By Mandolin Cafe
December 12, 2010 - 8:30 am
The first time I ever worked with Adam Steffey was in 2000, during the tracking for Knee Deep In Bluegrass - The AcuTab Sessions. Of course I was familiar with his playing, and had followed his career since his time with Lonesome River Band in the late 1980s.
But watching him work provided new insight, as it always does when you have the chance to witness a great artist create.
Working on his mandolin solos, Adam would put each one together on the fly, recording along with the track, discarding one brilliant take after the other, until he could be satisfied that he had captured the sound he was after. And by the end of the process, he had assembled mini-masterpieces for each song.
By the time we sat down to record his AcuTab video in 2007, I was fairly well-acquainted with Adam and knew that he would have much to offer the mandolin playing public. That 2 days in the studio demonstrated that he not only had an obvious musical ability, but mandolin wisdom as well, something that was clear to anyone who watched the lengthy interview portions of his DVD.
What especially struck me, though, was his continuing insistence that viewers not get frustrated when they make mistakes, and to always remember to have fun with the mandolin—even when trying to master difficult material.
In the end, I think what make's Adam's music so compelling is the sheer joy he takes in creating it. Catch him on stage with The Boxcars and tell me that isn't true.
Deep Rough, the opening cut from the recording Adam Steffey - One More For The Road.
Question from Gail Hester: Adam, congratulations again. It was the highlight of my trip to Nashville and I had the time of my life meeting you in the studio last October with Bruce and Thea. That was some amazing playing. I look forward to seeing you again this spring at Bluegrass From The Forest in Shelton, Washington.
At the festivals I attended this year I realized there is a generation of young mandolin players who claim you as their influence and they are trying to achieve your ultra clean and tasty style. As a custom mandolin builder I take a lot of time trying to fit the neck profile to the player. I find that many believe a wide neck is needed to play cleanly. You have large hands so I was wondering what your preference and opinion is about mandolin neck width.
Adam Steffey: Gail, Thanks SO much for your kind words and I certainly enjoyed meeting you and getting to play some of your instruments. As for the wide vs. narrow neck, I have tried both at length and prefer a more traditional width. I found that (for me) after playing for several hours with the wide neck that my hand would become "tired," for lack of a better word. At first I thought this could be attributed to getting older, etc. But after switching back to a standard neck width the strained feeling was gone and I had no problems at all.
A wide neck will allow you to get the string spacing spread out and therefore may help with note separation and clarity in your playing, but I don't think that it is absolutely necessary. I suggest that anyone who is curious to try out a mando that has a wider neck and see if it feels good to you. For me, I have landed on a standard width with just a slight V (nothing drastic) feel.
Thanks for the question and I look forward to seeing you in Shelton!
Question from Philphool: Tell us about your new Wayne Henderson mandolin. How does it compare to the mandolins that you've used over the past few years, and what do you look for in a mandolin?
Adam Steffey: I have been a fan of Wayne's work for many years now. My first mandolin instructor who went on to be a great luthier (Audey Ratliff) played a Henderson mandolin. Over the past few years I've got to know Wayne very well and he finished the mandolin that I have back in early July. It is pretty standard in all respects. He makes his mandolins to "Loar" specs and I didn't have him do anything special or strange at all. It does have a varnish finish (which I have not had on a mandolin in several years), Waverly Tuners, and a James Tailpiece. The fingerboard extension has been scalloped down to avoid the "pick click," but other than that there's nothing out of the ordinary in the fit and finish of the axe. I LOVE the Henderson mando and it plays like a dream.
I have been very fortunate over the years to have become acquainted with a lot of fantastic luthiers. I have been playing Sim Daley mandolins for the last several years and he remains one of my favorite builders and repair people on the planet! The new Henderson has more of a "Loar" type of tone. The mid-range and high end is more evident, but not to the point of being thin or brittle sounding. The Daleys that I have are very warm and responsive and have a soft rounded tone that I love as well. You can never have too many toys to experiment with, and I have certainly been blessed with some mighty fine instruments. I met Adrian Bagale who runs the Northfield Mandolin Workshop and think that his instruments are fantastic as well. That's what I used on the new Boxcars CD. It's a Northfield F-5 (#37) and it REALLY worked great on there.
