Mandolin Cafe News

New Music
Builder News
Special Events
Bill Graham

News Search

NOTE: you are viewing old, archived Mandolin Cafe News articles. Our news has relocated here.

The Mike Marshall Interview

By Mandolin Cafe
February 10, 2010 - 10:00 pm

Email article | Printer friendly

Mike Marshall with his 1924 F5 Gibson Lloyd Loar. Photo credit, Maria Camillo. Mike Marshall with his 1924 F5 Gibson Lloyd Loar. Photo credit, Maria Camillo.

I'd like to begin, Fellow Mandolinist, by quoting Dave Eggers:

First of all: I am tired. I am true of heart!

And also: You are tired. You are true of heart!

Which is precisely why we need Mike Marshall in our lives. He's Steinbeck's cup of coffee with a finger of brandy "to give it some authority." When your circle-change is a couple inches off the outside corner, he'll frame it to even K-Zone's satisfaction. He's listening to you, he's thinking about what you're saying, now eat your arugula from the garden with preserved lemon vinaigrette and a pinch of sea salt (we use our hands here) and listen and think and be glad, for you are in the presence of a rare, warm greatness.

In whose hands does our humble instrument turn into an orchestra, conducted from the 18th fret, halfway up the extension, a mere inch in front of the bridge? Alas, not mine! Not yours! No! It's Marshall with stinging chop and floating tremolo just catching the baseline! Mandolin Fantastique! Does that fellow live on the edge or what, folks?! For what? Against whom? For to kick dirt on that line. Against those that would call something in or out. There is no Bluegrass, Newgrass, Classical, Choro, Jazz, Old-Time, World, Fusion, Rock, Country, Somebody-Please-Stop-the-Next-Businessman-Who-Thinks-He-Can-Make-Money-Selling-Music-Before-He-Comes-Up-With-Another-Mind-Numbing-Name-for-It, etc., etc. for Mike. There is only music, good and bad, and he's delighted to serve us up some of the very finest whenever we like.

So one more thing, Fellow Mandolinist: We are tired. We are true of heart. Give us Mike Marshall!

Yours in fifths and frets,

  — Chris Thile

Listen while you read

An advance cut from the soon-to-be-released recording by Mike Marshall and Caterina Lichtenberg, Raffaele Calace's Marziale Allegretto (Duetto II, op.98).




Question from f5loar: Tell us about your battered and tattered worn Loar. When did you acquire it and do you know any history on it? Has it had any modifications over the years? Why do you like it so much over other mandolins you have played?

Mike Marshall: It's a 1924 F5 Gibson Lloyd Loar. I'll never forget the day I opened the case. I was touring with David Grisman then. Tony Rice, Darol Anger and Todd Phillips were there, and we all just flipped over it. So I had to figure out a way to pay the big ticket price at that time ;).

Mike Marshall's first appearance with the David Grisman Quintet, October, 1978. L-R: John Ethridge, Mike Marshall, Stephane Grappelli. Photo copyright Jon Sievert, humble archives. Click to enlarge. Mike Marshall's first appearance with the David Grisman Quintet, October, 1978. L-R: John Ethridge, Mike Marshall, Stephane Grappelli. Photo copyright Jon Sievert, humble archives. Click to enlarge.

Todd Phillips and I took the virzi out of it one fool moon night shortly after I got it. We just took a long bent screw driver and a hammer and I held it while he banged the thing until it fell out (not recommended). But I have a recording of this event some place (NOTE: see audio recording below).

We learned after taking it out, that these things are actually held in with a metal pin on one of the three legs and the other two are inlaid into the tone bars so they are pretty difficult to remove. But we were determined.

I've done many things to this mandolin over the years to personalize it and make it really work for me. John Monteleone re-graduated the top soon after the virzi removal and put new tone bars in it. This didn't really change the character of the tone, but just made it a bit more responsive when playing softly. Also, he made a new fingerboard and a bridge and nut.

I have since been through many different bridges and nuts over the years just experimenting with materials, thicknesses and string spacings.

Chris Birkov widened the fingerboard about 5 years ago by putting strips of ebony down the edge of the fingerboard and flaring it out to make it a bit easier for my big fingers. The bridge I have now is touching all the way across the length of the bridge as per Sam Bush's recommendation. It sounds very nice.

We also put a shim under the fingerboard that raised the bridge about a 16th of an inch at the bridge. (it's starts at the nut at zero height and gradually comes up. This added a bit more tension to the top which I felt it needed. It helped a lot.

We also put a dip in the fingerboard at the extension to get rid of the pick click.

A few cracks have been repaired here and there over the years and I think I put a couple of scratches on it too ;).

