A short interview with Frank Wakefield
"Frank Wakefield Improves His Mandolin"
conducted by Jim Moss 1-20-98:
Please understand that to get the humor of Frank Wakefield you have to include his rather
sophisticated use of hill talk. Therefore I felt it necessary to include in the text his corruption
of the English language. If, at times, it seems that the text is not making sense, read it again
it is probably Frank talking backwards and creating a double entendre.
NOTE: If this is used, each part must presented in its entirety.
Jim Moss: When did you start picking with your little finger?
Frank Wakefield: I started that about 1958. When
I started doing 2 parts at one time with
a straight pick. I thought that there must be a way I could do 2 parts with a straight pick
and add a third part with one of my fingers on my right hand. So that’s how I started fooling
around with it. For a while I used 3 finger picks on my right hand and a straight pick…
Frank: Yeah, on that old green record I used that,
that way. That was nice, but I found that
I could do the same thing with one of my other fingers. Ya know with my right hand… and
get the same results with less effort.
Jim: Your not talking about cross picking?
Frank: Noo. Cross picking no.
Jim: So how would you describe that.. what your doing..
Frank: Let’s see… Its like Blind Boy Fuller… you ever hear of him?
Frank: Like he was doing.. that style he started..
like Atkins and Travis style? I heard some
old stuff that he did.. ya know when I was a kid. When he was playing what they call the
Travis style. It was Blind Boy Fuller that I heard doing that before Merle came along.
I heard that and said “hay that would sound nice on the mandolin too”. I took a straight pick
and my fingers… with my right hand… It’s got all those sounds now. Make my mandolin
sound like more then one mandolin.
Jim: I see..
Frank: Sounds like it’s 2 or 3 mandolins.
Especially, when I do all of it with a straight
pick and get them all going.. and then if I use that same straight pick at the same time and
hit the lead and the rhythm. That’s what is hard for people. Its hard to teach that to people
too because your mind has to work about 3 different ways at one time. You can’t let your
mind concentrate on one thing you have to concentrate on 3 different things at one time when
you do what I do with a straight pick on solo tunes. When I am picking the lead with the tremolo..
Jim: What’s an example of that?
Frank: There is a sample.. one that I did at the Freight & Salvage… one of those Jesus tunes.
Jim: What about one that’s on record?
Frank: That’s on record too, it’s on Rounder, but it is out of print.
Jim: So on your new record, “This is then” ?
Frank: Yeah, on that record there is a tune that
sounds like a classical tune I wrote.
It sounds like a big orchestra behind me.
Jim: So what are you actually doing there?
Frank: I keep the tremolo going with a straight
pick… Then I move the straight pick to the
G string also, and do a two stroke on that and the pick still has the tremolo going on it.
It sounds complicated… It is not anything close to cross picking though.
Jim: Ok so then you will pick with your little finger too?
Frank: Yeah.. Then that is a third part that goes in … it is a harmony part.
Jim: Hmm… so how long did it take you to work this up?
Frank: Oh.. Probably from about 1957 to about
1962 I just kept fooling around with it.
I started doing that.. I was the first one to ever play the mandolin solo at a Bluegrass festival.
Most people wouldn’t get up on a stage with a whole band. I started doing that in probably
about 1969 or 1970. Others have started to do it now I understand.
Jim: I never heard anyone else do it.
Frank: ha ha ha ha ….
Jim: ha ha ha ha …. I don’t even think I heard Monroe do it.
Frank: He came close to it with that “Last Day in Heaven”.. you heard that right?
Jim: Yeah, “Last Days on Earth”?
Frank: Yeah! He just having the bass playing
in that, but I did it way before him. And that
tune, I wrote some tunes that sounded an awful lot like that and Bill heard em. I am not
saying that he is copying me, that’s for sure. If he did he should because I copied him for
all those years.
Jim: Now, was he the first one who started “Split Stringing” ?
Frank: I believe he was… yeah!
Jim: Because, I remember being in the bus there
when you guys were doing that Great
American Music Hall show… and you were opening for him… probably in the early
1980’s or late 1970’s. and Julia was there… she had come inside the bus from the show
and she said to Bill “Frank is doing Split Stringing!” she said, “You have to go up and do
some Split Stringing!”
Ha! Ha!, and she said “You gotta do it!, you gotta
go up and show who is boss!” and he
said “darlin, I was splitting strings 20 years before they were born!” Ha Ha Ha Ha!
Frank: Ha Ha Ha Ha… Well actually, he did
it by accident on one of his records… I forget
which one it is, he accidentally did it.. because sometimes you accidentally hit that…
Jim: Sure, you just don’t fret it right.
Frank: Yeah, but actually, he was the first one to do that.