I'm what you might call the textbook definition of a "mandolin geek." I just love the instrument and like to try out and hear different voices that they have. I guess I'm an addict. For my next "fix" I would like to get ahold of is an Ellis "A" model. I've never had a really good A model and having played several from Tom Ellis, I've really got the bug!! Please tell me I'm not the only one who is "mando loco!"
Question from Rex Hart: Adam, love you playing. Congrats on the award for IBMA Mandolin Player of the Year. Did you know when you laid down the opening riff on Every Time You Say Goodbye that it would become so instantly recognizable and iconic?
Adam Steffey: Rex, thank you very much for the kind words. When we first started working up the song Every Time You Say Goodbye we tried different arrangements and different instruments kicking it off, etc., and settled on the mandolin doing it after a few times through. I certainly had no idea that it would be something that folks would remember so well. Over the years since that album was released, I have been asked about that kickoff as much as anything I've ever played.
When working out what I was going to do, I just tried to emphasize the melody of the song and not go overboard with flashy licks. That is such a beautiful melody and I felt like if I could stay close to it, yet make it interesting with either syncopation or dynamics I would have something that would make for a good intro for the song. That's the way I try to approach all tunes that I may record or play in a group context.
Dark Skies, as performed by an early version of Alison Krauss & Union Station. L-R on stage: Adam Steffey, mandolin; Tim Stafford, guitar; Alison Krauss, fiddle; Barry Bales, bass; Alison Brown, banjo.
Question from Nelson Peddycoart: Thanks for the great music. I had been exposed to some bluegrass growing up but had never listened to it very much. It was your mandolin work on the disk Every Time You Say Goodbye that pulled me into bluegrass and led me down a path of musical discovery.
Do you recall a song, band, show or LP that you were enjoying the moment you realized this was the music for you and/or that you wanted to play for a living?
Adam Steffey: Nelson, thank you so very much for your kind words! The person that first set me on fire to want to begin playing the mandolin was Dempsey Young of the great bluegrass band The Lost and Found. I saw them perform at The Carter Family Fold in Hiltons, Virginia in about 1979 and haven't been the same since. There was something about the way he played and the tone and sense of time that he had that struck me. That night, I bought the band's first album, First Time Around and listened to it for many, many hours. Of course, at the time I had no idea that my passion for the instrument would ever turn into a profession. But I must say that it didn't take too long after I began playing that I would dream of what it might be like to travel and play... and I still love it as much as I did then. Nothing compares to playing live for an audience and I hope that I'm able to keep doing it for a long time to come.
Question from Hank: Congratulations on being named IBMA's Mandolin Player of the Year. Your My Approach to Bluegrass Mandolin DVD has been a lot of fun and help. My questions are do you ever stray from Bluegrass into other forms of music, and do you have any funny stories about life on the road during a tour?
Adam Steffey: Thanks Hank! I enjoy playing other types of music, but haven't really stretched out too much. I love the sound of classical and jazz mandolin as well as the choro sounds, but it would certainly be a stretch for me to dive into any of these. When I hear Mike Marshall, Chris Thile and Don Stiernberg I think, WOW!! I can't even begin to call myself a mandolinist. These guys are the REAL deal.
As for funny stories from the road, most are not fit to print and in order to tell them accurately I would have to incriminate others... they know who they are! I will say that in all my years on the road, I have had the great fortune of traveling with some awesome people. You have to have thick skin and a sense of humor when you travel this much and play music or you will go insane in pretty short order.
Question from Michael Ramsey: If you hadn't been riding the mandolin down the road all these years, what other course of work do you think you would have taken? I think I know parts of this answer, but others might find it interesting. Ride on, road warrior.
Adam Steffey: Mike, you are the man!! If I had not played the mandolin as a profession, I was studying to be a teacher at the high school level. My whole plan was this: as a teacher I would have some time off in the Summer which would allow me to go to bluegrass festivals and fiddler's conventions and get my pickin' fix. You see, even then I was maneuvering to get in as much mando time as possible! Lucky for me (and the poor students that would have been under my tutelage!), I ended up picking and running the roads before this happened. Riding on!
