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"I never thought I would see the day when I could put Martin Monel strings back on my D-28. Welcome back, old friend. I’ve missed you!"

Tony Rice - bluegrasstoday.com

Original image from Mark Farris

The acoustic guitar is often overlooked and stereotypically seen as a pathway to the more desired electric guitar in modern popular culture. However, in the right hands the acoustic guitar can be a force of nature; the organic 'roots' approach can often speak volumes above an electric performance that's lacking direction, conviction or identity.

Where an electric guitar performance relies on conductive current to convey excitement, the acoustic approach makes up for it with emotional connection and feel. A true statement never resonated with such depth as when we think of the unique and revered player cross examined in our latest feature.

The icon of the moment was unforgivably overlooked and under appreciated in the typical guitarists circle but somehow this is a player who was hugely influential to many and a staple artist of his genre.

The officially uncrowned King of the flat pickers, let's explore the legendary Tony Rice. 🎼

Photograph by Jason Merritt / Getty

Born Into Bluegrass  🎼

Looking back into the history of the beginnings of a musician's journey is always fascinating and never fails to interest or surprise me.

And, it couldn't be more true for this week's player in the spotlight; Tony Rice was born into a musical family in 1951, initially born in Danville, Virginia but growing up in Los Angeles, California.

His father was his initial key musical role model; Herb Rice was an amateur musician and was well versed in both guitar and mandolin with musical tastes that were heavily laid towards the bluegrass movement.

Q: "Could you give us a brief biography of yours?"

TR: "My father was an amateur musician, playing mandolin and guitar [His father, Herb Rice, did play for Golden State Boys]. So it came naturally to me to play music but I didn't play much in amateur bands. I was trying hard to play guitar well.”

Tony Rice Interview for- chiefnoda.com

Tony and his siblings were introduced to the fundamentals of Bluegrass music by their father and shown the path into the many different artists that express this genre of music, most importantly: Kentucky Colonels, an outfit fronted by Roland & Clarence White. Clarence would become a significant influence on Tony which structured Rice’s style and development throughout his career.

Tony was self-taught and developed on guitar through pure perseverance and dedication. However, he had the benefit of being surrounded by the right scene of people - including his father - which meant he was quickly whipped into shape in regards to getting techniques down and learning passages back-to-back, all aided by pure commitment of heart and soul.

Passion for an instrument can never be faked, forced, or denied. A truly inspirational player to many musicians and an undiscovered hero by the contemporary musical masses.

“Tony Rice was my first guitar hero. He inspired me and so many others to strive for excellence on the acoustic flat-top, explore new genres and never be afraid to take risks. To discover Rice's playing and singing is to discover his deep love for music that oozes out of every note, and his passion for sharing that beautiful gift with the world. His expansive catalogue of recordings reflect a curious spirit devoted to exploring uncharted territory on his instrument. Many of us have learned Rice's songs and licks note for note but no one can make the guitar sound quite like he did. He continues to set the standard for masterful guitar playing and singing.”

Molly Tutle on Tony Rice via NPR.org

Photo by Jon Sievert/Getty Images

Early progressions into the music scene saw Rice adapt naturally to a musical life. It's where he wanted to be, and where he belonged, the path was set and the road was laid out.

Q: "When did you decide to become a professional?"

TR: "It's hard to answer since there's no clear transition. I had a band in 1963 (Tony was 12) which performed with Kentucky Colonels and Golden States Boys and we got paid. So I can't say when I became professional. I started playing full-time in 1970 when I started working with Sam Bush.

My first album was released from Red Cray label owned by a Japanesecompany B.O.M. [This company publishes a monthly bluegrass magazine, "Moonshiner" and does mail order of CDs. Phone is 0797-87-0561.

Incidentally, the area code 0797 is my home town (a rather small town). I wish I knew about it!"

Tony Rice Interview for- chiefnoda.com

'As a player, singer, composer and arranger Rice was an innovator and has laid a legendary legacy throughout a career spanning over 30-years.

Projects with such important bands as the Bluegrass Alliance, J.D. Crowe and the New South, and the Bluegrass Album Band. He also cut one of the best acoustic country duet records of the modern era with Ricky Skaggs and made chamber bluegrass of the highest order on the first of Grisman’s Tone Poems recordings.

These days, Rice can be found playing with Peter Rowan and Vassar Clements and occasionally with David Grisman, Norman Blake, or in a quartet with Darol Anger, Mike Marshall, and Todd Phillips.