Jim: Yeah, it’s a pretty cool sound. I have
got some tapes from the early 1960s… and I
believe I have some tapes from 1954 that have him split stringing on “Get up John”.. He
does it on there right?
Frank: No… he doesn’t do it on that. He did it with Doc Watson…
Jim: Well, he does it on “Dusty Miller”…
I have a live tape of “Dusty Miller” at
Bean Blossom with him doing it.
Frank: Yeah, on “Get Up John” he uses tunings
on that one… just like I did it on my
record. I don’t play it like him, but it’s exactly like the same tunings he used on it.
Most people don’t even know how to do even that. They tune the E strings the wrong
way… it sounds close to it but it is not the way, but it don’t sound very clean and clear.
You see how clear it is on my record?
Jim: Right! What is the tuning on “Get Up John”?
Frank: I don’t know, I just have to do it.
Cause I never have figured that out. So when
I teach a student I show them with my finger… I put my finger on it and they know what it is.
Jim: You know, speaking about tunings, I was back
stage at Berkeley with Monroe
and band… Monroe was showing me “ReelFoot Reel” for my Tanyards album… I was
back there recording this… then they went on stage. So, Monroe wanted to play
“Last Days on Earth”. He asked Kenny to go off stage and get his other mandolin.
Well, Baker said “why don’t you let the boy (me) get the mandolin? Monroe just
said “Nooo, I don’t want David (Grisman) to get that tuning!” …………..ha ha ha ha!
Frank: Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! I’ll be darned!
Jim: Yep! Wayne Lewis and Baker both told
me this when they came of stage..
They just looked at each other cross-eyed!
Frank: ohhh he didn’t do it kidding either did he?
Jim: No! He was serious!
Frank: ohh that’s crazy! He is crazy to
think that Grisman didn’t already have it
Jim: So, as far as picking styles are concerned, how many styles do you have?
Frank: Well, I only have my own style now… I will
do Bills occasionally, cause
he is the only one who gets real quality on the mandolin the way I do and I got it
from him. I gotta be honest about that.
Jim: What was it that actually allowed Bill to get that tone?
Frank: His right hand! Only!
That’s the only way you can get it. He could do like
I can do now, make a cheap mandolin sound like a Gibson! It’s all in the right hand
and you can only get that by knowing how to do it and practicing it and have a good
ear for real quality notes, you know the real solid kind, not tinny sounding.. or blurry
or nothing.. the real solid kind that sounds like taking a sledgehammer and hitting it
on a steel rail. Ha ha ha
Jim: Right! Well, I don’t want you to give up any trade secrets here…
Frank: No No that’s ok, I tell everybody..
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Jim: What actually are you talking about when you mean your right hand.
Frank: It’s how loose your hand is, your right
hand. It needs to be real loose and
you gotta know how hard to hit the instrument and got to teach yourself… you
do a lot of up and down strokes, Bill started doing that in the later years. I use
to play with a lot of down strokes the way Bill did, then I came up with a way…
You teach yourself how to get the same volume from a up stroke as you do an
down stroke. Then you can get a perfect tone out of a mandolin that way. Then
it will be perfect solid and there will be no shy parts in it. So you have to teach
yourself how to hit the up and down strokes with the same pressure. Say like
you hit a G-string with an up stroke, the down stroke must be the same tone as
the up stroke. Before learning this if you turn your back and listen to someone
you can hear the difference between the up and down strokes. I suspect that’s a
lot the same as with the bow on the fiddle too.
Jim: Yeah, there is a particular bow technique that allows you to change
directions smoothly… the bow is an entire balancing act. It has everything to
do with your spine.. Anything you do wrong with your left hand is generally
caused by your right hand or arm and the other way around. Classical players
say that when you are playing your should be in total balance so that there is now
stress on any parts of your body. If you have to put energy into sustaining your
body leaning forward or your arm at some angle, you will soon become fatigued
and start to stiffen up. This stiffness will from the flow of your body in the process
of playing your notes. One of my teachers in San Francisco in the 1980’s took
lessons from Heifetz in the 1950’s… well I scared him into helping me… it seems
that Heifetz would recommend that you not stand on your right leg as it would cause
your right side to tense up.. and that is your bow arm. Old man Suzuki said the
same thing… come to think of it so did Kenny Baker once at Bean Blossom. Ha ha…
Ya know, Kenny Baker doesn’t fess up to much, but he is on to it.
Violin playing is like yoga… and I can’t do it!
Frank: Ha ha ha…
Jim: Well, one of the important things that
he mentioned that relates to your point is…
one lesson… I think it was one I got over the phone… this guy was a great teacher…
could teach over the phone. Well, he said, “ see that wood under your strings?
