Don Stiernberg is one of Chicago's busiest musicians, turning up on recording sessions and at performances of all kinds to play mandolin, guitar, tenor banjo, fiddle, or even sing. Recently, his own recordings as a mandolinist have made inroads on the national jazz and bluegrass scenes. He has appeared on about 30 recordings, including seven as a producer. Highlights from this list include his latest release, "Unseasonably Cool", a jazz mandolin CD on Blue Night Records, and "About Time" (Blue Night Records), his debut cd which garnered exposure on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. His discography is a stylistically diverse list, ranging from bluegrass (Greg Cahill) to children's (Steve Rashid) folk, pop, alternative country, songwriters (Robbie Fulks, Alice Peacock) to "Swing Low, Sweet Mandolin" and "Bye Bye Blues", the final recordings by Don's mentor, jazz mandolin master Jethro Burns.
While still a teenager, Don found his direction in life when he met Jethro Burns for mandolin lessons. Later, as a member of The Jethro Burns Quartet, he was able to share the stage with such luminaries as Chet Atkins, Steve Goodman, and The Newgrass Revival. Don also logged time with popular bands in the Midwest such as The Morgan Brothers, Jump in the Saddle, The Freeway Rangers, and Special Consensus. Other favorite sideman gigs include performances with jazz violinist Johnny Frigo, Texas Playboy legend Johnny Gimble, and master guitarist John Carlini. Fellow mandolinists David Grisman and Sam Bush have invited him onstage for impromptu jamming as well. When not appearing at a concert or club with his own quartet, Don will most likely be found around Chicago, either in a recording studio or in a tuxedo on a bandstand.
Don also enjoys teaching and writing about the mandolin. He's given workshops at festivals such as the Ashokan Western and Swing Week, The Winnipeg Folkfest, Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kansas, Steve Kaufman's Mandolin Kamp, and the Classical Mandolin Society of America Convention. Currently, Don serves as the jazz columnist for Mandolin Magazine.
A - I guess it was around 1972 that I met Jethro. I had been fooling
around with mandolin for a few months at that point. I had started on an "Airline" model
that my brother didn't have time to play-he was too busy getting great on
guitar and five string banjo. When a neighbor lady lent me her A-50,
naturally I was inspired.
My mother heard an ad on the radio-"study mandolin with Jethro Burns"....I was reluctant to go because I was a geeky 15 year old. My parents made me go and it turned out to be one of the greatest things that has happened in my life.
Jethro had just lost Homer some months before our first meeting and had started teaching as a means of getting out of the house while he figured out what came next career-wise. Not that he didn't like teaching, he kept teaching the rest of his life. To me he was a great teacher. The lessons were at Main Music in Skokie, IL just a few blocks from his home in Evanston. My folks drove about an hour to get me there, and the lessons cost $10. Years and years later they were still $10! After I got my license I was allowed to drive myself there. This was before the gasoline crisis so I can remember being so excited about going that I would drive 80 miles an hour down the freeway to get there as quickly as possible...thank God I'm still here to tell about it!
From the first time I met Jethro I wanted to be like him. He was easy going, relaxed, positive, and supportive. At that point in my life it was wonderful to be exposed to those traits. Come to think of it, those qualities are great to see anytime, aren't they? What happened was he asked me to play something to see what direction to go in. Holding the pick between my thumb and second finger, other fingers haphazardly flopping about, and using only fingers one and two on the left hand(Django style?) I played Soldier's Joy or some such thing. It was dismal and pitiful, and here was the greatest mandolin player in the world, and do you know what he said? "Donny, that was great! You've got all the tools!" Years later I realized he meant I had a mandolin and a pick, but at the time he made me feel very capable.
That was more than thirty years ago, and I'm still enjoying playing the mandolin and I really get a thrill when students begin to believe in their abilities. It may sound corny or sentimental, but sharing that positive energy that Jethro modeled is very exciting and gratifying.
He asked me what I wanted to learn on the mandolin, and you may not believe this, but I said I wanted to learn to play like Sam Bush! Imagine taking lessons from Segovia and asking him to teach you to play like Christopher Parkening, or going to Django and saying show me how to play like Les Paul! Well as I stated earlier I was young and naive. Not that Sam is not a great mandolin role model as well! In fact Jethro admired his playing as much as any of us. Anyway he was very graceful and got a smile out of my request, and we went ahead with the gargantuan task of correcting my self taught techniques, learning tunes, and so on. I remember asking him about cross-picking as well, having discovered Jesse McReynolds. Jethro looked me squarely in the eye(another of his teaching techniques-really gets your attention..) and said "Like this?"...proceeding to rip off some mind boggling pattern oriented piece like "Cross Country"..After offering his own accolades for Jesse, he said," yeah I think we can show you some of that.."
I don't mean to digress, but as you can imagine there's no shortage of happy memories. But you asked about Jethro's influence on my playing and my life. I can't imagine being a professional musician all these years without having known Jethro.
I refer to his example on a daily basis it seems, mostly in the area of knowing what to take seriously and what to try to have a good laugh about. It's really an aspiration, I know, but I'm hoping his influence can be detected on my recordings or when I'm on stage or teaching a lesson or workshop. He really loved to play and loved to make people laugh. I was fortunate enough to see first hand how conveying that love of one's craft and having confidence in one's abilities is a very valuable thing, for both performer and audience. I've never had another profession, or interest in finding one, and I'm grateful to Jethro for that. He even helped me cope with the vagaries of being in the music business, helped me keep my head on straight-once when I was really complaining about the usual things--(lack of financial security, being asked to come in the back door, having people ask what you "really" do..) he put his hand on my shoulder and said "Donny, what else do you know how to do?" We laughed real hard and played a great show that night...
It's easier to talk about his influence on mandolin playing. Growing up in my family we heard a lot of jazz, and a lot of folk. Jethro brought it all together for me on the mandolin. When I heard Playing it Straight on the radio I flipped because I realized one could play jazz on the same little instrument I had fallen in love with. Then to be lucky enough to see him do it up close...you can see why I got hooked and never looked back, to use two cliches.
More specifically, Jethro helped me cultivate my ear by showing me lots of standard tunes, chord melody style. That fundamental knowledge of how chords change in jazz tunes has helped me get through many gigs. Early on he stressed the importance of blues in all forms of American music. Later on, when I was playing in his band, he gently suggested I get my own style of playing. "If people want to hear Jethro, they can,"he said. That might not have occurred to me, I was in such awe of his style I was trying to replicate it!
He liked people to be able to recognize what the tune was even when he was improvising. I think that's good thing, it sets a standard for playing melodic and accessible solos that have a beginning, middle and end. I hope to be able to do that some day. And his chord voicings were always filled with color tones, I think that influenced me in terms of thinking "What else can we do with this?" when arranging tunes chord melody style or even playing rhythm for another soloist.
