From Mandolin Cafe
The Paul Glasse Interview
By Ted Eschliman for the Mandolin Cafe
December 15, 2009 - 10:15 am
Paul Glasse with his Monteleone mandolin. Photo credit: Polly Reynolds for paulglasse.com.
Paul Glasse has always been somewhat of enigma to me.
Generally, when an artist is blessed with incredible, other-worldly talents, there remains the baggage of Prima Dona personality, severe behavioral eccentricities, and an ego that struggles to fit in even a large room. With Paul, you have none of these. Just a clean-cut, humble, emotionally-balanced and good-natured soul that quietly lives to raise two childern and create (and teach) great music.
I've had the privilege of spending time with him, seen him perform live (with a big band!), and observed his laid-back, approachable clinician style; I continue to be astounded that this amazing talent is not on the world stage.
Paul is one of mandolindom's living treasures, and the fact that he's one of a handful of those who've forged jazz frontiers on the fretboard makes him special to me personally, let alone he's been doing this for several decades already.
His hands-on experience with the previous generation's triumvirate greats in jazz mandolin, Tiny Moore, Johnny Gimble, and Jethro Burns has allowed him to carry their torch and assist in cultivating a new crop of players, as any who have attended his workshops will attest. I consider it a true privilege to introduce you to the words and wisdom of Austin Texas's crown jewel, Paul Glasse.
— Ted Eschliman, Jazzmando.com
Air Mail Special, from the 1993 Paul Glasse recording The Road To Home.
Question from SternART: Tell us about your Monteleone mandolin. Did you order it new?
Paul with his then still new Monteleone Style B mandolin. Photo credit, John Glasse. Click to enlarge.
Paul Glasse: This has been my primary acoustic mandolin for many years. John Monteleone calls the model his Style B. Yes, I ordered it directly from John, received it in 1986 and had a few minor tweaks geared toward my preference: the color of the sunburst (which is tri-color with a bit of red in it, darker than most he made in this period), a bit more figured maple on the back than was typical on a Style B, the fingerboard terminated after the 20th fret, negating the possibility of a pick guard but allowing me to pick comfortably in what some now call the "sweet spot."
John included the gold-plated hardware as a surprise upgrade. I added real pearl buttons later on. I really love this mandolin. It just suits the bulk of my playing in many ways. While it's not the "banjo killer" in terms of volume, I've found the tone very pleasing—to my ears very sweet and even sounding. Some instruments I find need to really be driven hard to give up their sound. Though this mandolin can be played with a heavy attack, it's not mandatory. The instrument sounds wonderful when played with a soft touch as well and responds easily to subtle gestures. These qualities are crucial to what I do. I like the sound of this mandolin enough that, when I'm properly tuned in, I can play more economically than I might with another instrument. That is, often I can just let the notes be—let the mandolin's voice carry me through. From a playing perspective, I really can't think of another mandolin that I'd rather have.
I learned very early on that this mandolin records nicely. There's an evenness to it that really works in the studio. A couple of brief anecdotes. For years prior to owning the Monteleone my primary acoustic was a late 30s Gibson A-50 that's been refinished and in the process probably improved sonically, due to what what might be referred to in the mandolin community as "random hippie sanding." Right after I received my Monteleone I got called in for an overdub recording session. I brought the A-50 because that's what I was used to and most comfortable playing at that moment in time. I also brought along my less than one-week old Monteleone, really as a backup. We spent some time trying different mikes and EQ settings on the A-50 trying to dial in the sound we wanted. It was taking up a fair amount of time. Finally I mentioned that I'd brought another mandolin we could try. I pulled out my new mandolin and within a few seconds the engineer announced that he had what we needed and was all set to roll. I asked him what he had to do to the EQ for that mandolin and he said "Not a thing. I'm running it completely flat." That's been pretty much the story ever since.
When I taught at the Mandolin Symposium each instructor was allotted a featured concert set at some point during the week. After my set Stephen Gilchrist met me by the edge of the stage and said "The microphone loves your mandolin." He told me that he talked about that instrument in his mandolin construction class the following morning. Really, we all love the instruments we play. This one has always performed well with a microphone and truly suits what I'm trying to do.
Trivia tidbit: Monteleone numbers his mandolins sequentially; by the luck of timing my mandolin's serial number is 123.
Question from Chasray: Do you have a different mindset when you play an 8-string as opposed to a 5-string?
The first Paul Glasse recording, from 1991. Click to enlarge.
Paul Glasse: Yes, there's quite a bit that's different between the two instruments, the settings that I play them in and what I've come to believe they both require. Truthfully, at this point, I approach many of these issues intuitively, which serves me well. A few thoughts... Prior to moving to a 5-string electric I'd had most of a year of gigging experience playing on a 1957 Fender electric mandolin, generously loaned to me by fiddler mentor Evan Stover. Through that experience I'd begun to deal with some of the issues: single strings versus double courses, bending notes, picking with a lighter attack, getting away from the bluegrass "motorboat" right hand picking, playing frequently in closed positions, the ups and downs of having more sustain. When I finally moved to a 5-string electric I went through the same issues many of us do. At first I thought of the bottom strings "in another key"—that is "I can move all my G-position stuff down to the bottom four strings and now it's C stuff." While that approach can get you started, you've really got to get past that and see all five strings as a complete thing—an extension of the fingerboard you knew before. At this point, even if I'm just playing the bottom strings, seeing all five strings there helps me conceptualize where I am. Oddly, mandola or 4-string mandola tuning (like Johnny Gimble uses) confuses me more than the 5-string.
Question from Brad Weiss: How have you tried to incorporate the playing of Wes Montgomery into yours? How, in general, do you absorb the playing of the giants who have influenced you? How should WE do that?
Paul Glasse: Wes is my all-time favorite jazz guitarist. I went through a period of listening to him a lot—still never grow tired of his playing. I particularly admire his distinctive personal voice, really grooving sense of time, and blending of blues and bebop vocabulary, that he was great at both soloing over the chord changes and letting them slide or ignoring them when a soulful bluesy riff seemed like emotionally the right thing. Yes, I'll even play the occasional phrase in octaves—but it's really not the same. Mostly I just find him to be a very unique, soulful voice.
