August 28-September 4, 2000
The "Artist of the Week" web site feature highlights a new flatpicking guitarist each week. With the recent release of the his CD Carry Me Across The Mountain, (read the liner notes) we felt like it would be a great week to highlight Dan Tyminski.
Rhythm Guitar Master
Reprinted from Flatpicking Guitar Magazine, Volume 2, Number 3 (March/April 1998)
by Dan Miller
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After speaking with Dan Tyminski on the phone for an hour about his approach to rhythm guitar playing, it became very evident to me why Alison Krauss hired him to fill the guitar spot in her band even though he had never played guitar in any band prior to that time. Dan knows how to listen, feel, and communicate. He listens carefully to the voices, the instruments, and the words. He feels the emotion and the groove. He then communicates that feeling through his guitar in a way that conveys the emotion of the music and the meaning of the words while also supporting everyone else in the band in their efforts to do the same. In other words, he is a really great rhythm guitar player.
To Dan, there is nothing more important than the feeling, emotion, and groove of the song and, as a rhythm guitar player, he has learned to masterfully support the band's ability to communicate that feeling, emotion, and groove. In the interview which follows, Dan gives some very interesting insights into how he listens to music, some methods that he uses to help him capture the emotion of a song, and some very informative advice regarding his approach to the art of bluegrass rhythm guitar playing.
Dan Tyminski credits his parents and his elder brother, Stan, for introducing him to music. Dan's mother played a little guitar and sang and, although his father did not play an instrument, both of his parents loved bluegrass and early country music. They would often take Dan to see live music concerts and festivals and were always very supportive of his involvement in the music. Dan remembers that at the age of five he picked up a jew's harp and joined his first jam session. He says, "I played from about ten at night until two in the morning not knowing that you weren't supposed to press the harp up against your lips. The next morning my lips were swollen about twice their normal size."
When he was six years old, Dan learned his first few guitar chords from his mother. However, he did not stay with the guitar for very long, in fact he says that at that age he didn't have much interest in it. Then when he was eight years old his brother, eleven years his senior, came home on leave from the Navy and brought a mandolin. Dan said, "I took a liking to that mandolin and so when my brother went back, he left it with me." From the age of eight to twelve Dan primarily focused on playing the mandolin, but then he got bit hard by the banjo bug.
Dan says, "The banjo probably caught my attention more than anything I've played yet. When my brother got out of the service, he came home and was playing a tape in his car of J.D. Crowe and the New South with Skaggs, Douglas, and Tony Rice. That dumbfounded me. I stayed out in the driveway for a couple of hours listening to that tape and right then I fell in love with the banjo."
While in high school Dan and his brother formed a band called Green Mountain Bluegrass. Dan played the banjo with that band for about five years. In fact, Dan says that he was primarily a banjo player from the time he was twelve until he was in his early twenties. When he was twenty-one, Dan was hired to play mandolin in the Lonesome River Band. When asked how he landed that job, Dan said, "It was a word-of-mouth thing. We ended up playing some shows at the same venue and when the position came up for a musician, one of the guys in the band recommended to Tim (Austin) that they give me a call." Dan played the mandolin with the Lonesome River Band for about five years.
While he was still with the Lonesome River Band, Dan got a call from Alison Krauss. Although he had never even owned a guitar in his life, she wanted him to join her band as the guitar player. Dan explains, "Primarily I would have to say that she took me as a singer. We had played together enough to know that the parts worked. She asked me if I played a guitar and I told her that I knew the chords and could thump around on one, but I was willing to spend a few months in the woodshed trying to meet the bill."
Dan has been with Alison Krauss and Union Station since 1992 and obviously, given the success of this band, he did fill the bill.
In the following interview, conducted in January, 1998, Dan talks about his approach to playing rhythm guitar:
Having never played guitar in a band, what kind of things did you work on when you were preparing yourself to play with Alison?
I don't know if I was ever that focused. I just made sure that I always had a guitar in my hands. I listened to the tapes and tried to become familiar with the material and I would play guitar with them. My main goal was to develop the left hand muscles. That was the biggest transition. My right hand, coming from the mandolin, was similar enough to where my chops were OK. My left hand took a lot more work. I tried to play long enough to build up speed and stamina.