I have played lots of mandolins over the years, but I always come back to this one for some reason. I think it's because of the mid-range being very, very solid. It might not have that much big bassy low-end or even be as loud as some mandolins, but this solidity in the mid-range I think is what makes this mandolin so even from note to note and also what makes it record so well.

Audio of the Virzi Removal

From 1979, Mike Marshall and Todd Phillips record themselves removing the virzi from Mike's mandolin. Part I, approximately 43 minutes in length.

Mike Marshall and Chris Thile. Photo credit, Anne Hammersky. Click to enlarge. Mike Marshall and Chris Thile. Photo credit, Anne Hammersky. Click to enlarge.

Questions from Ken_P: What is your approach when working on Bach? I'm working on a few different movements from the Sonatas and Partitas and there are some places where I feel like I really just need a bow instead of a pick. How do you deal with that?

Mike Marshall: I have experienced that myself over the years and have just come to the point of not worrying about it. I just let the note ring as long as it can and let the music speak as it does.

You can pull a lot of sustain out of the left hand just by holding those strings down solidly and doing a very slow vibrato after plucking the note.

I try to play the music in a church or a stairwell whenever possible just to experience all the nice natural reverb. I imagine that this is where Bach had intended this music to be played. Then when you are sitting alone in your bedroom you can try to remember how that felt and sounded.

Ken_P: I've heard you talk about creating more widely accepted formal education for aspiring mandolin students. What form would you like this to take? I think it's a fantastic idea and would love to be involved somehow if I could.

Caterina Lichtnberg and Mike Marshall. Photo credit, Maria Camillo. Click to enlarge. Caterina Lichtnberg and Mike Marshall. Photo credit, Maria Camillo. Click to enlarge.

Mike Marshall: I was really inspired when I visited Caterina Lichtenberg in Germany at the University of Cologne. They have a full Professorship position (perhaps the only one of it's kind in the world) for the classical mandolin. Her teacher Marga Wilden-Husgen created this wonderful program there with a complete historical view of our instrument. From Baroque era period instrument study to Classical and Romantic era works to Contemporary pieces commissioned just for these students. This has placed the mandolin at the same level as the guitar, violin and piano as an instrument for serious study at the university level. But of course there is no bluegrass or folk music or improvisation taught there... yet.

Wouldn't it be nice if we could view our instrument the same way in this country and if some of the traditional and contemporary acoustic music that we all love could be studied at that level alongside classical music and jazz?

I can envision a day when this will be happening and I could certainly see myself involved in a school for acoustic music where this would be taking place. I believe what David Grisman and I have created with our Mandolin Symposium in Santa Cruz is putting us a few steps closer to this ideal and certainly the work the Mark O'Connor has done with his fiddle camps and what Matt Glaser is creating at the Berklee School of Music with his American Roots track is pointing things in the right direction.

When I was a kid these kinds of options just did not exist at all, so it's nice to see us making some headway.

Question from Keith Erickson: Would you mind sharing with us how you stumbled upon the mandocello? It seems to be picking up in popularity. Where do you see the mandocello 5 years, 10 years and beyond?

Mike Marshall: I played my first mandocello probably when I moved out the San Francisco to join David Grisman's band in 1978 at age 19. David had this beautiful K4 that had the neck trimmed down and was pretty easy to play.

I immediately fell in love with the feel and sound of this almost forgotten instrument and felt that there was a big world of possibilities for it both in terms of contemporary acoustic music and composition as well as reinventing classical music for the entire mandolin family based on the Gibson F-style concept of tone.

I also began my major study of classical music at the time and began fantasizing about a quartet of two mandolins, mandola and mandocello. For me it seemed so logical that if you could just find some folks who could play these instruments AND read music on them, then you could play all this wonderful music that had been written for string quartets. When John Monteleone built the mandocello I have, I felt for the first time that this instrument had enough low end power to carry a quartet like this. I even recorded the pizzicato movement from Ravel's String Quartet and played all the instruments myself on my first CD, Gator Strut on Rounder Records.

The Mike Marshall Collection - Music for Mandolin, Fiddle and Guitar, from Mel Bay. Click to purchase from Elderly. The Mike Marshall Collection - Music for Mandolin, Fiddle and Guitar, from Mel Bay. Click to purchase from Elderly.

Shortly after this I formed the Modern Mandolin Quartet and we recorded four CDs for the Windham Hill label. All the guys in that group were not only great readers but could also read the alto or viola clef and bass clef too. So, we could get together and just sight-read through lots of material before picking a piece to work on. We started with string quartet music but quickly found that by making our own arrangements of orchestral works or piano music our sound was generally better suited to this kind of percussive music.

