Saturday, January 9, 2021

Tony Rice June 8th 1951 to December 25th 2020 - A Guitar Legend.


Tony Rice 1951 - 2020
Tony Rice passed away suddenly on Christmas morning this year at his home in Reidsville, North Carolina. He was pouring a cup of coffee, and then in the blink of an eye he was gone. In my opinion Tony Rice was indeed the most significant guitarist and flat-picker to come out of Bluegrass music. 

I cannot say enough regarding his influence on not just Bluegrass guitar players, but on Jazz guitar  players, acoustic guitar players, and all flat-picking guitarists. 

Tony and Larry Rice 
 Town Hall Party
Tony Rice was born in Virginia, but at an early age his family moved to Los Angeles. It was there that his father introduced Tony and his three brothers to Bluegrass Music. By age nine Tony was playing guitar and singing. When Tony was a child there was a popular radio show in Southern California called "Town Hall Party."  

His father got in touch with the show’s producer and asked if his son could come on the show and sing a song. The answer was "Yes." Before the show, the acts were behind the building rehearsing. That was where young Tony met “The Country Boys”; a group that included Clarence and Roland White. 

Clarence was 16 at the time the boys met and he was playing an old Martin. Rice didn’t know much about guitars and asked if that guitar was a D-18. Clarence told him it was a Martin D-28. Rice was fascinated with the guitar and the sound it emitted. 

During that era there were only two Bluegrass bands in the Los Angeles area, The Country Boys, and a band Rice’s father put together called The Golden State Boys. At this time there was also a revival of Folk music. Folk music also impacted the young Tony Rice. 

The Country Boys went on to become a more well know band called the Kentucky Colonels.  Eventually Clarence White then got more involved with the electric guitar and joined Roger McGuinn in a renewed version of The Byrds. Tony Rice maintained his interest in Bluegrass music and he became a well known artist in his own right.

By 1970 Rice moved to Louisville, Kentucky to join J.D. Crowe And The New South, a group that was known as being one of the best and most progressive Bluegrass bands. By 1974 Ricky Scaggs had joined the band as the mandolin player. 

David Grissman Quintet
Rice then met up eclectic mandolin player David Grisman who was working on some original material that blended Jazz, Bluegrass, and Classical styles. Being interested in expanding his style, Rice left the New South to join The David Grisman Quintet. 

In order to broaden his expertise Rice began studying chord theory, learned to read music, and studied Jazz guitar with Jazz guitarist John Carlini. 

The Bluegrass Album Band

In 1980 Rice, J.D.Crowe, Bobby Hicks, Doyle Lawson, and Todd Phillips started a group called The Bluegrass Album Band, which recorded from 1980 through 1996. 

The Tony Rice Unit

It was during this period Rice started The Tony Rice Unit, which included mandolin player Jimmy Gaurdreau, Tony’s brother Wyatt on guitar, Ronnie Simpkins on bass and his brother Rickie Simpkins on fiddle. Alison Krauss played fiddle in the group for a brief period, as did Alison Brown. 

Rice also had joined another group with mandolin player David (Dawg) Grisman. But by 1979 Rice left Grisman's group to record Acoustics, a jazz-inspired album, and then another album called Manzanita which was a bluegrass and folk album. 

A similar combination was evident on Cold on the Shoulder, Native American, and Me & My Guitar, albums which combined bluegrass, jazzy guitar work, and the songwriting of Ian Tyson, Joni Mitchell, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Bob Dylan, and Gordon Lightfoot. 

Scaggs and Rice

Around 1980 Tony Rice recorded an album of Bluegrass duets with Ricky Scaggs (Skaggs & Rice). At the time he also recorded with guitarist Norman Blake in a group that included Tony’s brothers Larry, Wyatt, and Ronnie. 

By 1984 Tony Rice recorded four albums with banjo player Béla Fleck as well as touring with him. 

The Pizza Tapes

By 1993 Rice joined David Grisman and Jerry Garcia to record The Pizza Tapes, a unique recording that feature historical vintage mandolins and guitars on each track. 

