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Tony Rice: King of the Flat Pick

The Legendary Tony Rice

Welcome To The Stage

Tony Rice is a household name among fans of acoustic music. If you are an acoustic guitarist, it is hard to escape Tony’s monumental influence as a guitarist whether you realize it or not. His contributions extend far beyond his home in bluegrass music.

Born in 1951 in Danville, Virginia, his father Herb Rice soon moved the family to California. It was there that Tony formed a strong friendship with Clarence White of The Byrds. White brought a fresh perspective to bluegrass music, inspiring the coined term “New Grass” and influencing Tony’s playing heavily that combined his virtuosic flat-picking skills with new flavors of sound.

Let’s take a look at what has made Tony Rice a guitar icon among the bluegrass community and what he did to help put bluegrass music back on the map.

No Limits

Tony didn’t just limit himself to only traditional bluegrass tunes. He was also heavily inspired by jazz manouche and rock music. His project, The Tony Rice Unit, demonstrates the iconic jazz manouche influence wholeheartedly.

It was in the 1970’s that Tony moved to Kentucky and helped form one of the most influential bluegrass bands of the century: The Bluegrass Alliance. With an all-star lineup including Sam Bush and Vince Gill, The Bluegrass Alliance helped establish Tony Rice as a serious musician. His eclectic style was a mixture of his jazz influences fused with incredible bluegrass-inspired flatpicking. The documents he have of this era show a young driven player engaging with the sound of the time.

He then joined forces with J.D. Crowe and Ricky Skaggs in J.D. Crowe and the New South. For many acoustic music fans, this was the project that nailed down Tony’s musical career. The New Grass and movement was in full-swing, and Tony was growing with it, comfortably sitting at the top.

Tony Rice’s solo career started in early 1980’s, and he quickly became a guitar legend. On top of his flawless genre-defying guitar playing, Tony was also able to sing incredibly well. As a bluegrass guitarist myself, this is what really makes Tony Rice a true musician. The combination is a rarity in the industry and it solidified Tony’s work in the bluegrass circle.

Tony Rice’s Tone

Tony Rice employed his rare 1935 Martin D-28 serial number 58597 (once owned by his hero and friend, Clarence White) as his main instrument. This guitar was Martin’s first full year of production for the dreadnought body style. These early models were slow to sell at first, therefore making their production very limited and valuable.

The tone is all in the wood, since there is not much else left in the formula of an acoustic. The pre-war Martins are highly sought after for their Adirondack spruce top and Brazilian Rosewood back and sides. These woods – along with the size of the dreadnought body style – allow for a crisp, clear, and loud tone. Tony’s Martin was modified with a larger sound hole to give it much more projection. This modification had been done before Tony got it, but he used it to his advantage.

Tony knew this instrument intimately. This relationship allowed him to develop his signature tone that ranged from intricate arpeggiated picking to loud, driving bluegrass licks with a punchy rhythm as exemplified even in the earliest clips of him playing. One of the things that I admire the most about Tony’s playing is that he knew exactly when to crank up the volume and when to roll it back. It was the equivalent of an electric player using a volume knob to create different tones. To me, the volume dynamics were a key feature of Tony’s style.

My grandfather, Ken Powers (an old-time fiddle player) once told me that a great musician knows when to shut up and when to get loud.

Tony mastered this, and his relationship with that old Martin was what made his overall tone so versatile.

To get that volume and tone, Tony relied heavily on real tortoise shell picks. These picks, which are made from the endangered Hawkbill tortoise, are illegal to buy and sell in many countries, including the United States. Tony had collected all that he could find while touring the world.

Finally, Tony famously used nickel-heavy strings like Monel – a ~70/30 blend of nickel and copper with some added extras. Today this sound would be most familiar as something like our Pure-Nickel Broadways. Alternatively, Tony had said if he knew he would be sweating, he would reach for a set of Phosphor Bronze acoustic guitar strings due to their anti-corrosive properties – he really knew his stuff. (Full disclosure, Tony does have a signature set of Martins, we’re not trying to take anything away from those guys, but think our players deserve to know a bit about Tony as well!)

