Tony Rice And His Famous 1935 Martin D-28 Guitar

Tony Rice

Tony Rice, Clarence White, And That Famous D-28 Guitar

In the world at large, there is a serious lack of musical integrity.  There are manufactured "stars" who can't play any sort of instrument, only sing songs written by corporate music execs for them to sing; and only do that while looking lascivious for the camera.  Oh I could name dozens of the sorts of pop stars I'm thinking of, and you could too.  Luckily for humanity's future, only the era of throw away stars and throw away pop will be remembered, as most corporate consumer music is single use and discard except in the instances of trivia.

If one ventures any distance from corporate radio and intentional dimwit drivel which never ceases emanating from a television set, then one might by chance encounter serious music, the kind of music one makes because they desperately love music, and seemingly must make music as their core inner being demands it of them.  Guitarist David Anthony (Tony) Rice is that sort of musician.  Tony Rice can't be said to be a household name; and it is probably true that the average metal or rock guitarist isn't familiar with Tony's music at all; but Tony Rice is to flatpicking guitarists something like what Tiger Woods is to modern golfers. 

Tony was born the 8th day of June in the year 1951, in Danville, Virginia; but he spent his childhood in Los Angeles, California.  Tony's father had been a semi-professional Bluegrass musician, and had spent considerable time teaching his interested sons about music, and musicianship.  While in California the Rice family was able to run in the same circles as other prominent acoustic musicians.  Tony would meet and befriend Clarence White, a brilliant guitarist of both bluegrass and rock and roll music, who'd die tragically young.

That Clarence White had a big influence on Tony Rice and his music goes without question.  It's not mere chance that Tony owns Clarence's old 1935 Martin D-28 guitar; and it's no surprise that several of the best guitar manufacturers in the USA make their own very expensive reproductions of the specific and heavily modified D-28 guitar in question.  The reproductions of the guitar are sometimes known as Tony Rice models, and sometimes known as Clarence White models. Tony's famous guitar might be the single most desired acoustic instrument in the world that isn't a Stradivarius violin.

Some might call it heresy.  Some might suffer for having their notions squashed.  Others will rejoice.  The facts of the matter are that in more recent years, Tony Rice has come to prefer one specific guitar made for him over the legendary Martin instrument[1].  Of course it is one of the several Tony Rice Professional models designed for him by the Santa Cruz Guitar Company, and designed to be as similar to the Martin instrument (the 1935 D-28 which used to belong to Clarence White is heavily modified) as possible.  It was bound to happen, of course, after many years of back and forth with the luthiers at the SCGC, they were bound to eventually come up with an instrument Tony would prefer to one he'd played seemingly without ceasing over the years.

David Grisman, Tony Rice, and Jerry Garcia

Grisman, Rice, and Garcia

The Music Of Tony Rice

Bluegrass music was originally just traditional Scot or Irish fiddle tune style music, and incorporating a five string banjo, and some high tenor vocals along with rhythm guitar, mandolin, fiddle, and a big stand up acoustic bass.  The guitar wasn't much thought of as anything but a rhythm instrument in the context of trans-Atlantic fiddle music in Appalachia.  Over time what was known as "G runs," and other bits of licks were incorporated into the music provided by the guitarist, and nowadays if you hear one, it sounds very cliché.

Don't get me wrong here, playing great rhythm guitar, and keeping in time with some banjo or fiddle, or mandolin guy with an adrenalin rush at super fast tempos isn't easy; but originally that was all the guitars were used for in folk, Celtic, bluegrass, and country music.  Doc Watson, the legendary blind guitarist from North Carolina was the person most responsible for taking the big dreadnought guitar, and deciding to use the thing for something other than just playing rhythm, or fingerpicking some country blues.  While Tony Rice being compared to Clarence White is natural; it's also well to note here that Tony Rice, like Doc Watson, is a guy who had a triple attack, he could sing, and he could play with the best of the best in the fields of lead, or soloing, and rhythm too.  Had?  Well, probably anyone who's made it this far in this piece already knows; Tony Rice can no longer sing due to some injury to his vocal cords.

