Dix Bruce

Dix Bruce, a musician, composer, and writer from the San Francisco Bay Area, was born and raised in the Midwest. His interest in American folk music, jazz, and original composition are blended into a unique vocal and instrumental sound. His compositions are fresh and his energetic, exuberant stage personality, along with his driving rhythm and lead work, set the tone for a warm and exciting performance.

He began playing guitar at age twelve. After college, he relocated to the Bay Area where his interest in hybrid acoustic string music led him to David Grisman's prototype quintet in the mid-1970's. Bruce eventually teamed up with the mandolinist and edited the magazine Mandolin World News from 1978 until 1984.

In 1978 Bruce formed the band Back Up and Push to explore the emerging possibilities of swing and jazz on acoustic stringed instruments. The band toured the west coast throughout the 1980s and accompanied Bruce on his release Tuxedo Blues, which features many of his original instrumental and vocal compositions.

Dix Bruce has done studio work on guitar, mandolin, and banjo and has recorded two albums with mandolin legend Frank Wakefield, six big band CDs with the Royal society Jazz Orchestra, and his own collection of American folk songs entitled My Folk Heart on which he plays guitar, mandolin, and autoharp as well as sings. In 1991 he contributed two original compositions to the soundtrack of Harrod Blank's acclaimed documentary Wild Wheels. he has released two CDs of traditional American songs with and originals with guitarist Jim Nunally.

Dix arranged, composed, played mandolin, and recorded music for the CD-ROM computer game "The Sims" for the Maxis Corporation. His music is featured on a virtual radio station within the game.

Mr. Bruce currently has over twenty publications in print with Mel Bay. He has also written for Acoustic Guitar Magazine, FRETS, Bluegrass Unlimited, and The Fretted Instrument Guild of America.


Q - Dix, we have all enjoyed your column in Mandolin Magazine. How did you get hooked up with Ginny Hollon to do your column? What do you hope to accomplish with your column?

A - Thanks! There's somebody out there reading my column!

As you probably know, I edited Mandolin World News from 1978 to 1984, when David Grisman and I sold the magazine to John Stiernberg. He published it for a year and then moved on and tying up the lose ends reverted to me. I was the "Keeper of the Back Issues." At the same time I began writing mandolin and guitar books for Mel Bay Publications.

When Ginny Hollon started "Mandolin Magazine," she called me to discuss it. I told her about my experiences with Mandolin World News and she asked who'd I suggest as columnists and asked me if I'd write a column.

As far as what I hope to accomplish with the column, I think it's this: One concept or tune that a reader can understand and immediately begin to work on, like "Here's a tune in the key of Bb. Everybody needs to know how to play in the key of Bb." I always try to suggest two or three other things the reader can do with the tune to deepen their knowledge and understanding. I can't resist adding a few "once you can play this as written, try..." For example: "Once you can play the tune in Bb, move it down one string, play it the same way, and you'll be in the key of Eb." But my main thrust is to show that one relatively accessible thing that readers can't jump into.


Q - How do you and Jim get such a good two-guitar sound??

A - We worked on it a lot in the beginning. Jim suggested that both of us whacking away at rhythm, especially behind the vocals, was subtracting from our sound, not adding to it. I had sort of the idea that more noise would be better since we were just a duo. The problem is that unless you both hit the bass note at EXACTLY the same time and then both hit the strum at EXACTLY the same time, every time, throughout the song, the sound gets mushy. So, we tried to adjust to what the other was playing, and it's a continual process over the course of a song or tune.

Often I drop back to a very mandolin-like chop, sometimes with muted strings, to give a crisp backbeat like a mandolin would do in a Bluegrass band. (That relates back to the cross-pollination of mandolin to guitar that I mentioned in your other question.) That allows Jim a whole lot more freedom to play different grooves from the simple to the complex. And he's about the greatest rhythm player there is.

Jim also has a version of a chop, much more percussive than mine, and he places it in patterns anywhere in the measure. When I hear that, I know I can add a counter rhythm, maybe syncopate a little, anything different, because he's defining that backbeat.

Overall it was a realization that less is more and that subtlety can define a better rhythm than volume.


Q - I recall meeting you when my friend Bob Alekno, fresh to the Bay Area from Chicago and Jethro Burns lessons hooked up with you. Those were great days with the emerging New Acoustic music scene. Your Back Up & Push band, over the years featured numerous musicians who went on to have interesting careers. How about a few stories from those days, and since this is a mandolin list please talk a bit about Bob Alekno, I know we share fond memories of our friend, tragically taken too young, or talk a bit about playing with folks like Tom Rozum, John Gonder, Mike Wollenberg, Becky Smith, Dave Balikrishnan among others. I remember folks making pilgrimages to the Bay Area scene, like Russ Barenberg visiting & picking in Bob Alekno's apartment. I recall eating dinner at the restaurants you guys gigged at regularly, when you were coming up, just to hear you guys pick, thru seeing you on the bill at the Great American Music Hall. This was even before your involvement in the Mandolin World News. I think that BU&P band was ahead of its time in some ways. How about a few stories from those good ol days?!

A - Where can I start with that? How can I talk about any of it without leaving out tons of the important people and experiences? I just try to render a couple of thoughts.

That time in the Bay Area was exciting. David Grisman was forming his original 5-tet with Darol Anger, Todd Phillips, Tony Rice, and Joe Carroll. Darol and Todd lived down the street from me in San Anselmo and I just glommed onto them because I'd heard some of the music and wanted to soak as much of it up as possible.

I got way too into the 5-tet's music and wrote an article for a Boston paper where I said I thought it was the answer to the void left by the breakup of the Beatles. I know I got carried away, but it was such fresh and powerful music that just picked me up and threw me against the wall. Every one of those guys turned my head about what was possible with music. Each of them played their instrument in a new way. David's compositions and arrangements had a huge effect on my trying to write and arrange. The way Todd played rhythm, Darol's incredible soul on the violin, and Tony... well forget about it! Who knew you could do that on the guitar? I wonder if these days, with all the Rice imitators and musical offspring, if young players can see his contribution for the revolution that it was.

Anyway, some of these guys lived down the street and there was a wonderful opportunity to see their music develop and grow, first hand, right there in the living room. And, in addition to being awesome players, they were good guys, always encouraging, always generous. Darol introduced me to David and right away David was, "Hey man, you gotta check this mandolin out" or "you gotta hear this guy, here, take this record."

