The David Grisman Interview

By Mandolin Cafe
October 3, 2010 - 8:00 pm

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Acoustic Disc recording artist David Grisman. Photo credit: Tracy Grisman. Acoustic Disc recording artist David Grisman. Photo credit: Tracy Grisman.

A good musician draws your ear for awhile because the sound pleases the soul, but the greatest players also surprise the mind and rivet attention with a twisty note, a discordant chord or a song beyond the familiar.

David Grisman's music has turned our heads for decades. But the man christened "Dawg" by fellow bluegrass admirer Jerry Garcia is far more than just another great and ground-breaking mandolin player. He's also a major force on the American music scene.

Dawg was soulful enough to feel the genius of Bill Monroe and follow bluegrass in the early 1960s, with some help from his New Jersey hometown mentor Ralph Rinzler, the legendary folklorist. Like Monroe, he's worked hard at touring and recording, and he's had the brass to bring the best players he could find into his various bands and ensembles and then set them free upon the world. Or he sought out the greats like violinist Stephane Grappelli to record with.

But also like Monroe, his creative fires and curiosity led him to add other styles to his repertoire and push acoustic music beyond boundaries, especially after his move to California where he began to play acoustic jazz and help with rock albums, such as his mandolin solo on the Grateful Dead's Ripple. He'd recorded and produced earlier, but it was his first David Grisman Quintet album in the 1970s that really roared across the Americana musical landscape and permanently altered the acoustic music scene.

After that success, Grisman's folk, jazz and bluegrass CD and digital offerings kept pouring out. He created the Acoustic Disc recording company. Besides releasing his own music, he's honored the earlier greats such as mandolinist Dave Apollon. Or, he's reminded us what wonderful creations our instruments are with the Tone Poems and Tone Poets CDs.

Two things about Grisman especially stand out. He doesn't waste ideas and opportunities, and he cares deeply about the music and the musicians.

The Dawg started carrying reel-to-reel tape recorders to bluegrass festivals and parties in the early 1960s and 50 years later he's still at it, albeit with digital technology and a profound web site.

I once had the good fortune to talk with Grisman and he was fun, thoughtful and genuine. He remarked, joyfully, that he had lots of killer music and musicians on tape that someday he hoped to share with the world.

That's mighty fine.

His stage tour schedule is robust. He's helping to recreate vintage instrument styles that are off the beaten path. His record company offerings surprise and please people around the world.

Yet he's still mostly like the rest of us, mando crazy after all these years.

 — Bill Graham

Bill Graham is a freelance writer and musician rambling about western Missouri.

Questions for David Grisman

Question from Jim MacDaniel: Thank you for all of the music you've shared with us over the years, and for inspiring many of us (myself included) to learn the mandolin. I also want to thank you for Corrado Giacomel's J5 design into the realm of affordability for many of us, through your partnership with Corrado and Eastman—and we also loved the Eastman revival of the Bacon. On this latter note, is there anything new on the drawing board that you can share with us now?

David Grisman: As you may already know Jim, the next model in the Dawg Collection Series is a replica of the Lyon & Healy Style A mandola, an incredible design that hasn't been produced for 80+ years! This has taken a bit longer as Eastman recently moved their USA offices from Maryland to California. I recently approved the 2nd prototype (with a slightly more acute neck angle and slimmer neck profile) and production has begun on these models. I'm very pleased with their attention to detail and willingness to build instruments that are different than the norm and reasonably priced. Other models are on the drawing boards and I'll let Scott know about them as they near completion. No F-5s though, I'm avoiding the fray.

Thanks so much for your kind appreciation.

Eastman DGM-3 PrototypeEastman DGM-3 Prototype

Eastman DGM-3 first prototype Lyon & Healey mandola. Photos courtesy of David Grisman.

Eastman DGM-3 Prototype 2

Eastman DGM-3 second prototype Lyon & Healey mandola. Photo courtesy of David Grisman.

