Mike Marshall’s Super Psycho Strings

By the time you get to this level of musicianship, anything is possible. Mandolin whiz Mike Marshall has recorded, toured, and traded amazing licks with some of the world’s most renowned acoustic instrumentalists. In fact, he is one of the world’s most renowned acoustic instrumentalists. Collecting top honors at the Florida State Fiddle and Mandolin Championships at age 18 was only his opening statement. Afterwards, a one-time jam session led to a five-year stint with the David Grisman Quintet. From there, Marshall has been a member of some of the most important and experimental groups in bluegrass, including New Grange, Montreux, and the Modern Mandolin Quartet.

Today, Marshall splits his time between a variety of projects, such as touring with Nickel Creek’s mandolin wunderkind Chris Thile and recreating traditional Brazilian folk music with his own Mike Marshall & Choro Famoso. He also checks in every few years with the bluegrass-based supergroup Psychograss, which he put together in 1993 with a handful of other monster players, all destined for the Bluegrass Hall of Fame. That roster includes fiddler Darol Anger, bassist Todd Phillips, flatpicker David Grier, and Tony Trischka on banjo.

The latest release from Psychograss, Now Hear This [Adventure Music], brilliantly blends a slew of influences, including jazz, world beat, folk, classical, and American pop. This is not only a great example of the current state of the art of string music—it probably represents a good deal of its future as well.

Just getting the members of Psychograss together to record must have been difficult.

Yeah, but that was part of the fun. We tried and tried to make schedules work, and finally I said, “Let’s just do it. Let’s book the time, everybody show up with a couple of tunes, and something will happen.” And sure enough it did. It was a delight to open up each person’s musical piece and see what developed.

Do you play guitar as well as mandolin?

I play all the strings. I grew up in the typical bluegrass way, where you play all the instruments a little bit, but you tend to focus on one a little more.

What drew you to the mandolin?

It just seemed like the instrument that had the most potential. It hadn’t really been explored to the extent that the guitar had.

What have you learned from the mandolin that has affected the way you play guitar?

Because it’s symmetrically tuned, you have a lot more freedom than you do on the guitar. On the mandolin, you don’t need to know what string you’re on, because the interval you’re looking for is always going to be in the same relationship. On guitar, that B string is going to throw everything off. Adapting mandolin parts to the guitar forces you to play things that aren’t necessarily natural and it does wonders for your technique! It really developed my right hand and my tremolo.

When you’re on stage with Psychograss, or any of the other projects you tour with, is there any friendly competition going on? Are you all trying to outdo each other?

No, there’s none of that. I’ve played with some of the best players in the world my whole life. I’m really comfortable with the idea of working with somebody who, at any moment, might just play something that is absolutely going to take your head off. But in all the projects I’m in, the players want that to happen. We’re encouraging each other to push it all the way to the edge. We’re all super secure in ourselves and what we’ve done. We’ve all got like 30 albums under our belts, so no one has anything to prove. I’m always happy when we’re all just kickin’ ass!