I taught a basic bluegrass guitar class and as part of the class, we'd jam at my apartment. I didn't think he'd come, but I asked Darol to play at one of the jams. He actually showed up and brought his fiddle and it was great lesson for me. Darol was already famous, but as the solos went around the circle, he gave his complete attention to each player. I remember him looking at each as they played, smiling, encouraging them, adding great backup. And they were all beginning students. A lot of smiles that night and I know all of them remember how Darol made them feel.

Where do I go from there? Anyway, it was an inspiring time and a time to learn. So many new things flying past that you didn't even have to grab onto them, they'd just smack you right in the face.

Bob Alekno was my best buddy, buddy-wise and music-wise. I know a lot of people that knew Bob also felt that he was their best friend. We discovered a lot about music together. He was another that significantly shaped my approach to rhythm. And, like Jim Nunally, he helped me learn that "less is more." When we first played together, we were trying to learn some Django & Stephane material and standards in general. Again, I was content to WHACK WHACK WHACK, as loud as possible, all the time. Bob would say, "Why don't we work on this rhythm here and simplify it a bit. When you do that real full chunky chord rhythm, I'll drop back to a simple chop. When I do the more full bodied strum, why don't you drop back to a simple chop?" We worked on it and it brought what I think is a great result, a good rhythm, more in a swing groove than say, Bluegrass.

Bob was a great rhythm player. He combined the harmonic ideas he learned first hand in Chicago from lessons with Jethro Burns, with tips he picked up from Todd Phillips and Grisman, with a general rhythmic sense he'd learned playing in high school rock bands. He wasn't afraid of drums or what they offered to the rhythm section. So, he always had great ideas. A lot of times when I'd be chunking away, he'd play a mandolin chop on beat three. More traditionally it'd be on beats two and/or four. But he'd just lay it in there, maybe only one chop per measure, and it was just wonderful. Some beautiful inversion of an altered chord, and it would just kill. Bob was so deeply musical with hundreds of very subtle ideas.

Bob was the first musician I met who was absolutely dedicated to the rhythm of music. He wanted to play hot solos like us all, but he was the first person I met who really passionately believed that if the groove wasn't there, the music was useless. If it ain't got that swing... And "swing" applied to any style of music, not just, well, swing. Bob was willing, in every situation, to leave his ego at the door and do whatever was necessary to make the ensemble work and swing. He taught me that, first, rhythm was as important as a hot solo, and second, that rhythm was more important than a hot solo.

Bob also taught me the importance of trying to make every soloist or singer sound as good as possible, that everyone in the ensemble's responsibility is to put everything else aside and make your first duty to serve the ensemble and the soloist. Make it easy for them to do what they have to do to make the whole band sound the best it can. For Bob, it wasn't about "Listen to how hot I can play during my solo or behind the singer." He was into building this shared experience and producing a coherent group effort. He lived for that, he was patient and he waited for that to happen. He'd kind of let his head loll, his eyes would roll back in his head, he'd kind of chew his lip, and wait for the groove. He always believed it was there and if you were open to it, could feel it, you could ride it to musical nirvana.

I'm an evangelist for Bob's playing. There are just a few things available that he's on and playing his great rhythm and at the risk being too commercial and self-promoting, I'll mention them. Because I do want him to be heard.

We did a couple of music-minus-one, play along recordings in the late 1980s. One is BackUP TRAX: Old Time & Fiddle Tunes and the other is BackUP TRAX: Swing & Jazz. Swing & Jazz really gives you the feel for his genius. It's this subtle voice that just sends it over the edge. You'll miss it if you don't listen for it. But it made the music, at least for me. Bob is also there in spades on my "Tuxedo Blues" CD. Just some awesome rhythm all the way through. He also plays guitar on some of the cuts, and he was great at that as well. You can check them out on my website: www.musixnow.com.

I better leave it there. Thanks for asking!


Q - As both a guitar player and mandolinst, what differences are there in your approach to the two instruments? For instance, I commonly see this kind of phrase on mandolin (below), where a note changes on an upstroke, but rarely on guitar. Does your playing change to include "mandolin-isms" and "guitar-isms", or do you "just pick it"? And, hey, while we're here....what do you hear (if anything) as "mandolin-isms"? What's the mandolin really good at?

A - I don't really think about the differences, or at least define them in my head, as I play, other than the obvious things I keep in mind like "I have to pick two strings on the mandolin instead of 1 on the guitar" or "I can tremolo more effectively on the mandolin than I can on guitar." I guess I just kind of shift gears from one to the other without much thinkology.

I know that each informs the other and to continue that thought from above, I do use tremolo on the guitar. It's a way to instantly bring up the intensity of a solo. The ease of moving a lick or melody around on the mandolin has inspired me learn to do the same thing on the guitar. By that I mean that when I learn a melody on the guitar, I try to make myself learn it in a second octave, in a closed position up the neck, and then move it around to other keys. Sometimes it's incredibly frustrating, especially if there's something a little odd in the melody, but by going through the process, I teach my brain and my fingers what that particular melodic anomaly is. Let's say I'm trying to learn something like "Red Haired Boy" with it's chord change from A to G (I to VII). It's a little unusual sound-wise and finger-wise, but going through the process teaches me all about it. The next time I hear that type of chord change (A to G), I can analyze it and understand it in terms of "That's like 'Red Haired Boy.'"

Other than that cross pollination, I think I "just pick it." I have sounds in my head that I've learned as "mandolinic" and I just try to get my fingers to do those things.

"What's the mandolin really good at?" I don't think the mandolin is limited at all stylistically. You just get in there and swat it out. There are some things that mandolin does like no other instrument. In the same way that a violin is just king in classical music or at rendering fiddle tunes, the mandolin is a great Bluegrass instrument. I would argue that it is THE Bluegrass instrument. The man who invented the style was a mandolinist so it's the instrument that defined that style.

The mandolin is beautiful in classical music. It's tuned like the violin so there is that advantage and much of the violin repertoire is adaptable. Ever hear Mike Marshall's version of the Bach partita? Or his "Nutcracker Suite"? And, we can use tremolo on the mandolin to accomplish many of the things the violinist does with the bow.