By the end of my 10 years with the group, we had recorded 4 CDs for the Windham Hill and we had many new pieces commissioned for the group. I feel like this is really the direction where the classical mandolin (and family of instruments) needs to go. We need our own body of music in order to establish the kind of legitimacy that other instruments have in classical music today.

Question from Chuck Ficca: Any plans to publish a mandocello method book?

Mike Marshall: It's back there bubbling on one of the burners someplace. Thanks... I'll get right on it.

Question from charsay: If you could go back in time and talk to yourself when you were a young teen, what musical advice would you give yourself to save you some struggles or wasted time?

Mike Marshall: I'm not sure I would change much. I have had an unbelievably great musical journey and it continues today. I've gotten to play with some of the greatest acoustic musicians on the planet and consider many of them my pals. Many of the musical fantasies I may have had in my youth I have actually gotten to accomplish, so, who could ask for more, really.

There are times of course when I wish I played the piano really well and could just sit down with a Bach piece or something by Beethoven or Brahms and experience and analyze the music while playing it myself. I would imagine that this would bring me some very deep insights into composition as well as tremendous joy, but then, maybe I wouldn't have had the time to learn all those choros or fiddle tunes. Who knows?

So, in the end, you make all those little choices along your journey about how to spend your time based on what inspires you and that ends up forming who you are as a musician. Everything is a trade-off I suppose and we have to just trust our instincts and that this will lead us to where we wanted to go.

Question from Jonas: Questions from the north of Sweden. I understand you are involved with the Swedish folk band Väsen. What have you learned when playing music with Väsen and what do you think is the biggest difference between Swedish and American folk music. Is there a common ground?

Mike Marshall: Playing with Väsen is like being in a musical dream. Like floating across a lake of musical clouds and completely losing yourself in the music. It's as amazing as you can imagine. It's pure music making for the sake of enjoying the experience of sound for sound's sake. Most shows I have the experience of not believing that I get to be a part of this music that is happening right then.

Mike Marshall and Darol Anger with Vasen. Photo credit, Maria Camillo. Click to enlarge. Mike Marshall and Darol Anger with Vasen. Photo credit, Maria Camillo. Click to enlarge.

These melodies seem like they are from another time and yet many of them the members of Väsen have written themselves. This is really amazing to me. The members seem to be able to tap something this deep and timeless in their composing.

As far as the differences between American and Swedish folk music, I think there is a common thread that runs through ALL folk music of the world. Tradition and cultural identity mix with danceable grooves and simple and unforgettable melodies. Playing with Väsen just reconfirms that feeling.

From a technical point of view of course you have the Swedish 'polska' which is a 3/4 dance groove that forms the basis of much of the Swedish fiddle music. It feels like Irish fiddle tune but it has 3 beats instead of 2.

3 sets of 4 sixteenth notes. This gives the music a feeling of length and also opens up many more possibilities for accenting across the basic 3/4 measure.

This is the magic of African drumming of course and the thread that runs through all of the music of the Americas whether it's Jazz, Bluegrass, Brazilian, Cuban or any of the music of the new world. What Roger is able to do on the guitar to syncopate across these melodies is astounding to say the least. He's constantly creating and changing his parts.

Mike Marshall's personal photos of being on tour Stephane Grappelli in the David Grisman Quintet, circa 1978. Click to enlarge. Mike Marshall's personal photos of being on tour Stephane Grappelli in the David Grisman Quintet, circa 1978. Click to enlarge.

The melody guys tend to anchor the band and the bassist is the one who is experimenting and changing things up night to night. Kind of upside down compared to many musical styles.

A group like Väsen has had its ear to lots of music from around the world and is simply doing what musicians have always done; blending their traditional music with things they come in contact with as they hear things that inspire them.

And then there's that nyckelharpa, which I won't even go into. It's the most amazing instrument. 13 sympathetic strings. Keys that you press with the left had that fret the strings. Kind of like a hurdy gurdy with a free bow on steriods!

Question from pickinpete: Mike, thanks for all the great music and setting the bar so high first of all. We have been having discussions on the idea of action vs. tone and playability. There are those who crank the action up to get volume and others who keep it on the low for playability. What would you say is your stand on this and where do you keep your action?

Mike Marshall: I would say that I err on the side of 'lower for playability' rather than going for giant sound at the sacrifice of being able to play all the notes cleanly and clearly. It's something that I keep a close eye on with all the traveling I do.

When I'm in a dry climate my action goes down so I bring it up and then as soon as I get back to S.F where it rains a lot I usually lower it again.

