September 11-17, 2000
An Award Winning Flatpicker
Reprinted from Flatpicking Guitar Magazine, Volume 1, Number 2 (January/February 1997)
by Dan Miller
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How much practice does it take to become three time IBMA "Guitar Player of the Year"? Ask 1992, 1993 and 1995 winner David Grier and his answer will be, "I never practice, I just play. 'Practice' sounds too much like work. 'Playing' sounds like you're having fun."
Although considered a young flatpicker when compared to legends such as Tony Rice, Doc Watson, Norman Blake, and Dan Crary, Grier has now been "playing" and "having fun" on the guitar for the past thirty-five years and has earned himself the same degree of respect and admiration that has been bestowed upon the afore mentioned giants. Three time National flatpick champion Steve Kaufman says, "David Grier is the best player out there today because he is so versatile. I call his style the 'jeet-kuen-do' of flatpicking. It is the 'style of no style.' He can tastefully adapt his style to fit any situation or any musical context." Butch Baldassari, mandolin player and Grier's former bandmate in The Grass is Greener, says, "I heard someone recently compare David Grier's playing to that of a guy who is a grand master chess player who is about 20 moves ahead at all times when he is playing the game. I think Grier's playing is like that. I don't think he consciously thinks twenty or thirty moves ahead, but his mind works that way. His mind is so far ahead and so advanced of everything that is happening. His variations and improvisations are endless."
You could say that David Grier was born into Bluegrass. The son of renowned banjo player Lamar Grier, David was born in Washington, D.C. in 1961. When he was just four years old his father got a job playing banjo with Bill Monroe and the family moved to Nashville. David's pre-school education came from hanging around backstage at the Grand Ole Opry, attending bluegrass concerts and festivals, and riding down the road with the Blue Grass Boys on Bill Monroe's bus. It was during this time, when he was five or six years old, that David started playing the guitar. When asked what drew him to the guitar versus a banjo or any of the other instruments he was exposed to at that age, Grier says that it was his Dad who pointed him in the direction of the guitar. He says, "Dad thought that the guitar was a more versatile instrument than the banjo and that I could do more with it. If I chose, I could do blues, jazz, classical, country, bluegrass, rock and roll, or whatever. With a banjo you are pretty limited."
When asked what he remembers about those days backstage at the Grand Ole Opry, Grier says that on one occasion the Osborne Brothers where on stage performing and he was standing in the wings. He noticed that Sonny Osborne was playing a banjo just like his Dad. The young Grier yelled out, "Sonny!" Osborne looked over and David said, "Sonny, come here!" Osborne ignored the boy and continued with the show. David persisted, "Sonny, come here!" Finally, Osborne, perhaps thinking that there was some emergency, left the stage to see what David was so excited about. Sonny approached the boy and said, "What is it David?" David said "Follow me!" and proceeded to move back towards the dressing rooms. Sonny followed David to Lamar Grier's dressing room. When they reached their destination David pointed at his Dad's banjo and said, "Look! My Dad plays a banjo just like yours!"
Learning to Play the Guitar
Because Grier does not read standard music notation or tablature and has never really had any formal instruction, yet is so versatile and creative and plays with such fluidity and effortlessness, many have labeled him a "natural" player, as if to say he was born with this talent. But this talent did not just fall into David's lap. He has definitely put his time in behind his guitar and his father, Lamar, was a guiding influence in developing David's talent. When David was five or six, his father showed him his first few chords and then let David run with it. He allowed David the freedom to explore the instrument on his own terms and create his own breaks to songs, but also gave him pointers along the way. Lamar Grier told Flatpicking Guitar that all of David's drive, enthusiasm, and motivation for playing the guitar was his own. The elder Grier says that he neither encouraged nor discouraged David's playing. He would answer questions when David had them, but otherwise left David alone to discover the guitar on his own.
While it is true that Grier has never really had a formal flatpicking guitar lesson per se, David says that his father taught him how to listen to the music and develop important fundamentals such as tone, timing, and taste. They would sit together and listen to tapes of live shows and his father would say, "Listen to the way this guy starts his solo," or he would point out things that Clarence White was doing, "Did you hear that? Let's listen to that again." David says his father would even point out things that Django Rienhardt was doing, but he adds, "I didn't like it because at the time I just couldn't understand it."
When David was playing his guitar at home, his father would sometimes keep an ear bent in David's direction and lend him advice. David says, "I can't tell you how many times I heard my Dad say, 'That's not the melody. It might be something, but it is not the melody.' I'd be playing and say, 'Dad, what do you think of this?' He would say, 'What is that?' I'd say, 'That was Salt Creek.' He'd say, 'It might be something, but that's not Salt Creek.' " Then David would be left alone to discover how to get it right. His father would rarely show him exactly what notes to play unless there was a particular lick that was giving him a lot of trouble.