Mr. Snapple, you were sure right about this question keeping me busy! I could go on and on about Jethro. Thanks for asking, it's a nice feeling to think back on all he showed me.
A - Well, allright then! I'll try to recall and post some more things for
the Jethrophiles out there as the week goes along...
One thing I get asked from time to time is how Jethro felt about bluegrass and Bill Monroe. Because of the differences in their playing styles and personalities I suppose, a misconception developed that Jethro didn't care for bluegrass. Not true!
He had a healthy respect for the players. When I asked about his favorite mandolin players (when I was young) he mentioned Bobby Osborne, Jesse McReynolds, and Dean Webb.("I like the guys who play clean.."he said.) Later on of course he collaborated with Sam Bush and David Grisman on various projects, and one his best pals from his Knoxville days was Red Rector-they had a long gig at The World's Fair . Jethro would call after fun road trips sometimes and two that come to mind are running into John Duffey at the Birchmere and appearing as "Elder Otto" with Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers in Nagodoches Texas.
One show I wish I'd been to was Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys in Evanston IL( Jethro's home) when Jethro sat in. I've heard the tape though, it went something like this:
Bill: Let's bring up a great mandolin man, Jethro Burns! Jethro, you lookin' good !
Jethro: Thanks, Bill, you look pretty good yourself...
Bill: What would you like to play for the folks here tonight?
Jethro: How about the one we rehearsed?
...and they tore up Roanoke, with Jethro playing harmony. Also Rawhide. Jethro also played those sometimes at his own shows, he also liked "Scotland", I think he even recorded it..
Jethro's favorite mandolin player was Dave Appollon. His favorite guitar player was Django, although he dug all the jazz guys like Barney Kessel, Wes Montgomery, Howard Roberts, et al. And Hank Garland, Roy Lanham, George Barnes.
His favorite tune was "When You Wish Upon a Star" and his favorite musician was Chet Atkins. In fact his last show was as a guest of Chet's at Orchestra Hall here in Chicago. I think he may have planned it that way. I got to go to that one, a very special evening.
More on the Great One as we proceed. Thanks again.
A - My tip to anyone trying to learn Jethro style playing would be to first think of it as two areas: single note playing, like , say, "Jethro's Tune", and then the chord melody playing of standards or his other originals. The big thing most players want to get right in the realm of single note playing is the rhythmic feel-this is something of a hurdle for those coming from other styles sometimes. Just remember it needs to swing. In each pair of eighth notes, the first is actually a little longer than the second, which lends that nice "bouncy" Jethro vibe. I sometimes refer to this as Morse code rhythm: Da-dit Da-dit Da-dit Da-dit. Also triplets are a big part of Jethro's single note phrasing, like in "Jethro's Tune": diddly-ah dit da-dit da-dit diddly-ah dit da- dit da-dit and so on...
When learning chord melody arrangements, try to visualize each chord position you use and remember not only it's place in the tune, but it's harmonic function, because I promise you they come up over and over again in other tunes and keys.
Like for instance let's do a Jethro ending right here. Start with a G6 on the top three strings, E-B-G, frets 2-2-3. That shape yields a nice swingy sixth sound anywhere you put it. The root is on top. The ending lick is moving that shape back one fret, return to G6, then continue chromatically to C6. Now try it on the lower three strings.
That same activity should yield C6 to F6. A variant on this, similar shape, would be on the top three strings E-D-G, frets 2-5-3.
I guess one reason I "see" things that way is from learning from Jethro in person. I would ask him about a certain chord position, and very often he would just look me in the eye and say "well its, uh, this..." rather than name notes or frets. This teaching technique worked well, as I was forced to hear the sound and find it on my own. Even looking across at his mandolin and seeing the positions upside down, recognizing them as shapes that were moveable to other tunes and keys helped me keep up with him as he played a basic version of a tune. I would plug the gaps later by listening to the tape-in fact I should do more of that now!
Another way to go is to diagram the voicings on paper and try to see those shapes as you play them. You know, those fretboard grid pattern sheets-not tab.
This is akin to making a chord chart for a tune you're learning. When you have something in "your mind's eye" it can help you keep your place in the tune and on the mandolin. The ultimate goal here is to constantly reassure yourself: "Oh, I know that chord, I just played it on that other tune.." or... " Oh, I see, same shape as 6 bars ago, moved to the lower strings..."
I hope these somewhat hippie ramblings help you get inside Jethro's style and jazz playing in general a bit more. Oh, I forgot one! Listen to other jazz artists, then compare what they do to Jethro and Tiny and Johnny or what can be done on mandolin in general. For instance, I think there's a deep connection between Benny Goodman's clarinet phrases and Jethro's single note lines. Some of the chord things we just talked about he lifted right off of Basie albums! Tiny's sense of swinging eighth notes bears resemblance to that of Charlie Christian. They were from thesame part of the country after all. And when I hear Johnny Gimble tearing it up on the electric, I can't help but think of George Barnes- both cats play so ferociously! Listening a lot gets one in the mindset, and makes the chops work better I feel.
Again sorry to go a little long, but I still love this stuff!
Q - Seriously, what Don posted about putting together a standard by working up the
melody and the chords is great, and the C6-based ending sequence is great.
Would it be possible for Don to take an example of a standard (I am currently
working on I Get a Kick Out Of You, but whatever) and give us a mini lesson
on line. How to go the next step and turn the melody line, played swing, and
the jazz chords, into a Steirnberg via Burns type of mandolin piece.
Hey, I know this is a big ask, but when ya get the chance, ask!
A - Your suggestion is a good one and I'm thrilled to be talking with you there in Australia. I'm from what might be thought of as sort of the outback of Illinois and I still can't get over this whole internet thing....
I think that rather than work up a tune here though I'll direct you to my columns in Mandolin magazine, where we've done that very thing a few times- changes, scales or tones to draw lines from, suggested melody lines for the changes...last issue I think we did Body and Soul. I'm sure there's a link for the magazine here at Co-Mando.
And don't miss Mandolin Quarterly either- Michael Lampert gives invaluable jazz insight there. Let me know what you turn up and how it goes. The answers to previous questions here about building solos, arranging Jethro style, and looking for a personal style may be what you're after too.
Best regards please to Steven Gilchrist too. I know, he's probably thousands of miles away, but you're closer than I am...what a great guy.
I'll take a look at "I get a Kick out of You" tonight and see if I get any bright ideas.
A - I enjoy your columns in Mandolin Magazine as well! That Texas or
contest fiddle style that you understand so well is one of my favorite
sounds. To me it's a jazz style, the players using those tunes as a basis for improvising. Long ago I got to do some playing with Mark O'Connor. I can still remember the exciting swing feel and the flow of ideas.... I hope we can play together sometime.
