October 9-15, 2000
The "Artist of the Week" web site feature highlights a new flatpicking guitarist each week. And this week we have decided to feature flatpicking master Tony Rice.
Reprinted from Flatpicking Guitar Magazine, Volume 3, Number 1 (November/December 1998)
by Bryan Kimsey
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Tony Rice's guitar is almost as famous as its owner. The instrument was formerly owned by Clarence White, and was the first D-28 Rice saw. Characterized by an oversized soundhole, an extended but shorter fingerboard with no inlays, and no "CF Martin" script on the peghead, the instrument is immediately recognizable. As with any legend, rumors and urban myths about the instrument abound. At MerleFest '97, I was lucky enough to chat with Roland White about the guitar and his recollections mesh very well with Rice's.
Eric, Sr., with Roland and Clarence in tow, bought the guitar, SN 58957, at McCabe's guitar store in Los Angeles for about $25-35 (Roland recalls $25 and Rice recalls $35, but whatever it was, Roland said they bought it because it was the only one they could afford). The guitar had been previously owned by a woman with polio from UCLA and traded in on a new guitar in about 1959. The soundhole had already been enlarged and Roland thought it was done as part of an attempt to clean up the looks of the guitar. Evidently, the soundhole was pretty beat up and so someone just sliced out the offending section, resulting in the big hole. Roland believed the top had been thinned, but Rice says it's within specs for other Martins of that time period. The Whites bought the guitar, but it still needed some work. The fingerboard was missing between the 1st fret and the nut, and a new one was obviously needed. At this point, Roland mimicked his reaction for me by gulping and saying "Well,....how much? It was going to cost $25 to fix it, which is what we paid for the guitar!". This was evidently big money for the young Whites, but they decided to go ahead and do it, using a Gretsch fingerboard that was in the shop to save money.
Roland said that Clarence used the D-28 mostly for rhythm and played his D-18 for leads, but Rice recalls seeing White play the D-28 quite often. Also, there has been some mention, in this magazine and others, of Roy Noble making "modifications" to the guitar. Rice says, "If there was any modification that was done to that instrument, I have no idea what it was. I don't have any idea how Roy Noble would have modified it. If he did, I wouldn't admit it (if I were him) because when I got the guitar it was a mess. It was a train wreck."
The D-28 did need repairs while in White's ownership. Once, the Whites were at a gig in Ann Arbor when Clarence backed the van over both guitars. According to Roland, Clarence went down from the house they were staying in to load the guitars. When he got to the vehicle, he discovered the doors were locked and the keys were in the house, so he sat the guitars down, went back for the keys, returned, got in the car, backed-up and CRUNCH. The D-18 was hurt much worse than the D-28 and a repairman in Ann Arbor put it back together again. Roland said the D-18 actually sounded about the same if not better, in spite of having a whole lot of wood putty in it.
Eventually, Clarence White got into the Byrds, needed money and wasn't playing the D-28 so he gave it to a liquor store owner (Joe Miller) as collateral on a loan. Joe Miller gained possession of the guitar in 1966. Eventually, according to Clarence's friend Bobby Sloan, Clarence wanted the guitar back and offered Miller quite a sum of money, but was refused. When Clarence was killed in 1973, the guitar effectively vanished until Rice went looking for it. He found Miller and determined that the guitar would be available. Miller took the instrument to a violin maker for appraisal. Taking into consideration the cracks, non-original state, and filthy condition of the guitar, it was appraised at $550 and Rice bought it for that amount. Rice says, "The guitar was not played from 1966 until I got it in 1975. When I got it the strings were literally white-green they were so old."
Upon receiving the guitar, Rice says, "when I got it, like I said, it was a wreck. The first thing I had done was to take it to Randy Wood and Randy did a neck reset on it, planed the fingerboard, and refretted it. At the time he put a homemade bridge on it which was closer to the newer Martin standard. I had Mike Longworth send me an old Martin bridge second and I had the bridge saddle slightly re-tilted for intonation purposes."
