Bluegrass Guitar Bluegrass Music

Happy 100th Birthday, Doc Watson!

On March 3rd, it was Doc Watson’s 100th birthday. The man left us in 2012, but his amazing legacy has remained with us since then, and with the bluegrass community having such young amazing guitarists as Billy Strings and Molly Tuttle, Doc’s influence will continue for years to come.

His story is legendary, so I’ll keep it short. You can find a biography on Doc on dozens of internet sources.. Born in 1923 in Stony Fork, North Carolina, his family was full of old-time musicians and singers. He became blind at a very early age, but still learned to handle farm chores as well as learned a number of musical instruments.

His forte, of course, was guitar. He started out professionally playing country and rockabilly guitar with a band in Johnson City, Tennessee. Folklorist Ralph Rinzler discovered him and recorded an album of Doc playing fiddle tunes on acoustic guitar for Folkways Records in 1961. It was the start of a 50-year career as a folk guitar icon.

There isn’t a bluegrass guitarist that hasn’t been influenced by Doc. Clarence White, Tony Rice, Norman Blake, Dan Crary, the list goes on. Each generation of bluegrass guitarists have no problem naming Doc as a favorite influence. Every one of them has at least one Doc Watson album. Even though he never considered himself a bluegrass guitarist, but bluegrass bands held his work in high esteem. When he toured with his son Merle, his grandson Richard, or Jack Lawrence, the duo would often headline festivals that had A-list bluegrass bands.

He loved playing with other musicians, always claiming that he continually learned form jamming with others. A beautiful moment can be found on Gather at the River: A Bluegrass Celebration. Doc jams with a young Michael Cleveland, with bluegrass musicians Tim O’Brien, Pete Wernick, and Dan Crary looking on. It is a magical moment in the bluegrass world.

There are two albums that never leave my playlist. The first is Doc Watson’s self-titled 1964 release. Raw and minimal, it is how Doc sounded best, just his voice and guitar working together. The other album is Blake & Rice 2. Doc performs on three songs with Norman and Tony that is simple wizardry.

Finally, there was the great performance called Three Pickers, in which Doc performed with Ricky Skaggs and Earl Scruggs. While each performer has a solo or band set, it is when the three of them are together that the best music is laid down. I still love watching the DVD, but here it is on YouTube.

Happy birthday, Doc! I know that you are up there making the Good Lord smile.

Chew on it and comment.

Acoustic Guitars Bluegrass Guitar

Yamaha Acoustic Guitars: The Poor Man’s Martin

First off, it was 20 years ago today that the US experienced one of its greatest tragedies. We lost thousands of citizens, the Twin Towers completely disappeared within a few hours, the Pentagon saw heavy damage, and a few dozen ordinary citizens became heroes losing their lives by fighting terrorists and crashing an airplane into a Pennsylvania field instead of the White House. I can remember it like it was yesterday, and it hurts a bit every time that I think about that day. For a few months afterward, we became a true united country. No democrats or republicans, just Americans working together. Let us never forget.

Last year in some earlier blogs, I was talking about the positive aspects of Glarry acoustic guitars and how they would make great beginner guitars, especially for the price. At the time, you could secure a new one directly from Glarry for about $50.00. The price seemed to go up a few dollars with each passing month, to the point now that the GT-502 Dreadnought Cutaway Acoustic is selling for $90.00. While it is still a good guitar, at that price, you may be able to shop around and find a quality used guitar that is much more durable and sounds better.

The Glarry acoustics just don’t have that look about them that makes you want to show up at a jam session with one, even as a beginner. You want to have an acoustic guitar that looks like a true dreadnought. While a Martin D-28 and its sisters are the standard for folk and bluegrass guitarists, new models cost at least $500 for the X series (which do not have that great of a reputation as far as volume or tone), around $1,200 for the made-in-Mexico Road series and 15 series, $1,600 for the 16-17 series, and the Standard series starting at about $2,500 for a D-18 (if you can find one). Don’t even get started with the prices of Limited Edition, Modern Deluxe, and Authentic series models. Used models vary in price, but not by much, due to Martin having a great reputation that the guitars age really well and the company stands by their work.

There are also a number of boutique brands like Collings and Bourgeois that cost even more, and some competitive brands such as Taylor and Guild that float around the same prices as Martin, although they are not as popular tone-wise. Face it, as a bluegrass guitar, Martin is the first choice by many.

Generally, Martins have gone up in price over the past decade or so, even with the lower-end models. My first Martin was a DXM model (which they don’t make any more) that I purchased online with gig bag for $300. It was good, but did not have the true Martin tone. Fortunately, I was able to sell it a few years later for the same price so that I could purchase my current Martin, a used 1981 D-28, which I have had for about 10 years now.