All that I really knew were the G, C, and D chords. I knew how to get in and play something like "Old Joe Clark" right from the start. But a lot of the chords were new to me. I still find myself checking other people out and saying, "Wow, I never knew you could make that chord that way." I'll pick up the guitar and start fooling with different things. I think it is a never ending process of learning. I try to learn something every time I pick it up.
Have there been other players that you have particularly paid attention to in an effort to learn more about the guitar?
There is a list of players so long that I probably could not narrow it down. What I try to listen to is the overall sound and the groove of the song. A lot of times, it may not be the guitar that is making me hear it. When I hear rhythm guitar, I hear it against the bass, the mandolin, or the banjo. I like to concentrate on the other instruments that are playing. Rhythm to me is something that should almost not be heard. It is more of a feeling than it is something that should stand out.
What techniques do you use in order to vary your rhythm to fit the groove or the feeling of a song?
It is a combination of things. I think that if I am going to make a conscious change to vary a pattern I will usually change how and where I put the upstrokes of my right hand. There are almost an endless number of patterns. I am eternally goofing around on the guitar, so I will sit with the guitar and practice one rhythm where I am hitting down down-up-down down-up-down. I will do that until I feel I can do it continuously without messing it up. I'll then practice alternating down-up-down-up trying to hit all the strings on my upstroke and all the strings on my down stroke and I will try to play that as fast as I can. This is just as a practice.
For the most part, everyone hits the downstroke in the same spot, but they all have a different lick when it comes to getting the right hand going in a rhythm groove. Certain people like different kinds of rhythm. Doyle Lawson likes boom-chicka-chicka-chicka boom-chicka-chicka. I've had him tell me that is what he looks for. That is using more upstrokes than a lot of people use. It seems to me that the more upstrokes you put in, the easier it is to keep the timing on the downstrokes. It creates kind of a choo-choo train effect.
When I change my rhythm, I would have to say, I concentrate on where my upstrokes are.
Do you do much in terms of bass run embellishment?
That is something that I try to fit to the song. If the song seems like it will work there, then I will try it. I probably leave more stuff out than I put in. Naturally, when I go to play, my mind can race right from the get-go. I have to pull my own reins back and listen to what is going on around me. Usually the song will either call for something like that, or it won't.
I would like to make every song different. I would like it to stay interesting to the point where I don't have two or three licks that I try to lean on. I will try to let the song dictate what I play.
Could you try and briefly describe that idea of letting the song dictate what you play?
I try to look at the rhythm as the foundation of the song and I ask myself a few questions. What does the groove make me feel? Do I feel happy? Do I feel angry? And I try to play off of whatever emotion the song seems to create. Then it is a matter of trial and error with what the other people are playing.
A lot of times whether or not a rhythm groove will work depends on what the other person is playing. If the mandolin is doing one thing, it is pointless to do the same thing over top of him because you don't add any new excitement, you only add the risk of not playing it exactly like him and then sounding like there are timing mistakes.
I try to look for open spaces -- a place where I am going to have a decent amount of freedom to play off of whatever emotion the song makes me feel. For me, that is key. There are some songs where I will intentionally think angry thoughts going into them to intensify that slam-cram kind of feel. There are other songs that are slow and pretty where I will think about my children or my wife or people that mean the most to me and I will bring my mood into a softer and more caring attitude. For me it always depends upon the song.
That is interesting because I think that one of most exciting things about Alison's music is the great range of emotion from song to song.
Absolutely, and I think that all of the band members have that on their mind when they are playing. I think that if people really concentrate on the emotion rather than the lick they are trying to play, it would fit the song better. The licks are going to come out if you feel right while you are playing.
Also, thank you for saying that because that is one thing that I am proud of. We try to bring people through a little emotional roller coaster when they come to a show or listen to a record.
How would your rhythm vary behind a fiddle break as opposed to a banjo or mandolin break?
Rather than what I play behind a fiddle, or a mandolin, or a banjo, what is important to me is that throughout the course of a single song I don't play the same thing over the fiddle break that I would over the banjo break or over the mandolin break. It is more important to me to change it up a little and try to bring that mood to a different level. It is not always the same thing. I can't say that I do one thing every time I hear a fiddle come in.
