Well, here we are at December 15th and ready to have the legendary Roland White as our first CoMando Celebrity Guest of the Week. I'm sure that Roland really needs no introduction to this group but I'll give him one anyway. Roland and his brother Clarence began playing music as boys and went on to play as the Country Boys and the Kentucky Colonels. As most people know, Clarence was a world-class guitarist who was equally adept playing acoustic or electric. After Clarence's untimely death in the early 70's, Roland went on to play guitar with Bill Monroe and later mandolin with Lester Flatt and the Nashville Grass. Later he spent lengthy tours playing with Alan Munde in Country Gazette and later with the Nashville Bluegrass Band. A couple of years ago Roland left NBB to form the Roland White Bank with his talented wife, Diane Bouska. Roland in 2001 released his book Roland White's Approach to Bluegrass Mandolin. In 2003 he will be one of the instructions at Kamp Kaufman. Roland teaches privately and gives workshops all over the country. He is not only an excellent mandolin player but he is an outstanding teacher. And, as many people have noted on this list, he is as nice of a person as you will ever meet. We are honored to have Roland as our initial Guest of the Week.
I have received a number of questions from listmembers. The first two questions related to Bill Monroe's influence. How has Monroe's influence manifested itself in your playing is the essence of both questions? Roland take it away. Welcome to CoMando.
CGOW Chairman Snapple
I'm honored to be your first Guest of the Week! I think this is going to be fun..and thanks to Glenn Bradford for the introduction and coordinating the event.
Q - How do you incorporate Monroe's style and influence into your mandolin picking?
A - I'm not consciously incorporating it because it's become part of the way I think and play. I immersed myself in it when I was 16 by listening to his recordings, and listening a lot. At the very beginning I couldn't/wouldn't play along because it was all new... a different sound... a total new approach. I/we had never heard this. I would put a stack of 45 rpms on the turntable, and listened only to the songs with mandolin breaks that appealed to me,and/or fascinated me. Not all of them did at first. I also listened to what the fiddles did. When I thought I had an inkling of what he was doing, I would try to play along, and it was frustrating. I would listen to a phrase at a time, over, and over by picking up the needle, and moving it. Sections of the recordings wore out fast. Dad decided I should try this approach: transfering the recordings to a reel to reel tape recorder to save the needles, and records. Brilliant idea. We had no direct capabilities. Just holding the microphone from the recorder to the speaker of the record player. It worked well enough. After several months of this it became clear to me that I couldn't play exactly like him. The best I or anyone can do is by absorbing as much as one can, and just play your songs/instrumentals, and you'll realize that you absorbed much more than you thought. When playing your instrument I think that one should occaisionally record one's playing, and listen. You'll probably be surprised. I want to mention one more thing. The first bluegrass recording I purchased was Pike County Breakdown. It changed my life. Well I could go on quite a bit more. I'll keep that for a book.
Q2Q - Glenn, I'd like to ask him about his stint as the guitar player for Bill Monroe--what did he learn about the mandolin (and bluegrass in general) from watching Monroe and playing with him? And did he sit down and play mandolin with Bill much, backstage, on the bus, etc.?
A - I know I learned a lot then, but it's not easy to say exactly what. Just being there with him and watching him play and listening to him play, I began to realize that his approach was, in a way, simple, when I had been seeing it as something really difficult. I realized that the melody was the most important thing to him. When he improvised you could always detect the melody, or if he made a new melody it made sense within the song. He would sometimes sit there and hum a break to a song and then play it. He did play a lot on the bus and backstage and I watched and listened openly. When he knew someone was listening he really performed. Which was very nice. He wasn't showing off, but he was just doing his thing. How better to learn than when somebody's sitting right there. He'd stay up late on the bus playing --it's a funny thing--early on I asked him if he ever played on the bus (I was driving at night) while he was traveling, and he said, "well, if you'll get it out for me". And I asked "you mean bring the mandolin up here" and he said yes, so I did, and he'd would often sit up and play most of the night. I would bring it out most of the time. Usually we'd eat within half an hour of leaving the show and sometimes he'd say, "boys, I'm tired--handle me easy now", which meant to handle the bus gently and not run over curbs or grind gears or jerk it around. Then he was going to sleep. But about 90% of the time he was up 2 to 4 hours after we'd eaten, playing. I don't think we played mandolins together more than a couple of times. I wanted to listen. He never invited people to play mandolin with him. Back to the question. Watching Bill made me immediately start changing my technique. I had been anchoring my right hand pinky on the top of the mandolin, and holding the pick between thumb, index and middle finger. I changed to let my right hand float freely and starting holding the pick between the side of my index finger and my thumb. There's no way you can make it flow like he did with your hand anchored. That was a huge change for me. I would go home and practice to play that way and it was difficult when I was playing with people because my playing was weaker and then I began to develop a little strength. The last year I was with him was when I really started working on it. It changed my playing completely. At times I would really want to revert back to the old way, even when I was playing with Lester, but I would force myself not to. About 6 months into playing mandolin with Lester I think it really came together.