For any music you are inspired by and want to learn I'd suggest... really listen... a lot. I find that one can do a lot of different kinds of listening. A few questions one might ask while listening: can you hear each instrument and if so what's it doing? What is its role in the group? What's the form of the tune (AABA, AABB, blues)? Can you hear the chord changes in terms of intervals—perhaps call them out? What are qualities of each chord—major, minor, altered in some way? Where is the soloist placing himself rhythmically—on, in front of, or behind the beat? If Wes plays a cool note or phrase, what makes it cool? What's the overall arc of his solo? How does he create excitement or build energy. If you wanted to play the phrase you just heard on the mandolin, where would it "live" on your fingerboard? Really, this is the tip of the iceberg. I'm also a big believer in more passive listening—just enjoy the stuff even if you don't understand it at all. Listen to something that challenges you and don't worry about it. Let it wash over you. Listen while you're concentrating on something else: driving, doing chores around the house. Try listening first thing in the morning or right before you go to bed—just intuitively try to get it into your system and start hearing that way. Can you improvise solos in your head on a given tune? Can you imagine how your musical hero might sound playing that same tune—even if you've never heard him play it? Give it a try. You've got to start hearing cool stuff in your head before you can play it on your instrument. Listening to the greats, I think, can only help. Don't worry, it really shouldn't keep you from eventually playing just like yourself.
Question from Shaun Garrity: Of the living jazz greats, who would you most like to play with and why? Same question for anyone you didn't get to play with that is no longer with us?
Paul Glasse: Wow, those are tough questions. Of living players... not really a jazz guy... but I'd love to play with drummer Jim Keltner. I'm a big fan of the round, mushy, grooves that he creates—in particular the way he can artfully split the difference between shuffle and straight eighths time. I've really enjoyed hearing Peter Erskine and Mark Johnson play together and particularly like the great interaction they have with their fellow band members. I'd like to play with pedal steel player Buddy Emmons because I'm a big fan of that instrument in general and think he's been a major musical talent. I'd like to sit and discuss music writing with Tord Gustavsen, because I think he's writing with a unique, personal, voice. In truth, there are so many great players around today...
Of the jazz players who are gone, to even name the names seems presumptuous. Wes Montgomery, Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly... I mean why not aim for the top? While I'm dreaming, I'd love to get to play with the Count Basie Orchestra or do a small group date with Basie's so-called "All-American Rhythm Section." Keep that time travel machine running—I'd like to play a dance with Bob Will's Texas Playboys, late '40s or early '50s please!
Have I used up all my wishes, Genie?
Question from Perry: What note choices or avoidance thereof do you find helpful in designing hip sounding bebop lines? Are there particular "snippets" of note patterns that you find always seem to come up? Is there a method you use when first attacking a jazz standard? i.e. find all the 3rds and 7ths in the chords, etc... I'm looking for the fishing pole and net here so I can try and come up with my own fish.
Moonstruck String Band, circa 1979 L-R: Tommy Houston, Fred Gumaer, Paul Glasse and Gerald Jones. Photo credit, Gerald Jones. Click to enlarge.
Paul Glasse: I think when I first started trying to play swing, and bebop that I tended to err on the side of playing too many roots to the chords, spelling things out too literally and just naturally trying to neatly tie up all the melodic loose ends. As I've played and listened more I've become more familiar with jazz vocabulary and in the process become more comfortable with melodic ideas that unfold gradually and don't always resolve themselves neatly right off the bat. I think that it's OK to pose a melodic question.
When first attacking a jazz standard I really don't use one specific system. I try to learn the chords and melody. I look for how the two work together—that is be able to play the melody and understand how it relates to the chords and vice versa. I generally try to solo over the chords a few times and deal with things in a few different positions and or registers, making sure to hone in on any unique harmonic moments of the particular tune.
While I don't have a system for it, I guess I do, at any given moment of a song, want to be dialed in on what's going on harmonically—yes, 3rds and 7ths are really important. Idiomatically, the drop from a root to the 3rd below it crops up a lot in bop lines as does the overlaying of blues vocabulary with various other approaches, such as chord substitution or alteration of extension tones. If the original tune has lyrics it can be helpful to know those—just another route to really getting inside the song.
In an ideal world we could all just create endless, inventive, melodic variations on tunes without thinking through any kind of technical filter. I think, while we might have times that this actually works, in truth, most of us are aided by some technical stuff. The technical thinking may help us figure out some safe things to play, or might help us identify (and find on the instrument) what we're already hearing in our head. I find that I play best when I'm able to bring several of these levels to bear—either at the same time, or at least rapidly transition between approaches. Within a given tune there may be sections that I can approach very intuitively, without much conscious thought, and other points when I may have to play more deliberately to technically negotiate a harmonic hairpin turn in the tune. Invariably, the more any of us plays, the more we just hear "better" and can increasingly trust our ears and instincts.
Question from Kevin Knippa: What was the catalyst that lead you to go beyond musical genres that are more commonly associated with the mandolin (like bluegrass and Old Time) and explore swing and straight ahead jazz/bop? And, in particular, how did you initially get into post-swing forms (who were you listening to, for example)? Finally, how did you come to know and study with Johnny, Tiny and Jethro?
Paul Glasse: When I took up mandolin I originally played bluegrass and Old Time music. As I explored those interests I began to love many other kinds of rural and roots musics. My discovery of western swing and the playing of mandolinists Tiny Moore and Johnny Gimble helped nudge me toward other "non-western" swing music. I fell in love with the guitar playing of Charlie Christian and the small jazz combo settings that he often played in. Really, at that point I just followed the history of jazz. Charlie Christian led pretty logically into Charlie Parker and the world of bebop. From there Wes Montgomery and Clifford Brown were not much of a stretch to enjoy.