But on to your questions! Jethro called fiddle tunes "hoedowns". He knew a ton of them, and in fact if you look at Ken Eidson's books on Jethro for Mel Bay, they're in there-even the breaks from that cool Wade Ray album I think. My first lessons with Jethro were the same tunes that wound up in the front section of his book- Old Joe Clark, Rickett's Reel, Flop Eared Mule, Paddy on the Turnpike...I guess what was different about his approach to these things is that everything swung, and he would embellish the traditional melodies with triplet licks or blues licks. Years later I heard Red Rector and thought that maybe everybody around Knoxville played them like that back in the time those guys were coming up! Peter Ostroushko said once that Jethro's breaks on the Wade Ray album made him laugh out loud and inspired him to play--Jethro's personality came through even on an interpretation of a melody.
Some of his favorite tunes besides the ones mentioned were Cattle in the Cane(Cattle in the Corn) and one I never heard anyone else play called Fiddleobia. Of course on the jazz tune Cherokee, in the bridge when it got to A major he'd play Devil's Dream-every time!
The rule of thumb on chord melody playing is to "keep the melody on top", meaning somewhere on the E or A string, so there are still some harmony notes available below it and so that melody will speak clearly. Sometimes but not that often this does necessitate moving the tune up an octave, or to a better key, but usually you can keep them right in sheet music or fakebook vicinity.
When I'm arranging a tune this way I like to have a chart of the tune there to refer to, one in my own hand, that is i'll write out the changes rather than look at the fakebook-that way the chord movements are in my memory(what's left of it) better.
Then I'll try to flesh out the melody with notes from each chord. I've been working on one recently like this-"Let's Get Lost", the tune Chet Baker sang. It sits right on the mandolin perfectly! Sometimes I'll try to make an intro for a tune in this manner also, kind of reversing the process- I'll find some chord movements that are similar to but not necessarily contained in the song, and add a melody note to them. That's what happened on "But Beautiful" on my CD "About Time" and also before "I don't Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You" on "Unseasonably Cool". Another arranging idea from Jethro is to have moving voices within the the chords. Say the the melody note is a third fret G, chord G7. He'd play an f on fret 3 of the D string, leave the A open.
Then as the melody sustains, the first finger frets A-Bb-B natural, so we hear G9, Gsharp 9, G7. I think I did this on " My Shining Hour" on the "About time" CD-that melody is stated all in chords with just bass under it.
Jethro's feeling about chord playing was that you always want to leave your hand ready to play a melody. That's why he never played a "chop" chord. It is true that if you're switching to lead from rhythm while playing those voicings, the first thing you do is lift your hand completely away from the mandolin, which takes time.
He was always in scale position. As I mentioned somewhere else I like to play bluegrass also so I use both sets of chord voicings for rhythm playing. I try to respect the context of the music, for instance I won't play a chop on a jazz tune any more than a drummer would play strong rock backbeats on a swing tune. But they do blend together sometimes- I tend to let those color tones and moving voices creep into the rhythm parts of bluegrass or Western swing tunes. Don't tell anybody! To me Dusty Miller is a cool jazz tune. I tried to play it as such with my band once. When they heard the melody they started to play with more of a country feel...I hope we can work it out as a swinger one day...
Pete I hope some of this is helpful and I hope when I'm up in the Pacific NW to visit my folks that I can look you up to pick some.
Q - Could you tell us a little more about your process of finding your own
style? As you know, I love your style and am trying to copy it as closely
A - First I should say that having musical role models is a good thing. Even copying a great artist's work can help one learn how to operate the machinery. And of course most of us want to learn to play because we've been inspired by a particular sound or style, maybe even a specific lick, ... so I don't mean to discourage people from transcribing solos, that's essential as a means to learning musical vocabulary and style. It also helps one meet the standard of the music, and not stand apart from the tradition. Wes Montgomery memorized Charlie Christian solos, Charlie Parker memorized Lester Young solos, and so on.
But sure enough the time comes when one realizes that sounding just like someone else is not what music is for, particularly if you're involved in it as a career. In my own case I realized after a while that the ongoing pursuit of a personal sound was actually more fun-when things drop into place and feel "right", it's inspiring and causes one to ponder the gift of music itself, which of course is another discussion.
Here's some things I tried which might be pertinent. First was broadening my own base of influences, or at least surveying them. I realized that Jethro and other heroes of mine played the music of their time, so it would most likely be OK for me to connect more with styles from my own time. One specific example is George Benson, whose playing I'm crazy about. His phrasing has had an impact on mine, believe it or not! Pop music from my era plays a role too-Steely Dan, Earth Wind and Fire, studio guys like Larry Carlton....I guess I just checked out more modern influences a little more actively. From the jazz field some other players who continue to inspire are Buddy DeFranco, Toots Thielemans, Wes Montgomery, Charlie Parker, Joe Pass. These guys drew from a different harmonic palette, and the rhythms in their improvised lines, while still swinging real hard, were a little more complicated. Toots, for example, will play groupings of 5 or seven inside a 4/4 bar- Wow!
A - So the next thing, and perhaps the biggest thing, was loosening up
enough to try some of these things while soloing. That can be intimidating
because you do run the risk of "painting yourself into a corner", or the
less delicate "falling on your ass"...
This was especially something in Jethro's band, it got funny a lot. I'd play a flatted fifth or ninth or some other sort of bebop device and there would be the Legend right in my ear saying ( in jest and with humor and love of course) "I heard that note. Don't play that note!" And of course before or after would be a totally cohesive solo or three by the master, swinging and filled with conviction.
Sure enough though at some point the fresh ideas start to hang together, and one begins to catalog and use phrases of one's own. Sympathetic and patient musicians are an important part of this process. One main example for me is my great friend John Parrott, who plays rhythm guitar . John was and is always game for going over a tune a gazillion times. Nowadays they have Band in a Box and Jamey Aebersold play alongs for that, but of course interacting with actual musicians is more in keeping with the jazz style.
So for me it was: (A)trying to get a deeper understanding of theory and tunes so I could have more possible phrases at my disposal and (B) trying to find the courage to try stuff on stage and (C) playing a lot, just going for it and seeing what might come out. Vassar Clements told me once he did that, so I figured that was good reason to do likewise!
Then later on I tried different approaches. One is to attempt to find an emotional connection to the the song or tune, then try to convey that in the solo. I ask myself what the song is about! Now we're going out on the thinner ice--each interval to me has a feeling. A major sixth sounds happy and swinging, (like Jethro) while a minor third sounds sad or dark or moody of course...I'll string sounds together that connect with the lyric, or the arrangement, or just whatever is going on at the time. "What's Goin' On" by Marvin Gaye- there's an illustration: "Mother Mother" is on a major seventh sound, while "there's far too many of you crying " goes to the relative minor, say from Bb ma 7 to Gminor 7. Makes the point about attaching sounds to feelings I hope...