Although Tony didn’t use a lot of gear, he used what he had with precision and proficiency. His do-it-yourself attitude – especially on guitar pick shaping – inspired many guitarists to modify their gear to fit their needs instead of changing their style to fit the needs of the instrument.

Playing Style

I was fortunate enough to meet Tony several times back in the early 2000’s at several local festivals and venues here in Southwestern Virginia. During these encounters, I also got to see the master at work – up close and personal.

I somehow lucked up and got right in front of the stage. I was then able to see Tony’s unique style of playing.

Although Tony has said in many interviews that his biggest influence was Clarence White, it was hard to tell by where his playing style grew to. He borrowed bits and pieces of his playing from his wide variety of influences. I could catch a glimmer of Doc Watson-style flatpicking where Tony would use a stiff wrist to play a lead. It was a loud, projecting down-up-down-up picking style that hit hard and fast.

In the blink of an eye, it would change up and use his forefinger and thumb to finish off a lead or to articulate a small passage. His rhythm style used a lot of wrist movement reminiscent of Del McCoury.

One thing that I noticed, in particular, was that he didn’t do much cross-picking that many other acoustic guitarists used. He was straightforward with his rhythm playing and stayed out of the way of the other musicians on stage.

Once again, Tony knew when it was his turn to play and when to back off.

As for his left hand, there is one thing for certain: Tony had the ability to pull off some amazing hammer-ons and pull-offs. In fact, they came through just as powerfully as his picked notes. He was also an obvious master of chords that spanned all the way up the neck. In other words, he could play a swift lead or a chord anywhere on the neck.

This really inspired my playing by getting me out of the “five-fret box” that I was so accustomed to playing. Instead of playing all of my leads within the first five frets, I started learning how to play them at various positions all the way up the neck. This is another key contribution that Tony added to the bluegrass genre, and I imagine this came from his jazz background. He made the guitar stand out from the standard bluegrass lead instruments such as the fiddle, mandolin, and banjo. Now, acoustic guitarists everywhere are inspired to step up to the mic and take over the reigns of driving the melody instead of playing back-up to other instruments.

In short, Tony Rice developed his own style by mixing in bits and pieces from his various influences. His style then inspired guitarists such as myself to blend his style into my own.

Legacy

The legacy that Tony Rice left behind is simple: he helped make the acoustic guitar a lead instrument instead of a rhythm-only instrument. This was built upon the foundation forged by Doc Watson and Clarence White.

To this writer, one of Tony Rice’s greatest contributions to the world of acoustic guitar extends beyond the instrument itself. It has to do with how humble he was to talk with in person. He was real. He was authentic. He was nothing more than himself, and very humble about his incredible stature and trail-blazing contributions. I never saw one bit of ego leak out as he talked to those around him.

Tony was inducted into the International Bluegrass Hall of Fame in 2013 where he played his last public performance. Health problems such as tennis elbow and arthritis began to take their toll on his guitar playing, and he refused to get back into the public eye until he could be the player that he once was – or better.

His sudden death on Christmas Day, 2020, shocked the music world. It was then that we could see just how far his inspiration stretched. Musicians from many different genres took to social media to lament his passing. If this was not enough evidence of the remarkable impression that he left on the music world, then I don’t know what else could possibly prove it.

Final Thoughts

Tony Rice was more than a guitar player – he was an innovative musician that helped flattop acoustic guitar players strive to be better. His influence is impossible to miss when listening to modern bluegrass music and stretches out into many other genres as well.

I feel very fortunate to have met him when I was at my most impressionable age as a guitarist. He taught me and many others to think outside of the box and delve into unfamiliar territory. I even employed Tony’s theories into my electric guitar playing and it made me a better musician.

It is safe to say that the music world will probably never hear another Tony Rice. There are so many that strive to be like him, but as with most things, the original is never truly duplicated. Even more so was his humble demeanor; Tony may have grown up in Los Angeles, but his Appalachian ideology never died.

If you are interested in checking out the work of Tony Rice, I recommend checking out his performances of Church Street Blues, Salt Creek (with Doc Watson), and Blue Railroad Train.  These are just a few examples of his incredible musicianship and legacy.

Although Tony Rice is gone from this world, his style and influence will live on as long as there is acoustic guitar music to be played – and that isn’t going away anytime soon.

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