According to various sources, including Steve Swan and Harry Sparks, the old D-28 has a soundhole diameter of 4 9/16", a scale of 25.25", a nut width approaching 1 5/8", and a bridge string spread of 2 5/16th. The top is Adirondack spruce, with back and sides of Brazilian rosewood, as were other D-28's of that era. Bracing is "advanced" X, crossing 1" from the soundhole, there is no reinforcing "popsicle" brace under the fingerboard, and the saddle is a long type. The neck has a very slim profile and the fretboard is ivoroid bound with no fretboard markers, nor does the CF Martin decal appear on the headstock.
Bill Wolf, who has been Tony's sound engineer for the past twenty-five years, had this to say regarding the tonal characteristics of Tony's D-28, "From the recording standpoint, one of the most noticeable qualities is that it is reasonably loud, but not overly bassy or boomy. This offers flexibility in miking. The fact that it is not boomy enables you to contour the amount of low end by how close you place the microphones to the soundhole. Usually the closer you get to the soundhole, the more low end you get. However, with this guitar you can get closer to the soundhole without getting into the danger zone of getting too boomy."
Regarding his recording technique, Wolf said, "The first time I recorded Tony, about twenty-five years ago, his verbal description regarding the sound he wanted was to be 'more like a Spanish guitar than the standard flat top sound.' That is to say that he wanted more of the fundamental tone and less of a percussive sound--a more solid midrange. Most engineers will mike a guitar with what has come to be known as the 'Nashville technique' which involves placing a mic like the U-87 at the 12th fret and miking the fingerboard. I have never done that with Tony. We place the primary mike below the right hand aimed at the spot just below the bridge inbetween the bridge and the soundhole. The second mike is aimed at the spot of wood just above the neck and close to the soundhole. We use side-live Neumann microphones like the KM-86, U-89, U-47, or U-47 tube."
The Clarence White/Tony Rice guitar has served as the inspiration for several copies, including the Santa Cruz Tony Rice and Tony Rice Professional models, both of which Rice has direct input. Other copies include the Collings Clarence White model, Martin HD-28 LSV, and Martin Grand Marquis LSH. Of the copies, all vary somewhat from the original, with the Santa Cruz TR Professional being the closest. The TR Professional is identical to the Santa Cruz that Rice currently plays (although Rice can and does request changes periodically). Steve Swan says: "The Santa Cruz TR Professional version is similar to Tony's D-28 with a Brazilian Rosewood body, 25 1/4" scale length, 4 9/16" soundhole, very slim neck profile, bound fingerboard, and a light build approaching what Martin was doing in the mid 1930s. The Santa Cruz differs from the D-28 in having a reinforcement brace under the fingerboard, modern position X-brace, German Spruce top, a herringbone rosette, shallower body depth at neck end, blind end saddle, bound headstock, a 1 11/16" nut width, and the modern 2 3/16" string spread at bridge." The standard Tony Rice model has a smaller 4.25" soundhole, different bracing, and a standard Martin scale of 25.4". A few Professional models were made with different scales and nut widths, but this practice was recently discontinued and any variations on the Rice model are now called "Custom D".
Of the other makers, the Martin HD-28 LSV is close to specs with an Adirondack top, long saddle, advanced bracing, and 4 9/16" soundhole. It lacks Brazilian rosewood and has a 1 3/4" nut width with corresponding wide bridge spacing. The Collings Clarence White model has Adirondack top, Brazilian back and sides (a few mahogany guitars have been made), a long saddle, and advanced bracing. It differs from the role model by having a 1 3/4" neck and 4.25" soundhole. The Collings guitar is also slightly heavier-built than the pre-war D-28 and the bracing favors a modern treble sound.
None of these copies are slavish imitations of the original, but that's probably just as well since virtually everyone agrees that the original is a unique instrument, not one that can be duplicated. Also, the simple fact is that many people who think they desire Rice's instrument might be surprised when they actually play it. Charles Sawtelle, who knows a thing or two about vintage Martins, told FGM that Rice's guitar is actually fairly quiet compared to his own '37 D-28, but that Rice's technique fits it perfectly, allowing him to pull tone and volume from the guitar that no one else can.