What is it called?”. I said, “well it’s the finger board” he said “right, that’s where
your fingers go, not on the string! ”. He said that “you only deaden the string with
your finger and not press the string down”. Well, that was an awakening for me.
It is similar in that it creates a totally different sound on the fiddle.
Frank: That’s where I had problems early on, where I meshed the strings down.
Jim: Yeah, well this is one of those issues were
classical guys… if you get them
good and drunk or something they will tell you about…
Well, getting back to the mandolin, when you lift
up your finger… do you have
any pull on your left hand… do you actually pull the string with your finger as you lift it?
Frank: Not unless I want to use that for an effect…
Jim: David Thompson was telling me once that on
guitar that you actually pull
the string with your left hand… that this is part of getting the full tone from an
instrument… I had mentioned that this teacher in San Francisco suggested this
also for the violin. So that when you lifted your finger on the neck of the guitar
you would pluck the string in a way…
So in the case of the mandolin when did you start learning cross picking?
Frank: I started learning that when I seen Jesse
McReynolds in about 1952.
And I learned how to do it.
I was really amazed when I did a workshop with Jesse, he asked me how
to do things… He asked me how I get all those parts. Cause when he would
play a song with his grandson he said, “Frank Wakefield does all this by
his self” ha ha ha.. That was funny the whole audience really laughed. When he
said that I said “Man I am really honored that our ask me for something cause I wore
out enough of your records learning how to cross pick like you” ha ha ha…
Jim: That cross picking, he invented that… Also, he does a lot of split stringing.
Frank: Yeah, he does it too. I only heard
him do it… actually I heard him do
it before I did Bill.
Jim: Yeah, he does it on my album “Tanyards”.
He did split stringing
and cross picking. To watch him right there in front of your eyes is
something, he is like a machine.
… So how long should you give yourself if you want to learn cross picking?
Frank: Shoot, you could learn that in a couple
of weeks actually, if you are
already a player… yeah. Course it took me about a year to learn it, trying
to figure it out! Cause I didn’t have nobody to show me. It was just a banjo roll.
At that time I had never tried to play a banjo.
Jim: So when you play… I know we are working
up some gigs here, in the
workshops that sometimes can be setup along with the shows, do you teach things
like cross picking?
Jim: Do people have to ask for it?
Frank: No.. I just volunteer it all, if anybody
wants to learn it, I teach it to them in a
couple of minutes.
Jim: Is this covered in some of your videotapes?
Frank: Yeah, cross picking and where I do the
duo picking… just me and people
can see it just me cause if I am the onlyest one on the cabinet.
Jim: Right! Hahahah
Frank: There ain’t no trick other parts coming in there. Ha ha!
Jim: Well, maybe they will come and see you when
we are out on the road here.
Asking you to do different parts and show em how to do different parts. You are
always pretty friendly with the mandolin players.. Always willing to show them
stuff whenever we have played. So I think if people should come up and ask you
questions you won’t hit them with the mandolin.. ha ha
Frank: Nature takes care of you if you if you
don’t do people wrong… I honestly
believe that you know.
Jim: So, tell me something about your mandolin…
You have this epoxy.. you
originally painted it… lets go through the evaluation of your mandolin here…
Jim: You actually bought this mandolin… when?
Frank: 1960. In Columbus, Ohio.
Jim: and what did you have before that?
Frank: I had a 1922. It was owned by Pea
Wee Lambert who use to play with
the Stanley Brothers on all their old records. In 1960 me and Red was playing…
Jim: And it was an F5, the one you had before?
Jim: Was it a Loar?
Frank: Yeah… We drove from Wheeling West Virgina,
I was living in Washington DC.
Me and Red did the WWVA every other Saturday. Bill Monroe was playing in
Columbus, Ohio… ah… on a Sunday. He played a little festival up there and this guy
had a mandolin for sale. This guy name Cid Campbell told me about it. So we drove
from Wheeling to Columbus… stayed all night there… went to the festival the next day.
The guy was going to take the mandolin to Bill and let Bill see how much it was
worth… and ah… I should him $150 dollars and he almost throughed it at me.. ha ha ha ha …
So I took it back and let Bill play if for me and Bill said it was a really good mandolin…
It was just like his, it had the original strings on it from 1923… they was rusty.. and Bill
played it and said it was good, if he hadn’t said it was good I probably wouldn’t have kept it.
Jim: You mean to say it had the original strings on it?
Frank: Right! It never been played.
Jim: I’m suprised it didn’t take the neck off!
Well, I guess on a violin it would
have taken the neck off.
Frank: Yeah, the neck has never been warped or
nothing… them strings been on
it for that many years..
Jim: ah huh… How often do you change your strings?
Frank: Ohhh… every two of three months..
sometimes six months, depends on…
I was going to change them today I am going to play Wednesday so I’ll change them
today.. they’ll be broke in good.