From the Mandolin Workshop at the 2007 IBMA Conference in Nashville.
Question from j-hill: Adam, thanks so much for your willingness to answer questions. I really enjoy your singing as well as your mandolin playing. On songs such as Mountain Man, your voice seems a perfect match. I was lucky enough to hear you do one of the Mandolin Workshops at World of Bluegrass and you mentioned taking lessons. I got the impression, perhaps mistakenly, that you weren't a child prodigy when you began taking the mandolin seriously. How old were you?
Secondly, I have heard you joke that you never use your pinky when playing. Was there a period when you worked to involve your pinky more and finally had to get comfortable with the reality that you were going to be a 3-fingered player? Do you find that players tend to get frustrated by what they can't (or don't) do instead of enjoying their natural style?
Adam Steffey: j-hill, it's my pleasure to take these questions and thank you for contributing to them. I certainly wasn't a "child prodigy" by any means. I began playing at age 14 and it took me several years before I was really comfortable playing in front of an audience. There were several local groups in my area (East Tennessee) that I had the great fortune of being able to play with and get my feet wet. I look at these years as the most important in my development as a player.
I do use my pinky, but very rarely. This was never a conscious decision on my part. I would sit down with records and try to rip off whoever I might be listening to at the time and never gave any thought to my technique or fingering. If I could figure out a lick or a solo, my main concern was just to play it as close to what I was hearing as possible. There are times when I DO use my pinky, but the vast majority of the time I will stretch with my ring finger.
So many folks get bogged down with the process that they forget to enjoy the results. I have talked to a lot of folks during workshops and seminars that get tied down to trying to use a certain technique or method. Although they may be very proficient players, they want to change something because that's the way they envision it is "supposed" to be done. I will never be able to do what a lot of other players do, but I'm totally fine with that. Clint Eastwood in one of the Dirty Harry movies said, "a man needs to know his limitations." Hopefully, I know mine and try not to let this bog me down. I play the mandolin because I love and enjoy it. If someone enjoys the technical side of playing, I think that's awesome. But NEVER feel like YOU'RE somehow missing out on something because of a difference in technique or style.
Adam's current band, The Boxcars, L-R: Harold Nixon, Adam Steffey, John R. Bowman, Keith Garrett, Ron Stewart. Photo credit, Dean Hoffmeyer.
Question from MarthaWhitePicker: I attended ETSU and I was thrilled to be able to play bluegrass with the pros and with the future pros (students). Do you plan to continue teaching at ETSU, and what is a typical day for you on campus?
Adam Steffey: MarthaWhitePicker, thanks for your question. I really enjoy my work at ETSU. The program there has been steadily growing over the last decade or more and shows no signs of slowing down. I plan on being there as long as my schedule will allow. My days there are mostly spent in private lessons with students. However, this semester I am also working with one of the student bands and it's a lot of fun. There are a bunch of very talented players and singers in the program and I know that there are going to be a lot of graduates who will be in the next generation of influential artists.
L-R: Adam Steffey, Peter Rowan, Mark Schatz, Tony Rice.
Question from grassrootphilosopher: What are the necessary assets as a musical businessman?
Adam Steffey: grassrootphilosopher, thanks for your question. One of the greatest assets for a musician that does this as a profession is patience. This business is very fluid and in a constant state of change. You must be able to roll with these changes. For instance, the recording side of the "business" has gone through incredible changes in the last few years, and no one really knows where it's going to be in the next few to come. You must be patient and not be too fast to jump on every new idea that comes along. You also must be careful with how you handle your money. It seems that this business is "feast or famine" the majority of the time. Some months you can hardly come up for air, while others you wait on the phone to ring. And I think the most important thing is that you never take your audience or your fans for granted. These are the people that give you the opportunity to play and perform and I think that you should take every opportunity to thank them and let them know that you appreciate them.
Question from Pete Braccio: How's your hand doing after you ulnar nerve injury? Did you have to change your playing style to alleviate any chance of further damage?
