teach Rice and other members music theory. In a 1993 Acoustic Guitar interview by Dave McCarty, Carlini said "I didn't teach him formally, but we'd sit down and work out the tunes together." In the same interview, Rice said "My main influence outside Clarence White would be John Carlini." After leaving the Grisman band, Rice continued with a jazz/bluegrass mix, contributing numerous original tunes to the developing genre.
On his own now, and as leader of the Tony Rice Unit, Rice began experimenting with a wide variety of sounds. Every Tony Rice album is different, ranging from the jazz of Mar West to the very traditional duets of the "Skaggs and Rice" album. In between lie straight-ahead bluegrass, Grisman's Dawg music, and folk songs. There's an album of simply Rice and guitar backup (Church Street Blues) and an album of him with piano, drums, electric bass, and electric guitar (Native American). No matter what mood or idiom of the acoustic music spectrum you want to hear, it seems like Tony Rice has recorded something in that vein. One of the most striking albums, and one of the most popular among flatpicking enthusiasts is Manzanita, an album of mostly bluegrass with one missing feature that many listeners don't catch until many listenings--there is no banjo. The hard driving bluegrass album Sings and Plays Bluegrass was one of Rice's last vocal-oriented projects. Recorded live in the studio, with minimal rehearsal, Sings and Plays Bluegrass start off with a banjo kick-off, leaving no doubt of that instrument's presence and establishing a hard-core bluegrass theme right from the start.
When his voice began having problems, Rice obviously had to take a change of direction. However, he says he's always considered himself more of a guitarist than a vocalist, and thus there were plenty of projects ripe for the picking. One was a project with David Grisman, the fabulous Tone Poems which features the two musicians playing a variety of tunes on vintage instruments. The other was a duet album with old mentor Carlini River Suite for Two Guitars. In addition, Rice was featured on a gospel instrumental album Crossings. Also at this time, the members of the Tony Rice Unit went their separate ways and Rice began making many guest appearances with artists such as Peter Rowan, Bela Fleck, and former bandmates. Far from letting his vocal problems bog him down, Rice seems to have seized the opportunity to push his guitar playing into the forefront, much as it was during the Grisman years.
Rice's playing has spawned many imitators as does any artist with such a dynamic style. The Tony Rice style is well-documented on a Homespun video, a 6-tape series, and a newly issued CD based on the bluegrass portion of the tapes. Transcriptions of the Rice style, some endorsed by Tony and some not, abound, including a Mel Bay transcription of the Tone Poems sessions. There certainly is no lack of means for anyone wanting to try to capture the Rice essence. However, Rice himself is a firm believer in finding your own voice. "Just be yourself. That's the thing I tell all my students, or anybody who asks. Just be themselves; not me, or Doc Watson, or Clarence White", he said in a 1997 Bluegrass Now interview. He further added "I never tried to play like Clarence White...he was the person who kind of indicated to me that this is the way this thing should be approached...a guideline".
Still, it's interesting to try and capture some of the Tony Rice essence in one's own playing. One thing nearly everyone comments on is the power, tone, and projection Rice has. I asked Todd Phillips about this: "It's just his touch. It's his attitude and technique, basically. He can be loud when he wants to be. He's got a tremendous intensity to his playing and he's always got a little bit more in reserve. He almost never plays as loud as he can. On quieter passages, he can play softly but with the same intensity as if he were playing louder."
There's no doubt that Rice's right hand plays a large part in his tone production. Just watch any video of him and you'll see him twisting the pick, moving back and forth between soundhole and bridge, playing consecutive downstrokes, and just generally using every trick in the book to produce the sound he wants. About Rice's right hand, Jon Sievert said "He's a great cross picker who exanded the technique to include rhythm chops. The usual standard for bluegrass crosspicking is a three-string roll. Tony seems to be able to reverse direction or throw out any pattern at will. He plays chromatic-style banjo on a guitar with a flat pick."
The comparison with banjo is an important one. David McCarty noted this in Acoustic Guitar and noted that many of Rice's earlier licks were derived from J.D. Crowe's banjo licks and that his left hand is particularly banjo-like. After discussing Rice's right hand, Phillips said "You've got to ask about his left hand, too. It's just as powerful as the right." Indeed, Rice's fingers move over the fingerboard with a deceptive and striking economy of motion.