The following year he recorded “Clawgrass Mark Johnson and The Rice Brothers.” 

In 1995 he recorded a duet album with guitarist John Carlini. By 1997 Rice and his brother Larry founded what was called “The Anti-Supergroup” with mandolin player Chris Hillman, and banjo player Herb Pedersen. 

Tony Rice with Peter Rowan
and Billy Bright

Around 2000 Tony Rice formed a group with guitarist/songwriter Peter Rowan and mandolin player Billy Bright.  

Tony Rice had a distinctive baritone singing voice. In 1994 he was diagnosed with a disorder known as muscle tension dysphonia and as a result was forced to stop singing in live performance. 

A 2014 diagnosis of lateral epicondylitis ("tennis elbow") made guitar playing painful and Rice's last performance playing guitar live was his induction into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame in 2013. 

Tony Rice - 2013
In 2015, Rice was quoted as saying "I am not going to go back out into the public eye until I can be the musician that I was, where I left off or better. I have been blessed with a very devout audience all these years, and I am certainly not going to let anybody down."

"I am not going to risk going out there and performing in front of people again until I can entertain them in a way that takes away from them the rigors and the dust, the bumps in the road of everyday life." 

There has been a lot written about Tony Rice's 1935 Martin D-28, but allow me to mention a little about this incredible instrument. 

Tony Rice - Martin D-28

Serial # 58957 was built on January 3rd of 1935, one of the snowiest days of that year. Due to orders for new rosewood bodied guitars workmen were called into the Nazareth Pennsylvania plant on that day. This guitar was built that day. 

The neck was penciled with the serial number, and the neck block with stamped with D-28 and the serial number 58957. 

From there no one is sure what happened until 1959 when it was purchased by Roland and Clarence White. The young boys and their father, Eric, routinely shopped Los Angeles music stores and pawn shops looking for pre-war Martin herringbone guitars which were available at the time for $70 and less. Their objective was to fix them up and sell them at a modest profit. They purchased  #58957 for a mere $25. The guitar had seen better days. 

Martin #58957
The White brothers took the unstrung guitar home, hoping their father could bring it back to life, but the minute he cast an eye on the ratty-looking D-28, the elder White declared it a hopeless cause. The previous owner had used a knife and carved sound hole away to the centermost rosette rings, leaving an opening almost 4 5/8” in diameter. (At the time this was considered tragic, but ultimately it lead to the guitars unique and loud sound. Eventually Martin offered this option.) 

Clarence White with #58957
The original fingerboard was missing entirely, temporarily replaced with an ebony board that was held to the neck with tape. The pickguard was peeling away from the top. 

After their father declared that he could not repair the guitar,  the Whites brought it to luthier Milt Owen, who would eventually gain fame as Hollywood’s “guru of guitar repair” for his work at Barney Kessel’s shop. 

Owen’s prognosis was more encouraging than that of the boys’ father. 

Nothing could be done about the sound hole, of course, but he rooted through his parts bin and came up with a fingerboard that fit well enough: a white, plastic-bound Gretsch blank with 22 frets, the spacing of which was based on a scale almost the same as that of a Martin dreadnought. The boys were dismayed to hear that the repair would cost as much as they’d paid for the guitar; $25.00.

A week later, they retrieved their D-28, which was now sporting a set of light-gauge strings and sounding very much as it should. Before they left, Owen cautioned the young pickers against using heavy-gauge strings, lest they “belly it up” and render the guitar unplayable–which is what they did anyway, of course. 

Clarence White with Martin D-18 
There were other guitars in the White family’s arsenal of instruments, such as the 1952 Martin D-18 that dad bought new from a Los Angeles piano store.  But in spite of its motley appearance and the steadily rising string height, the D-28 herringbone became Clarence’s and, became his iconic instrument for many years.

Then in 1960, 9 year old Tony Rice spotted that guitar backstage at The Town Hall Party radio show, where he had been invited to perform. 