I think that there's really quite a bit involved in understanding a style of music such as bluegrass, swing, or bebop. It takes a lot of critical listening and, at least on my part, humbling attempts at trying to play authentically and passionately within a style. For me, it really helped to expand my own harmonic ear gradually. That is, I didn't decide I liked jazz and immediately jump into the most modern thing. I've just gradually nudged myself along and tried to settle in with the parts that speak to me. It's amusing to me that, in the mandolin world, some of what I do might be considered harmonically adventurous but in the jazz world those same ideas are based in vocabulary that's over a half century old. There's so much unexplored jazz territory on the mandolin—lots of room for innovation and unique voices.
L-R: Jethro Burns, Tim O'Brien and Paul Glasse, in Nacodogches, Texas. Photo credit, unknown. Click to enlarge.
My experiences with Tiny, Johnny and Jethro are each unique. I consider those three guys the giants of jazz mandolin for that generation of players—real monster musicians with really distinct musical personalities. I'm honored to have had a chance to be around each of them. Basically, in each case, I sought those guys out. Tiny, who I met first, I'll detail below, in answer to another question. Johnny moved back to Central Texas from Nashville after retiring from full-time studio work. I used to get to see him play local dances and concerts in the Austin area. We had some mutual music friends. I'm sure that at some point I just introduced myself to him. We crossed paths off and on for years, either ending up on stage together at a western swing show or my band opening for him then backing him up for some local concerts. There's a wonderful non-profit organization called Texas Folklife Resources geared toward promoting and preserving various aspects of Texas folk culture. They approached me about being a "master" in their "master/apprentice" program. I told them that instead I wanted to be the apprentice and study electric mandolin with Johnny Gimble. So, I wrote up a grant proposal that was approved by the organization's board and once a week for six months I went to Johnny Gimble's house for mandolin lessons, which were underwritten by Texas Folklife Resources. As far as I know, I'm the only mandolinist who's studied for any length of time with Johnny. I think he's one of the great American instrumentalists.
I may have first met Jethro just through booking a mandolin lesson with him as part of a trip through Chicago. We later ran into each other at some NAMM shows around the country, when he was endorsing Washburn mandolins and I was demoing my Stevens 5-string electric. We did a couple of mandolin workshops and performed together at a festival in Nacodogches Texas and I would always visit with him when he taped Austin City Limits. I was there for rehearsals and the taping of the famous Austin City Limits mandolin special with the David Grisman Quintet followed by Tiny, Johnny and Jethro along with the great Eldon Shamblin on guitar—a wonderful day of music.
Question from AlanN: Can you tell any funny Jethro stories (keeping in mind the family nature of the site)? Did you have much time to jam with him?
Paul Glasse: On all things Jethro I, humbly defer to my amazing colleague Don Stiernberg, who was truly Jethro's protege. As mentioned above, I knew and did get to jam some with Jethro but my influences and experiences run deeper with Tiny and Johnny. Still I do have very fond memories of great Jethro stories. As you suspected, many of them aren't for family ears. A couple of thoughts though... After a jazz mandolin workshop that Barry Mitterhoff, Jethro and I did at a festival in East Texas a young picker asked Jethro to look at his mandolin. This involved the fellow making some disclaimers about various aspects of his instrument. Jethro was very gracious. Afterward he said to me "Paul, I'll get these guys who tell me that they'd sound a lot better if the top of their mandolin was a bit thinner or the neck was shaped differently... sooner or later you've got to play the damn thing."
Second Fiddle To A Steel Guitar movie poster - 1965.
Years back I ran across someone selling vintage movie posters. One of these posters was for a little known B picture called "Second Fiddle To A Steel Guitar," involving the Bowery Boys crashing the "Cavalacade of Country Stars." The poster includes modest sized photos of various country stars of the day, including Bill Monroe and, at the bottom of the poster, a pretty large photo of Homer and Jethro—Jethro holding his classic Gibson two-point. I bought all the remaining copies of this poster from the dealer. At one point I told Jethro that I had this poster and he laughed. He said that in the 1960s Audrey Williams (Hank's first wife) made some movies in Nashville and got any number of folks to perform on film for the promise of very little money because they wanted to be in a movie. Rumors were that often performers had trouble collecting their money from these ventures. So, when Homer and Jethro's booking agent approached Jethro about a slot in "Second Fiddle To A Steel Guitar" (one of Audrey's movies) he wasn't very interested and asked the agent to quote an astronomical fee. The agent called back confirming that the fee had been met... well, Jethro said "No, tell them we want even more money," not really wanting the gig or believing they'd ever see their check. Again, the agent called back and said the new demand had been met. So, Homer and Jethro performed in the movie.
Since Homer and Jethro had demanded top pay they ended up getting better billing than the other performers who were in the movie and on the poster. Jethro told me that they still never really thought the movie company would pay up. But in the winter of 1967 Chicago had a giant snow storm and folks didn't get their mail for about a week. Jethro said one day the mailman arrived with a giant stack of mail that had backed up. He remembered he and his wife sitting on the living room floor going through all the mail and finally coming across the check for the "Second Fiddle" movie. They just laughed and laughed.
So I sent him a copy of the poster—never did get to talk to him after that but friends told me that he put that poster up in the music room where he taught mandolin lessons in his latter days. He was, of course, a brilliant and original player and a wonderful, profoundly funny man.
The movie: Second Fiddle to a Steel Guitar, from 1965
Question from John Dillon: How did you approach the jazz band when you sat in "first chair" guitar spot? Did you work at all at trying to sound "guitarish", or fly in the face of what the average ear thought it should be? In similar vein, how did the arrangers that were not tuned into mandolin ask of you and your instrument in that context? You don't have the strings of a guitar, so I expect your inversions and chord offerings were a challenge to some preconceived ideas.