When asked about Rice's technique, John Carlini had this to say, "Tony's technique is just that; Tony's technique. It has been self-developed, fired by the need to express the sound. Sometimes I think he is a fiddle player who just happens to play the guitar, because he has captured that high/lonesome fiddle sound and expresses it on the guitar fingerboard. I don't mean that he just plays fiddle tunes. Anyone can learn to do that. He actually captures the essence of the solo fiddle which to me is the definitive bluegrass sound. His right/left hand technique has evolved as a means to get the ideas out."
We also asked Carlini how he felt Tony's playing had changed over the years, to which he responded, "Tony's playing has not changed in its intensity or feeling. It has grown in concept and depth. It's only natural that that would be the case. I think a lot of people would be amazed to look through Tony's CD collection. Along with all that great bluegrass you would see a deep influence of people like John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Cecil Taylor, Winton Marsalis, Brazilian music and on, and on. Tony appreciates great music from all sources. It doesn't change him, it helps him grow. We have spent a lot of time together with two guitars around. Yes, being a jazz player, I have helped him to unlock some of the modal/chordal implications of the fingerboard, but it is a two-way street. Tony has enriched my playing in implicit meaningful ways, particularly in expression and sound."
Of course, the best place for insights into the Rice style is from the man himself. Tony Rice graciously consented to the following interview with Flatpicking Guitar:
The Tony Rice Interview
How do you feel your style has changed over the years? Your recent improvisations seem much freer than in the early years. Was this a conscious effort?
That is kind of hard to answer. The desire to play with a little more freedom within an improvisational context, as opposed to playing melodic, is a constant quest for me. Most flatpickers that are aware of my style --I'm talking Dan Crary, Doc Watson, Russell Barenberg--realize that I am not as much a melodic player as I am an improvisational player. Being more improvisational is a conscious effort. There are some things on the acoustic guitar that lend themselves to a melodic approach and there are some things that don't. It just so happens that most of the stuff I end up playing, to me, has an improvisational approach as opposed to something melodic. I like to hear that melody played on the other instruments, I don't always like to hear it coming out of a guitar.
Did the improvisational approach develop during the Grisman years, or had you been working towards that approach prior to that time?
I don't know. That is another one that is hard to put in words. I know that during the Grisman years it was a required part of learning the music form that some things be melodic. There were very definitive phrases. The first album I did that incorporated a little of both the melodic and improvisational approaches was either the album Acoustics, or Mar West. The tunes were based on specific melodies that allowed the individual player the freedom to improvise without much in the way of restrictions.
How do you approach an improvised solo? Is it scale based, chord based, melody based or a combination? In other words, what is running through your head when you are improvising a solo on a particular tune?
There is always the notion that any time you are presented with a chord, that has a corresponding scale--and it may have more than one corresponding scale. It may have three that you can work with. Years ago I learned from people like Grisman, Richard Greene and primarily from John Carlini, enough theory, just barely enough, to have it in my head where I am at any particular time in a tune. In other words, if a chord is coming at me I kind of have it in my head what I have to work with in terms of what kind of phrases I know how to play or what will correspond with that chord and what will not.
For example, if over a period of eight bars, using 4/4 time signature, there are twelve different chords coming at you, some of the chords may relate to other chords, or they may not. If I am presented with that repetitiously, I will improvise over those eight bars with something different every time. Hopefully I can make it work. In terms of the thought process, it is always very complicated. Sometimes I will play half of one phrase and half of another. Usually, what I am building will determine what I try to play next.
I wouldn't try to imply, especially to the up and coming guitar player, that they have one hundred percent freedom to play whatever it is that comes into their head at any given time, because they don't. There are always restrictions. You will end up playing the wrong sequence of notes and creating bad, or inferior, music.
When you are working up a solo for a recording do you use the first thing that works, or do you fuss with it a lot?