But back to what I am writing this blog about. What about the person that has less than $200 but still wants a decent dreadnought guitar that plays well and has a decent tone? My recommendation is the Yamaha series of acoustic guitars. There is a reason that Yamaha has been around in the music industry for over 50 years. They put out quality products for affordable pricing. We are talking about instruments across the board. Plenty of drummers use Yamaha drums as their regular kit. The DX-7 is a standard with keyboardists. I have had a Yamaha electric bass in my arsenal once and sold it for what I paid for.

A great beginner acoustic guitar is the Yamaha F-325. This is the model sold in the US, while in Europe and Asia the same model is called the F-310, with the only difference being the pickguard (F-310 = black, F-325 = tortoise pattern). This is a standard dreadnought size, with an easy-playing neck and a great full tone. These can usually be purchased for about $170 new. Online dealers like Sweetwater sell a package called GigMaker which includes a F-325 with a gig bag, tuner, and other accessories under $200.

Out of the box, these are set up really well. Mind you, they will not be as good tone-wise or heft-wise as a Martin D-28. They are lighter than your average dreadnought and, due to a laminated top, there’s a little less bottom end to the tone. Also, these models have rosewood fretboards, compared to high-end acoustics that usually have ebony fretboards (which give a more deeper tone when fretted). However, as a quality beginner bluegrass rhythm guitar, the F-325 is well worth it. I know of a few Martin players that have a Yamaha as a backup guitar. Yamaha does produce many other models, but all are more than reasonably priced as new.

As the F-325/F-310 was made for beginners, there are a lot of them out there that were purchased for aspiring youngsters only to be put into a closet when the student lost interest. This can be rewarding to you as the buyer. My winter pastime of working on instruments led me to scout around Craigslist and eBay for some good buys. I have snagged three of these models (two F-325’s, one F-310) used for around $100 each. Only one requires some body work (whoever owned it actually put a few small holes into the backside, either by drill or BB gun), but the other two are pretty solid. I plan to work on getting the tone a bit better with each of them through some basic modifications, which I will cover of the next few months here.

In the meantime, if you can get one of these guitars for a good price, say, $120 or less used, I would recommend at least trying it out. I leave you with a comparison of a Yamaha F-310 versus a Martin D-35 video from YouTube. It is a bit long, but you get the idea. The Martin has a better deep tone, but there is a difference between $200 and $3,200.

Chew on it and comment.

Bluegrass Guitar Coronavirus Musical Instruments

Tidbits #3: Shure – Part 2, Mandolin Straps, Bluegrass Rhythm Guitar, etc.

A few more ramblin’ thoughts for this week.

For some reason, maybe due to my ordering of the fake Shure SM58 microphone a few weeks ago from, I received another microphone in the mail that didn’t cost me anything. This one is labeled a Beta 87a, but it definitely is not a Shure Beta 87a! It came in the same packaging as the SM58, with a faux leather zipper carrying bag, mic clip, cable tie and owner’s manual. Just by looking at the body of the mic, with the poor attempt at engraving the Shure label, one could tell that this was a fake. However, the big giveaway that it was not a true Shure Beta 87a was plugging it in. The 87a is supposed to be a condenser mic, which requires a phantom power of at least 24 volts to operate properly. This fake Shure mic had a dynamic element in it, so it worked without power, and sounded like a dynamic mic. Granted, I got this for free somehow, but true Shure Beta 87a mics list for about $250.00. has these advertised for under $30.00. Use common sense when ordering something like this. If you see a Beta 87a under $200.00 new, it is most likely a fake. Unfortunately, some jerks are getting away with selling the fake ones as real. Do yourself a favor if you want a true Shure mic – buy it from a reputable dealer.

Besides doing some lutherie work, I have also been making braided mandolin straps during the pandemic. I learned to braid from a friend a few years ago, and usually while I am resting up in the evening and watching TV, I like to be a bit industrious by making straps. I started making leather guitar straps a few years back when I was gifted a bunch of nice-sized leather hide pieces. Once that ran out, I started using the leftover scraps and some laces to make mandolin straps. I make them for both A and F models, most are black with a different color ends, but I am making a few pink, blue and green ones. If interested, contact me here and I’ll email you some prices.