On the one hand we have the ability to play fast single note lines, which encompasses a lot of music, and, the tremolo let's us play legato lines with incredible passion and emotion. I think for my money, that's what the mandolin uniquely offers: that possibility of pouring your soul into a legato line and make it into pure emotion.

Finally, I can't forget to mention its potential to play jazz. I still can't believe that Tiny Moore and Jethro Burns were humans! My, my, my, what they brought out of their instruments! Tiny used to talk about how "regular" jazz guys were a little reluctant to embrace his little five string --- until they heard him jam on a tune or two. I guess they expected "I Like Mountain Music."

So, there are a few things that the mandolin is uniquely suited to but overall, I don't think it's limited at all


Q - what is the story on your mandolin? I think you still play that one that says "Your Name Here" inlayed on the headstock, don't you?.

A - In about 1976, some of the first Japanese F-5 copies were showing up in N. California. I was teaching at Amazing Grace Music in San Anselmo, across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. Amazing Grace got a couple of these mandolins, which turned out to be a kind of proto-type for Kentuckys. I picked the best one and bought it for a great price.

On the headstock it had the usual flower pot but no luthier's name. Just a blank. It would always throw people who were looking for "The Gibson." It got to be a little annoying and embarassing for me. I think people tend to judge the instrument and the player by the brand name on the headstock. Of course we have all heard good and better Gibsons, Martins, etc. as well as great instruments driven by pretty awful players. But I digress...

Amazing Grace's repairman, Rich Wilbur, would always kid me about it looking so naked. One day he suggested "You Name Here." I thought it was a great idea and tried to get him to do the inlay in pearl. He stalled for, I'm sure, very rational reasons.

I finally mentioned the plan to Darol Anger, who was experimenting with making mandolins at the time. Darol fell on the floor laughing. He loved the idea and agreed to do it for something like $25.00. Well, it turned out beautifully in a nice artistic script.

For a while, I thought it was pretty hilarious when people, equipment heads, would come up to me at a gig. You know the type: come right up to the edge of the stage, they look right past you and zero in on the headstock. (Perhaps they were so dazzled, so dazed by my technical acuity, they felt weak, light headed. At this point I can only surmise. ) Never look you in the eye, but you can see their lips forming the words: "Y O U R N A M E H E R E... Your name here...You name here?" Some have literally jumped back. Some are offended. If they stick around until the break they are, of course, curious about the mandolin's origins. So I tell them the story. I guess it's kind of a dirty trick, and I don't play it in public much for that reason.

It's not exactly a master instrument but it records well. It's pretty bright, not much of a bluegrass roar on the chop chords.


Q - " The problem is that unless you both hit the bass note at EXACTLY the same time and then both hit the strum at EXACTLY the same time, every time, throughout the song, the sound gets mushy. So, we tried to adjust to what the other was playing, and it's a continual process over the course of a song or tune."

But, isn't this how gypsy-style players get that "wall of sound" rhythm behind the solos? I've heard a couple of recordings and one live session (at Dell'Arte booth at NAAM) and it seems like the rhythm secret is two or more guitars playing rhythm exactly in the groove, exactly on the same timing. Tell us more about how to achieve that effect in a band or jam.

A - Yes, but I think of the gypsy swing thing as a different kind of rhythm. The groove comes from an accented "one-TWO-three-FOUR" or "one-TWO-THREE" pulse rather than a "bass note-strum bass note-strum" pattern. It may be easier to play the swing thing with more than one guitar player because of it. I'm not sure. That rhyhmic wash is a very specific sound that works great in Hot Club type bands. But they still have to be great rhythm players or there will be that awful Doppler shift that can make grown men cry.

To get it happening, BG or swing rhythm, you really have to listen to yourself and the musicians around you. Often at jams people are so pre-occupied with what they'll play next that they don't listen to themselves or anybody else. This kind of rhythm really takes a collaborative approach and the participants have to agree on how to play or what they're after in a groove. You have to have an attitude of wanting to work it out as an ensemble and get self critical about your own playing and the ensemble sound. You have to decide what would be "good rhythm" for you. And then figure out if you are consistent and if what you are playing fits with what others are playing. Most importantly, is the overall rhythm serving the singer or the soloist or the ensemble. If it's not, you've got problems! The rhythm could be great, but if it's louder than the guitar solo, it fails.


Q - Dix, you're obviously not an "equipment head" but tell us what all instruments do you currently have?

A - Over the years I've attracted a few instruments, nothing that unusual or valuable. I've always a tried to look at instruments as tools, something that would help me do a job.

I have the "Your Name Here" Fuji mandolin, which I have used live and for recordings up until just a few years ago. As I mentioned the other day, it sounds quite clear, doesn't have the lower end roar or a great BG mandolin, but it works well. I'm been sort of amazed at how good it records but then Johnny Gimble once told me about his mandolin situation. Johnny plays unbelievably hot jazz on a little old A- model Gibson with steel strings, tuned like a mandola (I think) and a pickup. That's probably how most of us have heard him play. But when he was a top Nashville session guy, he'd often double on fiddle and mandolin. In addition to the Gibson, he'd always bring along what he described as a cheap Korean-made acoustic. His clients would usually prefer the cheap mandolin because, he said, "it sounded more like what they (and probably the public) thought a mandolin should sound like." Light and tinkley. Johnny said it was just what the doctor ordered. But I digress...

A couple years back I got an older KM-1000 Kentucky that looks even older than it is because of a pretty bad finishing job. I think it sounds great and I now use it in place of the old Fuji unless I need to plug in and then I use the Fuji because it has a transducer. The Kentucky is a wonderful sounding mandolin.

At one point I had a nice A nothing for the teens. It was pristine. I traded it off with some other junk for an L-7 guitar.


Q - Dix, you are a guitarist and so are a lot of us (some of us like me in name only of course). Tell us about your guitars. You said you had an L-7. Any electrics?

A - The L-7 is from the early 1940s, as near as I can tell. It's been my main squeeze for gigs for about 12 years now, I guess. I play it in a San Francisco big band called the Royal Society Jazz Orchestra. I also use it for a lot of small group jazz gigs with members of that band. The guitar looks and sounds right with a tux.

It's pretty smashed up. It must have been dropped at some point as there are cracks up the sides that have sort of been repaired. I myself dropped it once and broke the neck clean off. What a sound that made! So, it's a hammer, not a collector's item. Which is just fine with me. It's not worth much money-wise but it's been a great pal to me.