I've come to the conclusion that having action low enough for you to use the left hand to really hold the strings down and really draw out the tone especially in slow tunes is as important as being able to hit it really hard with the right hand.

Just ask the rest of the band to play quieter... ;).

Question from 2poor4Loar: I am newly fascinated by classical mandolin. I am a proficient player and sight-reader but not a very good arranger. I cannot seem to find many collections of solo classical mandolin pieces here in Canada. Where should I be looking? My taste is Fernando Sor, Tarrega, Bach, Paganini. Your guidance would be appreciated.

Mike Marshall: Bach is the grandad of us all. I like to say that he nearly invented music... period. It all starts and ends with him as far as I'm concerned.

Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin by J.S. Bach - available exclusively from Elderly Instruments. Click to view at Elderly. Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin by J.S. Bach - available exclusively from Elderly Instruments. Click to view at Elderly.

I published a book of Bach's solo violin music and it includes tablature if you are not a notation reader. If you can find the Bach cello suites written out in treble clef this is also some wonderful music and maybe not as difficult as the solo violin pieces.

As mandolinists, because there is so little written specifically for us, I have taken the approach to play everything I could find that I liked or thought might work for our instrument. I would start with violin music especially from the baroque era since we are tuned the same. Some Classical era pieces are OK but sound a little incomplete without the piano accompaniment.

By the time you get to the Romantic era the violin repertoire gets fairly unplayable on the mandolin because of the high-wire violinistic acrobatics.

None of the composers you mention actually wrote anything specifically for the mandolin. Fernando Sor and Tarrega wrote for the guitar so transcribing that music doesn't work too well.

I would focus mainly on the Baroque ear composers. Vivaldi of course wrote a few pieces for mandolin and his violin duets are wonderful if you have a buddy to play them with. Also Corelli and Leclair violin sonatas fit very well on the mandolin. There are tons of works from the Baroque period. Check out the recorder music. Some collections are fairly easy to handle.

Beethoven also wrote a few pieces for mandolin with piano accompaniment.

Rafael Calace wrote some insanely difficult solo pieces but also some nice easier works that I love to play. He also wrote a 6 volume method as did a few other mandolinists from the golden age of the American mandolin. Odell, Bickford, Pettine and others.

Play everything you can get your hands on, I say. Then check this web site in Germany. It's the Trekel company. The biggest publisher of mandolin sheet music in the world.

And ask Caterina Lichtenberg the next time you see her. What an amazing women, mandolinist, historian, person.

Listen while you read

An advance cut from the soon-to-be-released recording bye Mike Marshall and Caterina Lichtenberg, a Bulgarian traditional tune - Gankino.

Question from Don Stiernberg: Do you have any patterns, processes or tricks to share regarding the memorization of music? Some of us have trouble playing something "the same way once." Your classical repertoire, how often do you play from memory, how often reading off the page? I've seen you do both. Always amazed along the lines of "how does all that fit in there along with a gazillion choros, every fiddle tune, Nordic dance music, and so on."

Mike Marshall: Hi, Donnie. Good question. Early on, I had what seemed to be a pretty good knack for this kind of thing. I just was really quick at playing something back to someone after I heard it and then remembering it for a long time. I think different folks just have different levels of this skill and of course I have had to watch as time has gone by how that has changed even for myself. Now I realize that I need a few more times repeating a piece to get it drilled into that old noggin. I think this is pretty normal as we get older so I'm trying to not sweat it and just do the repetitions. It's fun right?

It could also be that the brain is like a hard drive in that as you put more stuff in there you have to let some other things go. I think back on bands that I've been in and even written tunes for that if you asked me to play one of those things from 20 years ago I may or may not be able to just pull it up.

I think we just get good at what we are doing a lot of. If I let a few months go by before playing a choro I'll have to fit it back under the fingers for sure before going for it.

I like to memorize the Bach solo violin music and I think this is the greatest think for the brain and the hands. His music is really pure melody and doesn't seem to give a heck about our tuning or anything mandolinistic. So it seems to help all aspects of music making whether playing fiddle tunes, jazz soling or playing choro.

David Grisman Quintet, 1980. L-R: David Grisman, Daryl Anger, Rob Wasserman, Mark O'Connor, Mike Marshall. Photo copyright, Jon Sievert, humble archives. David Grisman Quintet, 1980. L-R: David Grisman, Daryl Anger, Rob Wasserman, Mark O'Connor, Mike Marshall. Photo copyright, Jon Sievert, humble archives.