One teacher I had reminded me that the best jazz solos have a vocal quality, with breaths. I've been more interested in singing lately too so that's helped. Mostly for me it means slowing things down, not being afraid to leave spaces in the improvised line. Just as when we speak we stutter or say "uh" or when speaking e-mail we say "......."
Your question reminded me of why I dedicated my latest CD to my students. Trying to articulate these things is very helpful to me. I'm grateful to all of you for wading through this and hope it leads to a useful discovery. Oh and as far as knowing when things are "on track", you'll know! In addition to audience response, or hearing a playback of some kind, there is a gut reaction, a feeling like "that wasn't all THAT bad ,was it?" For me this comes a few times a year and keeps me going. Another guitar hero, Tom Theabo, told me " the frustration is good-if we could play the way we wanted to all the time and were content, we'd have to give up."
A - As far as exercises, warmups and practice regimen for jazz
players...well, yes and no. There are a couple licks and patterns I show students and players at workshops.
They're difficult for a low tech guy like me to transmit here, but let's see... One I call the Jethro Superlick which is a three octave arpeggio of sorts which takes you across the fretboard and leaves a vision of a nice "home base" for improvising. Maybe find me at my website and I could try to get you a tab of that, or maybe someone here at Co-mando has it too.
Another thing I often recommend is playing your scales in patterns or tetrachords, for example in A major, play (starting on the D string) E-C#-A, F#-D-B, G#-E-C#, A-F#-D, B-F#-E, C#-A-F#, D-B-G#, and so on. Wayne Beezley showed me that a quarter century ago and I still love the sound of it-each group of three notes outlines a chord from the harmonized scale.
Those harmonized scales are good to play too, after your hand is warm and loose. We do run out of neck depending on what key you're in, but try G and C for starters:
G-Am-Bm-C-D7-Em-F#m7b5-G or C-Dm-Em-F-G7-Am-Bm7b5-C. This sets you up for chord melody playing, harmonic analysis, and sometimes psychoanalysis. (joke)
Here's another pattern. I stole it from Larry Carlton who stole it from Johnny Smith, but it's everywhere in jazz. In G it would go A(fifth fret)F#GA, F#DEF#, DBCD, BGAB, AF#GA, F#DEF#, DBCD, BGAB.
Try moving that shape or sound to other keys. I can assure you it will creep into you improvised phrases!
As far as the no part of the answer concerning practice regimen, I've never been a good practicer, but in recent times I've had to cut back to zero on noodling because of repetitive stress injury and tendonitis. So most of my playing and learning occurs on the bandstand. My exercises have become exercises learned from the physical therapist! I urge all of you to loosen up before you play, stretch, have good posture, and be careful about hours played so your hands and or arms or shoulders won't hurt like hell. Chris Thile, are you listening, buddy? The greatest thing I found was simply raising the arms up over the head for a five count, ten repetitions. This takes blood that's kind of hung up in the shoulder area and brings it out to the hands, helping to carry away the stuff the muscles in the fingers make when we play (inflammation).
Another good one is to open your palm up, towards the sky, hold for five, turn it upside down for five. Ten reps or so again. You'll feel a warming sensation in your hands and that is good!
Rick you asked about new recordings, thanks for your interest. Coincidentally I was just talking to Steven Briggs at Blue Night Records the other day about possibly doing something this year. I have a small batch of tunes we've been enjoying playing live as a quartet that we may be ready to put down, and some tunes I'd like to try to sing as well. These are all standard jazz type things, but hopefully off the beaten path somewhat. Anything you'd like to hear?
Also coming out any minute is a new CD by The John Carlini Quartet with Pat Cloud which I'm honored to be on. John's compositions are beautiful and challenging, a slightly more modern bent than the "tunes" I play in my own band. I hope you'll check it out, there's everything from bluegrass- bebop to ballads and his famous Latin tinged tune "Mugavero" on there. I'm pretty sure the record will be called "The Game's Afoot". Pat Cloud guests on a few tracks. He is a masterful jazz player on the five string banjo. The rhythm section is Steve Holloway on drums and Brian Glassman on bass, some bad New York City cats if ever there were some! What a thrill for me to play with those guys!
There's more things too but I've gone on too long again-they'll be posted at my site in due time. Thanks again for the good questions!
A - Hey Terry, great to hear from you! You haven't been south of the border to
Illinois in a long time!
The mandolin which arrived the same day you did is fine thanks, although I wish it wasn't so banged up- I need to be more careful with it. I was talking about my mandolins in response to another question but one thing I may not have mentioned about the two point is it is very sturdy, holds up well in the volatile weather we have here in Chicago. It's funny, everyone dreams of Loars and old vintage this and that, but where I live we really need to consider that one day it's below zero, the next day may be 45 degrees.
In fact, come to think of it that's why I started looking for a second mandolin in the first place. I was playing bluegrass at Lincoln Park Zoo, under a tent with open sides, in early May. (This was quite a few years ago now). We were in shirtsleeves.
All of a sudden the wind kicks up off of Lake Michigan and my Monteleone Grand Artist was being pelted by snow! This seemed wrong to me. Soon I had a Flatiron Festival A model in the arsenal which held me until I got bitten by the Nugget bug, or bugget nug as Wake Frankfield might say.
Terry, let me know where you've been pickin!
Q - What is your approach to learning a new tune, especially one that you are not familiar with, and may contain lots of key changes.What are your thoughts as you solo, ie...
play first chorus as single string, break into chord melodies, play octavesetc...
I guess I am trying to ask what your approach is to building a solo.
A - When I'm working on a new tune, I make a chart of the chord changes. That's what I see in my mind as I solo-what changes are coming next. Then I like to do a tonality search. I look for ii-V-I cadences in major and minor. This can take a tune with loads of chords and reduce it to something more manageable. "Gone With the Wind", for example, is in Eb for a while, and G major for a while. This seems less daunting to me than Fm7-Bb7-Eb-Edim-Fm7- Bb7-Eb , etc..Also if you see the tune as a whole first you tend to play phrases that correspond to the form of the tune, rather than reacting chord by chord which may end up sounding like licks or scales. One thing I need to get better at is learning the melody of the tune. I've been so intrigued by making up lines over changes that sometimes I get on the stand and botch the melody! Memorizing the melody and chord progression should be the first steps.
In terms of building the solo, you may be referring to a formula of sorts that Wes Montgomery used...he would often play, say, 3 choruses of improvised lines, then 3 more where the melodies were stated in octaves, then three more with block chords, or chord-melody playing. The cumulative effect GIVES ME CHILLS-so beautiful and the intensity continually escalates. Yes we can do that on mandolin.
In my own playing I'm not that organized I'm afraid but I do use all of those devices- single notes, octaves, chord melody fragments, and also the occasional harmonic-they're just not usually in a particular order.