I have a stereo setup on the L-7. I have a Lawrence pickup at the end of the fingerboard plus a tiny microphone inside the treble f-hole. The microphone goes into the PA and hopefully gives a good but loud acoustic sound. When the sound system is happening, I think it sounds great. The pickup, if necessary, goes into a small, unobtrusive amp in stage so I can hear myself.

I run the mike signal through a GDR level switcher made about 20 years ago by Greg Raskin. (Anybody heard from Greg lately?) I pre-set a rhythm and lead level and the switcher switches between them. I love it. It has electronics in it to simulate stepping up to a microphone for a lead. It switches with a crescendo or sorts. I need that because, obviously, if the microphone is in or on your instrument, I can't move any closer to it. It works well and I'm quite used to it.

In most of these orchestral situations, we sit when we play and stand up for solos. So that makes it a little difficult to work a mike. If you stand continually, it's easy to work a mike. A couple of times something in the system has broken down (battery problem or some such) and I've played into a Shure SM-57 on a stand. It was wonderful, sound-wise. Worked really well. Of course I had to stand and move in and out, so the visual was different.

It's quite a challenge to make an acoustic guitar heard in the midst of a big band with drums piano and a bunch of very loud horns. A challenge, that is, if you're trying to keep the sound acoustic. This has worked pretty well for me over the years but from time to time it feels like a compromise. As I said, when the PA is happening, it's a good sound. There are other times when I just can't hear myself and I'm tempted to crank up the little amp and say, "To hell with it! I want to make some noise!" I try to fight the urge and wait until a rock or country gig when I can blast it a little more.

I also use the L-7 for general gigs where I plug in. I've done a lot of older country and rock/rockabilly jobs plugging it into a Fender Deluxe. That really gets the SOUND. Rock and jazz guys are always interested in the L-7 because it looks so old. But they always complain about my medium strings and (to them) high action.

Speaking of strings, for years I used D'Addario medium phosphor bronze, whihc I endorse. One day I got to wondering what kind of strings Maybelle Carter, Doc Watson, Charlie Christian, etc. used. D'addario medium phosphor bronze strings were not available to them. So I e-mailed D'Addario and asked. Mr. D himself responded with a lot of interesting string history and told me that they probably used whatever they could find...steel or nickel/steel. So, I tried a medium set of steel strings and there was very little difference in tone. They felt a little different and the Lawrence pickup really liked them! Now I go back and forth. If I'm playing a gig that has to be mainly acoustic, I use the phosphor bronze and don't plus in. If it's a country or rock gig, I use the steel.

My other main guitar is a new Martin HD-28 V and I love it! I've never had a big warm D-28 until now and it just sings. I was on the road with the big band and found it at Wildwood Music in Arcata, CA. I'd been kind of shopping for years and then finally ran into one that nailed me to the wall. I use the phosphor bronze on it (and my mandolins too) have one of those little mikes inside. Jim Nunally and I usually use the internal mikes in concert. It's a simpler setup in a strange town and usually insures that the guitars are heard, which is a big part of our show. If they don't hear the guitars, there ain't much point to the rest of it!


Q - What's your performance schedule these days? Are you doing any dates with Jim Nunally anytime soon?

A - Things are finally slowing down here in the Fall but will probably pick up before the Holidays. I can use the break. I typically do a lot of holiday parties playing standards and jazz as well as Christmas music, on the mandolin, which I dearly love!

I played last week and a couple weeks prior with mandolinist Erik Thomas and it was a blast! Also last week played bass at the Gold Dust in SF. Did three concerts with jazz violinist Jeremy Cohen. One in SF was a tribute to Joe Venuti with Paul Anastasio & others. One was with a symphony orchestra, one was with Jeremy's 4-tet. Tomorrow night again in SF at the Gold Dust.

Jim and I played in late September at Berkeley's Freight & Salvage, and that's the last thing for a while. He's quite busy putting a new foundation under his house (literally if not spiritually ;)) and touring in Canada with John Reischman and the Jaybirds. One of these days we want to get out to the East coast, where we've never played together. We just need an East coast agent.

Next month I play a jazz fest, a solo guitar gig, a couple big band things, a seven piece trad jazz band on 11/11, which is always a great good time. On 11/1/03 I'll teach two workshops at Gryphon in Palo Alto: 1) Shady Grove: The Acoustic Guitar of Jerry Garcia; and 2) Basic Swing Guitar.


Q - Do you have a philosophy in your teaching? Could you describe your approach to teaching mandolin?

A - I don't know that I have a philosophy of teaching other than to help people learn to have fun with music. If it ain't fun, what's the point? If I can get people past the first few bumps of learning chords and basic technique to where they can take off and play songs they love, then I feel I've been successful. Music is such a kick for me, everyday, every time I hum a tune or pick up an instrument, that I want to show students that joy above all. Beyond that, I really enjoy seeing the light bulb go on over a student's head when they master a technique or understand some point of theory. It's incredibly rewarding.

I apply the same things to writing articles and instructional books. I first try to explain it to myself and remember the difficulties I might have had with, say, The Nashville Numbering System, which happen to be the subject of one of my books, and go from there. If I'm doing a transcription book, like the Jerry Garcia or Doc Watson books I did, I try bring out the elements of the music that fascinate me and put them into the simplist terms possible.


Q - What are you working on these days?

A - My biggest project just finished (I hope!) yesterday: I've been producing, with Darol Anger, eight songs for an upcoming new version of the video game The Sims. Darol, Jim, Mike Marshall, Bill Evans, and Todd Sickafose played some of the most awesomest BG and old time music ever! Darol and I arranged the tunes, produced, edited, mixed, etc. Three of the selections are vocals and the singers had to sing in Simglish. Quite a fun experience.

In my spare time I've had my nose to the grindstone or at least to the computer, cranking on a couple new book/CD sets for Mel Bay Pub. One is called "Getting into Bluegrass Mandolin" and I am getting into it and having a ball writing out Monroe-esque solos, fiddle tunes, and more. The other project is turning into a huge magilla. I had no idea when I started that it would take this long or turn out to be so huge!! But, it's a collection, a songbook, of early bluegrass and old time songs every picker should know. So far I have transcribed about 250 songs with lyrics and tab. Songs I've heard since the beginning of my interest in folk and american music, songs that I dearly love. If I ever finish it, there will be separate books for mandolin and guitar. Big thick volumes. The songs are stone classics and I'm loving flipping through my notebook and randomly playing this one or that one. No title for the collection as yet.

