David Grisman Talks About His Undying Acoustic Devotion

“I’m an acoustic guy through and through,” says the mando man who has done as much as anyone to expand the unplugged audience over the past half century.
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“I’m an acoustic guy through and through,” says the mando man who has done as much as anyone to expand the unplugged audience over the past half century. Via his past collaborations with psychedelic rock icons the Grateful Dead and his current duo with bluegrass legend Del McCoury, David Grisman continues to bring new fans into the fold. His collection of kick-ass guitar collaborations with Jerry Garcia and Tony Rice to Frank Vignola, Martin Taylor, and current Grisman’s Sextet member George Cole is practically as extensive as his massive stock of mandolins. Dubbed “Dawg” by Garcia, Grisman was even instrumental to the appeal of the original Frets magazine that we now honor each month in GP. “I wrote 88 columns for Frets,” he says.

Grisman founded the Acoustic Disc label in 1990, and he has an extensive music-download site called Acoustic Oasis. He’s always involved in a million studio projects and releases oodles of gig material, but The David Grisman Sextet is his first disc of original compositions in a decade. True to Dawg’s nature, it roams freely from bluegrass to jazz—sometimes within the same tune, or even the same lick. Furthermore, fans can experience five decades of friendship with McCoury come to life on the vivacious new double-disc set, Del & Dawg Live!

You’ve lived the mandolin life for ages. What’s the biggest difference in the acoustic music scene compared to when you got started, and what remains the same?

I was living in Greenwich Village, studying English at NYU in the middle of the ’60s folk scare. My interest in mandolin playing arose from my interest in bluegrass music, and I was encouraged and inspired by my mentor and friend, Ralph Rinzler. I explored all the available styles and artists through their recordings, and mostly obscure literature related to the instrument. I was able to hear and meet many of the great players from Bill Monroe to Jesse McReynolds—the inventor of crosspicking. He’s 87 now, and I’m working on a project with him. The big difference in today’s scene is the internet, and the enormous growth that even the “small” acoustic world has experienced over the past half century. What remains the same for me is my passion for music—especially in a historical sense.

What do you consider to be the major technological breakthroughs in the modern era of mandolin manufacturing?

There have been no major technological breakthroughs in mandolin building since the early 1920s, when manufacturers such as Gibson and Lyon & Healy developed the carved top and back. These mandolins are still favored by most players in this country today. Builders including Stephen Gilchrist, John Monteleone, Mike Kemnitzer, and Corrado Giacomel have refined that concept to create fine mandolins today, but I still like the old ones. The wood has seasoned, matured, and adjusted to life as a musical conveyance here on planet earth.

Can you describe your relationships with mandolin makers Giacomel and Eastman?

I represent Corrado Giacomel in the United States. He is a wonderfully innovative mandolin builder from Genoa, Italy, that I met ten years ago. His J5 model is perhaps the most unique contemporary design that has positive sonic and visual attributes. Eastman produces the Dawg Collection—three replicas of instruments in my collection, including the Giacomel. I still mostly play my 1922 Gibson F5, named “Crusher” by Stephen Gilchrist. It’s on both of my new CDs. Having said that, I love playing many different mandolins. I produced four projects—three Tone Poems, and also Tone Poets—showcasing many different instruments and players, proving that although the car is important, it’s really the driver that counts.

Are you still stringing up with D’Addario’s EJ74 set, gauged .011 to .040?

Exactly. I helped design that set around 40 years ago, and they still work the best for me.

How did you arrive at the particular shape, thickness, and material for your signature Dawg picks?

The current Dawg picks have been around for a decade or so, and are made by D’Andrea. I like the contour, which is thicker and more rounded than most picks. I especially like the beveling. For many years, I experimented with all sizes, shapes, thicknesses, and materials. I used to use tortoiseshell picks, which are certainly durable, but I have found D’Andrea’s material to be a bit less harsh, so I’m no longer trying to duplicate the tortoise sound.

There has been significant progress in the area of acoustic amplification, but I don’t notice electronics on any of your stuff.

As the song sort of goes, “There Ain’t No Plugs On Me!” As a collector, I do own some electric mandolins made by Gibson, Fender, and Bigsby, but I rarely use them. I use Neumann KM 84s in the studio, as well as in performance with my Sextet and Bluegrass Experience. On duo gigs with Del McCoury, we use one Miktek C2 microphone for both of us—instruments and voices—with no monitors.

Can you please detail the recording process of the Sextet sessions?