Question from Ted Eschliman: Mike, I love the breadth of styles you've tackled within the multi-decade span of your career, but I was wondering, do you think the variety ever works against you in achieving commercial success? I ask that as a consumer, it's hard to know where to find "Mike Marshall" in CD stores; he's Choro, Jazz, Classical, World Music, New Age, Bluegrass, Newgrass, New Acoustic, and any number of genre incarnations. I think of the musical icons and how one-dimensional they are, Elvis, Michael Jackson, Pavarotti, and even Bill Monroe. They remain broadly popular because they've done "One Thing" better than anybody, and it's their singular signature. You do so many things well, but you'll never achieve the popularity of the aforementioned, simply because you refuse to limit yourself. Just how does one with immortal talent like yours want to be remembered by us mere mortals?

Mike Marshall: Thanks Ted. This idea of "commercial success..." I just have not really let that determine too much what music I might play at any point in my life. Of course we all have to be smart and figure out how to make a living, which I have managed to do for 35 years, but for me music is very personal and very much driven by passion for the music itself and a deep desire to learn, to become a better musician and to widen my idea of what music really is all about... not only for the music itself, but to learn about history and geography and culture as well.

I've been very lucky in that this approached has just worked for me and I have been able to live a very full life and continue to pursue what I love.

I think we are now entering and era where this idea of style will become meaningless. As people begin to learn more about each other's music these things will become so blended and people will become so knowledgeable about these things that it will become a non-issue. Even this thing that does. "If you like this artist, you might like this artist." That's huge! That is the greatest solution to the "where do we put Mike Marshall in the record stores" question. That was a big question for many, many years.

Now we can cross-reference all the music we love and for different reasons.

I will also add that there was a time not too long ago (even in the mandolin community) where folks did not know what you were talking about when you said choro music or mentioned Jacob do Bandolim. Now look around. It's totally at the center of our world up here in the U.S. I love the idea that I may have had something to do with shining a light on this beautiful art form. I think it's my duty actually to be an ambassador for these kinds of "discoveries." To turn folks on to all that might fall into my field of musical vision.

I also feel like I have been blessed with being able to do what I do and not compromise very much. That I have been able to make a living playing music is actually pretty amazing and I'm just always grateful to be able to keep doing that.

So, to watch people's idea of how things "are" or "need to be" actually change gives me a lot of energy and makes me believe that I'm on the right track. We have to all remember that Bill Monroe was actually very advanced and was fusing many things together and breaking new ground when he was creating this iconic art form that we think of as a static fixed thing.

It's only in the afterthoughts that we think of him as traditional.

He was following his heart and letting his all the music he loved lead him.

Mike Marshall's Big Trio. L-R: Paul Kowert, bass; Mike Marshall, mandolin; Alex Hargreaves, fiddle. Photo credit, Maria Camillo. Mike Marshall's Big Trio. L-R: Paul Kowert, bass; Mike Marshall, mandolin; Alex Hargreaves, fiddle. Photo credit, Maria Camillo.

Question from mandopete: Can you talk about what it's like to work with young musicians like Alex Hargraves and Paul Kowert (Big Trio)?

Mike Marshall: It's amazing. These guys are just incredible. They represent the next generation of virtuoso American instrumentalists who will go on to create the next chapter in the development of string band music. They know their history, but they also are creative and have individual voices and tons of energy. Only great music can come from this. We have a really fun time playing and working together. There is a balance in terms of what we each have to contribute and an ease of working together that is a joy. When this feeling happens, I usually want to capture it on tape (or digits) so we are busily working on our second recording right now.

Question from bratsche: Did you compose the bass line for the Bach Gigue in D minor that you played on mandocello with Caterina? If so, have you done more of this (creating duos from solo Bach works)? Is there sheet music available? I would buy it!

Mike Marshall: Yes, I did write this counterpoint. It was quite a big job for me having never studied formally at a University. Of course I have had lots of experience playing Bach's music and lots of discussions with very informed people about the process and read a lot of books on the subject myself, so I thought, why not? Just dive in and see what comes out.

Brahms actually did the same to the Gm presto many years ago and it was not uncommon at that time to take a Beethoven symphony and adapt it for piano solo or duo. What a great way to gain inside into a composer's head and learn something about how he thinks.

I also did the same for Bach's C Maj allegro assai from Sonata #2.

Both of these I have just recorded on my CD with Caterina Lichtenberg coming out very soon after the first of the year on Adventure Music.

Here is the Dm gig mandocello counterpoint... good luck!

Download: Mike Marshall's original mandocello part for Bach's Dm Gigue (PDF).

I started by writing out what I thought to be the chords to the piece. Then I jammed along with it (very slowly) and just improvised a bass line without too much regard to perfect note choices. Then I transcribed this into Sibelius (my music writing program, mostly for the purpose of capturing the rhythm). I very painstakingly looked at each line and tried to correct what did not work. This lead to many more good ideas as I played it at various tempos on the computer and could hear back each idea and really slow things down to correct individual note choices.