In addition to encouraging David to stick close to the melody when working out solos to tunes, Lamar also encouraged David to find new variations to every song he learned. When David learned a new tune Lamar would say, "Why don't you find another way to play it?" Lamar said that he always enjoyed the way fiddlers could take one song and play it for ten minutes without ever playing it the same way twice and encouraged David to learn to do that on the guitar. The encouragement must have worked because David is a master of playing endless variations on a theme.
Someone else who David credits for helping him develop his guitar playing talent is Roland White. While Roland did not teach David how to play the guitar or show him what to play, he would sit and pick with David whenever he came to the house to visit with David's father. David says, "I thought that was pretty cool. Here I was just a kid trying to learn how to play and Roland had the patience to sit and pick with me for hours." The one thing that Roland did suggest of David was that he not play in B flat so often. David recalls, "When I was young it was much easier for me to play when I put the capo on the third fret because the frets are closer together up the neck. I just got used to always playing that way."
Because his father encouraged him to explore playing his own breaks to songs from an early age, David never developed a habit of copying other players. He does credit many players as having influenced him and says that he spent time listening to tapes and records to try and hear what others were doing, but he has never restricted himself to playing other players licks and breaks or memorizing a break to a song. David says, "Copying a lick from another player is a good way of learning, but eventually you make it your own by exploring variations of that lick. You exhaust all possibilities. You might reach a plateau for a while, but then later something new will pop out that is all your own. I like to fool around with a tune and see how many different ways I can play it. I can't tell you how many times I've been sitting around the house noodling and I'll come across something new." He continues by adding, "If you just memorized some solo and play it the same way every time because you think those are the coolest licks, that makes sense until you make a mistake. If you go off the pattern you memorized, you are behind and have to catch up. If you don't have anything memorized, it is easier to keep up even when you make a mistake. I never have an arrangement figured out before going on stage. I know the song melody, but that's it."
David's early guitar influences were players like Tony Rice, Doc Watson, and family friend Clarence White. When he was about 16 or 17 years old he also began playing the telecaster and says that when he started playing electric guitar he was influenced by players such as Don Rich, who had played with Buck Owens; Roy Nichols, who played with Merle Haggard; Albert Lee, who at that time was playing with either Emmy Lou Harris or Eric Clapton; Eric Clapton himself; Ry Cooder; Mark Knopfler of Dire Straights; Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones; Hendrix; Clarence White's electric guitar work; and Amos Garrett. He states that besides broadening his musical exposure, the most valuable thing about playing electric guitar was learning how to play up-the-neck.
Although Grier had occasionally been on stage with his Dad when the elder Grier was playing in local bands, he was never really in a band himself until he was old enough to leave home and got a job playing electric guitar in a country rock band. But he obviously hadn't given up on the acoustic guitar or bluegrass because in 1980 he took a trip out to Winfield and placed 2nd in the National Flatpicking Championships. David's excellent showing at Winfield helped to convince him that he could probably make a living playing the guitar and so around 1984 he packed up and moved back to Nashville (after Lamar Grier finished his two year stint with Bill Monroe, he had moved the family back to Laurel, Maryland, and that is where David had lived most of his life). Upon arrival in Nashville, David began playing out as much as possible in order to show the Nashville music community what he could do. During his early years in Nashville he played with Gene Wooten, Roland White's New Kentucky Colonels, and the Doug Dillard Band, to name a few. He was also doing some session work and soon began building a reputation for himself in the music city.
Today Grier is in great demand. He currently plays in the band, Pychograss, with Darol Anger, Mike Marshall, Todd Phillips, and Tony Trischka, and up until the end of 1996 played The Grass is Greener, with Richard Greene, Butch Baldasarri, Tony Trischka, and Buell Neidlinger. He occasionally plays duet gigs with such notables as Butch Baldassari, Tony Furtado, Tony Trischka, and Mike Compton and he also performs as a solo act at many venues. David's newest band is a trio with Matt Flinner on mandolin and Todd Phillips on bass. The trio recently released a CD on Compass Records titled "Grier, Phillips, Flinner." He has also recorded four highly acclaimed solo albums, Freewheeling, Lone Soldier, and Panorama on Rounder Records, and Hootenany on his own label, Dreadnought Records. Additionally, he recorded a project, Climbing the Walls on Rounder Records, with mandolin player Mike Compton. In addition to the above mentioned performing and recording, Grier also does session work in his spare time. His guitar work can be heard on over 80 recordings, including the Grammy Winning recordings the Great Dobro Sessions and True Life Blues. With all of these great accomplishments, it is no wonder that Acoustic Guitar Magazine selected David Grier as one of the "Guitar Players of the Decade."
