Summary: The bluegrass lead guitar pioneer on arranging fiddle tunes and solo flatpicking. By Scott Nygaard
As the first instrumental album of fiddle tunes in which the guitar was the featured instrument in a bluegrass band, Dan Crary’s 1970 album Bluegrass Guitar was a landmark in roots-oriented guitar music.
Watson and Clarence White had included fiddle tunes like “Black Mountain Rag,” “Salt Creek,” and “Billy in the Lowground” in their diverse repertoires, but their renditions, though influential and inspiring, could almost seem like novelty tunes or a chance simply to hear how fast and cleanly the guitarists could play. Crary’s album, however, was the first to show that fiddle tunes, and a guitarist’s arrangements of them, could be the foundation of a player’s repertoire.
During the subsequent four decades, Crary has performed in numerous band configurations (Bluegrass Alliance; California; Berline, Crary, and Hickman); recorded a clutch of albums under his own name; collaborated with guitarists Don Ross, Tony McManus, Beppe Gambetta, and others; performed in duos and as a soloist; and produced the guitar history video Primal Twang.
He now leads his own trio, Thunderation, documented on the band’s latest album, Perfect Storm. We talked to Crary recently about his first forays into fiddle-tune playing, the influence of classical music on his guitar arrangements, and his approach to solo flatpicking.
How did you get started playing the guitar?
CRARY I often reflect on when I started playing. I remember reading about the great cellist Jacqueline du Pré in the LA Times, and her father told how she got with the cello. She was four years old and heard it on the radio and said, “Daddy, I want what makes that noise.” And that was sort of me. In 1952 there was not much guitar music around.
You heard it on country music stations behind people singing pot-boiler country songs of the time, and I loved that. But solo acoustic guitar was almost unknown. Hank Snow would play it on his records, but it was very unusual to hear acoustic guitar on the radio in Kansas City. I did hear it one time, on a local radio show with an old boy named Don Sullivan on KMBC radio. You could be a picker and singer and with a few old country songs, have 15 minutes on AM radio over five states in those days.
I heard that and I asked my dad what that instrument was. I didn’t know, amazingly. And he said, “Oh, that’s a guitar.” And the other amazing thing is that when I asked my parents to get me a guitar, they did. Because in those days nobody bought guitars for their kids. You would get an accordion or piano, or a band instrument if you were in school. So I wanted “what made that noise.”
I took some lessons from a fellow named Ernie Caudill, who ran a music studio called Standard Guitar. Fortunately, he was a really great teacher. Unfortunately, he couldn’t get with folk music or bluegrass, and that’s what I wanted to do. But I was too young to learn what he was an expert at—pop music of the ’30s and ’40s. So I was kind of a frustration to Ernie, because I was constantly messing around in folk music and not doing my lessons like I should. But he taught me a lot about loving the instrument and respecting it, and for the rest it was just listening to records.
If I found a flamenco record, I’d take it home and play it and try to do that with a flatpick. And of course I couldn’t, but it was something. And that led me to a few licks that I figured out as a kid. And then once in a while I might hear Merle Travis on television doing some fingerpicking. I didn’t know about fingerpicking, but it sounded like beautiful guitar music, so I’d try to do that with a pick, because I thought everybody played with a pick.
Did you try playing Merle Travis tunes with a pick?
CRARY; Yeah, like “Deep River Blues,” of course. And I suppose that led to cross-picking, which I like to do [Example 1]. The fingerpickers do have it over us in one way, and that is that they have all of these appurtenances of their body that can be playing things simultaneously. We flatpickers only have one thing that will strike the strings, but you can move that one thing around [Example 2] and sort of imitate fingerpickers, and I think some of that worked its way in.
How did you get interested in playing fiddle tunes on the guitar?
CRARY I had some friends in Fairfax, California, who had a friend named Richie Guerin who played a lot of fiddle tunes. I remember sitting in their living room, in about the spring of ’67, watching him and thinking, “I oughta be able to do that.” So, I certainly didn’t invent that; a lot of people had been doing that.
Had you heard Doc Watson play fiddle tunes at that point?
CRARY Barely. That was about the time I started listening to Doc. I consider Doc a good friend and a tremendous mentor, and certainly the father figure of the steel-string guitar for the world. I made the point when I wrote some notes for one of Doc’s albums that when he and Merle [Watson] started traveling internationally, that was really the Big Bang for the steel-string guitar. Until then, it was a sort of obscure instrument. The world didn’t pay that much attention to the steel-string guitar. Even in the late ’60s. And I credit him with having done that.
On the other hand, at that time, I made a point of not listening too closely to him. Because I knew if I did, I’d start trying to imitate him and I didn’t want to do that. I had one good instinct, and that was that it was my job to figure out something to play that did not imitate Doc. That is in no way any disrespect to his playing. On the contrary, it was so powerful and so good that I was afraid of getting sucked into a program of trying to be Doc
Do you remember any of the first tunes you worked on?
CRARY “Reuben’s Train.” That was one of the first tunes where I sat down and said, “OK, I gotta learn this. It’s a beautiful tune.” [See transcription of “Reuben’s Train” below]. Actually, things are really coming around full circle as I think about this. On our new recording, we insert that into the middle of “Long Journey Home.”
WHAT HE PLAYS
ACOUSTIC GUITARS: Taylor Dan Crary Signature Models, the original prototype and a newer Taylor custom shop instrument with an NT neck and ES electronics, both with spruce top and Indian rosewood back and sides. “They’re not making them anymore, but they made a couple hundred of them,” Crary says of his Taylor signature model. “The idea of that instrument came from an earlier instrument I played, made by the Mossman company.
Stuart Mossman was a friend who I met in about 1969, and I played his guitars for some years. One of the instruments he made kind of accidentally, because he came across some rosewood that was not big enough to make a two-piece back, so he made a three-piece-back dreadnought guitar. Then he did a couple of other things. He made stiff er, heavier braces on the top, and a thinner top.
And that guitar was a cannon. It wasn’t a sweet-sounding cannon, but in the context of a band, the sheer brashness of that Mossman was really powerful. So when Bob [Taylor] offered to make a Crary guitar, we looked at the virtues of the various instruments that I’d played, and the Crary guitar adopted some of those ideas, one of which was that the braces are sort of reverse scalloped. They’re a bit deeper in the center, and they’re thinner, and the top is about .006 inches thinner.
And the result is more balance. It’s not a thumpy bass, it’s kind of a crisp bass sound, and there’s lots of screaming treble. That was the idea, and I’m still happy to be playing it.”
AMPLIFICATION: In addition to the Taylor ES, Crary also has an L.R. Baggs undersaddle pickup in his guitar, which he runs into a Fishman Aura system. He currently uses either the ES or the Baggs/Aura setup, but he says he’s going “to try to get a stereo setup so I can run the Fishman Aura system and the Taylor ES in stereo.”
FLATPICK: Fender medium, played with the rounded edge. “I like a pick to be thin enough that you can punish it a little bit, so it will bend and snap against the strings and get that percussive affect,” Crary says. “I experimented with a lot of picks, including tortoiseshell, but the problem with tortoiseshell is that if you get a tortoiseshell pick that’s thin enough to do that, it will inevitably break.”