Question from Mandolin Mick: In an interview that you did with Bill Monroe in 1977-78 for the Mandolin World News, Bill said he'd like you to play what became My Last Days on Earth. It's my favorite song and what got me playing the mandolin back in the 80s. Do you play it live?

David Grisman: Yes, I did Mick. Shortly after Bill passed away I added it to the DGQ repertoire and played it at the end of a number of shows as the encore. I haven't played it since then and would need to brush up on it now. Perhaps your inquiry will inspire a search in my archives to find one of those performances.

(several weeks later...)

Well, Mick, I just dug up five shows from September and October of 1996 that include my humble attempt at playing the piece. I've included one of those performances here, recorded on September 27, two weeks after Bill's passing. The quintet at that time included Jim Kerwin (bass), Matt Eakle (bass flute), Enrique Coria (guitar), Joe Craven (fiddle) and myself. Matt Glaser was sitting in that night on fiddle as well.

David Grisman Quintet performing Bill Monroe's My Last Days on Earth

Recorded live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, September, 27, 1996.

Shelby Eicher - Any chances of putting a "retro" reunion Quintet together (circa 1979) with Tony, Darol, Mike and Todd?

David Grisman: Hi Shelby! Such a reunion did take place at Wintergrass in 2001. It was recorded by Paul Knight (and someone in the audience) and is scheduled for release on Acoustic Oasis as the DGQ 25th Reunion Concert. We played the entire first DGQ LP in sequence (although I think I screwed that up—but was quickly corrected by a fan from the audience!) as well as a few other tunes, with Todd on mandolin and Sam Grisman on bass. I don't know if it will happen again, but it was fun. Here's a photo from the gig and one of the tunes that was recorded that night. If you notice, I'm playing my old 1925 Fern F-5.

David Grisman Quintet 25th year reunion

DGQ 25th Reunion Band at Wintergrass, 2001. L-R: Darol Anger, Mike Marshall, Todd Phillips, DG, Tony Rice. Photo courtesy of David Grisman.

David Grisman Quintet 25th year reunion

DGQ 25th Reunion Band at Wintergrass, 2001. L-R: Darol Anger, Mike Marshall, Todd Phillips, DG, Tony Rice. Photo courtesy of David Grisman.

David Grisman Quintet 25th Anniversary Band performing EMD

Recorded live at Wintergrass, 2001.

Question from mrmando: As an instrument collector, what's "the one that got away?" Or one that you let go that you wish you could get back?

David Grisman: Many "got away," mostly due to lack of funds on my part. The irony is that back in those "good old days" you could find instruments "in the wild," but as a college student/mandolin picker I was on a limited budget. $500 was actually harder to come by then than $10,000 would be today. So I had to pass up many great instruments. There are so many sad stories but I'll share one with you. In 1968 I was playing in Earth Opera and recording for Elektra Records, which had offices on Broadway near 61st in NYC and around the corner at that time was Locker's instrument shop run by Sid Locker, who also had a store in Philadelphia.

One evening it was pouring rain and I had just left Elektra and was standing under the awning at Locker's for a minute to stay dry. I was staring at what I thought was a Gibson L-5 guitar, but then I noticed that it had eight strings! It was of course, a K-5 mandocello. The next day I went in to check it out and Mr. Locker quoted me a whopping price of $325 for what he called an "H-5." I insisted that it was a K-5 and a bit of an argument ensued, prompting him to look at the label to prove me wrong. When he realized his mistake, he offered my a discount of $25! Well I didn't have $300 to spare so I asked Jac Holzman, president of Elektra for an advance. Needless to say, he turned me down. It took about 25 years after that for me to finally get one and of course, it was a lot more than $300.

I have two axioms involving the acquisition of such things:

1 - When you find something you have to have, put your foot down on it!

(Good luck nowadays!) and

2 - There'll always be more!

To answer the second part of your question, not really. I've been very fortunate to have obtained some of the greatest "vintage" instruments, and when I turn one loose (hopefully to a player) I'd much rather feel happy for them than sad for me.