Paul Glasse: I played 5-string electric mandolin in the UT Jazz Orchestra (University of Texas at Austin). That was long time ago and I wish I'd known then what I know now. For the most part I was just given the guitar charts and left to find my own way. I don't think my chord inversions really ruffled anyone's feathers. In retrospect I think I sweated trying to play more of the fat chords on the charts than were really needed. In reality, in a big band situation, you've got whole horn sections spelling out the chords and their alterations. With a band that big everyone doesn't have to play every chord alteration; often one just has to support what's going on and not conflict. Seeing Freddie Greene live with the Basie band had certainly been an inspiration. The better part what I pulled off with that group involved really trying to lock into the groove of each tune, play tightly with the rhythm section and catching the various kicks and accents that each arrangement called for. The language was very much adapted guitar vocabulary, something I was pretty at home with by that point, trying to figure out where it all lived on the mandolin... well, that was another matter. Of course, it was an absolute blast to stand up and take a solo in that big band setting, sometimes with horn section figures interlaced through one's solo—a great reason to play the electric mandolin.
Question from Scott Tichenor: Didn't you used to get the call to play electric mandolin for occasional Bob Wills band reunion gigs? Am I remembering this correctly, and if so, can you share that experience with us? You studied extensively with Johnny Gimble under a special grant. I always thought he was one of the great jazz mandolinists most people never had the chance to hear. What impact did he have on your playing? When will it be public where Tiny Moore's mandolin is and do you think it ever be played by anyone again—or is it even in playing condition? and of course, who makes the best BBQ in Austin?
Gruene Hall, Gruene TX, with first Stevens electric mandolin. Photo credit, unknown. Click to enlarge.
Paul Glasse: I've never played a gig as member of the Texas Playboys. But I've done lots and lots of gigs, over a period of many years, with any number of former Texas Playboys, including Johnny Gimble, Eldon Shamblin, Herb Remington, Leon Rausch, Tommy Allsup, Smokey Dacus, Bobby Koefer, Bob Boatright and Billy Briggs. As a kid growing up in upstate New York I never thought I'd even see these players in my lifetime, let alone get to play on the bandstand with them. These guys are all remarkable musicians, many of whom were and are real stars in that musical world. They've all been very glad to see some comparative youngsters taking up western swing. Every one of them has been very gracious.
I tell the story of the Johnny Gimble apprenticeship elsewhere in this interview. I agree that he's one of the real mandolin greats. He's arguably the most modern sounding of the three swing mandolin giants of that generation (Tiny, Johnny, Jethro). He's a smart, quick-witted, guy and I find those things reflected in his playing. In learning his tunes you can see how he's put things together in technically advanced and clever ways. Though he's not known for playing fast, some of his stuff is physically very challenging to play. Some of his right-hand picking technique is unique to him and, as far as I'm concerned, impossible to pull off. He'll hold the pick between his thumb and index finger and pick "away" with the backs of the fingernails of his second and third fingers at the same time as, or alternating with the flatpick—during moments of chord soloing or chordal backup. There's a great, grainy black and white video on YouTube that shows him doing it. For clues to Johnny's playing I'd suggest listening to legendarily eccentric fiddler J.R. Chatwell and also to the guitar playing of George Barnes, both of whom influenced Gimble's playing.
How did he influence my own playing? Well, I've learned a fair amount of his stuff through the years, certainly quote him out of homage. Some of his stuff is just too good not to use. Johnny, like other players of that generation, has that unerring sense of swing that's just always available to him. It's part of who he is as a musician—a real thing of beauty. I aim for that in my playing but that's a tough one to pull off ALL the time, even in adverse circumstances. I love that he's respectful of his own musical roots (what other fiddler's have brought to the dance) but also, so clearly, a unique voice that's grown naturally from those roots—the balance of tradition and innovation.
I don't really have any reliable information about the current status of Tiny Moore's famous 1952 Bigsby 5-string electric mandolin. His widow Dean had it for many years. I'd sure like to see it in a museum or being played by someone who respects it for what it is.
Who makes the best BBQ in Austin? Couldn't we discuss something less controversial, like mandolin capos, who makes the best mandolins, or who's the best mandolin player in the world?
OK, my personal favorite BBQ in Central Texas for the meat, sauce and side dishes is the Salt Lick in Driftwood, Texas, just outside of Austin. An honorable mention for great BBQ (especially baby back ribs) and for supporting live music for years is Artz Ribhouse. That said, in this part of the world, there are a lot of great independent BBQ places—people take that stuff really seriously around here. If you stay away from the big chain places it's hard to go too wrong. I'd suggest to anyone, come down to Austin for a visit; check out some music and discover your own favorite eating spot and take a mandolin lesson while you're here.
Question from Aaron Woods: I really enjoy the freshness of your tunes. How do you approach composition?
Paul Glasse: Thank you. Composing has always been, for me, one of the most lastingly rewarding parts of being a musician. The first song that I ever played on the mandolin was something I made up. It's just something I've always done. I try to "find" tunes however I can. I'll take them however I can get them. I write more if I'm actively trying to do so—thinking about it, setting aside time, being deliberate about it. I'll use a variety of tricks to get something accomplished.
Sometimes a melody will occur to me away from the instrument. "Slow Fall" is one example of this. I made up the melody to the A sections while driving in the car—came home, made up chords for a bridge and composed the bridge melody by singing along with those chords. Though the melody to the A section can work with only two chords (Bb to Ab) I wanted something different and played around with things until I worked out the current harmonization. I think part of what makes the chord choice for that tune successful is that, while the melody is largely diatonic, the chords are not. Also, initially, quite a few of the melody notes fall on chord extensions, landing on "stronger" or more primary notes later in the phrase. Incidentally, another (perhaps) superstition that I usally run with: if I've come up with a new melody while away from the instrument, I usually keep the song in the same key; I figure that it wants to live there. That's why Slow Fall is in Bb.
Many of the tunes or sections of tunes that have fewer notes I've made up by singing, either singing a melody and finding chords or finding chords and singing a melody along with those changes—sometimes an interactive combination of these two approaches (examples: "One More Night," the A section to "Samba Talk", the bridge to "A Bit Of Good", the bridge to "Both Sides Of It."
Other tunes have been very specifically developed out of a discovered melodic phrase on the mandolin: "The Tilt", "Paper Bag Rag," "Up and At 'Em" are examples of these. I'll find a phrase that speaks to me and work to expand it into a tune.