I usually use two KM 84s in a stereo pattern. We recorded the Sextet live in a pair of three-day spurts at Jeff Martin’s Studio E in Sebastopol, California. George Marsh’s drums were in a booth, and Jim Kerwin played bass on a platform next to it. The room is an old barn, and we were positioned in a rather large circle. Flutist Matt Eakle and fiddle player Chad Manning stood next to each other about ten feet across from myself and guitarist George Cole. There were baffles between us and the other players.

The first tune on The David Grisman Sextet is “Bells Of Camoglia,” and it starts with what I suppose is your interpretation of actual bells?

The piece had its genesis in Camoglia, which is a small town on the Italian Riviera. My wife Tracy and I were visiting a wonderful guitarist friend named Beppe Gambetta and his wife, Federica. I was sitting on the beach playing my mandolin when church bells started ringing. I tried to accompany them in the key of F# minor, and I formulated the tune from that experience.

“The Purple Grotto” features some nice trills in the intro, and then heads into a sort of Duke Ellington-style jazz rag.

That one is the kind of jazz tune that reminds me of my good friend, the late [radio personality and musician] Al “Jazzbeaux” Collins. Check him out.

“Slinky” features some hip chromatics in the main riff.

That riff took me about five years to write. Sometimes, a simple idea takes that long to realize. It’s tribute to the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, who I heard several times at the Apollo Theater while I was a student at NYU in the mid 1960s.

That riff would make Jerry Garcia smile.

Jerry was so soulful. He was also a musical explorer and a great improviser. We had a great rapport, and we appreciated many of the same kinds of tunes, players, and styles. Our relationship was as comfortable as it was inspiring. One amazing thing about Jerry was that he had the same sound whether he was playing electric or acoustic. He had the touch.

Notes seem to leap out of your instrument on “Dawg’s Bounce.” How did you achieve that pronounced articulation where each note is almost three-dimensional?

I used a Bacon banjo mandolin on that number. It has a very unique, insinuating tonality—which I found particularly well suited to an old-time, ragtime piece.

You clearly wrote “Del & Dawg” with Del McCoury in mind. What’s unique about playing with Del on guitar?

Del is perhaps the greatest living bluegrass rhythm guitarist on the planet. His ever-solid backup provides a fantastic foundation, which inspires ideas, and creates an incredible groove that continues to propel me to wonderful bluegrass places. We’re simply having fun with an idiom we’ve loved over the course of many decades. Del and I played our first two gigs together in 1966, so we actually have been collaborating for 50 years!

You’re over 70 years old now, and still killing it on fast bluegrass passages. What’s your pre-gig ritual?

Well, hopefully it will be legal soon.

Who do you feel is pushing the mandolin’s boundaries these days, and who is tearing up the traditional trip?

First, some of the great mandolin players who inspired me are Bill Monroe, Jesse McReynolds, Jethro Burns, Tiny Moore, Dave Apollon, and Jacob do Bandolim. Fabulous players pushing the envelope today include Andy Statman, Mike Marshall, Chris Thile, and Hamilton de Holanda from Brazil. Ronnie McCoury and Mike Compton are holding down the bluegrass tradition. For jazz, it’s Don Stiernberg. For [Brazilian] choro, it’s Danilo Brito, and for classical, we have Carlo Aonzo, Caterina Lichtenberg, and Chris Acquavella. There are many more. I’m surrounded!

Dawg Pack (from left to right)—George Cole with a 1934 Martin 000-28, George Marsh, David Grisman with his 1922 Gibson Lloyd Loar F5 mandolin “Crusher,” Jim Kerwin, Matt Eakle, Chad Manning.


“I taught guitar to Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong for ten years, and I also taught bassist Mike Dirnt a little bit,” says Berkeley, California, resident George Cole. “I’m super proud of them, and I love their music. I was an electric guitarist until I saw Biréli Lagrène at Yoshi’s about 13 years ago. I was overwhelmed, weeping, and wondering. The guy was so great that the next day I sold all my electric gear, and bought a 1933 Selmer guitar with serial number 103—which was very likely played in Django Reinhardt’s original Quintette du Hot Club de France.

“I embarked on the journey of becoming an acoustic musician, and I eventually opened a show at the Freight & Salvage for the David Grisman Sextet. His label folks offered me a deal on Acoustic Disc/Acoustic Oasis. About a month later, I accepted a gig with Dawg, but once I started listening to what Tony Rice was doing on songs such as “16/16”—where he creates an incredible fusion of jazz and bluegrass—I nearly backed out. Instead, I knuckled down, and I learned a bunch of Grisman’s tunes. It was a complete revelation then, but now I’m proud to be a Dawg music scholar with a complete understanding about the timeline of great guitarists preceding me. Dawg is a great mentor and resource. The bluegrass scene can be intimidating, but I’m soaking up the music and the culture like a sponge.”