A conversation about mandolin playing
Chris Emerson is an eclectic mandolin player who is developing his own blend of bluegrass, acoustic music and jazz. A serious student of music, Chris taught himself to play by studying and listening to such mandolinists as David Grisman, Bill Monroe, and Matt Mundy. He is also familiar with other genres of music including jazz, classical, celtic and rock, and this is evident in his playing. Chris is a founding member, with Ty Bennett, of the new-acoustic group, Candlewyck. They have a CD coming out early in 2001 which includes guests such as John Cowan, Don Rigsby, Russell Moore and Terry Baucom.
You can find out more about Chris Emerson and Candlewyck, and hear some tracks from the CD, at the Votive Records website.
Chris Nelson, of Votive Records, has kindly contributed the following interview with Chris Emerson, conducted by telephone.
Early influences on your playing
My influences have not changed much over the years. I still draw a lot of inspiration from non-mandolin music such as jazz and progressive rock. As far as mandolin players go, I have always studied such mandolinists as David Grisman, Mike Marshall, Sam Bush and John Reischman. I cannot deny the major impact that Bill Monroe has had on all mandolin players.
How did you start? Who taught you? What instrument did you start on?
After very bad attempts at guitar, a friend gave me an old mandolin and that was it!
Stylistic influences. Monroe? Osborne? McReynolds? Grisman?
This is a tough question to answer. All of these great players have influenced me to some degree. I have always tried to get the Adam Steffey/Chris Thile tone. I love the linear approach mastered by Shawn Lane and Alan Bibey. I have always loved the Sam Bush and Jimmy Gaudreau approach to rhythm.
Did you find it easy to learn? What difficulties did you come up against?
Another tough one! Well every day is a learning process when you take something seriously. Other than the usual technical challenges, I find it very important to concentrate on the science part of music. By this, I mean music theory. I feel that to be a complete musician one must strive to have theory, technique and emotion. To achieve this is very difficult and makes learning tough but rewarding.
Any particular situations where you have learned something new?
Any time I am in the same room with a mandolin I try to learn something new. This means playing or watching/listening to someone else.
Role of the mandolin in a band. Playing with other musicians.
The role of the mandolin (like every instrument) is to complement the song and the other players. This means knowing where to play and where not to.
Who do you listen to now? Mandolin players? Other bands?
This changes daily but in my tape deck now are Evan Marshall, Dave Apollon, Peter Ostroushko, Rush, Michael Hedges, Steve Morse, Steve Perry and Jacob Pastorius.
What instrument and setup do you use?
Acoustic - 1990 Gibson F-5
Electric - Mandoblaster, Mandocaster
I have all of these set up by Carl Mcintyre.
How would you describe your style of playing?
I really try to play as clean as possible. What technique I use is always dictated by the part I am trying to play. Sometimes I alternate pick but for the most part I try to economy pick as much as possible. I have been experimenting a lot with artificial harmonics and more recently a finger style approach to get a classical/polyphonic feel. Here again I must say that playing what the song needs is most important!
How and when do you practise?
The great violinist Niccolo Paganini once said that he did not practise at all but he played a lot! I would say that this is true for me also. For the past two years, I have been working on the Candlewyck project. Working in the studio demands a lot out of you and so my chops have had to be in shape through simply playing.
What recommendations do you have for learners?
If you are just starting out you need to be open to learning and criticism. But the most important thing is to keep an open mind and take it seriously. Remember that there is a lot to learn and the best players are always expanding their knowledge. I have always said that if you want to be the best you have to listen to the best. So from day one you need to listen to all kinds of music and mandolin players.