After being with Bill I got my improvising to make more sense. I realized I had to simplify my playing and tell more of a story. Before, it didn't hold together sensibly all the time. A phrase might not go with the rest of it. I was picking "stuff". Since my time with Monroe, and with Lester, when people ask me to show them a break that I did with the Kentucky Colonels I tell them I can't because I don't play that way. I don't even like it. But I'll show them how I play it now. In the last 4 months of my stint one night he was playing a tune I'd never heard. He said "you know what that is?"
It was either the Heel and Toe Polka or Texas Gallop and he said they were his Uncle Pen's tunes. Kenny Baker heard him play one of them and said "let's keep working on that, Chief" and they later went on to record the Uncle Pen album. I left before they recorded it though so I didn't get to play guitar on it. (My stint with him was from around May, 1967 to February of '69.) You asked what I learned about bluegrass in general--I got the most I could from the best, which was Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs. It was on the job training. My favorite thing to listen to is the essential Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys with Flatt and Scruggs, Chubby Wise, and Howard Watts. What I learned about bluegrass was that there's never an end to learning the music (it's true of any style). Every time I play I discover something and I can hear things happening with my right or left hand or with the way I phrase the melody. I've never been one for having breaks totally worked out and always playing it the same way. I have to play what I think and that changes from time to time. It was the same way with Monroe, and same way with Scruggs. You'll find their breaks are always slightly different even if it's just the attitude or how he feels that day about playing that song. The freedom to express yourself that day is always there. I can listen to any good player one day and then listen again on another day and they'll tell you the same story but with a little difference. All good players are like that. I guess that's what makes an artist. I discovered that it's about freedom and expressing yourself. I asked him one time, I said I was struggling and he says "I know you are" and I asked him for suggestions and asked who should I listen to of the past guitar players. He said don't listen to none of those boys, none of them did what I wanted. He was not known to give one a whole lot of credit. He said listen to me sing and listen to my mandolin and play with that. I though"Huh? I thought I was" But now I realize he meant for me to listen and respond in my own way, as an artist. But I wasn't sure of myself. He's said he just wanted a man to play his music. didn't want a hotshot picker. I was intimidated because he was Bill Monroe, my idol. Being the guitar player for Bill Monroe was quite challenging. I had known Bill Monroe around nine years before he hired me as a guitar player. I had subbed on a few occasions while he was in the west, and he had a pretty good idea where I was as a guitar player. On this trip in 1967, I subbed again for the first two or three concerts. Lamar Grier said to me, when we get back to Nashville Bill will be needing a guitar player, and I think you should ask for the job. I was playing electric bass in a country dance band, and he thought I should be playing bluegrass. Right. There's more to this story that I later realized it was funny. When I asked him for the job I said "you know where I'm at and what I can do and I'd be willing to work at it and get better and learn more about your music. And he said, well that's what I'm looking for, a man who'll play my music. And as long as a man tries, he has a job. When he quits trying he's out" That's the way he put it. And I said "ok".
When one thinks he knows Bill's Bluegrass music, think again. I still don't know all there is to know about it. I never will, but I learned an awful lot, and I am still learning. That first generation of bluegrass players were the real greats. When you heard them you knew who it was right away, Monroe, or the Stanleys, Flatt and Scruggs, or Reno and Smiley, they were all doing their own thing, their heartfelt thing. You didn't mistake one for the other.
Red Henry is on the list and Red has talked about the first Randy Wood mandolins. I know that everyone knows about your Randy Wood/Gibson mandolin. I would like you to comment on how you happened to acquire the mandolin and why you like it so much. From playing it myself I know that it has an unusual amount of sustain. You told me once that you incorporate the extra sustain in your playing. Can you verbalize how you try to do that? Also, how is the mando holding up? I know you have had to have some structural repairs made in recent years. Also, what other makers have impressed you in the past few years? Do you think the Randy Wood will finish out your career with you? Do you think there will come a time when you leave it at home for safekeeping and take something else with you on the road?
