Chris Thile on Recording Bach - Part I

By Bradley Klein
September 4, 2013 - 12:00 pm

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Chris ThileThe universe of mandolin players has no higher profile musician than Chris Thile. Bluegrass prodigy, founding member of Nickel Creek, leader of Punch Brothers, MacArthur fellow, composer, songwriter, and sought-after collaborator.

Thile's musical partners have included those with roots in bluegrass like Michael Daves, Bela Fleck, and Stuart Duncan; jazz pianist, Brad Mehldau; and classical giants Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and Hilary Hahn.

For years, Thile has performed the occasional Bach selection within shows ranging from the rowdy Punch Brothers' New Year's Eve at the NYC rock palace, Bowery Ballroom, to a solo encore at Carnegie Hall after performing his own mandolin concerto with the acclaimed Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.

It's a practice with a long history. In rock, think Jethro Tull and Bach's Bourrée - in jazz Duke Ellington and Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite. And quite a few musicians with their roots in bluegrass have done the same, including Mike Marshall, Bela Fleck, and even Frank Wakefield.

But Thile is in the vanguard of a new generation of genre-benders. Musicians whose from-the-cradle exposure to a vast and diverse catalog of music is leading them to routinely cross musical borders. They are multilingual performers who can move with authority from the classical concert stage to the jazz club, and even speak bluegrass like a Kentucky native.

In the interviews that Thile has done since the CD's release in August, he's been clear about the scope of his ambition. He's not aiming for novelty or even 'crossover' in the common use of the word. "It's about Bach being one of the greatest musicians of all time, the solo violin music being some of his best work, and the mandolin having the potential to cast it in a new and hopefully interesting light." We initially spoke by phone and I started with the kinds of questions that mandolin players love to debate: questions about instruments, microphones, strings, and picks.

Author Bradley Klein is a freelance journalist and an adjunct professor at Columbia University's School of Journalism. His production company Twangbox® makes audio and video content for radio, television and the web. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife and a Vega cylinder-back mandobass named Tubby!

Chris Thile on Recording Bach's Works for Solo Violin

Bradley Klein: You own two February 18, 1924 Lloyd Loar signed Gibson F-5 mandolins. One that you acquired in 2011 (#75316), and a second purchased after winning a 2012 MacArthur fellowship — the so-called "genius prize." And you've recorded and performed extensively on a contemporary instrument by Lynn Dudenbostel. Which did you use for this project?

Chris Thile: The Bach recording was made entirely with the first of my two Loars. The new one is not playable yet. It's a beautiful axe both visually and aurally, but I'm going to — as (Australian luthier) Stephen Gilchrist would say — modernize it. Every original Loar I've ever played plays pretty damn out of tune. If you're going to play difficult music on a mandolin, then a fully original Loar is just not practical. I feel very strongly that they don't show themselves at their best until you get in there an manipulate them a little bit.


Gibson F5 mandolin #75316. Lloyd Loar's personal F-5 precedes Chris' by one serial number.

Chris Thile's Lloyd Loar Mandolin No. 75316, February 18, 1924
Photo credit: Crawford White

Bradley Klein: Gilchrist worked on your first Loar, will he do the set up on your new one?

Chris Thile: I don't know yet. It takes a long time to get used to a new instrument. The new one is remarkably similar in the way the neck feels and how it responds to me. But it's going to take some time. The little nuances of an instrument... you want to know everything about it before you take it into battle.

Bradley Klein: A lot of classical musicians favor European mandolin designs over what I call the American mandolin, the F-5 design that was perfected at Gibson in the 1920s. Did you ever consider recording this project with another instrument? Maybe a bowl-back or even some new design?

Chris Thile: No. Not even once. I'm sure that a lot of my bias toward the American mandolin is because I'm American and grew up with that sound. And the guys that I emulate for tone — who brought me into mandolin consciousness — all play that style mandolin. First, my teacher John Moore. Then John Reischman, who has been a lasting influence on my attempts to get good tone out of a mandolin. I hold that guy up at the very top of the heap. And I have to mention David Grisman, as well. And of course Sam Bush... the thunderous substantial sound he gets.

Bradley Klein: Do you get any push-back from classical players? Do they object at all to the Loar sound?