It was a really great learning process and I think just doing this work on these two pieces completely changed my idea of composition and counterpoint writing and pushed something up to another level for me. I highly recommend it to everyone. Wish I had time to do another 10 of these.

Question from SternART: You seem to be the ultimate duet player. You have big ears, lightning fast connection between what you hear, processed through your brain, and to your fingers, and you've paired off over the years with the likes of Caterina, Hamilton, Chris, Edgar, and Darol—top drawer musicians, across many genres of music. Are there any living musicians on your wish list to play duets with? And here is an interesting variation: what historical musicians do you see yourself jamming with in your dreams?

Mike Marshall: U. Shrinivas. I just would like to learn more about Indian music. Shrinivas and I will be touring together in March of 2011 as part of my Mandolin World Tour with Hamilton de Holanda, Caterina Lichtenberg and myself. Can't wait!

The list is too long to even begin to write: Zakir Hussain, John McLaughlin, Jerry Douglas, Yamandu, Proveta, Guinga, Django, Jacob do Bandolim,

I just want to watch J.S. Bach play and improvise. Same for Beethoven, Mozart, Debussy, Brahms. All of them were great improvisers apparently. Oh, and Thelonius Monk.

Question from AlanN: Mike, is it considered in poor taste to serve a red table wine with a main course of Cornish Game Hen?

Absolutely not! The main thing is that the red wine be of very good quality (but not necessarily overly expensive), the game hen be fresh and not frozen and have lived a very happy life and that the accompanying side dishes be of equal interest, seasonal freshness, locally grown and that respect was given to their beauty and goodness.

I would also want to make sure that the company be without presumption and have a great appreciation for music, conversation, good food and good humor. Folks with a lot of wisdom combined with just the right amount of too much silliness. I think this could make for a fine evening.

Question from JEStanek: Who are you listening too now that really captures your attention?

Mike Marshall: Bach Cantatas, Guinga, Maria Joao, Gillian Welch, Tony Rice, Keith Jarrett, John Hartford, Mahler.

Question from William Grant Macdonald: Please outline your interests in creating educational forums and related opportunities that span various kinds of music.

Mike Marshall and Chris Thile on tour, 2003. Photo credit: Gary Payne. Mike Marshall and Chris Thile on tour, 2003. Photo credit: Gary Payne.

Mike Marshall: I have begun work on a project to bring together young people from a variety of styles of acoustic music. To have them work together for at least 2 weeks in a very special place and play each others music and then perform a concert together.

We would bring in the some of today's finest acoustic musicians to work with them as mentors.

I feel that there is no real place for this type of intensive learning experience for this style of music at the highest level.

We have meetings like this in classical music and jazz but nothing yet exists for this type of music where young musicians can learn from each other and from their heroes and then perform together and have this amazing experience.

It's coming...

Also, the idea of an afternoon music school for all kids like they have in Germany and Venezuela. A place where kids of all economic classes can learn about music. Where there would be instruments available for them and where the teachers would still make a decent living even if the students were not paying all that was needed. Am I sounding like a socialist?

Elevating art and challenging people's ideas of how we should be spending our time... our culture really needs something like this right now.

Gear Facts

Main instuments: 1924 Lloyd Loar Gibson F-5, 1966 Martin D-28, Monteleone Mandocello, Lawrence Smart Mandola.

Currently working on a few new instrument designs with some fine craftsmen.

Bob Altman is building an F5 with a slightly longer scale length (1 inch). It will also have a wider fingerboard to accommodate my extra big hands. The 12th fret will be a little closer in to make for getting to the higher frets a little easier. We will see...

Lawrence Smart built a beautiful 10-string and I continue to make changes to it to solve some of the puzzles. We made the sides a little thinner (Chris Birkov did this) to try to change the resonant frequency of the box (making it higher pitched) to support the E string more. We also added a tiny brace inside to stiffen the top because of the extra pressure coming from one more string. Both of these things helped a lot in my opinion.

Mike with the Sunshine State Boys, circa 1973. L-R: Allen Water, Ron Rimmer, Mike Marshall, Joey May. Click to enlarge. Mike with the Sunshine State Boys, circa 1973. L-R: Allen Water, Ron Rimmer, Mike Marshall, Joey May. Click to enlarge.

At the moment we are changing the bridge and nut angle to make the first few frets a bit more straight. We will keep the scale length the same on the E string and C string but essentially angle the bridge more and angle the nut less. My friend Rob Sherman in Napa is doing this work. I think it will be less freaky for some of you.