Clarence White with 58957
Replaced Neck
He recalls “I saw that old D-28, and it didn’t have a name on the headstock, so I asked, ‘What kind of a guitar is that?’ and Clarence said, ‘It’s a Martin.’ I’d never seen one like that. I thought all dreadnoughts were D-18s! So I asked, ‘Is that a D-18?’ He said, ‘No, that’s a D-28.’ I’d never heard of a D-28. The only thing I knew was that it looked like hell but it sounded like a million bucks to a 9-year-old kid!” 

Clarence White let the Tony play the herringbone for as long as he wished. “The action was so high it was almost impossible,” Rice said.  

Ironically, as Clarence White’s reputation grew, but he used the D-28 less and less often because of his growing frustration with its declining playability. The D-28’s sad condition may have led to the dumbest of all dumb-kid stunts: the day Clarence leaned the guitar against a tree outside his home and shot it with a pellet gun. The guitar bears the scar to this day. 

In fact, the herringbone was rarely out of danger. After a Kentucky Colonels gig in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Clarence accidentally ran over both of his Martins while at the wheel of the group’s van. The D-18 was much worse off than the D-28 – which suffered only a side crack or two–and since the Colonels were on their way to Ann Arbor, Michigan, they brought both guitars to repairman extraordinaire Herb David, who worked day and night to put them back into service. According to Roland White, Clarence liked the sound of the D-18 better after the mishap: “He said it had more sustain!”

Then in 1965, Clarence White and the D-28 parted company. At the time. here weren’t enough paying gigs for bluegrass bands in Southern California.  Clarence didn’t want to move, partly because he’d just gotten married. 

There was also new opportunities for session players–at least session players who had electric guitars. In order to raise enough cash to purchase a Fender Telecaster he purchased from Don Rich, and  pay for a honeymoon,  Clarence used the herringbone as collateral for a loan from an acquaintance named Joe Miller. That loan was never repaid.

Tony Rice with Martin D-28

One day in 1975, Rice and his bass player Bobby Slone got to talking about Clarence White. “Bobby told me the story of why Clarence had given the herringbone up to Joe Miller,” Rice remembers.

 “And he started telling me more and more about Joe Miller and who he was. He used to play football for UCLA. His family owned a chain of liquor stores in Pasadena…. “And I began to think: I’d never met the guy, but Joe Miller just might be willing to let this thing go. Here’s where it gets really, really weird: I’m living in Kentucky at the time and I get on the phone and I call information for Pasadena, California, for a listing for Miller’s Liquor. And they go, ‘Yeah, we got about 20 of ‘em. Which one you want?’” Rice rolls his eyes and laughs ruefully at the memory. “I said, ‘Give me the first one on there.’ So I called that first number and I said, ‘I’m looking for Joe Miller.’ The guy said, ‘No, Joe ain’t here now–but he’ll be back in about two hours.’ I called back and I talked to him. I said, ‘Joe, this is Tony Rice… Do you know who I am?’ He said that he did. I asked him if he had Clarence’s guitar, and he said, ‘Yes, I sure do. It’s been under my bed for nine years. Hasn’t been touched.’ I said, ‘Would you consider getting rid of it?’ He said, ‘Yeah – to you, I would.’ “This was in ’75,” Rice continues. “So here I’m thinking, Joe Miller knows what he’s got. I’m going to have to go down to a bank and talk a banker into loaning me some enormous amount of money, thousands and thousands, to get this guitar.” 

Sure enough, its owner insisted on having the Martin appraised by a professional before he’d name his price. Rice agreed to the plan, and the two men arranged to speak on the phone the next day. 

That afternoon, Miller brought the Martin to a nearby violin shop, which, as it turned out, was also the last place Clarence had it worked on. The man at the violin shop suggested that it was worth less than one might have expected, given its present state. 

According to Rice, “Joe Miller called back and said, ‘I’ll take five or six hundred bucks for it.’ I said, ‘Tell you what: I’ll split the difference. I’ll give you 550.’ He said, ‘You’ve got it.’ 