When I get those done, I have about 8 other projects for Mel Bay in various stages of development including a Scandinavian fiddle tune book/CD with my friend Bruce Bollerud, a Blues Harmonica book/CD with ace harpist Winslow Yerxa, Bluegrass solos books for guitar and mandolin, Jazz violin BackUP TRAX, maybe another Fiddle Tunes BackUP TRAX, and the list goes on!!!


Q - The early and mid-70's, in retrospect, was a real renaissance for the popularity of the mandolin (especially in the Bay Area) and that influence is still being felt today. A lot of it had to do with the Dawg, but there was other stuff going on too...Tim Ware, the scene at Paul's Saloon with the likes of The Ol' Persons (w/ John Reischmann), Done Gone, Butch Waller with High Country, Mandolin World News, The Great American Music Hall hiring bluegrass and the DGQ, etc. etc.

People like Stan Miller, Darol Anger and Todd Phillips were building mandolins {until they got a bit too busy doing other stuff (g)}, Lundberg's was in full swing with a lot of high end Gibson mandolins always on the wall, and the whole scene seemed to smell of mandos...

Love to hear a few reminiscences of those days (I still think that first version of the DGQ with Todd on mando was one of the best bands I ever saw), and do you get the vibe that we're going through a similar period these days in terms of interest in the mandolin, or have I just been hanging out at the Café too long?

A - I've kind of been reminiscing willy nilly here for a couple days. Hope I'm not putting too many of you to sleep.

It was a great time and I was lucky enough to hear the first shows of the Grisman Quintet. Sometimes they were totally acoustic shows. I loved the sounds they got from their instruments and, as I mentioned, Tony Rice's guitar playing was revolutionary. There were so many moments when the music just absolutely came together with this raw power --- remember, these guys never played very loud ---- that it was like a slap in the face. They used dynamics so theatrically and emotionally.

Some big moments for me. I was standing behind a curtain at the Great American Music Hall and couldn't see the band. They were in the middle of Chick Corea's "Spain" and went into that one amazing part that's kind of a new rhythm and a bass line. Todd Phillips was actually knocking on the scroll of his mandolin keeping time. And this part would come back again and again. Each time it gave me shivers.

Then the time that I first heard "Fish Scale." What the hell are they playing. I think Darol told me the chord changes and it made beautiful sense. Or the first time I heard one of David's masterpieces "Thailand". Darol plays this wonderful pizz part on the fiddle and later comes in from silence with this incredible eastern-like melody. Still kills me thinking about it!

And, yes, I do think there is an upsurge of interest in mandolin. At Camp Bluegrass last summer there was a bevy of 13, 14, and 15 year olds studying and playing. And they were very good. People tell me it's the influence of Chris Thile, and that's a good thing. They seem to be approaching it with the vigor my generation applied to electric guitar.

The Bay Area scene has always been great for learning and percolating talent. Music, art, dance, stained glass. If there's a problem, it's that it's difficult to make a living playing original music here. Maybe because there are SO many players and so many famous touring artists live here. People, audiences, get overwhelmed with it and jaded. Still, there's always so much going on, so much to learn, so many people to hear play. And a median house costs only about $550,000.00!


Q - Dix, we all know about your Mel Bay books & the Back up Trax (which I recommend for folks who don't have a lot of pickin buddies) but I was wondering if you have many students? If so, are they mostly for guitar or are there mando students too? Every now & then I'm asked about who would be a good Bay Area mandolin teacher for beginner/intermediate type players. Would that be you?

It would be nice to see you at one of the Bay Area Comando gatherings, we had a nice one in Benicia about a month ago, folks came from as far away as Nevada and Grass Valley. The next one is planned for Inverness , after Wintergrass which is late Feb. so it must be in March, hosted by Jim French & David Crummy. In the past they have had workshops by Radim Zenkl and Butch Waller. I think they are scheduled again next time. Maybe we could organize a Dix Bruce workshop for one of these events. In the early planning stages is another gathering, I believe in May, to honor a traveling Comando from back East... Prof J. Bird will be visiting the Bay Area.

A - I have just a few students. I teach one day a week at Harmony Road Music School in Oakland, mostly guitar and mandolin students. Occasionally I teach drop ins who are in town on business, vacation, what have you. Just e-mail me.

Yes, one of these days I'll get to a gathering. I'll keep the Inverness deal in mind. Do we warm up on "Sally Goodin" or "Dawg's Rag"? Maybe "Rawhide"? The Beethoven Sonata? "Jethro's Tune"?

I also wanted to mention something about Mandolin World News back issues. We've been slowly selling off original copies for several years. We've wanted to get them out to players who could use and enjoy them and it's been a bit of work to do that. As the original issues went out of print we've made photocopies so that anybody who wants one can get a full set. Thanks to folks on CoMando and info distributed through the Mandolin Cafe, most of the 31 back issues are out of print and of the ones that are left, some are down to 30 or 40. That's a good thing. I'd like to sell out these remaining originals in sets. At that point I'll stop making the photcopies because it's just not practical for me to keep all 31 back issues in stock. I would have no time at all to play the mandolin! I'd like to wrap the whole thing up by the end of this year. So, if you want to get any or all of the back issues of Mandolin World News, now is the time. Check out the website: www.musixnow.com We have no plans to re-publish them at this point. When they're gone, they're gone!


Q - Dix, I enjoyed your writing a bit the other day about Bob Alekno, and how great a rhythm player he was. I still get out those old Tim Ware Band albums now & again to hear Bob in a different context. You are also a great rhythm player as well as fearless in taking a solo... now I know you've jammed with a lot of special musicians, including the likes of Tiny Moore, or members of the DGQ. I recall numerous times when there were guests playing with Back Up & Push. Share a few memories of jamming with stellar musicians, who are some of your favorites?

A - One of the greatest aspects of editing Mandolin World News was in getting to interview some of the greatest musicians in the world. And the best part of the interview process, at least for me!, was that I could ask anything I wanted and usually got to jam with the subject. So I'll start there in reminiscing about jamming.