Question from Bigtuna: Mondo Mando and Quintet '80 are both great albums. Any hopes of getting those up on Acoustic Oasis in the near future?

David Grisman: Thanks Bt. While there's life there's always hope, but the big boys at WB have never been very Dawg-friendly. When I started Acoustic Disc I was hoping to be able to put these (and the other) albums back in print. However WB wanted a substantial advance to lease them and I just couldn't see having to buy my own music and still not own it. Therefore I decided to re-record many of the tunes from those (and other) projects, which I did on several CDs such as Dawgwood and Dawganova. I still would like to release everything (including alternate tracks and out-takes) but it may not happen. If I was you, I'd check the free daily download at Acoustic Oasis (hint, hint)!

Question from ralph johansson: What are your thoughts on onboard electronics, in-ear monitors and the like; their effects on interaction, dynamics, expression, and so forth. Does live acoustic music really exist?

David Grisman: Good question, Ralph. When I started playing in public there were no monitors. The musicians on the stage heard the sound (usually through microphones) going out to the audience. It seemed very natural to me. If you wanted to be heard, you played louder and moved closer to the mic. When someone else was playing a solo, you backed off and softened up a bit. That's how I developed dynamics. Even though I had a brief flirtation with playing electric in the Earth Opera (solid body Gibson EM200 or Florentine and customized Johnny Smith pickup on my Gibson K4 mandocello), I never liked the tone or the way amplification interfered with the dynamics. I remember lying in bed with my ears ringing after opening for the Doors at a coliseum in Toronto. It was just too darn loud.

I've tried in-ear monitors sitting in with various electric bands and didn't really care for them. In most cases, the band(s) were so loud that I couldn't even hear what was coming through the earphones. Now of course that wouldn't be the case if I used them with my group. However, as you imply in your question, they affect the whole acoustic experience: dynamics and interaction, adversely as far as I'm concerned. When I perform it's an acoustic experience. I hear and interact with the other band members acoustically. We don't use pickups, the monitors are not overbearing, and we play quiet (or loud) enough to hear each other without amplification. Sometimes this means backing off (and not playing into) the mic. Of course the room or acoustic environment also affects the sound, which is why I love to play in concert halls and performing arts centers, where attention has been paid (and money spent) to create an ideal acoustic setting.

Question from Ted Eschliman: I can't tell you how much we appreciate what you've done for the mandolin, from creating a new genre, the educational articles of the 80s and 90s, cyber curator, and of course, all the players you've influenced the past decades. The question I have is the evolution of your improvisatory vocabulary. Your earlier music seemed mostly based on pentatonic and blues scales, but there seems to be a point in the late 90s when you injected a lot heavier, more harmonically complex jazz diction. I'm curious what players influenced you in that path?

David Grisman: Thanks Ted for the encouraging words. As you know I've been a jazz fan for decades and did a lot of listening before really attempting to play it. I guess in time and after playing with some true masters of that idiom, some of it must have rubbed off. The best education in learning a style like bluegrass or swing is to play with the great practitioners of that idiom. I was able to do that in bluegrass, learning from the likes of Bill Monroe, Red Allen, Frank Wakefield, Del McCoury, Porter Church, Clarence and Roland White, Chubby Wise, Vassar Clements, Tony Rice and many others.

Since then I've had the opportunity to play with some great musicians in the jazz world: Stephane Grappelli, Svend Asmussen, Ray Brown, Niels Henning-Ørsted Pedersen, George Shearing, Martin Taylor, Frank Vignola and (most recently) Dorado Schmidt among others. Hopefully some of their magic has rubbed off. I continue to listen to my favorite jazz artists like Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Ben Webster, Miles, Bird, Sonny Rollins, Monk, Bill Evans, Coltrane and countless others.