"The next day I was on a plane bound for L.A.” A luthier friend let Rice borrow his new Mark Leaf case to carry the guitar back, and the transaction took place at LAX airport. “I kept waiting to wake up,” Rice says with a smile. “For days I was thinking, ‘It couldn’t possibly have been this easy.’” 

Buying the legendary herringbone proved easier than playing it, at least at first. “It had action like a Dobro,” Rice laughs. “Although, I did a session the day I got it. It was just a coincidence. 

Grisman and Rice
 (Note old pickguard
David Grisman was in L.A. doing a session, playing on James Taylor’s Gorilla album, on the day when I got the guitar. So Grisman came to the airport and got me and took me over to the studio. I had just picked the guitar up an hour ago!

 “I opened the case and started fooling around with it, even though the action was like that.” 

Rice says, spreading his thumb and forefinger a half an inch apart.

“And Kate and Anna McGarrigle were there, doing this album for Warner Bros. I was out in the hall of the studio, tinkering around, just diggin’ on the tone. But Grisman and the producer came out to hear me tinkerin’ around with it, and said, ‘Hey, man, we’ve got to have you on this stuff! We’ve got to have you play on a couple of these tracks!’ And I thought, ‘Well, OK, but this is the only instrument I’ve got.’ Then Grisman chimed in, ‘Hey, man, it worked for Clarence. Get in there and do it!’” 

As far as anyone knows, 58957’s neck has been removed only once: by luthier Randy Wood, who did a reset soon after Tony Rice bought the guitar. As sometimes happens, the action began to creep back up within a year or two of the reset–by which time Rice was living in California and working with David Grisman. 

Martin #58957
Another member of the Quintet, violinist Darol Anger, introduced Rice to Richard Hoover, Anger’s erstwhile partner (along with David Morse) in a mandolin-building venture. When he was still working as a luthier, Anger had reinforced the worn-out maple bridge plate on Rice’s herringbone with a thin ebony overlay that remains in place to this day.

Among other things, Hoover performed what Rice refers to as a “tweak reset.” 

“Today, I wouldn’t dream of doing that without removing the neck,” Hoover says. “But at the time I did it, the body of knowledge was much more limited. In fact, at that time, there were very few people who even understood the problem, let alone how to fix it. 

Back then, Martin was still taking the frets out, planing the fingerboard, shaving the bridge… trying to create the geometry to get proper playability. And what I did was something I learned from violin building. The technique was called slipping the back, wherein the binding was pulled back a bit, the back was separated from the neck block and then, with a harness, you pulled the neck into the proper angle–then reglued the back onto the block, trimmed the excess and put the binding back on. 

“It’s horrifying to think about this now, on such a priceless guitar,” Hoover adds with a laugh. “But at the time, it wasn’t a priceless guitar: It was a really stinky, modified old Martin! It hadn’t gained its fame-osity yet!” 

Santa Cruz replica
In 1976, Richard Hoover co-founded the Santa Cruz Guitar Company and went on to create various incarnations of Tony Rice’s other famous guitar. (A brand new custom dreadnought is in the works, using wood from the same reserve that was tapped for the SCGC guitar Rice has used for the past seven years.) Prior to that, 
Hoover performed a few other repairs on 58957. 

Crack on lower bout 
“We replaced the nut, which I think is still there,” he recalls, “and there was a crack in the lower bout, on the right-hand side as you face the guitar, that I fixed for him. And we did a partial refret–which also is rarely done nowadays–and refretted, probably, the first five to seven frets.” Hoover adds that they installed the frets using the traditional hammer-in method. 

“A lot of my approach to repair work, even at that time, came from my training in art and museum restoration: Don’t do anything that can’t be redone later with better technology. So it’s unlikely that we would use any glue.” 

In all, some of the best names in lutherie and acoustic music have been associated with the famous D-28. The bridge pins, modeled after Clarence White’s own, were made by builder Ervin Somogyi. 

When a new bridge was needed, the late Mike Longworth of C.F. Martin hand-selected a new old-stock blank, and the famed luthier and author Hideo Kamimoto installed it–and did a literally seamless job of filling the existing saddle slot with ebony, then cutting a new one that allowed more precise intonation. 

