Becky is a prize winning mandolinist noted for her "hot" improvisational leads and expressive rhythmic drive. She is a sensitive player, adding "just the right notes" when backing up vocalists. She has 30 years of performance experience, with a wide variety of musical groups and as a duo performer. Her career began in Texas when she formed a string band that played everything from American old-time fiddle tunes to gypsy swing jazz. She made her F-5 style mandolin (based on the 1924 Loar Gibson) while attending the University of Houston. In the 80's she relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area where she played in Bluegrass, Swing and Celtic bands and continued to teach and do studio session work. She helped produce one of the most popular mandolin magazines of all time (Mandolin World News), owned by (mandolinist) David Grisman, and studied with many great players in the Bay Area. Fifteen years ago she moved to a horse farm in southwest Idaho where she teaches mandolin, fiddle and guitar, and sometimes performs with her husband and musicians passing through the area. In 1998 she produced a cd as a tribute to her late brother and musical partner, Malcolm Smith. For the last two years, she has toured with the "Women in the Round, On the Road", playing in Texas, Alabama, Florida and North Carolina.
Note from Arthur Stern:
Becky Smith is an incredible improvising musician, has a huge repertoire, and is comfortable playing swing, jazz, celtic, BG, folk, Dawg... you name the tune and she can wail on it. I consider her one of the best unknown mandolin masters on the planet. This girl can flat out pick the bejeezus out of a mandolin. She started her musical journey in Texas where she was in a band The Cypress Swamp Stompers, formed in 1973 with her brother Malcolm on fiddle, and her husband Pat on Guitar, as well as banjo and bass. They played a mix of original new acoustic tunes, gypsie, traditional BG, etc and played the circuit down in Texas. One of Becky's claim to fame, or her Andy Warhol 5 minutes, was when she won Texas State Mandolin Champ at Kerrville, and this was the year Jethro Burns and David Grisman were the judges. Malcolm and Becky were also on the Renaissance Faire circuit back in those days and even played in balalaika groups... like I said this girl can play anything.
Pat and Becky moved to the SF Bay Area where I met them. Becky was active in the mandolin scene revolving around the DGQ, she worked for Mandolin World News, played with the likes of Mike Marshall, Darol Anger, Dix Bruce, Bob Alekno, Robin Flowers, Barbara Higbie etc. In the early 90's Pat and Becky moved to Boise, Idaho where they are raising a son and Becky breeds horses. She is active at Weiser where she can be found tearing it up at the swing jams every year, putting a hurtin' on the men. The past few years she has gone on the road with the "Women in the Round tours backing up the likes of Ann Armstrong, Carolyn Hester, Selia Qynn. Lynn Langham, Linda Lowe, Aura Lee, and Carla Maywald. Becky has quite a few mandolin students in Idaho and is great teaching at any level. I was fortunate to play with Becky and Pat on a regular basis when they lived in the Bay Area, and I certainly consider her one of my mandolin mentors.
Update from Arthur:
I just got some email from Becky.....she had a big mando moment last night.....the DGQ played the Egyptian Theatre in Boise, and David called her up on stage for the last tune .........Dawg's Bull.
I asked Becky if she got a break, here is her response:
Becky: Hell yes I got breaks!!! We traded licks in that noodling intro and then I got to have an extended break and then we traded 2's across the whole band and then we did the ending together. It was a gas!
Here are a few photos: http://www.smithfowler.org/music/DGQ.htm
Hey, I told you guys Becky could pick with the men, and then some!!!!! What a thrill for her to have her teenage son and friends in the audience!!!
I'm certainly proud of her........ so get some questions in for Becky, I'm sure she will be on a mando high all this next week as CGOW...... she is a storehouse of mandolin knowledge, and by the way........ I forgot to mention this in the introduction I wrote for her....... Becky also built her own F5, that she has played for about 20 years!!!
You guys are so nice to have me as a Guest of the Week. I am truly honored to have been asked to do this. The other guests have been a rare wealth of knowledge, experience and expertise for our beloved instrument. Except for the rare occassion, like the other night with the DGQ, I am pretty much one of the invisible and mostly unknown players. Probably more people will learn of my existence because of this list than anywhere else and I thank you guys for the opportunity to share a little of my crazy 'mando molded' life.