Michael Lewis is building me a 10-string mandocello. This will have straight frets. I have high hopes for this too as I love those instruments and can't wait to play the 6th Bach cello suite which was written for this tuning.

I just borrowed a nylon string mandolin from Caterina Lichtenberg that with a little work, I think is going to be very very hip. I have always wanted one of these. I think I may tune it to a E, B, F#, C# (low to high) to make it a little looser. This will put it right in between a mandolin and a mandola. I know we all really don't like the Key of E, so imagine playing a G chord and sounding an E! You can do this if you put a mandolin set of strings on your mandola. It works nicely.

I love experimenting like this and always have in the back of my mind some ideas for new sounds and new music making possibilities. I don't necessarily agree that the early 20s Loar instruments are the end of the developmental process for the mandolin. I know that what we think of as a beautiful sound is somewhat subjective and that in other places in the world and at other times people have felt differently. These things can tend to be a question of playing what your heroes played and that's it. Which is turning it into something akin to fashion more than science or truth.

Strings: Phosphor bronze. 41 or 42, 26, 16, 11 or 11.5. Depending on my mood. I get the individual strings from D'Addario and make up my own sets. I like using a slightly heavier gauge. That way I can lower my action without the risk of buzzing.

Picks: I've used lots of different picks over the years. Fender mediums as a teenager (because Sam Bush used these). Tortoise shell in the shape of a Dawg pick during my years with David (we all came up with this shape). Plastic Dawg picks while in the Modern Mandolin Quartet because the tortoise would lose it's shape over time and get scratchy after one show and were a pain to maintain. Dunlop 207 after that just because I liked it even darker during those years. Pro Plec big triangles while playing with Chris Thile because I liked the point because of all the cross picking we were doing. Now: BlueChip because it has the same shape as the Pro Plec but it will NOT scratch and is always the same no matter what I try to do to it.... yeah!

Pickups: I use Pick-Up the World pickups on the mandolin, a Lloyd Baggs pickup on mandocello and guitar and a Little Labs preamp for all.

Instrument cases: Mandolin I am actually using the Travelite. Here's why: I like the weight of it (very light). I never check it in baggage so I don't have to worry about being unsafe there. I never even put it in trunks of cars. It's so easy to just put in between my legs in a cab. I keep it on my back when I am doing everything. Like checking into airports. From the cab to the curb for instance, it's never sitting on the ground while I turn my back. This feels safer to me. I have a Calton for the Mandocello and the guitar which I check. Always a bit scary, but so far, no problems.

Microphones: KM 84 Neumann for both stage and studio recording. I have a pair of them and use both for the studio.

Mike Marshall on Mandolin Tips


Mike Marshall's Big Trio with Alex Hargreaves and Paul Kowert (2009)
Mike Marshall & Darol Anger With Väsen (2007)
New Words (Novas Palavras) - Mike Marshall & Hamilton de Holanda (2006)
Mike Marshall & Choro Famoso (2004)
Serenata - Mike Marshall & Jovino Santos Neto (2003)
Short Trip Home with Edgar Meyer Joshua Bell & Sam Bush (1999)
Uncommon Ritual with Bela Fleck & Edgar Meyer (1997)
NewGrange (1999)
Montreux - Let Them Say (1988)
NewGrange - A Christmas Heritage (1998)
Montreux - Sign Language (1986)
Montreux - Live at Montreux (1984)

With Chris Thile

Live Duets (2006)
Into the Cauldron (2003)

Solo Recordings

Brasil (Duets) (2005)
Midnight Clear, solo guitar (1997)
Gator Strut (1984)

With Psychograss

Now Hear This (2005)
Like Minds (1996)
Psychograss (1994)

Mike Marshall & Darol Anger

Woodshop (2007)
At Home and On The Range - The Duo Live (2002)
Brand New Can (2000)
Jam (1999)
Chiaroscuro (1985)
The Duo (1983)

With the Modern Mandolin Quartet

PanAmerican Journeys (1993)
Nutcracker Suite (1991)
Intermezzo (1989)
Modern Mandolin Quartet (1987)

With David Grisman Quintet

Dawg Grass/Dawg Jazz (1983)
Mondo Mando (1981)
Acoustic Christmas (1981)
David Grisman/Stephane Grappelli Live (1981)
Quintet '80 (1980)
Hot Dawg (1979)

Additional information

Mike Marshall's web site

Bach's Goldberg Variations - Mike Marshall & Chris Thile

© Mandolin Cafe


Post a Comment

You may leave a comment if you have a Mandolin Cafe Forum account. Clicking "Post a Comment" below will take you to the forum where you can complete this action. Please note that once you have, your comment will appear both on this page and on our forum. YOU MUST BE LOGGED IN to your Mandolin Cafe forum account to comment.