There are some things that, in order to be more efficient in the studio, I may try to establish as a definitive solo. Not necessarily note for note, but pretty much so. A good example would be something like "Blue Railroad Train" or maybe the intro to "Old Train." Those are the first examples that come to mind. Those are things that started out as improvisation that centered around something melodic. What I try to do is commit those things to memory so that in a studio situation I'll know what I'm doing if I have to do multiple takes and I'm not sitting there looking for something and holding up five other musicians. In that way, what starts out as improvisation ends up being something melodic or something with definitive phrases.
When you are working up something for a recording, how do you decide when it is done?
It is all a compromise. On the Manzanita album I remember that we did two complete takes of "Old Train." The one that I would have chosen for myself would have been take two, but due to the nature of the way the other guys had played, I ended up choosing take one. It has flaws in it here and there, but sometimes you choose a given piece of music based on the overall feel as opposed to something where everyone is technically correct but it sounds too sterile.
Can you weigh the components of your tone? In other words, how much of your tone is coming from your right hand attack, the pick choice, the guitar, or a combination of things? Did you work to develop your tone or was it always just there?
That is something that is just second nature. I think it is that way with most renowned musicians who have their own identity. It is something that they are more or less born with. Some have to work at it. I know I do in order to retain it.
To me the distance from the pick to the bridge is real critical. Most flatpickers will naturally gravitate, with a given guitar, to what I call a "sweet spot." No matter what guitar I am playing, whether it is the "Cruz," an Ovation, the Martin, or whatever, instantaneously I will go right there.
One thing you can do to give yourself a different effect, and I use this a lot for different situations that I encounter out in the field, is to twist the flatpick on a radius that is perpendicular to the string. Without changing the distance of the pick from the bridge to the sweet spot, you can twist that pick a little bit and see the tonal differences you can get by doing that, even just slightly. The more of a true perpendicular angle you have to the string, the sharper the tone is going to be and the more you put a little twist on it then the string is staying longer against the edge of the pick and it mellows the tone out a little bit.
Not everyone will be able to do that and my comments about it are intended for people to experiment around with and just have fun with more than anything else. I would not advise every flatpicker out there to start twisting their pick all of the time to try and get different tones.
That "sweet spot" you talked about, is it generally in the same location on the different guitars that you mentioned, or does it vary depending on which guitar you are playing?
It always varies depending on the guitar.
I've heard that your action is low and you like to play back towards the bridge.
I probably play closer to the bridge than most. Other than Clarence White, I don't know anyone who plays as close to the bridge as I do. I guess Dan (Crary) does, but he kind of has his own technique, as does everybody. It is actually a real interesting thing when you get into watching other cats that have notoriety play. You see Doc Watson play more from the elbow. When you see Dan Crary get the sound that he is after, he does that from his wrist. I think that should be a lesson to people who are trying to seriously learn how to play bluegrass or flatpicking guitar. There is no rule that is going to work. I'm not going to be able to tell any of them exactly how to do it and get the results they are looking for.
I noticed in your Homespun video, because they have close-ups of your hands, that you use your thumb joint to manipulate the pick.
Yeah, that is that twisting technique.
How do you think of time? Todd Phillips has mentioned a train going down the rail at a steady pace, with individual notes being like a hobo on each car being able to move back and forth on the car, but still going along with the whole train. Does that work for you, or do you have another way of thinking of time?
That is actually the best analogy of time that I have ever heard.
In terms of rhythm playing have there been any major influences, people you listened to or played with, that helped you develop you sense of time and/or rhythm style?
There would be four or five of them that would come to mind. Whenever I'm asked that question the first person that comes to mind is Jimmy Martin. Without a doubt, he has had a rhythm style that is as driving and more metronomic than any other rhythm player I know. Maybe Lester Flatt would also fit into that category. Beyond that, real good rhythm players would be Clarence White . . . Del McCoury is exceptionally good and Norman Blake is amazing. To watch Blake play rhythm on some things, especially more simple, real traditional tunes, he has got a touch with it that no one else will ever have.
Someone like Clarence White did not establish his rhythm style so much on metronomic timing as he did chord substitutions and syncopations--real sophisticated syncopations too I might add. Some of them break things down into thirty-second and sixty-fourth notes.
Did the time you spent in your early career playing with J.D. Crowe help with your timing since he was coming from that Jimmy Martin influence?
