The David Grisman Quintet (a.k.a. the DGQ) played its first gig on January 31, 1976, in the California coastal town of Bolinas. I lived there at the time, and made a point of catching their show. The group, with Darol Anger on fiddle, Todd Phillips, second mandolin, Tony, guitar, David, lead mandolin, and Joe Carroll playing string bass, is known as the founding DGQ. Joe (may he rest in peace) was an excellent bassist – he recorded with pianist, Mose Allison – but to my ears his approach to the bass was heavily rooted in jazz. The group’s feel, with Tony at its rhythmic core, had its deepest roots in the acoustic, string-band sounds of bluegrass.
Listening to Joe that evening, I thought: I can do that. So I tracked down Darol’s phone number and hired him to play a square dance with me.
After the gig Darol said, “Hey man, I’ve got to get you together with Dawg and us. I’ll call you.” (“Dawg” is David’s nickname.)
A few months later I got the call to join a DGQ rehearsal and drove to the home David and his girlfriend, Janice Bain, rented on a shoulder of Mt. Tamalpais. On a warm afternoon, Tony, Darol, Todd, David, and I trooped into a basement room that overlooked a Manzanita-lined valley leading down to the Pacific, uncased our instruments, tuned up, and began to play.
Well, there was a faculty of talent in that room, but you could not overlook Tony’s guitar picking. I’d never heard a steel-string, flat-top acoustic guitar played so hard and hot. Tony was the group’s engine, and he roared with complex, commanding rhythms. Tee played a loud instrument and he picked it forcefully, filling virtually every space with guitar, his guitar all over the tune, all over my ears.
Playing in this group with Tony was playing along with him, following him. His urgent, pushed rhythms – aggressive, knife-edged – led the band. His forceful comping, thrashed with a commanding right hand, was far beyond bluegrass guitar as I’d ever heard it. His solo was heart-stopping, a precipice-daring charge. He finished the tune by detonating a Lester Flatt G-run, an explosion of sound that would have put Lester to tears. Tee’s playing was ridiculously brilliant, stunning.
Under my breath, I oathed the sanctity of poop.
Tony had rewritten bluegrass guitar.
Lessons Tony Taught & Learned
Outside of bluegrass, Tony listened mostly to jazz, including trumpeter Miles Davis, altoist/bass clarinetist/flutist, Eric Dolphy, tenorist, John Coltrane, pianists Oscar Peterson and Dave Grusin, and guitarists George Benson, Grant Green, and Wes Montgomery. He introduced the music of Danish bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen to the band. Niels, a.k.a. “The Great Dane,” walks the bass I hear in my dreams. Tony loved to listen to jazz, and aspired to jazz, but in his heart and hands, bluegrass was his true love.
Knowing the Instrument
Tee knew the guitar, and not just how to get around the fretboard, though there was that. He knew the physical instrument – the woods, frets, structure, bracing, tuners, rosette, purfling – as well as Martin company lore. He even knew and understood the tortoiseshell pick – more about that later. I’ve never played with a guitarist who understood the physical instrument (especially Martin guitars), or the flatpick for that matter, as well as Tony.
And I’ve never played with a guitarist who played harder, more accurately, with more self-assurance and focus, or with more dedication to the instrument and the music being played.