I was talking earlier, I think in answering the question about developing a personal style, about similar things. As you all can see I'm just learning about putting the questions with the answers, so your patience with me is greatly appreciated. My musical taste hangs around the 30's, 40's, and 50's, and now that it's 2003 my computer chops are about up to the 1980's....
So what do I think about when putting together a solo? I seriously do try to feel what the tune is about, as corny as that might sound. Also it occurs to me now that a solo is really an interactive band thing-so much of what I might play will be in response to what the other cats are doing. Perhaps the dynamics were just brought down or up by the drummer, i'll react to that. Or if the groove becomes especially bodacious or swinging, I'm liable to go for an extra chorus for fun, and that would be a spot where I might switch to chord playing from single lines as (what does Emeril say?)we take it up a notch. I like to keep the mood or groove changing as the set progresses also--an upbeat samba followed by a ballad followed by a medium tempo swing follwed by a hard blues. Soloing, then, is done so as to emphasize those choices: more choruses on the samba because it is about loosening up and playing, fewer on the ballad so it doesn't go on forever...you get the idea. One thing we love in our group is trading phrases of 8 bars or 4 bars, as most jazz musicians do. Sometimes we cut out everyone but the mandolin and bass, that contrast is really fun.
The guitarist in my band has a more developed modern jazz sensibility than I do, so on those trades I always learn things and come away with new licks. Also get tripped up some, but hey--
I feel now I may be giving new meaning to the popular phrase "too much information", so I'll head off to another question. Kerry, I think you can't lose if keep a vision in your mind of the complete form of the tune, and listen real hard to what your bandmates supply.
Q - Can you talk a little about your musical influences other than Jethro, horn players or singers, for example, who have impacted your style as a musician?Finally, along those same lines, do you have any hints regarding arrangingand/or transcribing?
Thanks, Don, I'm your number 1 fan.
A - Dear Number 1 Fan,
thank you so much. Everyone's kindness here at Co-Mando makes me want to keep going, to play more and better. So thank you.
An earlier question did touch on other influences, but naturally there are more, new ones all the time too I suppose.
One huge one I didn't mention earlier is something I might call "my father's music". When I was coming up we listened to tons of what some jazz "scholars" might call Chicago style jazz or even Dixieland. The artists being people like Bobby Hackett, Jack Teagarden, Pee Wee Russell, Bix Beiderbecke, Eddie Condon, Benny Goodman , Red Nichols , Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, Ernie Caceres, Edmond Hall. I love that stuff, can't go too long without it! Some of the selections on my records are from that repertoire: I'm Coming Virginia, Baby Won't You Please Come Home, New Orleans to name a few. In fact there are two LP's especially emblazened on my soul: "Jazz Ultimate" by Bobby Hackett and Jack Teagarden and "Bixieland" by Eddie Condon.
Singers have influenced me as well, even in terms of what comes out of the mandolin. Bonnie Raitt Rosemary Clooney Jack Teagarden Chet Baker Merle Haggard Lowell George Van Morrison RAY CHARLES Red Allen Bill Monroe Tommy Boyd George Benson Stevie Wonder Sam Bush George Jones James Taylor....
SOMEONE SHOULD STOP ME. This is too much fun.
Hints for transcribing:
Being essentially an untrained musician, transcribing can be tedious for me. I can't write rhythms, particularly jazz rhythms, quickly. But I can get a lot of mileage out of jotting down the pitches and seeing how they relate to the chord progression.
And that would be my tip, get as much as you can. You're there to obtain a concept or an insight rather than a playable solo anyway.
For arranging, I've been influenced by another record from my father's music-Errol Garner's Concert by the Sea. Errol would make up intros, endings, and vamps that seemed to have nothing to do with the tune, but yet would draw you right in to the tune. I took an arranging class at a conservatory and learning there how to harmonize lines as if for a sax section has been valuable as well. Whatever means you have to accumulate enough theoretical terminology to communicate with other musicians is what I recommend-be able to describe chord movements by function or number, that seems to be the main thing, understanding the harmonized scales and the chord patterns they suggest.
I was just going to list all the mandolin players who've influenced what I do, then I realized it's ALL OF THEM. I love them all and wouldn't want to leave anyone out. If anyone wants to know I guess I'd give that a try..
Q - Thanks Don, you're illuminating some of Jethro's picking for me. Those fast four finger chord changes are too hard for my fingers, so what else can you tell us about his single note style? Any suggested tunes to try?
A - Yes indeed. Tunes with nice flowing melody that Jethro liked to play include Slipped Disc(Benny Goodman) Tico-Tico, Stumbling, Little Rock Getaway, the aforementioned Fiddleobia, and his own tunes like Flickin' My Pick or Flaky which are contained in Ken Eidson's books for Mel Bay. Any of these will open up new techniques especially in the area of getting your eighth notes to swing and flow. That seems to be the hallmark of his single note style-everything seems to be leaning forward a bit!
For improvising single note lines, you absolutely must hear PLAYING IT STRAIGHT and IT AIN'T NECESSARILY SQUARE by Homer and Jethro-their instrumental albums on RCA. I call these the mandolin player's Holy Grail.
In terms of technique, think light and relaxed. Keeping your pick hand closed should help, although the man himself could be seen with loose fingers on the right hand.
More tunes come to mind: Tennessee Rag (East Tennesee Blues, AKA/ Kelly Boy Rag) Beaumont Rag, Dill Pickle Rag, That's A-Plenty.
Q - Any chance of a teaching video sometime in the future?
A - I get asked about that frequently. I'd love to do one, please feel free to mention it to your favorite instructional video company.
I am currently working on a CD-book package I'd like to call Favorite Tunes and Licks to Play on Them. The idea being sample choruses on familiar tunes, things you can actually play rather than discussion of improvisational concepts.
For the video I'd have to lose lots of weight because I hear the camera adds ten pounds...it could be a while! What would you like to see covered in a project like that? I was thinking of one day trying to show some grips for swing rhythm and a couple chord melody tunes, then just play with my band and have transcriptions there of what happened...???
Q - I've heard you're working on a recording project with John
Carlini--could you tell us about that (and any other upcoming projects on disc)? How didyou get together with Carlini?Is there any prospect of instructional material (book and /or DVD) emanating from northern Illinois?
A - In my previous answer I mention the happy news that John's new CD should be out soon, I think on the FGM (Flatpicking Guitar Magazine) label, and called "The Game's Afoot".
John, Pat Cloud and I all met at IBMA in Louisville, two years ago now I think. We all shared a common friend, Butch Baldassari, who kept saying "You guys gotta jam". My brother John was also nudging us, having been exposed to Pat's banjo playing in California and noticing that the three of us have similar stylistic leanings. So we did get together and played and had one of those beautiful "so where have you guys been?" sort of experiences. Thanks Butch and John S! And thanks John Carlini, who persevered about gigs and recording and most of all for writing stacks of great tunes that we can sink our teeth into, so to speak. In fact one is called "Blues Al Dente.."