Q - Becky, I think I got confused a bit in the introduction I wrote for you. Specifically when I wrote that the Texas State Mando championship you won
was at Kerrville and that Dawg & Jethro were the judges... I've come to learn
that was a different competition, and you placed 4th, right?... could you
please set the record straight.
A - Thank you so much Arthur for that glowing introduction ... sure made me blush. As many of you know, Arthur is "the Man" for Art Glass and mandolin collecting! Plus, he's getting to where he can wail on this stuff too!
To set the record straight...
I won the Texas State Mandolin championship in 1975 which was held in Austin, Tx. I was proud to come 4th in Kerrville, Tx. for the World Mandolin championship in 79 or 80. That was where Jethro and Grisman were judging. The third judge was Doyle Lawson. The guys that beat me were Dave Harvey, Bobby Clark and Paul Glasse...I think. Still I was thrilled to have made it to the final cut as I hadn't prepared for the contest and just entered for fun. Other years I wasn't allowed to enter the contest because we were always paid performers at the festival. I already knew David and Jethro but hadn't met Doyle before. After the contest, Doyle shook my hand and said, "You play pretty good for a girl". I started to hit him, but pulled the punch and we all laughed instead.
Q - Becky, tell us about building your mandolin.
A - In 1977 I had really been wanting to get an F-5 but couldn't afford one. My dilemma was solved when Roger Siminoff's book "How to Construct A Bluegrass Mandolin" came out. I was a senior at the University of Houston, majoring in Jewelry and Metalsmithing, and had been specializing in inlay and various techniques relating to instruments. I was in my second year of Fine Woodworking classes and decided it would be the perfect class project for me. I had use of the full workshop at school and got credit for making my mandolin. I didn't actually finish it before the semester was over but got an 'A' for all of the work I had done on it. I had a couple of friends that had already made guitars and mandolins and got plenty of encouragement and help from them as well as from the book. I contructed the neck with maple scraps that Bill Collings (who was living in Houston at that time) gave me and I had Tom Ellis (Austin, Tx) do the critical final carving of the top. Tom had made 6 mandolins by then and I credit Tom for making it sound so good. With his agreement, we even put "Ellis" on the headstock and I helped advertise Ellis mandolins as our band was actively playing. I was very fortunate that the mandolin turned out so well. It holds its own with any top quality mandolin and I've really only played on a handfull of other F-5s that I liked better.
Q - What was the Tune you played with Dawg? I was there in the second row. It was great as was your impromtu performance. HAve you played with the DGQ before? Did you rehearse?
A - Thanks for your kind words Daniel. It was a great concert in an excellent theatre. We played one of David's old bluegrassy tunes named "Dawg's Bull". We spent about 10 minutes (before the show) working on our parts for the head and the dynamics and arrangement. David is a first class performer and really cares about his tunes...of course. ..I'm sure he didn't want me to butcher his tune.
That was the first time I had played up on stage with him and the first time playing with the current band. I had jammed with David before "back in the day", like 22 years ago, when I was living in the Bay Area and working for Mandolin World News. I've been up here in Idaho for 15 years and hadn't had the opportunity to pick with David.
Glad you were at the show and nice to hear from somebody in Boise!
Q - I play bluegrass. I like heavy picks and have been experimenting with
different types. I mainly use a jazztone 206 (dunlop) which is 2mm thick.
I have tried a Dunlop Big Stubby (2mm and 3mm thick) and noticed the sound
is different. It is brighter with more treble. What pick would you use or
reccomend for best bluegrass type tone? Is a larger style pick, say a
triangle, better for volume than a small teardrop style? Have you tried the
Tortis brand pick and would you reccomend them? Thank you.
A - I use a tortoise shell pick that I've had for many years...It is heavy and stiff but has just a hint of flex to it...in the shape of the original signature "David Grisman" picks, (which is similar to the Golden Gate or Dawg picks) and the edges are rounded or bevelled. It seems to be about 1.25 mm.