Answer to questions about my mandolin/Randy Wood mandolins.
A - My mandolin that I've been playing since Feburary 1969 is a Gibson copy by Randy Wood. It's serial # 0002, August 1968. I had been to Randy's shop in Muscle Shoals, Alabama sometime in late 1968, and saw that he was working on #3. He had already sold #1 so I didn't get to see it until several years later. At the time of my visit he said that Jesse Mc Reynolds had # 2 to try out. In Feburary 1969 I was preparing to go to work for Lester Flatt. I had a mandolin at the time but was looking for something better. So, I called Randy, and asked if he had a mandolin for sale. He hadn't completed # 3 yet, but suggested that I call Jesse because he didn't think that he was going to buy it. I called and asked, told him about my new job, and that I needed a better mandolin. He said he wasn't going to keep it... It was not what he was looking for, but it would make a real nice mandolin for someone. He said he would bring it to me that weekend to the Opry. I opened the case, and played on it a little. I was pleased with it enough to take it home with me, and play it for a while. I didn't like the bridge, strings. The whole setup was not what I was used to. After messing with it for a few days and playing it a lot, I realized that the sound I was getting really appealed to me, and I had never played one that I could get close to the Monroe Loar sound.
I told Randy what I thought about it, and he said bring it down here, and we'll go over it. He said I know just what to do.
Brought it to him, and he replaced the rosewood bridge with an ebony, Loar style, put on a set of bronze strings, set the action a bit, and WOW, I had the real thing, nice sounding mandolin. Everything about it suited me. It even had more sustain, and that was a welcomed surprise. He said, play on it a while, and see how it works for you. I told him that when # 3 was finished, could I see and play it, and choose the one I liked best. He agreed. Well in the meantime Bill Monroe heard about my mandolin, and asked Randy to build him one. He told Bill of our agreement, and said he would get back to him right away. Randy called me and told me Bill was interested in one of his mandolins, and that #3 was almost ready. I told him that I was perfectly happy with what I had, and to go ahead and let Bill have it. Thats the whole story. I called Randy about halfway through this answer to make sure I had all the facts right. By the way, the RW # one belongs to Red Henry, and it is the only one that I know of that sounds most like mine. He also has #3 now, and It is also very nice.
An answer to the sustain question, and more:
I think the reasons for the sustain could be many. The last two or so years of the Kentucky Colonels I had.. what I was told a late 40s Gibson F-5. Later someone told me that they thought it was an early 50s. No matter, I liked it. It had been worked on by someone who thinned the top, and it had a lot of sustain. My Randy Wood has a thin top. I liked that about the Gibson very much, and it had a lot of volume, but a bit too harsh. That aspect of it I wasn't thrilled about. The grain in the top was similar to my R.Wood. That may have something to do with it. They both had a wider fret, and I know that makes a difference, because I've had both on this one. Because of the top being too thin I've had two structural repairs. The first was in 1978 or 1979, and the second time was about seven years ago. At the moment it seems to be holding up real well. David Harvey did the last job on it with Charlie Derrington's directions. Every one knows that Charlie put Bill's mandolin together ten/twelve years ago. Not sure of those dates. I'll probably finish out my years with this mandolin. I do have two other ones that I like very much, one being a R Wood, and the other a SUMI by Mr. Sumi of Japan. Very nice.
By the way, the RW # one belongs to Red Henry, and it is the only one that I know of that sounds most like mine. He also has #3, and It is also very nice. Bill loaned me # 3 while I was getting the first repair, and I never saw it again until Murphy Henry came to Nashville last year and purchased it at the Bill Monroe auction.
Mandolin makers that have impressed me in recent years are many. I know there are some in most recent years that I haven't heard of yet. The first is Bob Givens. I only saw a few of those and they were very nice. He was in Nashville at the time. Pleasing to the ear... to mine anyway. Next I remember was in Colorado. Someone drove us up in the mountains to meet Michael Kemnitzer. I had seen one of his already and thought it was excellent. He is now in Michigan still building, and what I've seen is all very nice. Dawn Watson in Colorado has one that is real nice. They are the Nugget mandolins.