As far as instructional things, as I mentioned to Alan just now I'd like to do all those things: a new CD for my label Blue Night Records, an instructional CD-book, and someday the video. So stay tuned please and be sure to let me know what you'd like to see/hear on any of those projects.
I know it's going to be a good year to do these things, a real good mandolin year- Already we've seen mandolin on network TV the other night as the Dixie Chicks and Nickel Creek took Grammys home. The only thing that might slow me up on all these projects is, as I mentioned early on- THE CUBS ARE GOING ALL THE WAY THIS YEAR! I can't wait to go to NYC and see the look on Maestro Carlini's face when we beat the Yankees.
No one has stopped me yet and this is still too much fun.
Q - You mention hearing Benny Goodman in swing mandolin. To me
that woudl be the ultimate - being able to play like a really good, swinging
dixieland orj azz clarinet player. But it's frustrating, because I can't
always make the transition from what I hear on those recordings to what I
hear in my head when it's time to improvise. Any recommendations on
listening material that could help me train my ear, and subsequently train my
figers, to swing? (BTW, I have a treasured videotape of a TV show you once
did with Jethro, Chet Atkins, Steve Goodman & Jethro's son. Does that ever
show up on TV? Are there any more?)
A - You may be the type of player who has more success getting started towards improvising buy writing or memorizing a prepared solo. That way what you hear in your head will definitely come out. It may not be improvising, but it can stil be jazz, still swing, and may lead to having a light bulb go off about getting the spontaneous stuff going. I was floored when I heard that great artists like Jack Teagarden, Bobby Hackett and yes even Pops Armstrong would use prepared solos, which they called "routines". They were so visible they did not want to leave too much to chance and risk disappointing their fans, so apparently at leasst some of their solos were "worked out" - a heavy precedent.
Another old trick to help the swing feel is to practice with the metronome set to click on beats two and four of every bar, like where you snap your fingers along with a tune, or like a jazz hi-hat closing.
Q - Could you recommend some of the Jamey Aebersold material, any books in particular? There's just such a large amount of stuff he has out there, I don't know where to start!
Also, if I'm swinging (no pun intended) through Chicago sometime, can I stop in for a lesson? Where?
A - I haven't worked through much of the Aebersold material, but they seem to be organized in a couple ways. If you know your scales, chords, arpeggios you could go right to a collection of tunes. These are usually grouped by composer or artist or composer, say Cannonball Adderley or Antonio Carlos Jobim. I'm partial to those Jobim tunes, as they have every type of tonality ( major, minor, augmented, diminished, half-diminished..) IN EACH TUNE! Or so it seems. And mellow tempos too.
There are also collections of commonly played standards, that may be the one if you need to prepare material for jam sessions.
As far as lessons, contact me at my website donstiernberg.com I've already met with people from L.A. and Providence R.I. This whole internet thing is almost as cool as the mandolin itself. Almost.
Q - Can you tell us about playing w/ Steve Goodman, also a unique, funny musician, and Steve's relationship with Jethro?
A - Of course I'm happy to talk about Goodman. I've been very fortunate in my years as a musician to meet some of the all-time greats. Steve is one of those in many ways.Of course "City of New Orleans" is an American Standard, people will be playing it and listening to it long after we're gone. He was also an incredible entertainer, and his sense of humor and ability to draw the strength to perform, inform, and entertain while battling a lethal disease is awe inspiring.
Jethro's son Johnny is a killer guitar player, really got the Burns magic in his hands. He was playing with John Prine and Steve Goodman back in the the time when Chicago was a hotbed of singer-songwriter activity. Besides those two we had Michael Smith, Al Day, Mike Jordan, Harry Waller, the Holstein brothers-thanks to Goodman and Prine, for a while there everyone who wanted to write songs came to Chicago. Anyway Johnny took Jethro to a show and Jethro was so taken with Steve's abilities that he told him afterwards"if you ever need a mandolin player, call me".
The legend I've heard is that Goodman couldn't believe it and called the next day and had things verified-by Jethro's wife! You see Homer had tragically passed, and Jethro was at loose ends somewhat. Also remember that Jethro was the main writer of the Homer and Jethro material, and I think he saw quite a bit of himself in Goodman-a clever writer, fearless entertainer, great picker...
So Goodman took Jethro on the road, put him on the records, and even was kind enough to have Jethro's band open shows for him around Chicago, which is where I got to meet him. Jethro as a result found a new audience and was rejuvenated not only by working again but by the camaraderie. Steve treated him like a king and who wouldn't? And of course they were both baseball fans, so road trips often incorporated the essential trip to the ballpark.
One time there was a show at Harper College here in Chicagoland, Jethro Burns Quartet opening for Steve Goodman...that in itself is interesting as four musicians "opened" for two--a big band could be on before Steve, it wouldn't matter, his act would not be overpowered by any act. Anyway Steve wanted me to come back out at the end of his set and sing tenor on Bill Monroe's "Love Come Home" , which we had been fooling with in the dressing room. You can imagine the thrill for me, playing a song by one of my heroes in the company of two more of my heroes..."just lean over and sing harmony in my mic" Steve says. So i go and do as I'm told, walking right into a comic bit, because Steve was so short! He looked up at me and got laughs a couple times, then finally tore the place up by crouching down and singing into the guitar mic. While he's down there he looks up again, crouching now like a baseball catcher, and says "one's a fastball, two's a curve..."
Steve really loved the mandolin and was a champion of many great artists he encountered. He had a Flatiron mandola and wrote a beautiful tune called "If Jethro Were Here", I think it's on his "Affordable Art" record. I asked him about his mandola playing and he said the mandola was " a songwriter's friend", something that broke him out of his guitar based thinking and inspired new things. He gave me permission to record "If Jethro were Here" and I hope I can pull that off someday-it's a neat pentatonic melody with a bridge that has a 5-sharp5-6-b7 voice movement, great for blowing over. Steve also had Marty Stuart play on "When My Rowboat comes In", another typically poignant Goodman masterpiece. And he brought attention to Martin, Bogan and Armstrong, the great blues and standards string band. Jazz violinist Johnny Frigo played on Steve's records too.
When I think about Steve's relationship with Jethro, I keep coming back to the idea that they were both great writers. Listen to Talk Backwards or Vegematic or Dying Cub Fan's Last Request, and then to some Homer and Jethro parody stuff, and you'll see what I mean. They must have felt like they "went to different schools together".
Here was a guy who used to go fishing with Hank Williams, hanging with the guy who wrote "City of New Orleans". Beautiful. And Jethro really appreciated that Steve respected him enough as an artist to hire him and get him out in front of big crowds and a whole new set of people.