Tiny Moore blew us out of his studio one rainy morning in February. It was me, Bob, and Darol Anger. 10:00 AM and Tiny was rocking playing deep, deep music that just whipped us into shape. How could anybody play as good as Tiny? Man, am I glad I got to know and play with him. I'm still trying to sound like him.

I remember another jam at Darol's with Martin Taylor, Mark O'Connor (on drums I think), Mike Marshall, Barbara Higbie. Just going nuts and being funny. I have a photo of it somewhere, Mike playing a Telecaster using a rubber chicken for a pick. Everybody wearing odd hats --- Martin Taylor in a plastic Viking lid. One of the greatest guitarists in the world having fun.

Many MWN staff meetings that dissolved into little jams. As I mentioned before, David was always the most generous of hosts. Once he recorded a jam with himself, Don Stiernberg, and me and I remember being a little intimidated at the altitude but there you are you may never get the opportunity again.

Regarding intimidation. I try to not let it get to me. I would like to play well with these guys but if I don't, so what? I'm not going to show them anything they haven't heard or done themselves so I should just try to relax and have fun. I think in final analysis they'll appreciate that more than anything.

I remmeber a jam once with Johnny Gimble in his hotel room. Johnny was in town playing with Willie Nelson. Anyway, Johnny, John Gonder, and I were jamming in Johnny's room on "Honeysuckle Rose" and Grady Martin (GRADY MARTIN!) and Merle Haggard (MERLE HAGGARD!!!!!!) come in the door. Merle's carrying a Telecaster. What do you do in a situation like that to get your tongue back in your head?

Grady starts playing bass lines on the Tele. It must have been plugged into something but I don't remember what. He's sitting on the bed across from me, not looking at me, just grooving. I'm trying to keep my mind on playing and my eye on Johnny and Merle and this and that. Eventually we play "Milk Cow Blues" and for my solo, I play that Bob Wills guitar/steel/electric mandolin section that I'd learned from Tiny. I looked over at Grady and he just kind of cocked an eyebrow my way, didn't look up. Then he pinned my ears back with an incredible blues solo on the Tele. I took it as him saying, "You dumb ______! You think you can show me something? I was playing GOOD before you were born. Step back!" He may have been saying, "Daix, you are so awesome! Let's play in Nashville together" but I doubt it. I WAS trying to show off and how silly of me. These were some of the guys that ORIGINALLY CREATED this music.

Then, to top it off, Willie Nelson came in and sat by Merle. Meanwhile the jam is going on and I'm trying to eavesdrop on what Willie and Merle are saying.

Merle seems to be singing Willie bits of songs from Merle's latest album. I hear: "Wake up/Don;t just lay there/Like cold granite stone/Wake up/we're too close to be alone." A couple months later it was hit. That jam was definitely a high point. I have a tape of it somewhere. Johnny was showing us something on the mandolin when all the traffic started to come in his room. No way I was going to turn that tape recorder off.

That there was some tall cotton. I could go on and on but I don't want to bore any of you who might not be into this stuff. Let me mention just a couple more memories.

When I first started playing with big bands, they were rehearsal bands, not gigs. We'd meet at a hall or some big room and somebody would pass out charts of big band music. At the time I wasn't much of a reader and these charts were small and old, some were copies of copies of copies. The horn players (usually 2 or 3 trumpets, a trombone or two, 3 or more saxes, plus piano, drums, bass, and me) would just take these charts and throttle them within an inch of their lives... the first time...reading it...seeing it for the first time! First time through it would be good. Second time almost perfect. And they are playing together as sections, 3, 4 people as one voice. Luckily I just had to read chord symbols, but the charts were often three pages in length and it was tough to follow. Every now and then I'd have some eighth notes to play and panic. But I was so impressed with that ability to read. It inspired me to study and I'm still working on it. There's always something you can learn and you can learn something new from just about every situation and player.

I often get to jam with great players at the music camps I teach. One of the most amazing was at the Cal. BG Assn. Camp. Bill Keith was one of the teachers and a wonderful guy. When we first met, I was in awe of him. I'd heard his first recordings with Bill Monroe, absolutely idolized his work with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, and admired his solo recordings. There we were, after work, sitting in the dark under some trees.

Bill Keith is about the most musical guy I've ever played with. One who's just delighted to be playing music. Humble and nice too, but totally into playing WITH people, not at them. He seemed to listen to everybody, from beginners to advanced. He gave them his attention and helped them play. Eventually we got to some jazz standards and things he'd played with the Jug Band. I'd never heard a banjo played so well or so musically. It was very inspiring.

Eventually someone asked him to play some fiddle tunes like he'd played in that Keith style with Monroe. He was a little embarrassed but obliged. He explained how all the tunes went so everybody could play along --- as though we hadn't heard him play them on record a hundred times. Then he played them beautifully and I had a revelation. He'd only play that Keith chromatic style for a few bars, only as long as it was musical. I'd never heard that done. Banjo players coming up in the 70s tended to get on a chromatic kick and play it for days. Bill used it as a musical color and nothing more. "Oh," I thought, "THAT's how it's supposed to sound!" After that, Bill taught the group a tune by Bela Fleck. Whaddaguy!

One other memory. Darol Anger and Mike Marshall would often sit in with Bob Alekno and my band Back UP & Push. Sometimes they'd be fresh off a tour with David Grisman and just bouncing off the wall with pent up energy. One particular time I remember Darol, not sure if Mike was there too, but we asked Darol to fill in for our ailing bass player. Darol sat down on stage and got to work plucking out the pizzacato bass lines on his cello. And it was good. We were passing solos around and it was Darol's turn to solo. I assumed he'd pluck a solo, but he reached down to the stage to grab his bow and kind of slipped off his chair. The cello flew up into the air. He caught it without missing a beat (or at least without dropping a beat) and preceeded to lay on his back on the stage, kicking the cello up on his feet, bowin' and yellin' and having a heck of a good time. The rest of us fell apart laughing. What a great way to deal with a difficulty. Make it musicial and part of the show.

Sometimes music can be the most uplifting and transcendent experience. Time just melts and the music moves you along and I guess that's why we all keep doing it. Just some random thoughts on the practice of it all.


Q - I've been slowly working through your homespun Swing Guitar video. Great stuff. Do you have any plans to do something like this for mando?

A - Thanks for the nice comment.