Listen: The Tilt, from the 1991 self-titled Paul Glasse recording.
Download: Paul's original hand-written chart for The Tilt (PDF).
I've had the most success writing when I go ahead and complete ideas in a concentrated sitting. Half completing a song and coming back to it later or drastically reforming a song over time, while it might have worked well for the great Duke Ellington just hasn't worked for me. I find it better to pretty much complete a tune while my mind and mood are completely in that spot. I've tried a few times to tell myself, "I'll write the bridge later," but the results always sound tacked on to me—not really integrated. I like to name them intuitively, right away, for the same reasons. Not that things don't ever get fine-tuned or modified later on but I get better results by getting the major construction done at one time.
I've gotten a fair amount of my composing done early in the morning, when I can start to hear with fresh ears or, even more often, late at night, when I'm tired enough that I'm comfortable going with the flow of things; perhaps the overly critical internal editor gets tired too. Anyway, it seems to help.
Question from Darren Weiss: Can you tell us about the design process of the Stevens "Paul Glasse Model" electric mandolin? What attributes make it especially suitable for Western Swing? As a follow up to Scott's question, how about some good Tiny Moore stories... you've already shared the motorcycle ride from the bus stop, but surely you have more?
Current Stevens "Paul Glasse Model" mandolin. Photo credit: Polly Reynolds for paulglasse.com.
Paul Glasse: The Stevens "Paul Glasse Model" 5-string electric mandolin was born out of my frustrations with other electric mandolins. Many electric mandolins, I believe, have been designed based on guitars or a line of thinking that wasn't really tuned into the issues specific to mandolins. To my mind the original 4-string Fender electric mandolins, while cool looking, are major offenders in these areas; almost everything about them is set up to give one a thin, harsh tone. In the 1970's I bought a Roberts brand "Tiny Moore Model" 5-string electric from Tiny that was a step in the right direction. The tone was really pretty good but, as a working instrument it had a lot of flaky stuff: poorly shaped neck, aluminum nut, funky bridge implementation, awkwardly flat top (for those of us used to carved top mandolins), flat fingerboard, awkward balance. It was generally pretty poorly crafted. Renowned luthier Michael Stevens (then living in Austin) bore the brunt of keeping that mandolin in running shape. He grew frustrated dealing with that instrument and we had some good long-winded discussions about what we each thought would make a great 5-string electric mandolin.
In general, we were after a warmer, fatter, more hollow-body-jazz-guitar-like sound than other instruments on the market. We felt this would be ideal for a variety of kinds of music, particularly jazz and western swing. We wanted to stick with standard F-5 scale length for playability reasons. I'm very happy with what we came up. Frankly, Michael Stevens is an artist/craftsman/luthier of the first order. He really made it all come together. Some of the factors involved: You get a fatter sound by moving the pickup a bit away from the bridge. If the neck is too long then the pickup has to be placed too close to the bridge. We deliberately shortened the neck to be able to move the bridge farther back on the body and optimize pickup placement. (How high of a pitch do you really want to hear on an electric mandolin?) The pickups are tilted "backwards" from most guitars to even the tonal variance between between low and high strings. That is, the pickup is farther away from the bridge on the brighter treble strings, closer to the bridge on the otherwise-prone-to-be-muddy C string. The pickups are custom made for the instrument and have unique pole placement that, again, accentuates what we believe to be ideal orientation for a mandolin. The poles are also individually adjustable for volume. The instrument is semi-hollow, helping to shape the tonal character, but has no F-holes, which in high-volume situations could cause feedback issues. The top is carved to provide ideal picking/wrist angle—consistent with carved top acoustic mandolins. It's all put together as a great-feeling, great-performing, reliable, awesome, instrument. Michael's construction is a thing of beauty. You've really got to see these things up close. Once you own one you realize they balance perfectly, play in tune and the truss rod implementation is right on. They are incredibly reliable instruments. I'm honored that some truly great musicians also play these, including: Don Stiernberg, Tom Rozum, Barry Mitterhoff and Aubrie Haney.
Current Stevens "Paul Glasse Model" mandolin. Photo credit: Polly Reynolds for paulglasse.com.
Luthier Michael Stevens was THE guy in Austin doing guitar work for all the pro players including Eric Johnson and Stevie Ray Vaughn. He built all the Junior Brown "guit-steels." He was later hired to start the Fender Custom Shop and was their first Chief Design Engineer. At Fender he made the endorsement guitars that the name guitarists actually played—working with Eric Clapton, Jimmy Paige, Danny Gatton... you name it. Rightfully so, he's highly regarded in the electric guitar world.
Regarding Tiny, my memories of him are so consistent with what everyone has said about him: he was always such a warm, considerate, generous, guy. We met over the phone and through correspondence (remember letters?) in the mid-1970's after I'd hunted him down, in search of my first 5-string electric mandolin. By 1977 I had moved to Austin, Texas. That Thanksgiving holiday I took the bus from Austin to Sacramento California to take several days of lessons from Tiny and visit my grandmother, who fortunately happened to live in the same city. At that point he really hadn't been rediscovered by the perhaps emerging mandolin community. I think he was a bit surprised that someone had traveled all that way to study with him. I had a bunch of specific questions for him but much of what we did was just had him solo on tunes while I comped chords and recorded the proceedings on cassette for later study. He never would let me pay him for lessons. We crossed paths many times through the years after that—when I'd get to California and also when he would come to Texas to tape Austin City Limits or play shows with Merle Haggard. Great guy. I miss him.
Question from Earl G: You have played with many great players and yet you still take the time to work with new players and teach at camps. What's it like to switch gears from playing with Johnny Gimble (or somebody like him), to working with a room full of novices? Also, you seem pleasant and very excited any of the few times I've seen you play. How do you stay positive on days? when maybe your fingers don't move well or you missed some sleep but you still have to play?
Backstage at the Kerrville Folk Festival, dressed for western swing. Photo credit, Stacy Obermann. Click to enlarge.