He’s had one band he’s called his own, and his name for it, the Tony Rice Unit, suggests a good deal about his economical approach to music making and his emphasis on tightness. The first Unit was the all-star band that cut Manzanita in 1978, with David Grisman, Ricky Skaggs, and others. The three subsequent Unit recordings featured various combinations of Mike Marshall, Todd Phillips, Fred Carpenter, John Reischman, and others.'

(Excerpt -acousticguitar.com

Photography - https://www.savingcountrymusic.com

6-String King Of The Flat Pick 🎼 

One thing we must really appreciate here is the flawless and continually developing, innovative techniques utilised by Tony Rice throughout his extensive career.

The following track really sets the bar and shows that Tony Rice was really in his own league in regards to his guitar playing along with his singing in conjunction as an overall piece.

The fluidity and the expressive lines and runs that are segregated into passages here were something never heard in such a way at the time, breaking the mould and pushing the boundaries. 🤘 


The nuances and the beauty of his playing is something that is so revered in today's society by many players and fans alike.

One of the essential elements of authentic bluegrass playing is a technique known as cross picking; this picking pattern is how one alternates between three adjacent strings on the guitar.

The following track really displays a masterclass of said technique and conveys that Tony Rice was a force to be reckoned with armed only with an acoustic guitar. 💪 

As an artist Rice always appeared to have a balanced taste between technicality and musicality but at the core of this the melodic lines always shone through.


The evolution of Tony Rice as a musician was an incredible journey whether it was Bluegrass, Newgrass or even Spacegrass! Everything he turned his hand to he laid his print on. A titan in the world of six string flatpicking and a revolutionary that took things in every direction possible expanding the genre and evolving the sound.

Photographer - Jeremy M. Lange http:/www.jeremymlange.com
September 26, 2013. Raleigh, North Carolina.
“Tony Rice in his dressing room after accepting induction into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame. His guitar, a 1935 Martin D-28, was previously owned by Clarence White, of the Byrds.
Bluegrass guitar legend Tony Rice was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame during the International Bluegrass Music Awards, held in Memorial Hall at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts.”

The Guitar & its 'Wires' 

A key feature and easily recognisable treasure that Tony Rice is rarely pictured without is his guitar of choice which is his long-standing Martin Herringbone D-28 from 1935.

This guitar actually came from his longtime idol and mentor Clarence White, the guitar has had some life! It's had many repairs, survived the flood (just about!), and unique alterations such as an enlarged sound hole and replaced fingerboard, the list goes on… .

Despite its time in musical warfare this acoustic guitar is placed on a pedestal by the industry as one of the best sounding acoustic guitars out there. It has a tone to be in awe of and a voice like a cannon - Tony Rice would push it to its limits night after night.


The guitar is of course great and a landmark piece of engineering by Martin & Co. during the prewar era.

Photography by Aldo Mauro - fretboardjournal.com

As we know and understand from previous player spotlights, every guitar is only as good as the strings you choose to place on it. So what did Tony Rice use to fuel his wooden cannon?

A very particular player of course with a strong and physically demanding technique, the string choice would have to be fairly substantial in gauge and of course very resilient to long bouts of hard-hitting attack from the flat pick.

For many years Tony would choose D’Aquisto strings in a medium gauge, these were strings wound on a nickel core (not steel) and had a very distinct tone, Rice endorsed the strings until production ceased.

Fortunately Tony managed to bridge the gap and form a union with his ideal manufacturer...

“A new product from C.F. Martin introduced earlier this year at the 2013 NAMM show in Anaheim, CA.

After many years endorsing strings from other manufacturers, Tony Rice now has a signature set from Martin. He has long favored strings made with monel, a nickel-based alloy, rather than steel. In fact he used Martin’s monel strings as a younger artist, until they were discontinued more than 30 years ago.

In response to their reintroduction, Rice had this to say:

“I never thought I would see the day when I could put Martin Monel strings back on my D-28. Welcome back, old friend. I’ve missed you!"

Monel is prized in strings for their long life and transparent tone, but the material is more difficult to work with, and not many companies use it. But Martin spent some time with Tony this past few years to recreate the strings to his preference, and he has given his blessing to the Tony Rice Signature Strings.

They are offered in a single gauge: .013, .016, .026, .034, .044, .056."

(Excerpt via bluegrasstoday.com)


Original image from Stephen A. Ide/Michael Ochs Archives, via Getty Images

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