Actually, Jerry Garcia was an influence in that he had a "jazz attitude" in terms of experimentation and used a lot of "chromaticism" in his solos. And of course, my dear friends Andy Statman and Don Stiernberg who continue to push the jazz mandolin envelope that was pioneered by Jethro Burns, Tiny Moore, Johnny Gimble and Paul Buskirk. I also enjoy experimenting with my own music and breaking my own rules.

p.s. I'm not exactly sure about the late 90s, but my tunes Dawgola (Hot Dawg - 1978) Dawgma, Dawgmatism, Sea of Cortez (Quintet '80 - 1980) Dawg Jazz, and Steppin' with Stephane (Dawg Jazz/Dawg Grass - 1983) all seem within the realm of "jazz diction" to me.

Jethro Burns, David Grisman and Tiny Moore

L-R: Jethro Burns, David Grisman and Tiny Moore, backstage at the Great American Music Hall, San Francisco, California, 1980.

Question from fusionacustica: We all know that during your career you have featured Gibson F-5 mandolins so much as your main instruments, including your famous '25 Fern and many Loar models; so of all mandolin players, if there is someone that deserves to have a Gibson F-5 signature model it's you! Can you tell us why there is not a Gibson "Dawg" F-5 model and why you covered "The Gibson" logo on your Loar?

David Grisman: You really want the gory details? OK.

In 1980 Gibson offered me an endorsement deal but a short time later withdrew that offer. I heard nothing further from them for more than two decades. In the meanwhile I kept hearing horror stories from friends of mine in the instrument trade (dealers, builders and disgruntled employees) regarding Gibson's business ethics and practices.

One day in 2003 I was standing in an airport checking baggage and noticed some black tape that my guitarist Enrique Coria had put on his guitar case. By then, Gibson had come out with five or six endorsement models and it had become obvious to me that they had no interest in me. I decided right there that forty years of free advertising was enough! I also decided that black tape was a far more humane approach than a pen knife.

In less than two weeks I got a phone call from Todd Wright (a great guy incidentally), the Gibson artists rep, who asked if there was a problem. I told him there wasn't. For the next several years they half-heartedly "courted" me, even to the point of having Todd bring several mandolins to my home. None of the mandolins Todd brought were very good IMHO, and certainly didn't compare to Crusher or any of the other instruments which I play on recordings and gigs.

They finally sent me a poorly drafted proposal in which they wanted to make a model (another F-5 with whatever decorative doodads I could think of) with an inflated price tag and a low percentage for me coupled with many restrictions and conditions. Needless to say, I haven't responded. Several years ago, my wife Tracy gave me a beautiful engraved pearl "dawg" which now adorns Crusher's headstock as a completely removable "outlay!" It was also used by Don MacRostie on his Crusher replicas and by Eastman on the truss-rod covers for the Dawg Collection instruments.


Crusher's headstock. Photo courtesy of David Grisman.

I will say that Gibson has certainly employed many talented and dedicated individuals, past and present, and I wish them continued success in their efforts to build a quality mandolin. The fabulous instruments that were created in Kalamazoo during the "golden years" have certainly played a tremendous role in the musical evolution of our beloved mandolin here in the USA. However, I remain convinced that the corporate hierarchy there today couldn't care less about that heritage, and I personally don't feel left out of anything. As Groucho Marx once put it, "I don't care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members."

Question from Sgarrity: The two musicians that got me interested in the mandolin were Bill Monroe and the Dawg. It was a pleasure getting to play in the Dawg Ensemble this year at the Symposium. Something I'll always remember. I have three questions:

You play with such tremendous volume and power when called for. What advice do you have for pulling every bit of volume out of an instrument without sounding like you're banging on it?

David Grisman: Glad you joined us this year Shaun! In answer to your first question, let the mandolin do as much of the work as it can. Of course this involves the set-up on your instrument as well as finding the best string & pick combination for bringing out the best you and it have. I've experimented for years trying to find the perfect balance between all of the elements involved and I still am. The short answer is that every instrument has its own "sweet spot" which you need to find and gravitate to. Then there's control over the right (and left) hand to optimize the physical "bang for your buck," without over-driving. First and foremost, you need to have a mental picture or concept of how you want to sound and then seek it out on your mandolin. Or, plug in and turn your amp up to 11.