Paul Glasse: The short answer is that I love what I do. I think it's one of the great treats in life to get to play music that you love and share it with other folks, either through performing or helping others through their own musical journeys. I've spent a fair amount of time trying to "figure out" music and the mandolin. It's nice to have an outlet for all of that.
As a teenager I certainly never thought I'd get to meet, let alone study or perform with, Johnny Gimble. While that's an experience I'll always cherish, working with a room full of mandolin pickers, trying to help them progress musically is also a real blast. I get a lot out of it personally, always have fun and always learn something myself.
How to stay positive? For me a lot of this stuff comes down to really being present, regardless of the situation you're in. It can be a hard thing to do. It's very easy to get distracted by any number of factors. I think part of the reason I like to play music and like to improvise is that it demands that I really be present in the moment. The mental spot that I need to be in to really play interactively with great musicians is a really joyful one, where I'm really not thinking about anything else that otherwise might bother me. There's a great book called The Inner Game Of Music (Barry Green & W. Timothy Gallwey) that has plenty of tips in this arena. Check it out. Also, as many of you know, a few years ago I almost passed away due to a major auto wreck. One of the things that I try to retain from that experience is the awareness that any day I'm above ground is a bonus day. I'm really glad to be here.
Question from Bootinz: I have never been able to play faster than a moderate speed. When I try to play faster my right arm tenses up. Do you have any suggestions regarding right-hand technique that might help?
Paul Glasse: Playing at brisk tempos is a common struggle for most of us, at least at some point. This is an area where watching you play would be very helpful—to see really what you're doing. Any number of factors can come into play; I'll run through some possible points. There's no substitute for really fine-tuning your technique. Efficient playing makes speed easier to achieve. One common area for folks to have trouble is proper pick direction. It's beyond the scope of this format to go into all of the details but in short you want to make sure that you're properly alternating your pick direction, particularly when switching strings. Many pickers, without noticing, are "cheating the system" on pick direction in certain situations, for instance when moving from a lower to higher string they may use two down strokes in a row. We just can't afford that loss of flow when we get into faster tempos.
As you seem to be aware, it's really important to stay as relaxed and flexible as possible. I've found that one can learn to reduce tension if one pays attention to where the tension starts. Initially try not to do anything drastic, just become aware of where the tension really is. Is it your wrist, forearm, shoulder, or neck? Can you still keep playing and consciously relax that spot? One can learn to get better at doing that... honest. I'd suggest practicing with a metronome or drum machine. Try playing the tune really slowly. Then gradually raise the tempo, making sure to stay relaxed throughout the process. If you feel tension developing try dropping the tempo way down and really playing each note perfectly. If you practice this consistently can you raise the tempo a bit at a time... over a period of weeks, months? Are you anchoring any fingers on the mandolin top? Is your wrist just brushing the strings behind the bridge or are you pushing down and creating tension?
Is your brain stressing about this? Check out The Inner Game of Music (book) for some ideas that may help. I've found that I play fast tempos best when I'm in the throes of playing with great musicians, feeling warmed up and comfortable with the groove my bandmates are laying down—being present in the moment and not listening to any voices that might say I can't do this. Often in these situations I get the best results by really relaxing into what I'm playing, thinking about hearing the phrase I want to play much more than stressing about actually how I'm going to execute it. It's hard to explain but an almost sleepy, inside-the-music feeling can kick in, allowing me to pull off things that wouldn't happen if I gave them more deliberate kinds of effort. Have you tried playing with your eyes closed? Does that help at all? Really, a good teacher can help you improve in this area. Finally, while I understand the need to be able to play along at certain tempos, in truth it's not the be all and end all. It's not the ultimate measure of you as a musician. Someone else will always play faster. That's just the nature of the beast. Whatever your tempo, try to play with soul, integrity, a personal voice, great tone—pick the right notes and really mean them. There's honor in these things.
Question from Steve Davis: What kind of strings and pick do you use? Is the fifth string a high B or low C?
L-R: Mark O'Connor, Paul Glasse, Bobby Clark, judging the 1983 Buck White International Mandolin Championships. Bobby won in 1980, Paul won in 1981, Mark won in 1982. Photo credit, unknown.
On the 5-string electric mandolin I use D'Addario XL ProSteel stainless steel round wound guitar strings in custom gauges. The fifth string is a low C. These are bright strings with a lot of sustain. I know that seems weird, as many jazz guitarists use flat wound, darker sounding, strings. My theory is that, as electric mandolinists, we could use all the sustain we can get. Also, the unwound E and A strings are always going to be bright; with dark sounding wound strings on the rest of the mandolin we'll have a tonal imbalance. So, the brighter wound strings that I prefer help with the tonal balance; I can always roll off some top end on the amp or electric mandolin and I get more sustain in the deal.
D'Addario 5-string Electric Mandolin Strings:
C - XSG052
G - XSG038
D - XSG024
A - PL014
E - PL010
On electric I use a purple D'Addario Delrin pick, standard guitar shape, and alternate between using the point or the rounded corner. I like the tone on the rounded corner for slower songs but get better control on fast tunes with the point.
On the acoustic mandolin I use D'Addario EXP74 strings. They last well for me and I absolutely love their tone. I like the J74s a lot too.
I'm currently reexamining and rethinking picks for the acoustic mandolin, so don't really have anything right now that I'd endorse. In general, I prefer a modified triangular pick, with slightly rounded corners. I like a stiff pick but not one as thick and dark sounding as lots of bluegrass folks prefer. I actually like some brightness from a pick but not noticeable flex or pick click. If an example can get us in the ballpark... David (Grisman) gets a great sound from his Grisman picks but, for what I do, I prefer a bit more point and not quite the thickness. I seem to point my picks slightly forward, so wear them slightly on that edge. I'd really like to try some of the new breed of wonder picks. Anyone making something they want me to check out?
Question from Swampstomper: How should I be thinking when I want to put "spacing" into my licks... you know, the Charlie Christian type of pauses in long flowing lines, which Tiny and you use so effectively? Is is thinking like a singer? I find this one of the coolest parts of an exciting jazz solo.