Chris Thile - Bach: Sonatas and Partitas, Vol. 1 Chris Thile - Bach: Sonatas and Partitas, Vol. 1

Chris Thile: I haven't interfaced with the classical mandolin scene that much, so I don't really know. I've talked to Caterina (Lichtenberg) a little about it. She prefers the bowl-back mandolin, probably for the same reasons that I prefer the American mandolin. That's what she's used to. And the funny thing is, she defends the European mandolin with the same language that I use for the American mandolin. She finds more complexity of tone (in the bowl-back) — more sound around the sound — and she describes the F-5 as sounding more delicate. And to my ear it's the opposite. I think that bowl-back mandolins sound less complex and less substantial. I would never consider switching, but that's just me. It's not an indictment of that style of instrument.

Bradley Klein: What about strings? You've used and endorsed Elixir Nanowebs in the past.

Chris Thile: I switched from Elixir not that long ago. I had horrible luck with the D strings. I was breaking a D string just about every Punch Brothers set. So I did a blind tasting of different strings with the boys on the bus, the guys in Punch Brothers, and the D'Addarios won out every time. It's kind of that industry standard thing, you know, 'that's what mandolin strings should sound like.' And I think David Grisman is partly responsible for that. I mean, no one pulls better tone than Grisman, and J74s are part of that tone. I'm using EXPs and I have D'Addario modify them ever so slightly for me. I like a hybrid of McCoury and Grisman gauges: .0115 and .016 for the E and A, and .026 and .040 for the D and G. I feel the coating on the EXPs cuts down a little bit on noise.

Bradley Klein: I've seen you using Blue Chip picks in recent years, and you endorse a triangle that they make.

Chris Thile: I love my Blue Chip picks, but sometimes I envy violinists. Hell, I envy violinists all the time — what with the amount of sound they can produce — but those bows... the amount of work that has gone into bow manufacturing. Sartory and Tourte, and Peccatte... those are bows that perform their function as well as anything made by humans can. I love how Michel at Wegen, and Matthew (Goins) at Blue Chip care so much about pick design. They're doing a killer job. But I hope they keep pushing, because I think there's another level. I don't know if it's a materials thing or shape thing, but it hasn't hit the level of sophistication that bows have by a long shot.

Bradley Klein: I blame you for pointing out that mandolin and guitar players are smacking a piece of plastic against a metal wire with every note. Now I can't get that out of my head.

Chris Thile: (laughs ruefully) I spend a significant amount of every day trying to disguise that fact. I encourage anyone in the pick business to think out of the box, and aim high. Don't just make a small improvement so that the thing lasts longer.

Bradley Klein: Let's talk a little about how you'll be performing the solo Bach works in your concerts in the coming months. Will you use amplification?

Chris Thile: It will depend on the size of the hall. Maybe the mandolin's chief limitation is that it's a quiet instrument, meant for small rooms. If I get in one of those small rooms I'll play acoustic, but in a standard-size room I'll use amplification. One microphone will suffice — never a pickup, and not a clip-on mic. And we'll keep it at a very low volume. I want the sensation of playing totally acoustic, and I think we'll get there.

Bradley Klein: Looking ahead at your performance schedule, you'll be switching between solo shows, bluegrass duos with Michael Daves, Goat Rodeo, and Punch Brothers gigs. Is that hard to do?

Chris Thile: (laughs) Well, I think that it plays into my skittish nature. I like having a lot of things going on. It keeps me on my toes... keeps me sharp. The touring this Fall will be about half Bach, and half will be songs and other solo repertoire. Even though the Bach will factor heavily into it, it won't be a recital, in the pure classical sense. It'll be a hybrid of what one thinks of as a 'recital' and what one thinks of as a 'show.'


In Part II of Chris Thile's Mandolin Cafe interview, we'll talk about how he approaches the formidable technical and interpretive challenges of Bach's solo violin repertoire, details of performance and recording, and the musicians who have influenced his development as a classical soloist and composer.