Question from Sgarrity: What can you tell us about your instrument collection? Any favorites?

David Grisman: It's hidden in a cave in Tibet!

Being a true collector (after all, a player only needs one instrument) I appreciate the various qualities (sonically and otherwise) that instruments from different makers and eras possess. I relish the reedy tonal qualities of a Lyon & Healy, compared with the richness and playability of the Loar-era Gibsons, interpreted through the work of modern masters like Steve Gilchrist and Mike Kemnitzer, as well as the more "contemporary" attributes of instruments built by John Monteleone and Corrado Giacomel—the new "Italian" school if you will—sounds that are traceable I believe to the late John D'Angelico, whose shop on Kenmare Street I remember.

My choice of the mandolin however was somewhat rooted in a penchant I've always had for non-conformity and the unusual, which carried over into my instrument collecting. Thus my "favorites" tend to be the more unique examples that I've been able to latch onto through the (almost fifty) years. Among them are several older Gibson "3-points" including a very early and ornate F-4 with a huge amount of pickwear (even below the bridge, under the strings?) and a unique early K-4 mandocello (I assume) which I string as an octave mandolin. I've played the old F-4 at several funerals, including Jerry's, and used it on the Songs of Our Fathers project. As part of a test for the original Tone Poems project, I recorded a solo on the K-4 (recently released on the Complete Tone Poems).

1907 F-4 3-point

1907 F-4 3-point

1907 F-4 3-point. Photo courtesy of David Grisman.

1905 K-4 3-point Mandocello/Octave Mandolin

1905 K-4 3-point Mandocello/Octave Mandolin

1905 K-4 3-point Mandocello/Octave Mandolin. Photo courtesy of David Grisman.

Then there's the Shutt Professional model 3 mandolin made by Albert Shutt in Topeka, Kansas in 1912. With not one, but two scrolls, f-holes and an elevated fingerboard, it predates many of Lloyd Loar's innovations by a decade. Frank Wakefield liked it and recorded a solo on it to compare to both of our F-5s when he stopped by for Tone Poets.

1912 Shutt Professional model 3

Shutt Professional model 3

1912 Shutt Professional model 3. Photo courtesy of Lowell Levinger.

Another is the Washburn (Lyon & Healy) Style A "De Pace model" - named for Bernardo De Pace (1886 - 1966) the great Italian-American virtuoso who recorded and performed in the early 20th century. It has a deeper (and smaller) body with a longer neck, possibly one of the earliest artist endorsed instruments produced in America.

1925 Washburn (Lyon & Healy) Style A "De Pace model"

1925 Washburn Lyon & Healy Style A De Pace model

1925 Washburn (Lyon & Healy) Style A "De Pace model." Photo courtesy of David Grisman.

Bernardo De Pace with his Washburn (circa 1925)

Bernardo De Pace with his Washburn

Bernardo De Pace with his Washburn (circa 1925). Photo courtesy of David Grisman.

Some of my favorites are related to who owned, played and even modified them, like Ralph Rinzler's 1951 F-5, which I watched him re-finish in his basement in Passaic, NJ and which he used on all of the Greenbriar Boys recordings (I was also there when he brought back his 1926 Fern from a music store in Detroit. It cost him $350).

1951 Gibson F-5 (Ralph Rinzler)

1951 Gibson F-5 - Ralph Rinzler

1951 Gibson F-5 (Ralph Rinzler). Photo courtesy of David Grisman.

Greenbriar Boys, circa 1963

Greenbriar Boys

Greenbriar Boys. L-R: Bob Yellin, Ralph Rinzler, John Herald, circa 1963. Photo courtesy of David Grisman.

... end of Part I

Page 1 of 2 1 2

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Reader Comments

October 04, 2010 12:00 AM
Well done. The recordings and the photos are illuminating and delightful.
Mandolin Mick
October 04, 2010 02:07 AM
Hey Dawg!