As for the large soundhole, there is an ongoing argument as to the effect it has on the sound. Most luthiers are of the opinion that a larger soundhole provides more treble and mid-range compared to a smaller soundhole. In FGM Vol. 1, No. 1, Richard Hoover of Santa Cruz guitars said "...because of its airspace and scalloped bracing, (a dreadnought) is predisposed to bass response. The larger soundhole raises the fundamental pitch and thus helps bring out more of a balanced tone."
Rice believes that the larger soundhole has no effect and points out that the extended fretboard effectively blocks whatever the larger diameter provides. He also points out that other great sounding pre-war D-28's have a regular sized soundhole. Both arguments are probably right in that a larger soundhole on a given instrument does have an effect, but probably not on Rice's particular instrument due to the extended fingerboard. Whatever the pros or cons of the enlarged soundhole, there is no doubt that Rice's D-28 is a unique instrument and much like Bill Monroe and Sam Bush's F5 mandolins, Charles Sawtelle's multi-cracked D-28, and Earl Scrugg's Granada, is forever linked to him.
King Bluegrass Records KB 529. This is Tony's first solo album, recorded with members of the J.D. Crowe band. Essential listening for earlier Rice style, this album is full of powerful guitar, great singing, and killer bluegrass. The solo on "Freeborn Man" is the epitome of bluegrass flatpicking guitar, in my humble opinion.
Rebel 1549. Rice is joined by members of the Seldom Scene for an eccentric mix of tunes, from Jimmy Martin's "You Don't Know My Mind" to jazz standard "Georgia on My Mind". Once you've heard Rice play "Bugle Call Rag" you'll wonder why it was ever considered a banjo tune.
Rounder 0085. Recorded during The Dawg Years, the album features some straight bluegrass as well as the Dawg-penned "Rattlesnake", for which this album is often nick-named. Features the best cover shot yet of Tony's guitar (Plays and Sings Bluegrass comes close, but the picture is bigger on the Rattlesnake LP).
Rounder 0092. Considered a "favorite" and "1st album to get" by many Rice fans, this one is "bluegrass without the banjo" and opened many listeners ears to that possibility. The original LP had an unusual shot of the guitar sans headstock. Manzanita is one of my "desert island" discs.
Kaleidoscope F10. A hard to find album since Kaleidoscope folded several years ago, Acoustics is Rice's first post-Grisman outing. All tunes but one are Rice originals with "Old Gray Coat" a favorite of mine. Another good shot of the guitar on the cover.
Church Street Blues
Sugar Hill SH-3732. Pure, unadorned Rice and guitar. The instrumentals feature brother Wyatt on rhythm, but otherwise, this is just Tony, voice, and guitar. An excellent textbook of rhythm guitar playing.
Rounder 0125. An extension of the Acoustics jazz/grass, a little heavier on the jazz side, perhaps. Again, all but one are Rice originals. Rice uses an Ovation on some of these cuts- which ones?
Rounder 0150. Perhaps my favorite of the "spacegrass" albums, due in part to the addition of mandolinist John Reischman who has the clearest tone I've ever heard and very nice improvisations. Mostly originals by Rice, but Reischman contributes one, too.
Rounder 0167. One of Tony's favorite albums, and I can see why. Great sounding music with superb solos from the same crew that cut "Still Inside". Mostly Rice originals which stand up quite well against 3 jazz standards. Check out the picture of Wyatt playing a D-18 with an enlarged soundhole.
Cold on the Shoulder
Rounder 0183. In the liner notes, Rice calls this an extension of the Manzanita concept, but with banjo, which makes it "not-quite bluegrass, but almost", I guess. An all-vocal outing, with plenty of instrumental space. Killer version of "Wayfaring Stranger". Last picture of the D-28 with a dark pickguard before the tortoise 'guard appeared. Tony looks very, very cold on the cover!
Me and My Guitar
Rounder 0201. Featuring much more than just TR and guitar, this album seemed to begin the "folk" stage with tunes by Dylan, Lightfoot, and Taylor and an appearance by that decidedly not-bluegrass instrument, the saxophone, all artfully presented by Tony's great voice. Is the guitar really balancing there on the back cover, and are there alternate takes of that photo where it's maybe not balancing? The tortoise pickguard is visible.