A very moving evening for me was the Tribute to Steve Goodman Concert at Arie Crown Theatre in Chicago. This became a record which won the folk Grammy I think. I was really proud to be there in Jethro's band. It was great to see first hand the power of music, how one man's abiliities as a musician, writer, and entertainer could shape and enrich the lives of so many others.
Another thing may give insight into these two extraordinary personalities. On the back of one of his LP's Steve was thanking the side musicians in the usual way:
Marty Stuart appears courtesy of such and such record company, the Whites appear courtesy such and such company, and then..Jethro Burns APPEARS TO BE GETTING YOUNGER.
Steve guested on Jethro's PBS TV special "Jethro and friends." It turned out to be his last TV appearance if I'm not mistaken. Their rapport is clearly illustrated in the performance. I mention the show because I got to witness an exciting thing. Steve had started writing a tune on the airplane. He finished it with minimal guidance from Jethro in the green room, then they played it on the show. The audience was floored by "Hot Tub Refugee", so Steve recorded it shortly thereafter. That spontaneous creativity was inspiring.
I'm really glad some of the recorded work of these two great artists is available for study and enjoyment. Thanks, Wilson, for having me ponder my encounters with Jethro and Steve. What a blessing to have known them!
Q - THANKS,DON! And I know I'm not doing this correctly; but I wanted to ask Don S. if he could tell about the time when Jethro was signing autographs;and then he(Jethro) mentioned that Don would not be signing autographs;but would do something else for the folks...
A - Yes Jethro liked to tease me unmercifully on stage...he would say" People ask me for my autograph, I give it to 'em...they ask Donny, he gives them a lock of his hair!"....I've been bald since I was about 19. It's always good to have a bald guy in the band, especially for the comedy part of the show...
Another one was his "Dueling Banjos" routine. Can you believe people would ask us for that? And Rocky Top. Here's a group with two mandolins, rhythm guitar, and bass playing jazz- Dueling Banjos or Rocky Top, anyone? Well Jethro was so graceful, he'd do those requests! He didn't mind, he was there to keep everyone happy. On Dueling Banjos, he'd play a phrase and I had to follow him. Invariably he'd wind up playing something only he could play, stopping long enough to say.."that's the trouble with you, Donny, and all these young mandolin guys-you are looking for it, and I HAVE FOUND IT!"
Once at a shopping mall an elderly lady came back to say hello to Jethro. 'Jethro, it's been so long since you were on TV, and you still look great-how old are you?" she asked...
"I'm 84 years old!" he said without hesitation. Now she turned to me-"and this must be your son. That's so nice that you let him work with you, how old is he?
"He's sixty-four" says Jethro with a big grin and courtesy wink to me. I was in my early twenties at the time, Jethro would have been in his fifties. She bought the whole thing...
Another good one was when he would single one of us out after doing something like a missed intro or harmony, or maybe even a good solo- he'd look up to the sky and cross himself as if to say " help me through this"
The greatest ones for me though I can't repeat-just for a laugh he'd whisper things right in your ear during a solo. This would cause the whole band to crack up, followed ultimately by the lines...
"Now folks you may be wondering why we're laughing like this. It's not that anything is funny up here. Just the idea of grown men making a living like this"
I hope you can see my group play sometime-there aren't many locks of hair left to give, but I will sign an autograph, and many of Jethro's lines still bring a laugh, at least to the band for sure and often the audience as well. Sorry, no Dueling Banjos, though...
Q - What are some of your favorite current mandolin players? Who do you like
among the young, up and coming players?
A - Well Glenn as I mentioned I admire so many players, it's safer to answer by saying "all of them", but let's go into some detail for fun...
As far as young guys go, I'd have to start with Donny Stiernberg. He's only 47, so by the time he's in his 60's he might be something...
seriously, now! Take two:
One young player you'll hear more and more from is Josh Williams, now playing mandolin with Special Consensus. Josh is very talented as a singer and multi-instrumentalist and I hope he stays on the mandolin. He's focused on bluegrass, is a fine musician all around, and has that " I grew up with this, there's nothing to it" soul and ease in his delivery. Just ask J.D. Crowe.
Of course finding out what Chris Thile does next will be fun too. Watching Chris develop his personal style and bring more and more people to the mandolin has been a real thrill. I love how he explores all the possibilities of the instrument. That open mind of his has already had a big impact on how we all think about the mandolin, and he's been out there for only a relatively short period of time! Once Chris invited me to a jam session at IBMA I think, including some like minded cohorts like Luke Bulla, Casey Driessen and Sean Watkins. I felt like someone had let me into the Mensa meeting by mistake...
I have many students that I'm proud of. Some you may hear about include Aaron Weinstein, a great swing and jazz fiddler who doubles on the mandolin, and Matt Danaher. Aaron has found time between high school classes to play in New York with the Pizarrellis and Frank Vignola. Matt and his next door neighbor Katy Bern have been going to contests. They're so good I had no choice but to have them play at one of my shows. All of this music is in good hands, folks!
When I went to Bozeman a few months ago to play a concert with the Montana Mandolin Society, one of their young players impressed me, Megan Waldum. She's been studying there with Craig Hall, who is a really fine guitar-mando-bass man...on a break they played a Paul Glasse tune. Wish I could do that!
Do you know who one of the best Jethro style players is? Carlo Aonzo, the classical virtuoso! He has Jethro's books by Ken Eidson down cold, and has a real love of the stuff. Plays bluegrass too, and the act with Beppe is not to be missed. When they play "O Mio Babbino Caro" it's almost too much for me...
There are tons of great players, so many that I should write down names of people I meet and hear. Alan Bibey is a terrific player, so precise-you can tell he digs Herschel Sizemore and Jethro. Emory Lester I admire for finding his own path, coming up with fresh sounds. I'll never forget an all night jam session with David Harvey, he taught me lots of things and turned me on to Andy Statman, another of my heroes. They say you're supposed to be able to play anything you hear, and Andy seems to be the one cat for whom that's a reality.
A funny thing happened when I heard Ronnie McCoury live for the first time. David Grisman was having his birthday bash and I was lucky enough to be there working on Jethro's CD. What a party band David hired-Del and the Boys! We stood in the wings and shrugged our shoulders, that's how great they were--nothing to say! I went home and ordered a whole box of "Ronnie McCoury" strings, trying to emulate that big sound any way I could. I didn't realize they were quite heavier than the guage my old fingers can handle! Had to take 'em off and share them with stronger players...I love Ronnie's gutsy style. I also dig Adam Steffey, he hits it hard too, and somehow manages to sound perfect in the style even when playing his own original jazzy or modern licks.
I've always been impressed by all around, multi-styled, complete musicians. I'm thinking now of Barry Mitterhoff, John Reischman, and Butch Baldassarri. Choro, klezmer, bluegrass, classical, originals, small group, big group, written music or aural tradition-these guys can do any of it.