This past week I started working on my bluegrass rhythm guitar playing. Man, am I out of shape, musically! Seriously, I forgot how much of a job it is to keep good timing, proper strumming, and make a G run that doesn’t sound lousy, all at the same time! Since I haven’t worked with any band for a number of years, I have used the guitar almost exclusively for songwriting and recording with myself playing all instruments. Now that I’m practicing along with some jam tracks, I recognize what I’ve forgotten and let drift away from my rhythm technique. Lester Flatt and Jimmy Martin knew how important a rhythm guitar was to a bluegrass band, and as phenomenal of a lead player that he was, Tony Rice always stressed the importance of rhythm, and his was like a metronome. Speaking of a metronome, that is what I will be working with for a while.

Well, it looks like the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America (SPBGMA) has cancelled this year’s Nashville Convention, which is usually scheduled for the last weekend of January. Yes, it is due to COVID-19, but they are setting the date for 2022 to be January 27-30. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

One positive note is that the 47th annual Kentucky State Fiddle Championship is scheduled to happen March 20 at the Bluegrass Hall of Fame and Museum in Owensboro. With what little has been available, I am SO tempted to make the trek! Go to for more information.

Chew on it and comment.

Bluegrass Guitar Bluegrass Music

Tony Rice RIP

I received the tragic news last night that, on Christmas day, the world lost one of the greatest acoustic guitarists that the industry has ever known. Tony Rice was 69 years old, influenced thousands of artists, and truly defined the role of bluegrass guitar in bluegrass music.

There were others who played the guitar as a lead instrument before Tony. Bill Napier and George Shuffler performed crosspicking on guitar with The Stanley Brothers. Doc Watson gave acoustic lead guitar notice. Clarence White placed lead guitar into a bluegrass band setting. Dan Crary highlighted the bluegrass lead guitarist persona. However, it was Tony Rice that not only defined the role, he gave it an image, and that image was badass cool!

Unlike those before him, who were reproducing fiddle or mandolin lines on acoustic guitar, Tony was creating guitar lines that stood out on their own. There was a lot of pop, rock, and jazz influence in his bluegrass picking, which knocked a lot of traditionalists on their butts, whether they liked it or not. And while he performed in many different bands, one could tell from the first three or four notes that it was a Tony Rice lead.

There are plenty of albums that one could listen to in order to truly understand Toney’s playing. His signature work is definitely Manzanita, which showcases his guitar in a slightly progressive bluegrass setting. To hear what he was initially trying to get across with guitar as a true bluegrass workhorse, secure a copy of the debut self-titled album by J.D. Crowe and the New South on Rounder Records, affectionately known in the bluegrass fold by its issue number, “0044.” In his later years, he did two fantastic guitar-centric bluegrass albums with Peter Rowan as the Rowan & Rice Quartet. He also joined up with a number of other bluegrass stars to record a bunch of albums under the moniker The Bluegrass Album Band. Of course, anything under his own band The Tony Rice Unit should be considered.

While many bluegrassers cite his duet album Skaggs & Rice (with Ricky Skaggs) as his best work with bluegrass guitar and Monroe Brothers style of singing, I prefer the two albums he recorded with Norman Blake. Blake & Rice has some of the best textbook examples of bluegrass guitar lead work, and Blake & Rice 2 should be grabbed if only for the three songs that include Doc Watson performing to create bluegrass guitar powerhouse.

He was also a fantastic soulful baritone singer in the bluegrass vein. His work with Bluegrass Alliance and The New South atone to this. He was an avid fan of Gordon Lightfoot, and recorded many of the folksinger’s songs, either solo or with his family band The Rice Brothers. In 1994 he was diagnosed with muscle tension dysphonia, which put an end to his singing. In an interview I did with him in the early 2000’s, he talked about it, and said that if he were forced to lose one of his two talents, he would rather it be his voice. At his induction into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame in 2013, he lamented on this, and provided a promising result to therapy on his vocal work.

(watch at around 11:30)

He continued to play guitar with Rowan, as well as with Alison Krauss & Union Station and other bands that paid tribute to his work. In 2014, he developed lateral epicondylitis (tennis elbow) which made guitar playing painful. He decided to go into retirement until he could come back and perform as he used to. Unfortunately, that did not come about. However, we are blessed to have so many recordings of his amazing six-string work, and his sound and style will live on through so many young guitarists that were influenced by Tony, whether they realize it or not. You can definitely hear his work in the performing of Billy Strings, Molly Tuttle, Josh Williams, Chris Eldridge, and so many others. One of my favorite photographs of him is when he is in a room with Bill Monroe and he has Monroe play on the famous Clarence White Martin D-28.

If you have any doubts, get on YouTube and search out Tony Rice videos. You will not be disappointed.

Tony, I am truly glad that I got to meet you and speak with you on a few occasions regarding bluegrass guitar and music. You are now with the Angel Band. Take it easy on them with your licks.

Chew on it and comment.