On some songs you and Ron Block both play guitar. What kind of things do you do there?
If we are both playing rhythm, there are a lot of songs where we are actually both playing identically. We hit the same strings at the same time so that it sounds like one guitar doubled. We do that, for example, on "When You Say Nothing At All." It is a twin part where we are playing the same thing. Sometimes we will try to broaden the spectrum of what you hear. For instance, he will tune his low string down to a D so that when he is hitting his low D, I hit a mid-range D.
When Ron is playing guitar, I try to make him my primary focus so that the rhythm section sounds like it is one as opposed to two different people up there. If we don't do that, we try to play different enough, or out of different positions, so that we don't sound like we are almost together, but not quite.
Having been a banjo player and a mandolin player, do you find that your rhythm behind those instruments is the way that you would like it to sound if you were playing those instruments?
Guilty as charged. This is where I really have to stay on my toes to make sure that I am listening to them and not what I would play if I were playing that instrument. A lot of times I will have ideas about what I would naturally play on a banjo and I will be thinking, "Right here, I'm up the neck." And that changes what I play on rhythm.
If I am lost in my own little world and thinking "me, me, me," I am playing to what I want the others to be playing. For years, until I was fortunate enough to get in with the right people who gave me some guidelines and made me think about things that I previously hadn't, I made those mistakes. I was a banjo player. I did not listen to one thing that anyone around me was doing because I was so caught up in the banjo and so caught up in what I was going to do next that I butchered song after song, after song.
If you don't spend time concentrating on that stuff right when it is happening, it is not something that is going to kick you in the head. I pull out old tapes and listen to them and the first thing I say is "God, what was I thinking?" I am immediately irritated with myself. But to me, that is motivating. That leads me to picking up the instrument and trying to fix that or make it better.
I try to spend the majority of my time really listening. There are techniques to listening and knowing how to listen and listening to different things in a song. Some people have blinders on, and I can say this because I have been guilty of it. If you listen to a song, and say you are a banjo nut and you only listen to the banjo, then you can't possibly gain the understanding of that song that you need to really do it justice. You have to listen to everything.
When I listen to music, I will listen to the same song fifty times in order to figure out what is "kicking" in that song for me. I think that some of the best practice people can do is really critical listening. If you listen to intricacies of Tony Rice's rhythm it is extremely easy to take for granted that he is just playing a rhythm lick. But if you have ever had the opportunity to really tune into his right hand and see what he really plays for rhythm, you can get lost in it. I can listen to it all night in order to try and understand what he is feeling to make him play that. It is not necessarily what he is playing because if you just listen to what someone plays, you don't have the ability to apply it yourself when the situation arrises. What I try to listen to is what makes him play that. What is he feeling that brings that out of him? That is where I will get lost in listening to one song over and over again.
It is fun to learn things that other people have played, and to learn breaks, and to learn solos, but I don't find that learning other people's stuff is as rewarding for me as a player. Other people's motives, however, is what turns me on about the music.
What kind of guitar do you play?
I recently got a Bourgeois and it is an amazing guitar from the workmanship to the tonal qualities. Dana Bourgeois is a talented, talented man. Ron (Block) has one of his guitars too and although mine is a Brazilian and his is mahogany, it is equally a killer guitar. They are two different animals entirely, but his works well for the slow, pretty sustain type things that he does. They are built for two different purposes.
With every guitar that I've seen Dana build I have been very impressed with the workmanship. If you really get down into the nooks and crannies, you cannot see a bead of glue or a space or crack anywhere. He spends a lot of time making them right.
How did you come to choose that guitar?
I saw Ricky Skaggs at the Opry one time and I played a Bourgeois that he had. I complimented him on it. The next week I got a message that he wanted to talk to me. He said, "I got another guitar that I want you to try out." When I hit it, my eyes opened likes saucers. I said, "This is just killer!" He said, "Take it home over the weekend and if you like it, you can keep it." So I lucked into that guitar.
The other guitar that I play is a 1946 Martin D-28. That is still my primary guitar because it has a dryness and an oldness that I think you can only get in an old Martin. Between the two guitars, some songs just scream for that old Martin. But I play them both.
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