Paul Glasse: Check out some of my previous thoughts about ways to listen, as getting familiar with the vocabulary that you're wanting to use is the first step. Other things you can do or try to think about: while you're soloing try to really listen to the other players in the band. If you lock into what the rhythm section is doing then you may not feel that you need to support the whole thing with your own constant stream of notes. Enjoy what the other musicians are playing and how those sounds interact with your lead. I think of Charlie Christian often not syncopating within a line as much as some later jazz players. Often, though, what he did was break up a line in unique spots. That is, if a song form was built from 8-bar phrases he often didn't start and end a line right on those 8-bar "seams." So think about varying your timing within a phrase but also about varying the length of each melodic "sentence." Is there an abrupt jump when you go to the bridge on a 32-bar song? For a different effect try weaving a line that spans that jump from the second A to through the beginning of the B part. If you're taking a multi-chorus solo try really weaving from the end of the first chorus into the beginning of the second without delineating the separation. Separate your lines elsewhere.
Other ideas: try to sing what you're playing—out loud or in your head. It will make you phrase differently. Or, try thinking like a horn player; they have to take breaths now and then, mostly discouraging run-on gibberish. For mandolin players coming from a bluegrass background, one of the hardest things is to say goodbye to that motorboat bluegrass right hand. It's just not part of the jazz vocabulary. Think about playing each note with intent. Let notes sustain on their own; do you really want to tremolo? Why? Pretend that your notes have more sustain than they really do. Embrace the "blank" spaces as part of the music you're creating. Learn to play some solos and phrases by jazz musicians you admire. Sing along with a Charlie Parker melody... in the car when no one's listening. Try recording yourself playing with others and figure out what you do and don't like. Invariably, upon playback, in my own playing, I prefer the solos where I played less and with melodic phrasing—rather than tried to impress anyone with lots of notes. Have your fingers play what you hear in your head rather than playing what comes out of muscle memory from your fingers.
Paul Glasse - The Road To Home, from 1993. Click to enlarge.
Question from Mandolinfox: I love "The Road To Home" CD. I play it on the way to gigs for inspiration. My band does "Air Mail Special"—at about half the speed that you do it! I just got a 5-string electric. My question is, do you use the same chord shapes on the 5-string as the 8-string, or do you try to take advantage of the extra low note to use more bass oriented voicings?
Paul Glasse: Thanks for listening. Glad you've joined the 5-string electric camp. In general, on the 5-string I play most of my chords in the lower registers. I find that to be more supportive to the other players. I still mostly conceptualize in terms of four-note fingerings but find that in reality I'm often playing one, two or three note voicings—even if my left hand is perhaps fretting four notes. There are a few 5-string chords that I use ...but really very few.
Question from Ted Eschliman: What are the chances of your two CDs in wider distribution (iTunes, online downloads, etc)? Are there any new recordings in the horizon, and if so, what would you like to do for ratio of standards vs. your own original compositions?
Paul Glasse: Well, I need to make the CDs available for download. I think it's probable that this will happen in the near future. I've also recently come across some pretty nice live material that might be of interest to folks. Yes, I'm also long overdue for a new recording and have been looking at various options on that front. The business aspects of recording are stranger than ever these days but it's time to get something new out. Tentative plans are to start recording in January—doing the project locally—possibly emphasizing duo or trio stuff. In the past I've always tried to record mostly original tunes—using standards mostly as a means to fill perceived need for a certain tempo or feel in the overall arc of sequencing a CD. These days though the sequencing may not be as important. People tend to just dump everything onto their iPods and hit shuffle anyway. But I do feel the composing helps differentiate my stuff from whatever else is out there. It's a big part of expressing who I am musically.
Questions from Don Stiernberg: Hey Paul! Any favorite chord substitutions?
Paul Glasse: I don't think I have any real magic tricks there. I pretty much use the same stuff that is in common jazz practice—what they'd teach in any jazz theory book. The challenge for me has always been how to really integrate those things intuitively and melodically. There are some cases, when exploring routes to playing more "outside," that I've found it helpful to think in terms of substituting for a substitute chord. That is, in my own occasional explorations toward more "outside" playing, what I've played—even if it's harmonically dissonant—is often most appealing if I can provide some direction or perhaps "internal logic" to a given passage. Thinking more concretely, if a passage calls for extended G minor I might superimpose C7 stuff as well as its tri-tone substitute: Gb7. While one might argue the ramifications of specific notes, the fact that at that moment "I have a plan," to my ears, helps make the outside stuff more coherent, and gives me greater control of the degree of "outsideness."
Don: What's the starting point for you when you create those flowing swinging lines? Scales? Modes?
Paul: It really depends on the kind of tune. I work best when I can function simultaneously on several levels or at least switch rapidly between them, as discussed earlier. That said, for kind of regular two-five based standards I probably think chords first and scales or note—choices growing out of those chords. If I'm having a good day I manage to just think of melodies.
Don: Has anyone ever looked at you funny for sounding "too modern" on a Western Swing gig? Even though harmonically that style is akin to Dixieland (diatonic, lots of seventh chords), those guys seem open to everything as long as it swings, and our heroes like Johnny and Tiny have been known to play flat 9's and flat fives even.
Paul: Great question! While within western swing there can be various camps with their own unspoken (yet agreed upon) senses of what's OK and what's not, the folks I've played with have been pretty open minded. As you point out, Johnny, Tiny and any number of other players have often been using bebop harmonic language. Yet they've adapted that language to western swing conventions. For example, western swing solos are often 8 or 16 bars long. It seems to be a convention that in that environment, players try to get in and really make a flash in that space—in a way that really wouldn't be as common or as cool in a pure jazz environment, where understatement and pacing may be more heavily valued. Western swing solos, to me, often sound more neatly packaged and summed up, less oblique than their jazz counterparts. I've found that one can use fairly modern harmonic language in a western swing setting as long as the rest of the vibe and energy level are true to form.