There are too many more to mention in one sitting, but I must mention Steve Gilchrist. Everybody seems to have and/or has had one. They are beautiful, and all excellent sounding. Lynn Dudenbostel. They're like fine jewelry. The ones I've seen are not the loudest in the world, but they have a beautiful voice. That's another thing I like about mine. Then there's Gibson. Thank god for Gibson, and Lloyd Loar.
I know I'm leaving some out.
Montaleone (my spell check won't help me here)
There are 4 to 20 more builders, and I would have to do some research.
Everytime I see a new one, I'm thrilled at how nice they are.
Q4Q - There was that one first time that you knew you were really playing music, do you remember when that was?
A - One time early on (probably 1947), and that's a pretty good guess because I hadn't had the mandolin quite a year. My Dad with a couple friends, and an uncle or two were playing music, and that was probably on a visit to a relative's place. They played several tunes, then started to play Rag Time Annie. Part way into it I got my mandolin, and strummed along. I knew the song very well, and when it was over I felt that I got through it ok. It felt real good. Just played chords, mind you. They went into Soldiers Joy, and again I knew how it went real well. I knew right then that I could do any tune if I worked at it. I must mention one other time, and that was when Clarence, Eric, Dad, and me got through a tune without stopping. Listen To The Mockingbird.. Dad on fiddle Clarence on Uke, Eric Strumming the tenor banjo, and me on the mandolin. Those were the instruments we had plus a guitar. Next time we got together to play, our sister Joanne sang a song that we all knew...could follow along, and that's when Dad realized that we had a band going here. It wasn't long after that he took us to a Grange Hall to play for some function.
Q5Q - How does one continue to play that music in the face of grave tragedy?
A - I remember 1954, a day or two before we left the state of Maine for California, we woke one morning to the sirens of fire engines. We went outside, and there was a house burning. Three or four young children died in that fire. They were Clarence, and Eric's age, and they knew them better than I did. We were in the final stages of getting ready to leave for good.
We really didn't want to go at a time like this. My mother said to us, "life must go on". It's not our time to go.
Q6Q - In the Kentucky Colonels pictures Roland holds the body of the mando above his forearm; now he hangs it very low. What brought about the change?
A - I think the only reason is, when taking a mandolin break, I would use the vocal mike, and sometimes that one mic is all we had. We seldom had monitors, and this way I could hear my instrument better. The first time we had monitors, it was scarry, and that was at a folk club in L A called the Ash Grove. The first time I saw Bill Monroe in a nice venue, good sound, good monitors, and more than one mic, was at the Ash Grove. The first time I saw Flatt & Scruggs live with good sound, and monitors was also at the Ash Grove. You can hear many K Y Colonels' live recordings available on CD from the Ash Grove. Ed Pearl proprietor, did more to present bluegrass on the west coast first class.
What brought on the change was having good monitors and three to four mics. I lenghthened my strap, to play in a mic that was positioned about waist high... usually shared it with the banjo.
Thanks for the questions. I know I haven't answered them all but I'll get to more of them tomorrow.
I find, most always, a loud bass, mandolins, guitars, fiddles, (Paul Warren's), dobros, and banjos, (they're always loud),ha ha, are harsh/hard sounding. They just don't have a nice/beautiful voice, and that's the opinion of many players that I know. How to play any instrument, weather loud or not, one should always play relaxed, and with a light touch. If you're not heard, or you don't think you are, then you must learn to work the microphones. I mention this in my instruction book, and that applies to all instruments.
Now, in a jam session, one is never loud enough. This is the opinion of many, and y'all know about opinions.
Q8Q - We finally got around to recording our weekly jam and one thing that has jumped out at me is that our banjo player vamps a lot and when he is vamping at the same time that I am chopping there is too much emphasis on the off beat and it sounds funky.
A - Yes, many times this is a problem. I tried long and hard to figure this out. In short, I go back and forth from the front of the beat to the back, (off beat), interspursing short runs. This may confuse you, but try playing with that idea in mind. Experiment with it, and you'll find and hear some interesting things happening. That's how I figured it out. Knowing something about rythm guitar, and bass playing helped me a a whole lot.
Q9Q - I'm looking for some advice on backup stuff to play other than the chop. Particularly stuff that is suited to medium to fast tempos. I have a small amount of licks for slow songs (which we don't do many of anyway), but I don't really know what to do with faster stuff.
A - I'm not sure how we're going to spell out this instruction on these matters, but we will in my next mandolin instruction book. Thats what we have the most requests for. At the moment, this is the best I can do. Try it! Try anything! It can be fun, and let me know what happens.