For "best bluegrass type tone", in general, any heavy pick can work. Fender heavy or extra heavy work just fine. (I use those on the side and not the pointy end.) You mention getting a brighter sound with the Dunlop Big Stubby..."bright" is good for bluegrass...maybe you should stick with that if it is comfortable for you.
The size of the pick has nothing to do with the volume or tone that you can produce. The size and shape of the pick would be determined by how comfortable it is in your own particular hand as you strike the strings. Volume and tone is controlled by your attack and it is just a tiny portion of the pick that comes in contact with the string during that moment. For example, traditional plectrum sizes among many classical players is very small and they can make themselves soar over an entire orchestra when they want to.
My advice would be to find a pick that seems to work for you and then stick with it for a long period of time. If you are playing with overly loud banjo players, tell them to tone it down!
I haven't tried the Tortis pick.
I recently made a pick out of a small piece of black coconut shell. I had bought an 'african tribal' wooden bead necklace at a thrift shop...took it apart and noticed that some of the black, wooden chip, spacers looked sort of like my tortoise shell pick. I tried it out and was amazed that it produced an excellent tone, equal to, if not better than, my tortoise shell pick! I haven't been able to find a supply of large enough pieces to make more, but eventually I hope to. I think it might just be the perfect pick material!
Q - Becky, how do you approach playing up the neck?
A - This is certainly a 'deep' question. Sorry this will get so long...but here goes...I'm assuming you are talking about improvising up the neck.
While I'm playing, I often don't think about it. I go where I want to...sometimes I might get myself in trouble though, if my technical skills don't match my inner desire...at that moment! In other words, I might crash and burn...but, oh well, I'll just go somewhere else...keep moving. Most of the time I have confidence in my skills to at least give it a go....if I'm 'under the gun' I've learned how to stay within my technical abilities to remain tasteful. I've done my 'homework' though and work hard at trying to get better and keep my chops up. You never know when the opportunity will come up and I try to keep prepared.
Now, behind all of that "magic" that you guys witness with players of a high level....is countless hours of hard work! Personally, I think it is taking me a long time, with tons of hard work and it is an ever receding horizon....it is a fantastic journey...what a long, strange trip it's been....
Making that connection between mind and finger takes different amounts of time for everybody. At some point, you have to spend a lot of time developing the finger dexterity and coordination between the left and right hand to pull it off. It is a language with the mandolin being the voice... in our case. You learn vocabulary and then how to speak expressively, construct sentences, start tell stories and have conversations with others. It's awesome! Try to sing (out loud or to yourself) and play what you sing.
When I started to work on this mystery there was very little mandolin specific lesson material available outside of classical and beginning bluegrass. I started working through Mickey Baker, book I. This led me to chord theory and to applying it to the mandolin neck. I still do this with my students as it worked well for me. Take a chord formula, lets say a major chord = 1,3,5 (G = g,b,d) and then find every 1,3,5 on the neck. Do this on paper with a blank fingerboard. As you go through this process, pretty quickly, you realize the patterns showing up all over the neck. Usually by the time you do this for two keys you see how it is all about just moving the patterns over or up or down, but the patterns are the same. It is a great way to learn your fingerboard and realize the relationships between notes and fingers. For example, if my first finger is on a '1'... say on the D string, then I know that directly across from it on the A string is a '5' and directly across from it (the '1' on the D string) the other way on the G string is a '4'. ...Wow! I suddenly know how to play just about anything, in any key, right guys? (vbeg).
Q - Playing up the neck - Part 2
A - Now, along with nailing down chords all over the neck. You work on melodic lines with scale patterns and arpeggios steming out of the different chord positions. You learn how to play your scales off of each finger. For example, if the chord shape you like uses the second finger for the '1', you know your scale patterns from that finger...etc.
Learn how to play scales from each finger beginning on the '1'...etc, etc... Also, work from the other direction by playing scale patterns, shifting up the neck ending up in a chord form. There is really an endless amount of work like this that you can do as well as analyzing tunes you already know. The Co-mando exercise material freely available on the website is excellent. I worked a lot with violin studies for shifting positions up the neck too. Believe me, it is way easier to execute them on the mandolin with our frets!