I think that there is definitely a link there for sure. J. D. Crowe, although not an extremely demanding person, when I first started working with him, if the timing was not what he was used to, if it didn't have exceptionally good drive, he didn't feel comfortable playing until you did have it. I guess it was through him indirectly, he was the main one-on-one influence that made me realize the importance of that.
Which of your accomplishments are you particularly fond of? In a Japanese interview you had mentioned that you were proud of the Backwaters album. Is there a favorite bluegrass album?
The Backwaters thing still stands. In terms of a bluegrass album, I don't know. Some of the best work rhythmically that I think I have ever done is on a Sammy Shelor album that came out about a year ago. There were projects along the way that I have done where I felt that everything seemed to click just right. In other words I was able to fall right into that place with a bass player and a mandolin chop where everything comes together and you know it is going to stay there.
One of my favorite albums from the Album Band series is the one that, strangely enough, did not sell the best. It was Volume 5, the one with Vassar Clements. I guess the bluegrass instrumentals album (Volume 6), that is one of my efforts that I am particularly fond of rhythmically, but not so much in terms of lead playing. In fact I really did not feel all that comfortable playing lead on that album period. Conceptionally speaking it did not jell. I wanted to do this album of old Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs instrumentals primarily. The notion of having a guitar come in there in a flatpicking context is something I did not feel all that comfortable with and so I avoided it. Some people may notice that there are not that many guitar solos on there.
In terms of the albums that I would pick to sit down and listen to, I can narrow it down to five favorites of mine, that is, albums under my own name. It would be Manzinita, Cold on the Shoulder, Backwaters, Me and My Guitar, and Native American. When I sit down and listen to the albums, I never put them on to hear myself. I rarely put them on anyway, but when I do it is to hear the other players and to hear the overall production, overall sound, and continuity.
We have some specific questions about your famous D-28. First, when did the dark colored pick guard get replaced with the lighter one?
That would have been in 1985. The one that is on there now is real tortoise. It is actually an extraordinarily beautiful piece of tortoise. I was in Japan in '85 and had just finished a show and was walking back stage. There was a Japanese guy there who, in his own way, he bowed and said, "I have a gift for you." He handed me this pick guard in a plastic pouch of some kind. I looked at that pick guard and said, "I don't care if it is original or not, or what it is, it has got to go on this guitar."
It has been said that you had the neck shaved. Was that in terms of width or thickness, or both?
In terms of neck shaving, no, that was never done. I had Todd Phillips, at one time, take some bumps out of that neck that had been done previously when someone had put the fingerboard on a long time ago. I have no reason to believe that the neck has been drastiacally changed since day one. Some Martin guitars that left the factory during that era had thick necks, but this one had more of a small to medium size as opposed to the Louisville slugger size.
What kind of saddle, nut, and bridge pin material are you using?
The nut and bridge saddle that are in that guitar have been in there for going on twenty years. Since 1981, I think. I specifically requested natural sterilized cow bone as opposed to ivory. The bridge pins are ebony with pearl inlay and they are real flat so I don't feel them with my wrist.
Was it your idea to recess the bridge pins?
Yeah, that was my idea. But it was not anything new. If you look at old Martin guitars from around the turn of the century, most of those pins will fit right down in there the way they are supposed to.
What kind of strings do you use on the D-28?
Since Vinci strings went out of business two or three years ago I have been using D'Aquisto and the string they are making is superior to even what Vinci was making. I had always thought that no one could make a string as good as Tom Vinci, but the D'Aquisto strings are absolutely incredible.
The ones I use on the D-28 are steel. That is extremely rare. Probably the only other person using steel strings on a vintage instrument on a regular basis is Blake. The string is identical to their other standard medium sets only it is nickel-silver wound as opposed to brass or bronze.
On the Santa Cruz, there are two different types of D'Aquisto strings that I use. In public performance I use a phosphor bronze. In the studio I use a brass. The reason for that is that the brass don't last very long. If you are in a gig situation with a brass string the acidic sweat from your left hand will trash them in no time. That doesn't happen near as fast with phosopher bronze. By comparison, phosphor broze or brass on the old D-28 are just too bright.