Additional information

Chris Thile's Loar

On February 23, 2013 while researching Fisher's Orchestra of El Dorado, Kansas, I located information identifying the original owner of Chris' mandolin. His name was Virgil Bisagno, a high school senior in 1925 and a member of Fisher's Orchestra. The photo of him (below, left) and the following Fisher's Orchestra photo (further below) came with the instrument Chris purchased. The same orchestra photo also appeared in Gibson Catalog P, 1928 (presumed), Page 8. The image on the left Chris provided for our interview with him in 2012. The photo on the right is Bisagno's senior picture from the 1925 El Dorado, Kansas high school yearbook. Finding his photo and name after a long afternoon at the Butler County Historical Society is a moment I don't think I'll ever forget. My research into the members of Fisher's Orchestra is ongoing.

I had the good fortune to speak with Chris in person while in New York City in early August. He was surprised to learn the original owner's name and promptly whipped out his iPhone and created a note with Bisagno's full name.

With assistance from genealogist Joe Spann we found Bisagno was born November 27, 1907 and died March 6, 2006 in Siskiyou County, California at age 99. He married Zelda Emma Crommet, November 5, 1927, also a senior in the same class. Additional information and photos of both appear in the commentary section of our 2012 article Chris Thile in London authored by Dan Beimborn.

  — Scott Tichenor

From an article by Steven Stone for Vintage Guitar Magazine. Thile's recounting of the story of the mandolin passed on by the seller (that purchased from Bisgno's widow) was as follows: "... an 18-year-old senior in high school bought it new in 1924, played it in a mandolin orchestra for a year, then married his high school sweetheart. On his wedding night, he put it under his bed and never played it again. White (Crawford White of bought it from his 98-year-old widow. So I played it and right away I could tell it already had some of the characteristics I wanted a Loar to have."

Virgil Bisagno

Fisher's Gibson Mandolin Orchestra, El Dorado, Kansas

Virgil Bisagno is standing in the third row back, third from the left. There are three Loar mandolins pictured in the photo below. One other Loar in the photo has been located and identified as the Semisch Loar, #76782, and was documented in an article Bill Graham wrote for the Mandolin Cafe in 2009 entitled Shaking Hands with Lloyd.

Fisher's Gibson Orchestra of El Dorado, Kansas

First row on ground L-R: F5 Loar (possibly a Fern), F2 (seated - thought to be orchestra leader Howard Fisher), A1/2/4 Snakehead
Second row seated L-R: F2, H1, H1, F4, A Snakehead, F2
Third row L-R: F5 Loar, Style 0 guitar, #75316 F5 Loar (Virgil Bisagno), Snakehead A, F2, F2, Model MB-3 Mandolin Banjo, K2 Mandocello, TB-4 Tenor Banjo with aftermarket resonator
Fourth row L-R: Gibson L2/3/4, 1920s style O guitar

© Mandolin Cafe


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Reader Comments

September 04, 2013 04:33 PM
Amazing to think of the holy grail Lloyd Loar signed Gibson F-5 mandolins as being unplayable. Looking forward to going beyond the equipment in Part II and to hear about the challenges and solutions in playing the music.
September 04, 2013 06:52 PM
Loved the interview and the considerable research done to identify the original owner of Chris' Lloyd Loar. Fascinating stuff!
September 05, 2013 12:38 AM
It is interesting how Chris Thile and Caterina Lichtenberg both find their own style of mandolin to have the more complex tone.
mandolino maximus
September 05, 2013 07:22 AM
Someone's going to have ask him, Why two Loars - on the same date, no less?

So looking forward to hearing Thile and Daves do their smokin' thing in the Blue Ridge mountains on a Saturday and then hear him in concert the next Tuesday.
September 05, 2013 09:54 AM
Quote from JeffD: It is interesting how Chris Thile and Caterina Lichtenberg both find their own style of mandolin to have the more complex tone. End Quote

That definitely stood out for me too - i love the idea of the f-5 being considered 'delicate' as that kinda flies in the face of how such mandolins are represented on these boards.

I was also a bit surprised to see this '... European mandolin designs over what I call the American mandolin' i found that odd as i have never thought of mandolins in those terms before.
September 05, 2013 11:12 AM
Quote from JeffD: It is interesting how Chris Thile and Caterina Lichtenberg both find their own style of mandolin to have the more complex tone. End Quote

I guess there must really be something about a person preferring the type of instrument he or she first bonds with. Didn't Jacob Reuven say in another thread that he thinks the Kerman is the best instrument for playing classical music? I wonder if that is what he has played from the beginning as well.