In my teaching, I get my students moving up the neck as quickly as possible. Hopefully within the first 2 - 4 lessons. For example, I'll start with Woody's Rag, with it's repeating melodic patterns that get the player moving across the neck in first position. Most students find it easy and FUN! They learn the two finger 'G' chord in the first lesson with the D,G,A chord progression for the tune too. Then, I show them the "secret mandolin lick #1" where you take the 'G' chord position and move it up the neck (up the scale) as a two string, two finger (doublestop) lick. I show how you can play that lick, over the two measures of the 'G'chord instead of the lick previously learned.
E string-----3-----5-----7----------------- A string---2---3-----5---------------------
Then I show how to take that pattern and move it over to the A and D
string, but start it up the neck with the second finger on the 'd' note at
the fifth fret of the D string. Then, the lick is moved straight across the
neck for the 'A' chord on the A and E string.
When the student is comfortable with that, I'll show how there is another 'G' just straight across from the 'D' on the D and G string! Wow...you could play the whole thing up the neck...look how easy it is and you can pick and choose which sound you like better. The higher sounding G (back down the neck on the E and A string) or the lower sounding G lick which is up the neck on the D and G string.
I demonstrate how that lick can be played in any combination or order during the two measures of the chord. So, instead of starting the lick at 'home base', you can start it up high and go down, or in the middle, go up, then down, etc. As long as you stay withing the timing allowed for the two measures, anything will work. I hope that this encourages the student to realize how easy it is to go all over the neck, repeating easy patterns that sound good.
Now, at the same time, I'm trying to get the player to stay relaxed and get a steady groove going with the right hand. By playing double stops, I also hope to keep the student from getting locked into the single string, tight, must be perfect trap, that can happen to some folks if they only do single line melodies. We do those too...but I find a lot of people have trouble with right hand technique switching from melody to rhythm. So, anyway, we get going, right away on moving up the neck with a nice loose, rhythmic and improvisational lick.
Q - A couple of years ago I set out to do just this, and along the way, I
created a blank template of the mandolin fretboard. Then I worked out
the 1-3-5 tiads for major, minor, diminished, and suspended chords in
all keys. It shows pretty quickly what these patterns Becky is talking
about look like. They also helped me to internalize some of the
patterns on the board to patterns in the ear. I'm happy to make this
available to Comandos.
Note: Thanks to Tim Piazza we now have his Mandolin Triads PDF file available on Mandozine
Go here for the Mandolin Triads
A - That's great Tim and I'm sure it will be helpful. There is something magical about doing it yourself...going through the physical process helps to really learn and understand the patterns more than seeing it already done. You discover all sorts of exiting and interesting things by doing it yourself...as you did!
Here is a chord formula chart
Q - I have been crazy about your playing for ages (since 1979, when I first heard you play). I got started with mandolin because of you.
Congratulations on your appearance with DG.
It would be awesome if you and Pat would do some recording. Do you have any plans for this?
A - Thanks Mitch! You know how excited I was, I'm sure!
I have a couple of projects I'd like to get done. One is a (more or less) solo mandolin cd. I really need something like that for when I'm touring with the "Women in the Round, On The Road". Of course, I'll get Pat to play with me on that.
The other, is another Cypress Swamp Stomper cd that I'll put together from old tapes. Now that Zeke (Warren Zuelke) is also gone I'd like to honor him more as well as Malcolm (my late brother).
Q - And one more question....... are there plans for you to be on tour backing
up all those women singer-songwriters again this year? I know you went through several states last year.
A - Yes, we are planning a more extensive tour for the summer of 2004. We will be in Wilmington, NC for the July 4th week for sure.
Not sure where else we will play yet, but last time we travelled in a super stretch limo all the way from Houston to Wilmington and played in most states between. The ladies give me a solo spot (as well as backing them up) so that has been neat getting to feature the mandolin like that.