What are some of the things that you particularly like about your D-28?
There are two things that make it extremely exceptional. One is that it has a built in bass role-off. It is just built into the instrument. It is the one dreadnaught in exsistance that would present the least amount of problems in sound reinforcement in terms of boominess or those kinds of things.
In terms of how I would describe its overall tone and character, it probably has more "balls" than any other dreadnought I have ever had in my hands.
Your guitar has taken on a life of its own and has quite a following. How does that make you feel?
It makes me feel proud to own it of course. That guitar would definitely be called the exception rather than the rule. Most people that play that guitar are quite surprised the first time they play it. The reaction is usually mixed. There have been a lot of recordings made with it that sound powerful rhythmically. That guitar, strangely enough, is not a guitar with exceptional power or depth. It doesn't have a lot of volume and it doesn't have a lot of depth. What it does have is harmonic overtones that are all over the place. They are all over the human hearing range. The guitar almost plays itself.
I have the action that I have, and I'm probably the only guitar player who can get away with it with that guitar specifically because it is so responsive. It is not one of those D-28s or dreadnoughts that require that you beat it to death to get sound out of it. For example, if the typical John Doe flatpicker out there with a mid-50s D-28 tried to take their guitar and have action like I've got, it would be difficult for them to get anything out of it without extreme rattling and buzzing.
It is just because of that particular guitar?
Yes, that one and I have had Dick Hoover simulate that with the Cruz's that he makes specifically for me. I can get extremely low action out of a Cruz. But then they have to take particular time and effort in setting up that guitar in order to accommodate that.
I might add that part of the sound that I get out of the D-28 is due to a very slight amount of intentional buzzing. That is part of the set up and I have it set up that way, and try to keep it that way, for that very reason. Which is weird. Most people would think that is absurd.
I know you have had six or seven of the Santa Cruz guitars. The newest one, I guess, is the one that they have patterned their "Tony Rice Professional" model after. How do you like this newer one compared to some of the others you have owned?
That whole relationship with Dick is something that we both figured out a long time ago would always be an ongoing process. Probably forever there will be changes made. Currently the one I have right now is the best sounding Santa Cruz that I have ever heard. I mean, I have heard others that come very, very close. But the one I have currently has similarities to my D-28.
One Cruz that I do not have now and wish that I had back was the one I used on most cuts of the bluegrass instrumental album. Most people think that is my D-28, but it is not. It is on some cuts, but most of the cuts were done with the Cruz.
How do you keep music fresh after all these years?
Well, the only way that I have figured out how to do it is to try not to allow yourself to stay in a particular musical format for too long. I did that with the Unit and it was one of the biggest changes in my life for the better when I was able to drop the responsibility of a band like that that had been together for so many years. Everybody was, and still is, the best of friends, it is just that it got repetitious. Two or three years ago I decided that I would like to be out there playing in some different formats for a while and freelancing. This thing I have been doing lately with Peter Rowan and Mark Schatz is an incredible thing for me to be out there doing. I like doing it. That and playing Tone Poems gigs with Grisman keeps it interesting. Each one is different and each one is a challenge. It is the challenge that makes it interesting.
The final question we have is regarding your voice. Can you tell us the current situation, how things are coming along, and the possible outlook for the future?
I wish I had an answer for you. It has been narrowed down to one of two problems. One being what is called "muscle tension dysphonia" and the other one being what is called "spasmotic dysphonia." The last time I had an extensive evaluation on my voice box the people doing those tests where not able to say if it was one or the other. They said the only thing that would determine that is time. If it is spasmotic dysphonia, it is not correctable. If it is muscle tension dysphonia, it is.
It is strange that you mentioned that question because there is a guy who is coming up from Florida over Labor Day weekend who is probably the best speech therapists that I have ever talked to. He is one of those guys who has a common sense approach and is very experienced. He has a list of credentials twenty miles long in the field of speech therapy. So I will be meeting with him.
I don't miss singing as much as people may think. Sometimes I miss the ability to express myself poetically because it is the only way I have to do it within a musical context, but guitar playing is definitely priority one, and I'm sure it always will be.
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