Rounder 0248. Sort of like Me and My Guitar, but not really. The songs seem a little darker and the instrumentation gets even farther from bluegrass (but that's alright) with drums, electric guitar, and electric bass. There's even a John Mayall blues tune!
Tony Rice Plays and Sings Bluegrass
Rounder 0253. From the opening banjo kick-off to the last fading bass note, this is Bluegrass, and a pure adrenaline rush all the way. Superb playing from everyone involved and recorded the good old way with a couple of mics, a bunch of musicians, and "Go!". Nice shot of the guitar on the front, but CD's are too small to do it justice.
Other Albums of Note:
JD Crowe and the New South
Rounder 0044. This is likely the album that brought Rice to the bluegrass world and paired him with Skaggs for the first time. A "must-have".
Skaggs and Rice
Sugar Hill 3711. Incredible singing and playing in the brother duet style. No one else could've played rhythm guitar on this. Tony and Ricky are so perfectly on pitch and blend so well together, you'd swear they were brothers, and yet they recorded this album just because Skaggs happened to be in the area.
The Rice Brothers I and II
Rounder 0256 and 0286. A collection of tunes featuring Tony, Larry, Wyatt, and Ronnie picking away. Less of a band sound than other albums, but lots of good stuff here nonetheless.
Blake and Rice I and II
Rounder 0233 and 0266. You might think that two artists as disparate as Blake and Rice wouldn't work well together, but you'd be wrong. Somehow they compliment each other and these two albums are the result. Many flatpickers list one or both of these at the top of their "must have" list, especially II which features Doc Watson on a few cuts.
River Suite for Two Guitars
Sugar Hill 3837. Rice shows Carlini just exactly what he's been up to since the Dawg days, and Carlini has a few surprises of his own. Excellent jazzy two guitar work.
Mountain Home 105. An instrumental gospel album. Great songs, great playing, what more can you ask for?
The Bluegrass Album Band. Vol. 1-6
Rounder 0140, 0164, 0180, 0210, 0240, 0330. Also, sample of I-IV on Rounder 11502. J.D. Crowe, Jerry Douglas, Bobby Hicks, Doyle Lawson, Todd Phillips, and Rice go through the traditional bluegrass songbook. Vassar Clements joins toward the end. You've never heard bluegrass played this well and Hicks and Clements fiddling is particularly superb- check out the way the soloists provide their own tags right up 'till Tony starts singing again. If this band had been around in the early days of bluegrass, you can bet that Lester and Earl and Bill and Ralph and Carter and Jimmy would've been front and center at every show. Of the series, I like No. 1 best just because I still remember the rush we experienced when it first came out and we plopped it down on the ol' Victorola. But they're all excellent.
Acoustic Disc. Rice and Grisman sit down and put 17 vintage guitars and mandolins through their paces. The idea is not to show off the musicians, but to show off the instruments, but this CD settles once and for all the question of "Is it Tony or is it his guitar?". Listen to the CD once without looking at the booklet and see which guitars you like best- you might be surprised!
Legends of Flatpicking Guitar
Vestapol 13005. Rice appears as part of this sampler of flatpicking legends. Great for comparing his style with others, but Rice fans will also want to add....
Tony Rice: the video collection
Vestapol 13058. Just Tony and various band members. Great stuff and you can slow down the tape to try to figure out what he's doing with his fingers, if you want. The only criticism of both Vestapol videos is that they cover a limited time period of Tony's playing.
An Intimate Lesson with Tony Rice
Homespun RIC-IN01. Rice goes through several tunes, including the jazz changes for "Georgia on my Mind", talks about his right hand, guitar, and approach to musicianship. Not quite as polished as other Homespun productions, this is still excellent stuff and there's nothing like having Rice show you around.
Tony Rice teaches New Acoustic Guitar
Homespun. In spite of the tape format, this is still the one to get for the complete TR enthusiast. Rice takes you from bluegrass all the way through Dawg and Spacegrass instrumentals. This series will keep you busy for years.
Tony Rice Teaches Bluegrass Guitar
Homespun. Tab book and CD excepted from the 6-tape series above, this is the bluegrass stuff only. At $19.95, it's cheap enough that you should consider getting it for the convenience of the CD alone.
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