Q - I understand you played in a group, back in your Texas days, with another Comando... Maxwell McCollough, one of our resident mandolin historians. What kind of material did you play together?
A - Max and I were both members of the Houston Balalaika Society which played Russian and Eastern European music. I'm not sure when he joined but I was in the orchestra when it was first formed in 1976.
Charley Rappaport organized it and then Steve Wolownik came out to conduct. Charley lent me a wonderful Domra (4 strings, tuned like a mandolin) and I played prima domra, 2nd parts. Charley was soloist and prima domra player. I believe Max played contrabass Balalaika. My husband (Pat Fowler) played alto domra. I could barely read, so it was excellent schooling for me to learn the discipline necessary to play in an orchestra. We played the repetoire that Charley and Steve had worked out with the University of Pennsylvania Balalaika Orchestra. The experience exposed me to a music and culture that I probably wouldn't have come across otherwise. Through Charley I learned about the whole, incredible world of Russian and Gypsy mandolinists such as Dave Appollon and Howard Frye and got to meet and have lessons with Emmanuel (Misha) Shekynan and others. Also got to meet a real Russian Balalaika orchestra when they came to Houston. The members traded picks with us and we had a wild reception for them (complete with secrete service agents). They loved our bluegrass and were especially intrigued with the banjo.
As Max can tell you, learning the Balalaika orchestra repetoire also gives you a common musical ground with folks all across the world. Max and others from that Houston orchestra went on to form other orchestras when they relocated to other parts of the country. I highly recommend it if you are lucky enough to live in an area that has one going! Max in an excellent contact person for that!
Q - Becky, did you play with Mountain Lace during your Houston days, or is
my aging memory dis-serving me?
A - No. Their mandolin player was a student/friend of mine, Corby Doggett (?) I still have one of their cool T-shirts, though.
Q - I recall you talking about living in London and hanging w/ the Beatles
when you were a teenager. Was playing music a part of your life at that point?
How about your brother Malcolm? Were there any mandolins at George Harrison's house?
A - Yes, Yes and I don't recall seeing one. I don't think I really knew about mandolins then anyway.
I wasn't "hanging w/ the Beatles" but managed to be around them individually on different occassions. The best was meeting George Harrison and going to his flat. My brother was a very acomplished flamenco guitarist and had been taking lessons with Paco Pena in London. There was some guitar connection between Paco and George Harrison and so somehow we went over there to check out his guitar collection. It's a little tough to remember back to the 60's! I think we went there more than once and George was super nice. One of the times, Burt Jansch (of Pentangle) was also there!
Malcolm and I were already playing some. My first gig ever was at the Watford YMCA with Malcolm on flamenco guitar and me on castanets! I also backed Malcolm up on classical guitar for some tunes. I guess I was around 15 then.
Q - Also, another story I recall you telling, that might interest the List.... would be about meeting Bill Monroe and especially one of his BG Boys, Kenny Baker....
A - Now Arthur.... don't put me on the spot
Q - it's a real thrill to have you take the time to chat with us, thanks so
My question is kind of a general one about what made you choose the mandolin, and what has motivated you in your playing career? Inspirational mentors/teachers, musical upbringing, lucky breaks, mandolin epiphany, or just natural talent?
A - Thank you so much for your interest!
Your questions are really the story of my life! Literally! The mandolin chose me...a cosmic gift! It's been an incredible ride.
I will attempt a brief synopsis.
My first mandolin was a surprise birthday present given to me by a group of about 8 friends. I didn't even know I wanted one, hadn't asked about one and none of my friends played one. A couple of years prior to this, my brother had started playing fiddle and my boy friend played flatpick guitar. I also played guitar and we had even started an old-timey string band and were starting to go to local bluegrass events. I guess my friends figured we needed a mandolin player and I was it. I instantly fell in love with the instrument, which felt so comfortable to me after the guitar. Within a week I was playing my first gig as a mandolin player and I literally learned how to play on stage! I suppose I had pretty good rhythm from playing guitar but barely a clue as to chord forms or any leads. There were no teachers around but my brother would show me left hand fingerings from the fiddle and I struggled along. It did not come easy and it really seemed that anybody could pick the mandolin up and come up with stuff much easier than I could for a long time.