Tony Rice #58957
Friend and fellow musician Todd Phillips added black position markers to the white binding on the bass side of the fretboard. (Interestingly, he followed the old-time convention of putting a dot at the 10th fret, rather than the ninth.) 

Harry Sparks of Cincinnati (who worked on my own 1890's Harwood guitar) made one of the most important contributions of all, howsoever quietly. In March of 1993, Tony and his wife Pam Rice were living in Crystal River, Florida, not just near the water but right at the water’s edge, when a tropical storm slammed into the Gulf Coast. 

They were awakened in the middle of the night by emergency personnel who insisted they evacuate immediately, without so much as a moment to gather up personal belongings. 

When the sun rose a few hours later, Rice begged a neighbor to retrieve the Martin from his flooded home. That memory is enough to change the tone of the conversation: 

“Yeah. Crystal River, Florida. It was under water for at least an hour and a half, totally submerged. More like two hours. In the case. But the case wasn’t waterproof. So it was totally saturated. And it was really messed up. And it didn’t sound like itself for five years, at least.

 “Harry Sparks came down from Cincinnati and took it under his wing. Slowly dried it out. You couldn’t just, like, stick it in an oven; you had to slowly dry it out or you’d run the risk of cracks–which did happen anyway. It cracked in several places on the back. Most of the bracing in it came loose–the back bracing.” 

Snuffy Smith
Rice’s mood brightens, however, when he recalls the services of luthier and friend Snuffy Smith, who lives about 45 minutes away from him in King, North Carolina. “I knew there wasn’t a damn thing that was happening to the D-28 that couldn’t be fixed,” Rice says. 

“And then, a few years ago, Snuffy reglued all the internal back bracing and a couple of top braces.” Snuffy Smith, for his part, remembers how grateful Rice was to have the herringbone restored to its former glory. “He called me up after the fact,” Smith says, “and said he couldn’t play it in the basement any more: He was afraid it would crack the foundation down there! Regluing the braces really helped the volume of it.” 

Rice himself enjoys pointing out another of Snuffy Smith’s recent triumphs. 

"If you look carefully, the tuning machine for the sixth string looks different from the others, suggesting that it was replaced at one point. Also, the finish surrounding the third string tuner indicates that it was replaced as well." 

Tony Rice #58957
“The oddball one, Snuffy and I put together as a quick fix, about four or five months ago,” Rice says. “The story with the machines is that they’re original, except for one that was on there when Clarence had it, which was a Kluson–he had a closed-back Kluson as the third string gear. “After I got the guitar, it was still on there, and Frank Ford, out in Palo Alto, provided me a third string tuner he found as a replacement that was identical to the original. So Frank Ford put the third on." 

"Then, about four or five months ago, the sixth string tuner–the low E–finally gave out. The worm gear and the pinion were just stripped out. Snuffy found an old Grover handle and worm gear assembly, so he constructed a new tuning gear out of parts. It kinda works!” 

For his part, Snuffy Smith says that the work is never really done on a guitar such as this one: “We’re eternally doing something; it’s almost a never-ending thing…. Fortunately, Tony has had some good people work on it. That makes it a lot easier for me.” 

#58957 With Tortoise
Shell Pickguard
The next project? Rice points to the tortoiseshell-colored pickguard that a fan gave him during a 1985 tour of Japan. It’s remarkably beautiful; its lines suggest movement, even when the guitar is perfectly still. “I’m going to have it taken off and re-put on,” he says. “The guy that put it on used to work for Martin. 

I was living in Florida at the time. He did a fairly good job, but it could be better. That pickguard needs to be taken off, thinned down and put back on.” 

The guitar is now kept in a carbon fiber case with its plain leather strap laid over the fretboard.  

Tony Rice leaves behind his wife Pam, and his daughter India, and lots of memories from his many fans, and those of us that learned so much by listening to him and studying his technique.

Click on the links under the pictures for sources. Click on links in the text for further information.
©UniqueGuitar Publications 2021 (text only)

1 comment:

glazz said...

Another Great one Mark thanks!