Jim: So you got this mandolin and Monroe played
it and he liked it. So, what was the
next thing that happened to the mandolin?
Frank: After I had it for a year or two
I took it back home and I couldn’t make it
sound like Bill’s mandolin…and I didn’t realize.. Bill said it is all in your right
hand to get that sound. But you are always.. when you are young about 28, 29 years old…
you figure that you know more then everybody else… you think you are going to make
it sound better.. so I sanded it off… put some paint and stuff on it…
Jim: Paint? You sanded it off what?
Frank: I sanded it off…
Jim: The face?
Frank: yeah…. And I left it that way
for a while.. there are some pictures of me
when it was blond.
Jim: uh huh?!?
Frank: Then I moved to Saratoga Springs, New York
and I tried to make it sound
better and I invented bridges for it. That actually improved the mandolin…
Jim: The bridges did?
Frank: Yeah, I made them out of epoxy and fiberglass…
and Guild guitar got my
permission to use some of the stuff I used and they never did give me no credit for it.
They used it in their saddles that goes across the guitar…
Jim: You should make up a product here… a mandolin bridge.
Frank: Too late now, see I was working at Generous
Electric and I had access to
all that stuff…bakilite… epoxy and fiberglass.
Jim: and that’s when you made it, so this bridge has been on there since then.
Frank: Right.. yeah. I use to sell those
bridges. I didn’t actually sell them I actually
gave them away. And they never wore out.. the one I have now you don’t even have
to sand the top of it cause it don’t wear.
So then I got up here and I was going to make
it sound better… So I put a coat
of Spray Paint on it!
Jim: heeee heee heeheeeee
Frank: ha ha haa. Put it in the corner…
Jim: Which color now?
Frank: It was RED… ha ha ha
Jim: And you used what kind of paint?
Frank: Just a regular can of spray paint..
Jim: So where did you get this from… a car store?
Jim: Epoxy paint?
Frank: I am not sure if it was or not I don’t
remember. So I figure I’d dry it
and bake and everything… I baked it for a while for about 300… well about
110 or 120 degrees something like that..
Jim: In the oven?
Jim: ah huh… that always helps! Ooooohhhhhh
Frank: Actually did make it dry and though it sound better.
Jim: uh huh..
Frank: Good thing I didn’t leave it in any longer
cause that other glue
woulda come loose.
Frank: Good thing I took the strings off when I did it too.
Jim: Yeah, that’s for sure.
Frank: but anyhow that’s how I came about baking my mandolin.
Jim: ha ha
Frank: I baked it for about 20 minutes. It was
just at the temperature
where it wouldn’t melt the paint, but it dried the paint I had on the top of it.
I figured that really did a number on it, but actually I thought it sounded better…
a lot of it is psychological…
Frank: and knowing how to use your right hand.
Jim: and then what happened to it?
Frank: So then for the next 20 years I used it just like it was.
Frank: Yeah, in fact I forgot about it being red
until Del McCurry showed me…
his son was 3 years old and he took a picture with that mandolin and it was red
when he was about 3 or 4 years old. I had forgotten about it being red.
Jim: Then you painted it Black next?
Frank: aah, then when I moved to California, that’s
when Tod Philips removed
all the paint and made it look natural.
Jim: But didn’t you paint it Black?
Frank: It was Black, I think I did that after the Red.
Jim: ah huh… and was that Epoxy Paint?
Frank: That was Epoxy Paint. Right….ha ha
Jim: hah hah hah hah..
Frank: ha ha ha … I am suprised
that that mandolin, like Ronnie said the other
night when he called he said that’s the only mandolin in the world that is better
then Bill Monroe’s mandolin. Ha ha hah
Jim: Well, it had been cooked more…
Frank: Yeah, maybe so.
Jim: Now, when anybody looks at the mandolin
now, you have this 5 minute
epoxy over where your hand comes down over the front?
Frank: Right. Yeah, that’s cause it was wearing
thin there. My arm was wearing it.
I was afraid I was gonna to wear it through.
Jim: So that’s almost like a pick guard..
Frank: Exactly right.
Jim: on the back you have a seam that has opened up on it?
Frank: Right… It didn’t open up … you couldn’t
see in it, but you could tell it
wasn’t completely closed.
Jim: Oh I see… and you pored epoxy over that too…
Jim: hmm I see. Well this aughta be enough to get them mandolin player’s ahh…
Frank: It’ll paralyze emm a little…
Jim: Paralyze emm… ha ha ha
Frank: The ol master will come down and learn em something huh?
Jim: Yeah!.. ha ha ha ha
Frank: ha ha ha … the ole bigand nasty ha ha ha
Jim: ha ha ha ohh boy..
... end ...
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