Kenny Hall would be my first biggest influence (as far as mandolin players go) as I started learning the tunes off of his new album with The Sweet Mills String Band. We had met the band members earlier when they had come through Texas and stayed with us for about a week. Harry and Cary more or less showed us how much fun pickin was and we were hooked. I also started actively seeking out mandolin players at local bluegrass events and would try to get them to show me things. When somebody showed me how to make and move a chop chord up the neck I remember thinking that, if I would have been taught that concept at the beginning, it sure would have helped! That's probably when I decided to be a mandolin teacher as I know what it's like to be a struggling beginner!
Anyway, during that first year I managed to meet and get tips from Jesse McReynolds who was so nice to me and took the time to encourage me. Most of the big name bluegrass stars wouldn't hardly give me the time of day because I was just some 'hippie chick'. I ran across a lot of that "good ole boy" attitude. ..but I persevered and found kindred spirits with The Country Gazette! They would even jam with us and Roland White was a great inspiration. My learning curve was heading straight up. At the same time all of us in the band were getting better and we managed to snag Zeke (Warren Zuelke) for bass and a front man. He was an older, passionate, experienced player and helped us all play with feeling and the magic of the group started to really kick in.
Hey...this is getting way too long and involved...let me try to shorten...
I was in a wonderfully nurturing, musically diverse, environment and managed to encounter many inspirational mentor/teachers in those early years.
For Gypsy and eastern European, - Charley Rappaport and Greg and MaryAnn Harbar
For TX. Style - Bill Northcutt, Terry Morris, Chubby Wise
For Celtic styles - in Europe, Robin Williamson.
I became pen pals with Jethro Burns and he sent me his first attempt at taping lessons (he says so on the tape
Later on (1977) I met the David Grisman Quintet when they came to Houston and became friends with them, especially Darol. Of course we jammed with them as much as possible and thanks to Malcolm being so good, we could! When Mike Marshall joined the band we also became great friends and in 1980 Mike called me from California to come out there and play in a band that was looking for a female mandolin player. That was the Robin Flower Band with Barbara Higbie (Darol's wife at that time). Of course I went straight out there and joined her band but the best thing was that I got to live with Mike Marshall and Darol was just 2 houses down the same street. Talk about mando heaven!!!
I was able to be a sub for John Reischman with the Good Ole Person's when he was touring with the Tony Rice Unit and I subbed for Bob Alekno with Back Up and Push when he was playing with the Tim Ware Band. I was also a founding member of Heartland. I was in several Swing string bands too and generally had a grand time learning the repertoire and arrangements of about six bands. I also took on Mandolin World News production jobs and worked closely with Dix Bruce, the editor. It was awesome! I was so lucky to be there during those days...somewhere in there I met up with Arthur Stern and formed many life long friends.
You can see how the mandolin shaped my life! When I had my son in 1987, I made being a "mom" number one and I was ready to move out of the busy city life. Pat got a job with Hewlett Packard and they moved us up here to Idaho. It was great to be able to buy a farm and settle down to raising the boy. Now that my son is getting grown up I'm playing out a little and now he can play bass with us too!
Q - I was wondering if you got to spend any time with Paul Buskirk when you were in Houston. If so, do you have any stories to share? Jethro said Buskirk was one of the greatest.
A - I met him but he refused to give me lessons. He was going through a bad time in his life and was not being social. He isolated himself, living in a mobile home on the outskirts of Houston. I tried several times, and he was very nice and said I didn't need lessons....
Thank you all very much for having me as your guest. It was fun cleaning out the cobwebs of my mind a bit and wonderful to hear from some old friends!
Several folks asked about any recordings that I'm on. Currently the only thing on cd, contains material that I did over 20 years ago. When my brother Malcolm passed away in 1996, I put together a tribute to him which features our old band The Cypress Swamp Stompers. I still have some available so if anyone wants one, let me know. I'll sell them to Comandos for $8 including postage.
Info can be found at http://www.smithfowler.org/music/cd.htm