» View Full Version of These Comments

Reader Comments

February 10, 2010 11:36 PM
That was absolutely fantastic! I honestly don't know what I'd do without this web site! Thanks one and all for very educated questions. Boy! Do I want a lesson with Mr. Marshall. I know he's doing the online thing but has anyone had a one on one lesson with him?


Jonathan James
February 11, 2010 04:48 AM
Great, entertaining, information-packed interview. Thanks Mike for taking the time and Scott for bringing this great concept to life.
February 11, 2010 06:02 AM
@27:15 in the virzi clip.. oh the humanity!
Kirk Albrecht
February 11, 2010 08:14 AM
Really great stuff, thanks Mike! And thanks Scott for the great musical links both audio and video. Outstanding. What a great site this is! I think I will be getting that duet CD with Katatina when it is out!
Kirk Albrecht
February 11, 2010 08:15 AM
Oops - that is Caterina! (sp!)
Ted Eschliman
February 11, 2010 08:22 AM
Amazing interview! Mike continues to be one of the strongest influences in the development of my own mandolinning. What a super musician, and a super human being!
February 11, 2010 08:56 AM
"I would also want to make sure that the company be without presumption and have a great appreciation for music, conversation, good food and good humor. Folks with a lot of wisdom combined with just the right amount of too much silliness. I think this could make for a fine evening."

There is no better evening.
February 11, 2010 09:07 AM
Ted, I thought your question was fantastic, and really gutsy. I had a similar question in mind, but did not submit it because I had trouble wording it gently and in a form that it would be acceptable.

Foregoing some commercial success, and personal success as well, by following diverse interests rather than mining one niche.

And I thought Mike's answer was huge.

One always thinks of these things as a choice, or collection of choices made in life. Mike seems to have the kind of success he wants, not by calculating a nich, but by being himself, and following the music for which he has a personal passion. There is a real strength of character there, that I admire.
Aaron Woods
February 11, 2010 11:53 AM
I thought reading this article would make me frustrated but I was wrong.

Mike is just an awesome guy who plays, composes and arranges fabulous music.

I'm inspired to practise and to this, I think Mike would be happy.
February 11, 2010 04:23 PM
I want to be Mike Marshall when I grow up.
Tripp Johnson
February 11, 2010 05:29 PM
One of the coolest people ever...I also thought that Ted's question and Mike's answer spoke volumes about the man.

I liked this thought that he shared in his answer to charsay's question...

"So, in the end, you make all those little choices along your journey about how to spend your time based on what inspires you and that ends up forming who you are as a musician. Everything is a trade-off I suppose and we have to just trust our instincts and that this will lead us to where we wanted to go."

I look forward to that release with Caterina Lichtenberg!
Marcus CA
February 11, 2010 09:55 PM
Another magnificent interview! It was fun reading Chris Thile's intro as the kick-off. Also, I really like having the audios and videos embedded in the interviews to give them an added dimension.

Thanks for adding to the treasure!
February 12, 2010 06:35 AM
Quote from danb: @27:15 in the virzi clip.. oh the humanity! End Quote

I'm still a newbie but this interview was very insightful into the music of one of the (if not THE) best mandolin players today. But I didn't get WHY he busted out the Virzi .. ??? anyone??
February 12, 2010 09:25 AM
Folks, I've corrected a regrettable error in the Gear section of this interview. There's mention of a custom 10-string mandocello being made and the original content had it listed as Michael Kelly. That should actually be Michael Lewis. Huge difference. Change made and our apology to Michael for that. Thanks.
February 12, 2010 10:36 AM
Can somebody please translate Thile's opening remarks? Seems to reference something but what? Reminds me of Hunter Thompson...
Rob Gerety
February 12, 2010 11:50 AM
Man, what a guy. Inspiring. You feel as though if you met you would be like old buddies in about 30 seconds.
John Kinn
February 12, 2010 04:07 PM
After a year at the Cafe it's hard to imagine how one spent the time before (ex practising..).All interviews are outstandingly presented (and the sound/picture-clips add another dimension!). A great interview with a great musician. This is THE web site for acoustic string music!!
February 15, 2010 03:30 PM
Great interview, with lots of super information. Mike is the coolest cat out there!
The Mandolin StoreD'Addario StringsJustStrings.comElderly InstrumentsEastman MandolinsMorgan MusicAcoustic Music CompanyThe Music EmporiumKentucky MandolinsEllis MandolinsWeber MandolinsMandolin World HeadquatersCollings