Hey do you know who a great jazz mandolin player is? Scott Tichenor, your host at Mandolin Cafe. We talked about taking a page from David's book and doing "jazz mandolin extravaganza" after some fun jams with Don Julin. Paul Glasse and Will Patton, are you listening? We're listening to you, man! Gary Palsmeier in Kansas is a five string electric player more people should hear. Radim Zenkl likes the jazz too as does Chris Thile, who despite his "tender" age sings some standards with soul and finesse. I know, I had to mention that too, didn't I??
I do have to mention some guys who will always be "current". David Grisman, Sam Bush, Johnny Gimble. I'm so lucky to live here in the center of the country and have a chance to get to know these guys, and I'm grateful to them for their trailblazing and words of encouragement.
I also wouldn't be doing what I'm doing if I hadn't heard Larry Rice. And Doyle Lawson. And Jimmy Gaudreau.
What about Aubrey Haney? Wow. He's a young guy. And I heard that break by Andy Leftwich on Ricky Skaggs record-didn't know whether to laugh or cry! No, I'm kidding- it really is a thrill how new players keep coming along, and how there are so many terrific stylists in general. We haven't talked about Tim O'Brien, Mike Compton, Evan Marshall--and what became of Matt Mundy of the Aquarium Rescue Unit?
All original players with unique styles, I love it!
Tom Rozum. Bob Applebaum. Wayne Benson. Peter Ostroushko. Mike Marshall. Joe Craven. Bruce Graybill. Tony Williamson. I sure don't mean to leave anyone out, or make this seem like a list or contest. What a great time to be a mandolin player, so many terrific players--my respect and gratitude to them all.
Q - Don, your enthusiasm for the mandolin and the music is so inspiring. I better get offline and go practice....
The CGOW idea is terrific, many kudos to all of you who thought of it and figured out how to make it work. What a body of writing is being collected here; it's such a great resource for players at many levels.
A - I agree that CGOW is a great idea. I have enjoyed myself, perhaps a little too much. Thanks for your kind words and I hope that some of my ramblings can be useful to folks there, or at least that the exchange of ideas has the same effect that it has had on me- I've been inspired to keep trying to play and make sense out of the mandolin. What other instrument can you play for 30 years and still be as excited as when you started?
A - Remember the first question when I mentioned Jethro suggesting I
develop my own style? That suggestion actually surfaced in the form of a question to
me at the bar after a show in Sheboygan Wisconsin. At the time I played a red
two point Gibson A-5....you guessed it-trying to be just like Jethro. So he asked"Did
you ever think about getting a different mandolin?" I was stunned initially,
then caught on to what he was saying. Soon the search began. Jethro had been
to New York with Steve Goodman and met John Monteleone I believe--at any rate
he was impressed by his work. I called David Grisman who also spoke highly of
John and gave me his number.
We got acquainted on the phone and he was kind enough to lend me a mandolin to try, he also really listened to what I was interested in getting from the instrument.
I ordered the Grand Artist not only to get away from the oval hole Gibson Jethro sound but also because I've always played and loved bluegrass also and the Grand Artist I have has worked well in that context as well. It's always inspiring to work with people who are extremely good at what they do, and John is decidedly in that category. I've played this mandolin for more than 20 years. Why do I like it so much?
The neck is very comfortable. I've played a lot and have tendonitis, so that comfy factor gets more important each year. Also the instrument has a unique sustain.
Part of the lifelong pursuit of an original style for me involves going for a singing sound, and the way the notes last on this instrument helps a lot.
Other mandos I have owned? Chronologically that would be a Montgomery Wards Airline, the Gibson A-50 given to me by my neighbor Etta Mae Rowland ( I still have that), a 1918 or 19 Gibson F4, and a Givens A5, the kind Tut Taylor sold for a while from Nashville. Man I wish I still had that- we opened for Doc Watson one time and he heard it and said "that boy's got a Loar"!
In more recent times I found a need for playing amplified. I didn't want to attach any goo-ga to the Monteleone. I was at Winfield one year and got acquainted with Nugget mandolins- I think I saw six or eight of them there. Dawn Watson let me try hers as did Dave McCarty, while Tim O'brien was right there on stage getting a great amplified sound. So I got my nerve up and called Mike Kemnitzer. He was amenable to building an instrument with an L.R. Baggs pickup in the bridge. By this time Jethro had passed and somehow Mike's two point design made me feel a little closer to my hero, particularly with it's red sunburst finish.
I feel blessed to have both of these mandolins, and yes I use different mandolins in different situations. The Nugget goes out on shows where there's a drummer or when I need to go direct into the P.A. or amp. The Monteleone is used in the studio for all manner of sessions and shows that are "purely acoustic".
Sometimes I'll use the Nugget with banjo players. This past year I was playing and recording with John Carlini, who plugs in for live shows. I could only bring one mandolin so we used the Nugget in the studio too and things turned out quite well I feel.
Want to hear something funny? I've been on studio projects where I would "meticulously" choose different mandolins for different tracks. Then I get home and listen to the mixes, and I can't tell the difference! I suppose that's good, I'd like to be able to get my sound from whatever mandolin. David Grisman is like that, Jimmy Gaudreau, you know those players who sound great whatever they're playing-that's what I'm working toward.
I don't mean this to sound like an ad, but I can't say enough about John Monteleone and Mike Kemnitzer. As artists and gentlemen they are as good as it gets!
A few weeks ago I was asked to play "Italian" style mandolin for a play here in Chicago--the underscoring was recorded, luckily--I probably wouldn't have done the job had it meant going to the pit every night. Anyway I used a 1923 A3 that a friend gave me a few years back. It suggests the sound of a bowlback a little better I guess- the producers chose it over the contemporary mandolins.
I know this is getting long but I also have a five string electric mandolin- The Paul Glasse model by Mike Stevens. I had previously owned a Roberts Tiny Moore model which I got right from Tiny. What a terrific guy, Tiny! I love playing electric mandolin. Paul and I have wanted to record together for years and years, hope to get that together one day. And yes Stevens is another of that special breed...
Do other mandolins give me MAS? Well sure, I'm no different. It seems now is such a great time to be a mandolin player, there are so many great builders. I love checking them all out, but it still seems to boil down to specific mandolins-they're kind of like snowflakes, even mandolins built by one luthier have unique voices.
A models can sound as good as F models, a mandolin doesn't have to be any certain brand or price to sound great..
And lest we forget, thou shalt not covet they neighbor's mandolin! I used to think the two best mandolins on the planet were Jethro's "Red" and Sam Bush's "Hoss".
Both of those heroes were kind enough to let me try their mandolins, and-you guessed it--I couldn't make them sound like anything!
I'll close by saying again how lucky I am to have nice tools to work with.