Adam Steffey: Pete, thanks for asking. For those that don't know, I was in an auto accident back in late May and as a result had some numbness in the ring and pinky finger on my left hand. This was very scary for me, but luckily I have fully recovered. After the accident (for about 2 months) it was a real concern. The REAL bummer was that I had to miss the Mandolin Symposium. I was scheduled to be an instructor but under my Doctor's suggestion I had to back out and let my arm/hand rest. Thank God it didn't continue. I am now back to 100%. I've not had to make any changes in my playing style or practice habits as a result.
L-R: David Grisman, Adam Steffey, Andy Statman, Rich DelGrosso, Don Stiernberg. Photo credit: Phil Goldman.
Question from Skip Kelley: Adam, you have said the late Dempsy Young was a big influence in your playing. He is one of my heroes as well. What did you learn from him that you still use in your playing? Thanks!
Adam Steffey: Skip, thanks for your question! Dempsey was the guy that made me want to play the mandolin. He was a one of a kind player that is truly one of the unsung heroes of the instrument, in my opinion. His tone was what struck me at first. It sounded like his mandolin was as big as the earth! He also had a very strong rhythmic chop that seemed to drive the whole group regardless of the tempo of the song. I loved the way he would play fills and back up during vocal numbers. I can only hope that one day my tone and sense of what to play (and when to play it) will be somewhere close to Dempsey's. He can never be replaced. A true innovator in the world of bluegrass mandolin.
L-R: Mike Marshall, David Grisman and Adam Steffey. Photo credit: Phil Goldman.
Question from mandomurph: Do you still use a metronome or do you pretty much have great timing imbedded in your head?
Adam Steffey: mandomurph, thanks for the question. I still use a metronome and recommend it to all of my students. Timing is absolutely one of the most important (yet most often overlooked) factors in playing. So many students of the instrument want to learn a hot lick or a phrase or two from a song without ever concerning themselves with timing, or the importance of their rhythm while OTHERS are playing. I would rather play rhythm with a solid guitar and bass player as to ever take a solo on the mandolin. I love the feeling when a groove is set and you can just ride along with it. Never allow yourself to neglect working on the timing and rhythmic aspects of playing. It's as important as any solo you might ever learn to play.
Question from Scott Tichenor: In 2009 you did a brief mandolin duet tour with Kym Warner of the Greencards. Any chance there will be future tours with other mandolin players? And let me thank you for the wonderful new recording from The Boxcars. The band's remake of the classic Log Cabin In The Lane was just wonderful.
Adam Steffey: Thanks so much Scott! The duet tour last year with Kym was an absolute blast for me. Kym is SUCH a monster player and to be able to get up and just go back and forth on all kinds of tunes with him was really special. We have talked about doing it again at some point when our schedules will allow. I would certainly like to do it again! Sierra Hull and I did a duet show in Boston back in the Spring and I would love to do some more with her as well. She's such an inspiring player and I love every opportunity that I get to play along with her!
I want to take a moment and thank everyone that sent along a question. I consider myself to be one of the most fortunate people in the world to be able to do what I do. The mandolin has given me the opportunity to travel around the world and meet some great people who have become lifelong friends. It is very humbling to think that someone would take the time to write in and ask me a question and I hope that I have answered them clearly and to your benefit. I am truly honored to be a part of the mandolin community and hope that I can help other players out whenever possible.
Main Instruments: Wayne Henderson F-5 #114, Northfield F-5 #37, Sim Daley F-5 "Steffey Model"
String preferences: D'Addario EXP75's
Instrument cases: Reunion Blues Gig Bag, Calton Hard Shell
Picks: Blue Chip Jazz (large) 60
Microphone preferences, studio and live: Neumann KM-84's in the studio and live (if possible)
In demand as a session mandolin player, Adam has appeared on recordings with Alison Krauss, Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, The Dixie Chicks, James Taylor, Clint Black, Little Big Town, Dan Tyminski, Ronnie Bowman, The Lonesome River Band, The Isaacs, Jim Lauderdale, Randy Kohrs, Clay Hess, Ron Block, Jim Mills, Jerry Douglas, and many more.
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