I have no plans for a swing video for mandolin, though it's a great idea. Guitar Workshop, who did my Basic Swing and Basic Country Guitar videos, pretty much sticks to guitar stuff. Not to dwell on Bob Alekno too much, but he would have been the guy to do it. How about Don Stiernberg? He's a chip off the master's (Jethro) block and then some!

My BackUP TRAX: Swing & Jazz book/CD set does get into the mandolin swing subject and you can hear Bob's rhythm on the tracks. The book includes mandolin chords (dominant sevens, minor sevens, and so on) to all the basic standards, many of which are in the Swing guitar video as well: Honeysuckle Rose, Sweet Georgia Brown, Lady Be Good, etc. Once you learn the chords, you need to play them about a million times, and that's where the CD comes in. Two speeds. Learn by jamming along!


Q - I'm assuming you do or have done quite a bit of mandolin teaching over the years. I guess this question could apply to any instrument, actually, but do you find a common thread among learners that keeps them from being better than average players? Or to reverse that, a common thread among exceptional players that makes them so? Does it all come down to God-given talent? Willingness to practice? A certain personality type?

A - Interesting questions that are prompting me to think about a lot of related things.

People seem to take mandolin lessons for a variety of reasons, often not the reasons I would pursue! Sometimes students just want to be mandolin or guitar players (who doesn't?) and don't really have a concept on how difficult and baffling it can be, especially in the first little while. I try to distract these, and most all students, into having a good time right away, get them up and playing a bunch of songs so they concentrate on all the songs they are learning and not the difficulty of playing certain chords or how much their fingers hurt. I do the same thing with my own learning: I try to find some part of it that is fun or interesting or challenging and that allows me to approach the problem, whatever it might be.

Some students just don't have the passion necessary to sustain their interest long enough to get good. I still crave playing. I never get enough time to practice. When I do, it's just wonderful. The time flies. I think you have to somehow tap into that feeling if you expect to progress. I've asked a few students point blank, "Do you really like playing this instrument?" If their answer is "no," I suggest that they quit. Even though I get paid to teach, it's a waste of my time and energy.

I've had very few students who had no "talent." In about 35 years of teaching, I can think of only one or two. Just about everybody can learn something to do on an instrument. It might not be up to Bill Monroe's level, but that's not the point. You just need get in there and swat it out and have a good time, share it with friends.

The most common problem, other than those above, is, I think, fear of failure --- especially with adults. We hate to look stupid or incompetent in front of others so we never relax enough to let the music come in or get back out.

Kids rarely have this hang-up. They're used to tearing around the playground, falling flat on their faces, getting up laughing, and running off again. I think the best students, young or adult, can get past that hang-up.

As far as moving from average to above average -- There's a certain openness in the best students. They don't put up barriers of "I'll never be able to do that" or "I want to play like Eric Clapton not Maybelle Carter" which clog the flow of ideas. They just get on with it. They let everything flow. They like to play and practice. There's a relaxed focus involved. They can listen and internalize a lick or chord or melody the first time they hear it. It's a lack of distraction.

The most amazing players are the same way. Sure, they're technically accomplished because they've worked on all the rudiments of playing. But it's much more than that and not just a physical attribute. Again, they have that focus on the moment and can kind of link up on a deep or spiritual level with themselves and others in the act of playing. It's meditative.

I think it can be learned, to some extent anyway, but for some it's a God-given gift. Most of us can tap into it to one degree or another, other people are just wired differently.

OK, I'll admit it to you --- I'll never play with the speed, intensity, or soul of Django Reinhardt. I ain't got those connections in my brain or my heart, but so what? It would be nice to play him that since I love his playing SO much, but it's not me. I can't dunk a basketball either. As a musician, I need to get past all of that internal bull and get on with music and life and concentrate on the joy of learning and playing. I can practice that concentration thing and try to promote that meditative or alpha state. For you Midwestern cynics like me, it's not as foo foo as it sounds, it's not a California thing!

Some people can just naturally clear all the decks and have this pure musical or artistic exchange with their internal and the external. The rest of us need to relax into it. If I have the time and a good attitude, I can usually get something going!

So, while it's true that you've either got it or not, that fact has NO bearing on playing music or being musical and creative. Django has a voice, just like you. It's an exceptional voice --- but there's no reason your voice has to sound like his. He was just interpreting his feelings, emotions, hopes, fears, joys, etc. in his way. And I bet he didn't think too much about anything. He just played this gig or that recording session and went on to the next one.

You want to be a good player, you want to improve as much as possible, make your vocabulary as rich as it can be, get your fingers to do what you want them to do, but I think the goal of all of this should be to learn to express yourself, to relax enough to first learn the craft of doing that and then to learn the secret of letting it out in a way that helps you cope with your life. Give yourself the time to learn who you are artistically. It may be that you are 5% Django, 8% McCartney, 2% Benny Goodman, 9% Joni Mitchell etc, based on your influences, but you'll come up with some combination of your experiences that is uniquely you. In the long run that will please you and your listeners the most.

Whew! Well that pretty long winded and serious for the first thing in the morning. I must still be in my alpha sleep state. For those of you that I have lost on this verbose and self indulgent tirade, I can only say: Just play!


Q - I found your recounting of the stories about hanging & jamming with Tiny Moore, or the hotel room episide with Johnny Gimble, Merle & Willy incredibly interesting reading. Geeze man, those are memories for a lifetime. I love hearing these, after all we can't get to meet Tiny Moore, too late, and few of us will get in the same room with those swing & country music cats. I'll tell ya Dix, that MWN gig of yours was awesome, I know it was a lot of work, but the perks of meeting your musical heros like that is pretty darn cool, and don't worry, your early morning ramblings on teaching & learning, especially the learning as adults hit home with many of us I'm sure. You have been a pretty darn entertaining CGOW and I want to thank you for taking the time to join our mandolin crazed forum. I hope you've enjoyed it too. [Arthur Stern]

A - You said "I'll tell ya Dix....that MWN gig of yours was awesome, I know it was a lot of work, but the perks of meeting your musical heros like that is pretty darn cool."

I was no fool! It was the best job I ever had. I often say that if we'd have had a PC at the time, I'd still be doing it.

And, you're one to talk about being in a room with great musicians.. You should tell us some of your stories of Grisman, T. Rice, Todd Phillips, Mike Marshall, Darol Anger, etc., hanging out and jamming at your glass studio. Don't you have a recording of Todd & Mike removing the Virzi from Mike's Loar? They had to crunch it to get it out, right. I know you have more stories than me. How about all those gigs with the above guys in different combination. You were always there! I'm so glad we got to do all of that!