Thanx so much for not only answering my question re: My Last Days on Earth, but including a recording of you doing it as well! Great job!
mildini mandolini
October 04, 2010 08:04 AM
Dear David

Thanks for the interview
Thanks a lot more for all the great instrument pictures
But thanks most of all for all the great music that you have put out and keep putting out
it makes my world ( and I am sure everyone else's world) a better place

Good p-luck with all your future endeavours and please keep fixing this world
Mike Bromley
October 04, 2010 09:04 AM
Fascinating reading.
Denny Gies
October 04, 2010 09:25 AM
Thanks to both the Cafe and to David. The Dawg remains one of the all time greats.
October 04, 2010 09:28 AM
Great interview. How about pictures of the two banjos- the Vega Tuba-phone #3 especially!

Steve Roberts
October 04, 2010 10:31 AM
Absolutely fantastic...thanks Dawg and Scott!
October 04, 2010 03:40 PM
I really enjoyed reading the interview and what a treat to include the music and pictures!

Thanks, David for introducing me to the mandolin!
Philippe Bony
October 04, 2010 03:50 PM
Absolument délicieux! Merci.
Mille mercis aussi, monsieur Tichenor! (with Stephane's voice and (!) accent)
Andy Fielding
October 05, 2010 04:24 AM
Hi Dawg-All musicians have key musical moments in their lives. I had two of 'em: when I first heard the Beatles (1964), and the DG Quintet (1979). Other great artists have come along, but no one else (for me, at least) had that unique kind of energy. Thanks ever so much, dude.
October 06, 2010 04:56 AM
When in a musical quandry I ask myself the question WWDD?
Been listening to, admiring and being inspired by the DAWG since the 70s.
I play along w/ Traversata every day.
Thanks to DAWG for a lifetime well spent.

~~Joe Hannabach~~~~
James P
October 06, 2010 02:59 PM
Quote from Philippe Bony: Absolument délicieux! Merci.
Mille mercis aussi, monsieur Tichenor! (with Stephane's voice and (!) accent) End Quote

And Stephane Grappelli's piano playing! I had no idea. What a treat.
October 06, 2010 04:36 PM
On page two of this article, after we see some of his mandolins, Dawg says "and you thought you had MAS!!" I think that at this level of musicianship owning these mandolins is more of a right than a syndrome! Thanks for all of the great music David.
October 07, 2010 07:11 PM
Thanks, Ted, for getting this together. A great evening read. Dawg is a flat out cool cat. The picture of him, Jethro and Tiny is awesome.

October 08, 2010 06:57 AM
I think the interview speaks for itself. And it calls for a sequel.

What I like most is the love for musical instruments that despite being not "the holy grail" have pretty special qualities. I'm thinking about Rudy Cippola's Strad-O-Lin for example. Maybe these instruments are the "howly grail".

Additionaly the music is downright awesome. I have allways admired Mr. Grisman's aproach at recording music as something dynamic and alive that sometimes will be worth listening to even though one might hear technical/mechanical/musical flaws.
Jim Yates
November 04, 2014 04:39 PM
The photo of Ralph on the cover of the Greenbriar Boys Ragged But Right album is where I learned my first chop chord. I copied Ralph's fingering of a Bb chord and used it up and down the fingerboard for a while as my only chop chord.
Mandolin Cafe
October 03, 2017 01:00 PM
Noting the anniversary of this favorite interview of ours with the Dawg. We think it's about time for another one!
October 03, 2017 03:34 PM
I must admit that is a great interview!
Mandolin Cafe
October 03, 2018 12:55 PM
Another trip around the sun for this epic two-part interview with the Dawg!
October 03, 2018 01:53 PM
Whatever happened to the Dawg L&H style 5. The pictures of the prototype are breath taking.
Mark Gunter
October 04, 2018 10:16 PM
It was discontinued, it's the DGM-3. I've drooled over those pics in the interview many times. They seem pretty scarce on the used market. Here ya go:

Seems almost a crime the way that seller clutters up that gorgeous headstock with his untrimmed ends.