Having won the IBMA "Guitar Player of the Year" award three times, it is obvious that bluegrass fans have responded with great enthusiasm to Grier's work. However, Grier is also a "musician's musician." Richard Greene, who played with Bill Monroe in the mid-sixties and was in the band Muleskinner with Clarence White, says, "David Grier is the worlds best player of fiddle tunes and fiddle music on guitar. Clarence White started it off and David Grier finished the job." Tony Trischka, who has played in a duo setting with David, and has played with David in both Psychograss and The Grass is Greener states, "David's ability to think on his feet is amazing. He is an absolutely inventive guitar player and the next great guitar player in the evolutionary cycle. There was Doc, Clarence, Tony, and now David." Mandolinist Butch Baldassari says, "I have heard a lot of other guitar players say, and I agree with them, that Grier is on a level all of his own with very few people even close by. His playing is really advanced and very complete, from top to bottom."
In the following interview, David Grier comments about his playing style, discusses how he composes his own tunes, and lends advice to aspiring flatpickers.
How would you define your style of flatpicking?
My style is a cross between the fiddle and banjo played on the guitar. I have the rolls of the banjo expressed in my crosspicking and the variation of the old time fiddle players who could take a tune and play it forever.
You have become quite well known for your crosspicking abilities. How did that develop?
When I was young I sat and played a lot of guitar by myself. Crosspicking became a way to fill things out when I was playing alone. I also use a drone string a lot. The reason I do that is to leave something ringing so it doesn't sound so staccato. If you leave one string ringing it will fill in the dead spaces so things will flow together smoother and it won't sound so choppy. I use crosspicking the same way. You let something ring while you are trying to get the other note. You can also do that by strumming chords while you are picking. Sometimes I strum through the chords while playing the melody. This breaks it up so that I don't have just a bunch of single line stuff. That is boring. You play differently when you are playing with a band. You have other band members fulfilling those roles, so you are able to one-string it. But it doesn't sound good when you are by yourself. When you are playing by yourself, you have to figure out how to break it up so that it is not boring.
So then the techniques you use in your solos when you are playing with a band, or in a duo, or by yourself, will vary with the setting.
Yes. You know, I used to dislike the fact that I wasn't in a band and that the band didn't get to grow and things didn't get to gel and get real tight. The more I look at it, I see that what I'm doing now gives me a chance to play differently in each setting and so I never get bored. I'm always learning new things and it remains interesting to me. I try to play a new way each time so I don't get bored with it and then the audience will not get bored with it. If I'm bored, it will be expressed to the audience. If I remain interested in what I'm playing, the audience will like it better.
You have been playing with some great musicians in Psychograss and The Grass is Greener. Do you learn new things from listening to what those guys are doing?
The musicians I like to get stuff from are the ones that think along the same lines as I do. Someone like Stuart Duncan, to me, is a perfect musician. In his playing you hear things like jazz and blues, but it all comes out Bluegrass and sounds great. You hear all of these different influences that are not direct cops of licks, but have that feeling. I like to do the same thing. I like blending different styles of music to make my own style - that is what Clarence did. Matt Glaser told me, "You know, you play all of this different stuff, but it comes out pure Bluegrass, which is cool."
Do you do that intentionally?
Yes, I sure do. I like to listen to all sorts of music and get ideas, but I am a bluegrass player. If I tried to play straight blues or jazz, it wouldn't sound like blues or jazz, it would sound like a bluegrass player trying to play blues or jazz because I'd throw a G-run or something in the middle of it.
What is your process when you are writing an original tune?
Like Keith Richards said, "There are two ways you can write a song. You can work all day at your office and sit there with your pad of paper and your pen and try to write a song, or you can sit there and play your guitar. The secret there is that you have to know when you've stumbled across something." Which is really cool, because that is the way I do it.
Sometimes I'll be sitting around the house playing and I'll play some stuff and I won't know a song that goes like that so I'll write one. That's the way I do it. The first part of my song "Wheeling" just came out when I was warming up in my dressing room before a show. But I couldn't figure out a second part. I sat for a couple of weeks and tried to come up with something that would work with it. One night I was sitting on the couch watching TV, playing the guitar, talking on the phone, and then my roommate came in and started talking to me. I had four things going on and before I knew it the second part came out and it fit perfect. That is how "Wheeling" came about.
Some of your songs have pretty creative titles. How do you come up with the names for your songs, like "Big Dirt Clod" for instance?