Q - What's your take on keeping your head out or your instrument and paying attention to the people you play with?

BTW: I once tried to teach French philosophy to some prostitutes but I had to give up. I realized I was putting Descartes before the whores...

A - First of all, I'm deeply, deeply offended by your feeble attempt at humor. But, I'll get over it as soon as I tell that joke as one of my own!

I have to say something about Gerald in answering Gerald's question. He and I played together with Steve Smith at Camp Bluegrass last summer. I brought a couple of my original tunes and asked them to play with me. Now this can be a jam buster and kill just about any joy that's in the air --- that is, bringing an original that people have to learn and relax on etc. before they can play.

Yet, I was awed by Gerald and Steve. They are the epitome of "keeping your head out of your instrument and paying attention to the people you play with." They just inhaled my songs and in two minutes were playing them back to me in harmony. REALLY! First time they'd ever heard them!

Not only is that the kind of relaxation and getting in the zone that we've been talking about I think it's an attitude that music is all about sharing and not trying to burn the other guy's face off all the time. And, while my compositions weren't Beethoven or John Cage, they did have some peculiarities that take some getting used to. Still, they brought the music up to a level way beyond anything I'd intended or expected and with no struggle on anybody's part --- except maybe me in trying to keep up with them!

These guys, along with Texas Shorty and the others, are incredible, natural musicians who have that focus and ability to be in the musical moment. And it all served the main deal going on: the performance of that particular song at that particular time.

Now both of these guys know how good they are and also know that they can play about anything they want at any time. They could have played all over my stuff, but instead, they supported it and went for the ensemble. It was a wonderful and mutually supportive experience. And so pleasant! A little party there int he hallway. I can't say enough about Gerald and Steve's talent. I was truly sad that it had to end and I had to go home at the end of the week. Check these guys out whenever you can. You won't be disappointed.

I'd close with a joke but I'm just too choked up after bragging on you two righteous dudes. I'm crying all over mydamn keyboard!


Q - Could you describe your right hand technique?

Also, how have your Midwestern influences affected your development/style as a musician?

A - I try to keep my right hand relaxed. I generally plant or drag my pinkie. I try not to make it a post. It's probably better to learn NOT to do that but from the beginning it was the only way I could get accuracy & power. Frank Wakefield once said to me, "Dilx, (that's right, I wrote 'Dilx'.)I can make you the daddy of the guitar just like I'm the daddy of the mandolin. You gotta loosen up your picking hand. Let your wrist shake your hand. It's OK to drag your pinkie some but don't depend on it." One of the reasons Farnk can play so fast is that his wrist is so loose and limber. I try to keep that in mind when I play.

The midwestern deal is a huge subject. My years in Wisconsin continue to shape me. I feel it every day. It was a wonderful, rational place to grow up. People weren't all that impressed with big shots. "Who does he think he is?" and I hope that still keeps me from getting too big for my britches.

Musically and culturally the mix of musics, country, ethnic, polka, etc., figure in who I am as a person and a musician. Specifically the kaleidoscope of the Goose Island Rambers. I continue to learn from them: their songs, life stories, humor. I'm working on a couple of accordion books with the band's Bruce Bollerud. One is a collection of Scandanavian fiddle tunes and Bruce wants me to put out a mandolin version of it. I've been playing through the songs and having a ball with them. I plan to take his suggestion.

My heart is still there. My folks are buried there and I miss it. Especially when California, which has been my home for 30 years, goes through an especially wierd period. I ove to go back to my old Wisconsin home!


Q - I don't think I wrote my original comments properly... what I meant was, in reading about all of your gigs, workshops, writings, and other project, plus just your general schedule (plus staying on top of your instrument(s), it was so full that I thought "How does someone keep all of this going." It was suppose to be complimentary. I loved your comments and stories. They were written in a way they really held my attention.

Thank you for taking the time to share them. I saved them in my Bluegrass folder.

A - Yes, I took them as complimentary. My response was an attempt at humor at my own expense. As if anyone cares about my favorite color!

I was also being truthful that I'm a little pooped from the full schedule of late. I taught two workshops yesterday in Palo Alto and now I can relax a little and finish up some book projects. I also want to get the carpets cleaned, fix the exhaust fan, and finally put away that great box of old sheet music I got in June. It's always something.

Thanks again for your gracious comments. Again, I'm very flattered to have been asked so many great questions.


Q - I'd like to compliment Dix on his excellent articles in Flatpick Guitar Magazine. I think Dix is one of the rare breed who's teaching skills rival their awesome performing skills.

A - You are a gentleman and a scholar and I salute you! My grandfather Bruce was named Ralph so I came within a hair's breadth of be an additional Ralph. Instead, I got his middle name, Edward, which makes me Dix E. Bruce.

I'll keep writin' 'em as long as you keep readin' 'em!


Q - I was just checking in on the Comando list and saw where you have been the Guest all week. I hope you had fun and thanks for sharing some memories. I wanted to add how much I appreciated you letting me be a part of that era too. You were the best editor I ever had the pleasure to work for! Those were exciting musical times. Sure was great getting to play with you guys and you taught me so much...especially in the swing department! I use your books all the time with my students and highly recommend them. [Becky Smith]

A - Thank you so much!

I have to correct you though... it was my (our) pleasure that you agreed to work with us. You rescued MWN at a crucial with your willing efforts and great graphic talent. There's just that line there in the appearance of it after the first issue you designed and laid out.

I've often felt a little guilty that we heaped so much work on you. I hope it was fun and it sounds like you have good memories. I remember a collating party at your place in Oakland. We'd printed all the individual pages, set big stacks of them out on tables and chairs around your kitchen, and then had everybody (staff and special "guests") walk around the room and take one from each pile. One trip around the room was one issue. This went on for hours and the participants dropped like flies. Of course, being your place, you were stuck until the bitter end when all the issues were collated! We should have made a big marketing ploy out of the fact that each issue was "hand-made"! How did we miss a trick like that?

I think there are things we do only when we are young and have the energy, freedom, and no reasons not to. That whole experience was one of the best in my life. It was a lot of work but it was always exciting and we were always learning.