In 1974 Tony Rice joined J.D. Crow & The New South, as guitarist and lead vocalist, and the band recorded the album with the band's name as its title.  While J.D. Crow's band always featured some of the best and brightest musicians in the Bluegrass genre, this particular lineup was special for also featuring Ricky Skaggs on mandolin.  The album, produced by Rounder Records, would become the best selling item they'd ever had.  Tony Rice brought not just his terrific guitar skills, but his unique and beautiful vocals to the mix.  While the album could mostly be considered "traditional," it was also truly "progressive" in that Tony didn't pursue the "high lonesome" vocal stylings of people such as Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, or Jimmy Martin.

Bluegrass music is absolutely unique to the United States of America.  It's a form of music based on fiddle tunes from the British Isles, but the instrumentation, and now most of the music itself; are uniquely American.  Of course Bluegrass music is appreciated and played all over the world; and though Tony Rice has dedicated a large portion of his adulthood and career to traditional Bluegrass music, he's also spent as much or more time expanding it, and breaking from it altogether.

A Candid Discussion and Demonstration With Tony Rice

Playing Style

Of course Tony Rice can play very very fast.  That's hardly what makes him such a special guitarist.  Playing Bluegrass instrumentals with mandolin, fiddle, or banjo players is forever going to be a very strenuous thing for the flatpicking guitarist; as the guitar has a wider neck, and six strings to move across in hopes of maintaining the tempo.  I should lay out right here for anyone who might have not realized it, playing fast on a steel string acoustic guitar strung with medium gauge strings is far far harder than it is playing at the same speed on a Stratocaster or something.

Tony Rice's guitar playing, insofar as one can tell, is flawless.  You simply never hear him make a mistake, and every single note is loud, clear, and has such a beautiful, bell like tone-that it is hard to imagine how someone could ever execute such things so cleanly.  What he does, and the reason he's so often thought of as the logical continuation of Clarence White; is he plays really wild, unexpected things, and he manipulates time in the context of any tune with complex syncopation.

Tony went from the J.D. Crow band to doing solo work with the very best side-men in the genre; and he expanded what was thought of as Bluegrass, or folk music by often covering tunes by artists outside of Bluegrass.  Persons such as Gordon Lightfoot, Bob Dylan, and James Taylor come to mind.  Collaborations with Norman Blake were treasured by guitarists.  Tony has recorded solo albums, many albums with The Bluegrass Album Band, albums with The Tony Rice Unit, and of course, the albums with the David Grisman Quintet.

When I was younger, and even now whenever I'd get into playing my guitars regularly, I would think of this guy as the absolute "god" of playing an acoustic guitar with a pick.  Oh Tony Rice isn't truly famous.  I'd say most people who dabble with guitar don't even know who he is.  It's no fault, but a credit to Tony he's forever taken his talents and used them purely to do what he's wanted to do, and not into the so typical notion that "making the most money possible is the best possible thing."

When Tony Rice met David Grisman in the 1970's, a new and American form of music became more attractive, and better.  Some call it "Dawg" music, as Dawg is Grisman's nickname, others called it "spacegrass."  What it is, is jazz played on bluegrass instrumentation. This form of music isn't commercial, and it isn't something one expects to become "popular."  It is intellectual music somewhat reminiscent of the music of Django Reinhardt, and The Hot Club of France.  Grisman and Rice mirrored Reinhardt and Grappelli in a way.

In his years of being a dedicated musician, Tony Rice has developed a rare thing, he's instantly recognizable when you hear him, and totally unique.  I'll be very interested to hear what he plays in the future; as he does nothing unless it is done to the highest standards.  Thanks for reading.

The David Grisman Quartet, With Tony Rice