I usually wait until the song is finished before I give it a name. For that particular song, I was touring in North Carolina with Tony Furtado and I showed him this tune. We were playing it, but it didn't have a name so I said, I'll just name it "Big Dirt Clod." Everyone kind of laughed and it always got a big chuckle, so I thought it should stick. There are some goofy titles.
When did you start writing your own material?
Right from the beginning when I first started to play.
When you are getting ready to record a new CD, do you write songs specifically for that project or do you have a back log of tunes that you've written.
Both. I have written a lot of songs, but some I wouldn't want to record. Jason Carter, the fiddle player for Del McCoury, just cut three of my songs on his new album, two of them had never been recorded. It will be out later this fall.
Does it give you a sense of accomplishment when other artists cover your tunes.
Yes, because you never know if they are any good or not.
Can you talk about the guitars you play?
Right now I'm playing a guitar that was made by Marty Lanham of the Nashville Guitar Company. Before I got this guitar I played a 1955 Martin D-18 that was given to me by my father. If the Nashville guitar is in the shop, I'll still play the D-18.
What do you like about Nashville Guitar Company guitar?
Marty Lanham had shown me one of his guitars years ago. It was a nice guitar, but I wasn't interested in playing it because I liked my D-18. He asked me what I was looking for in a guitar and I told him that if I played a new guitar it would have to have a neck like my D-18 because I was used to that neck and it was very comfortable. I was also looking for something that was "bassy" like my D-18, but not boomy like a D-28. Marty built a new guitar to my specifications, but I didn't really think anything would replace my D-18. Well, one day I get this call from Mike Compton and he says, "David, Marty has built this guitar for you, but if you don't want it, I'm going to buy it." I figured if Mike liked it so much it must be a good guitar so I tried it out and it was just what I was looking for. It is bassier and louder than my D-18, has a good high end, and a lot of sustain. So I play this all the time now.
Previous to getting the Nashville guitar, how long had you been playing the D-18?
When I was old enough to carry it down the hall without knocking into the wall was when I began playing the D-18. I was probably about 12 years old. The D-18 is a 1955 model that my father traded for a tape player. Whoever had it before Dad had had someone replace the bridge. If you look close you can see two circles where someone had bolted the bridge to the top. It has been that way ever since I had it. Last week I finally had that taken out. I was afraid to before, but it worked out OK and now it rings more without that weight to keep it from vibrating. Over here there is a big scratch (points to the lower part of the top), I did that one time when I was young and my Dad made me mad. I took my pick and made this scratch, not knowing that someday the guitar would be mine.
What recommendation do you have for individuals who are trying to learn how to flatpick?
The only way you are really going to improve is by putting the guitar in your hands and working with it. My guitar is never in the case, its always in the house on the couch or somewhere. Sometimes I'll have two or three lying around. If I have to take out the trash, but walk by and see my guitar lying there, I'll sit and play the guitar for 15 or 20 minutes. If you have a chance to take out the trash or play the guitar, what are you going to do? You play the guitar.
When I sit down to play, I just play tunes. I don't have warm-ups, I don't play scales. I don't want to sit and practice scales, I just want to play. I never played scales. You just play and have fun. I never looked at it as practice. It sounds to much like work. I just play. "Playing" sounds like you're having fun. Of course, when I was learning, I had the advantage of being young and not having a job. I'd come home from school and play until dinner, then play until time for bed.
David Grier uses D'Addario J-14 strings and a very heavy Golden Gate style pick (tri-corner with very rounded corners). He chooses this combination of strings and pick because he likes a "woody" tone and does not like his guitar to sound too bright. I might have continued this interview and asked David more details about his picks, strings, right hand technique, and pick direction, however, having attended a number of his workshops, I know that his answer to these detailed questions would be something to the effect that it does not matter what he uses or what he does because everybody needs to find their own way of doing it, that which feels natural and comfortable to them.
David is not one to elaborate on the exact way he holds the pick or attacks the strings because it is likely to change from one solo to the next depending on the sound he is trying to create or the tone he is pulling out of the guitar in that moment. Grier's playing is innovative, creative, and versatile. He allows himself freedom in everything he does by not getting locked into any particular technique or style. To learn from David Grier means to listen to what he does and try to absorb how he does it without getting caught up in the details.
For those who may be interested in learning how to play some of David's original tunes, please refer to his Texas Music and Video instructional video "Flatpicking with David Grier," his Homespun instructional tape "Bluegrass Guitar - Building Powerful Solos," or the transcription books for his Freewheeling and Lone Soldier CDs published by Mel Bay Publications.
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