I used to play in a western swing band alongside a trombonist who was also an excellent bebop player. He felt that with the western swing band, due to the nature of his instrument, he had to play in a mostly a swing or dixieland type of feel to sound appropriate. He noted that, perhaps because of the somewhat established role of electric mandolin in that environment, I was able to get quite a bit of harmonic leeway and really play fairly modern in some respects.
Don: What would you play if the chart calls for "F Lydian"? How about "C/Bb". Or any of those more ambiguous or obtuse changes?
Paul: Hmm... I don't recall seeing a chord notation for F Lydian—I guess I'd be sharping my 4th or playing C Major information when soloing. C/Bb I usually see as part of a descending phrase (wanting the bass to drop in a specific way). Sometimes I'll try to catch that in my chording or reflect that within a solo. Mostly I'm thinking dominant. Sorry... nothing too brilliant here. As folks have discussed on the Cafe message board, these jazz chord naming conventions are often interpreted differently. Some folks might perceive that C/Bb chord in terms of two stacked major triads but that's not how I most often see that used.
Don: Some of your recordings and bands feature piano, guitar, and five-string mandolin. How do you go about making sure everyone sees/hears the harmony the same way, with no clashes in the tensions, etc.?
Paul: A certain amount of that is inherent in the charts. I'll try to indicate for instance whether a given chord has a standard or altered 9th or 5th. The guys I play with are great about keeping their antennas up and really listening to each other. That's part of the joy of playing with those guys.
Don: How do you leave space for each other, is it planned or do the cats just listen hard?
Paul: Mostly they just listen hard. One of the things I feel really good about in the band setting is that each player gets his due. That is, we all really admire each other's playing. Each player knows he'll have his chance to shine and, perhaps partially because of that, each player is really supportive of the overall group give and take and plays in service of whatever else is happening. We all gravitate towards playing with the folks that conceive of things in agreeable ways; most of this stuff we just never have to talk about because we have enough common ground on what we like to hear within the group.
Don: Given the prevalence of the banjo in America, do you ever cringe when your Stevens Electrical Instruments Paul Glasse Model is referred to as a "5-string?"
Paul: Many of the folks I'm around are such jazz heads that their blissfully unaware of anything banjo related. I try not to point out any similarities.
Don: The somewhat elusive "Bebop" sound can be approached via altered dominants, tensions added to the V chord which lend chromaticism. But what about the I chord? Is there anything we can do there, a longer list of available tones besides 1-8?
Paul: I probably need more context here... If you're talking about static CMaj7 for example, still almost everything is available... but we so seldom get lengthy static chords in a jazz context. There's almost always movement to or from something else which can provide outlets for implying chord movement along the way in either direction, as well as playing around with anticipating or delaying the movement to the next chord.
Don: Given your comfort with most harmonic situations, is there anything that represents the next frontier for you? Anything you're working on?
Paul: I've been playing a fair amount with a Peruvian violinist friend of mine named Javier Chaparro who's been writing vocal tunes with some harmonic and rhythmic new roads for me to explore. That's been a lot of fun. I enjoy hearing some players who have great control over the continuum between inside and outside playing. To be able to control that whole transition to whatever degree one chooses would be pretty cool—something to keep working toward. There was also a long discussion on the cafe message board about ways of dealing with 'ii V I' changes in minor keys. I weighed in on some approaches to using melodic minor scales in those contexts. Well, that's stuff that I don't have a good enough practical application kind of handle on to be able to really play creatively and melodically while using those devices. For anyone who wants to take it on here's a link to the whole thread.
Don: Thanks Paul from your fan and friend, Don Stiernberg.
Questions from RSomers: As a buddy neighbor in Austin, I could simply ask you these questions at your door. For the sake of the Mandolin community, in which I highly am a proponent of this community knowing Paul Glasse, I ask these questions—other than what's for lunch and which place do we meet at today—questions I keep asking myself when watching you play many, many times.
Decked out in western ensemble PJs, Paul on the left, playing left-handed backup guitar to big brother Jeff's lead singing. Photo and cigar-box guitars by their father, John Glasse. Click to enlarge.
Using the little finger. Can you comment on how your little finger stays so flat in position and able to be used so independently (it is noted that you can't learn much from Paul in a live performance because you can't see his fingers move enough!!). Is this an inherent trait of yours, or do you work at keeping that last appendage from doing the tea cup thing, or curl under the fretboard?
Paul: That's something that I worked really hard on early on and haven't had to worry about very much in years. It does seem like folks often have the "tea cup" up or curl down little finger issues. In my case, when I first started playing, my pinky curled into my palm. I had to just slow everything down to the extreme and play around with shifting my hand position until all of my fingers began to stay close to the fingerboard and ready for action. I remember that my left hand hurt during that transition period but I was playing a lot each day at that point too.
RSomers: How the heck do you split string notes that you can use on demand at performance speed? When I see this, I want to walk...
Paul: It helps to have a bit of fingernail on your left pinky—as the split string is done with the nail. Once you get the nail hooked under the string it's really not that hard to do, or to move to other positions along the string. The true king of all that is of course Jesse McReynolds, who plays whole tunes in that manner. I like to use split strings as a backup technique—to fill out a voicing. I also really like to use them to achieve closer voicings than one can otherwise normally get. The intro to "One More Night" is one example of this. There's also a fleeting moment in the fadeout to "New Roux" when I did a bit of that.
RSomers: Is there an advantage, or benefit, to pulling up on a string, as you do, vs. pulling off and down on the string?
Paul: I don't know. For me it's just always worked better. I get a clearer note that way. Yes, it is backwards from how most of the world does it.
RSomers: Finally, and a continuing buddy question: When will people, other than Austin, be able to see Paul Glasse perform for them!!
I'd love to travel more with music—performing and teaching. Book us and we'll come!
RSomers: Thanks Mandolin Cafe for pulling Paul from the ranks for this question/answer format. Paul is wealthy in the well of mandolin and jazz knowledge, and a person/player all of us should be aware of, and see play.
Paul Glasse compilation CD, One More Night. Includes 3 bonus tracks.
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