September 05, 2013 11:19 AM
I have attachment disorder I guess, because I haven't bonded.

I am not sure I can communicate what I like and don't like, and I fear "complexity" in tone is going to be like "woody", just an opportunity to get sidetracked. Sufficient to say I love the sound of a bowl back, when I go to one after a long hiatus, and I love the sound of my very Gibsonny Gibson A2 when I go back.

I find my L&H model A has a very bowl back like tone, or more accurately, I like its tone because of the qualities it shares with a bowl.

I will acknowledge that folks like Caterina and Chris, up in the stratosphere of talent, experience, and musical commitment, can probably discern more accurately than I the subtler differences. I know I probably could not have heard much difference at all when I first started, so I do believe its possible that someone who spends as much time behind an instrument as Chris would hear more than me.
John Hill
September 05, 2013 05:18 PM
I think you're on to it Jeff, when I play around friends/family they will say its a very nice sounding mandolin (and it is) but I, of course, can hear and point out what might be missing in comparison to some of the finer mandos I've had in my grubby little paws.

They still say...uh, it sounds really nice to me. So there you go. Experience & expectations set the table for what we think something should sound like.
September 10, 2013 09:12 AM
A nice opportunity in writing this piece for the Cafe, was the chance to introduce or promote the terms, 'American mandolin', and 'European mandolin'. These seem to me to be plenty different enough to consider them as at least sub-categories of musical instrument that share the same tuning. They differ more than the flat-top and arch-top guitar - but perhaps less than, say a guitar and a 6-string banjo. After all, we don't call a tenor guitar, a 'flat top' mandola, do we?

The American mandolin, with its carved plates, begins with Orville Gibson and reaches its ultimate form under Lloyd Loar in the 1920s, with contributions along the way by Ted McHugh (adjustable truss rod) and Albert Shutt (ff-holes, elevated fretboard). That's not to say that all evolution has stopped, but as with Stradivari and the violin, the main work was done, and the basic structure of the instrument defined.
September 11, 2013 02:38 PM
When do we get to see part 2 of this interview? Or did I miss that somewhere?
Scott Tichenor
September 12, 2013 08:01 AM
Quote from fourcourse: When do we get to see part 2 of this interview? Or did I miss that somewhere? End Quote

Don't have a firm date yet as information is still being collected and it's in production at this time. One thing for sure, we want the current D'Addario/Collings MT2 Giveaway ended and out of the way before we do so. A major artist like Chris needs more front page attention on the site and we can't do that until the contest is over.
September 12, 2013 09:05 PM
Scott, Thanks for the update. I'm looking forward to part 2
October 11, 2013 09:19 AM
On the subjects that Chris talks about in Part One of the interview - picks, strings, instruments and technique - these two videos make an interesting comparison of the very fine Dudenbostel/Wegen/low action sound from a few years back, and the also very fine current Gibson/Bluechip/medium-low action sound of today. Usually I think going to Youtube for serious sound comparisons is futile, since recording quality and differences swamp everything else. But in this case, I think you can hear a reflection of something real. Maybe I'm kidding myself. But there's good content anyway.

A few years back:

A few weeks back:
August 06, 2014 01:38 PM
When is part 2 of this interview coming?
August 06, 2014 01:59 PM
Quote from John Hill: ... Experience & expectations set the table for what we think something should sound like. End Quote

Yep, very handy for me, as I'm the only person in my peer group and the folks I play with who plays a mandolin. They all think it sounds beautiful, but I know there are way better sounding ones out there...'course, I never say that to them, I just smile n say 'Taa' smile
August 06, 2014 04:13 PM
Quote from AaronW: When is part 2 of this interview coming? End Quote

Aaron, Sorry for the delay. Thile's time is portioned out very sparingly, and since he ran off to other projects, I haven't had any luck getting the last few questions answered for the interview. But I have some great material ready for part II, and a good chance of hearing back sometime this summer from the man himself. Stay tuned.