In this series of interviews, we talk to renowned Mandolin players, makers and enthusiasts.
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Mandolin Interview – Dagger Gordon
Dagger Gordon is primarily known as a mandolin player based in the Scottish Highlands. He has released 2 solo CDs featuring his mandolin playing- ‘Highland Mandolin’ and ‘The Frozen River’.
Has also recorded with Highland Connection and Black Donald, and was involved in ‘The Complete Songs of Robert Burns. He currently mostly plays for dances and does concert performances either as a soloist or with a small band.
How did you get started in music?
I got a cheap guitar for my 13th birthday. Usual stuff – I wanted to be a Beatle. I tended to do mostly pop and sing-a-long folk stuff at first. When I was about 16 I got into lead guitar playing. I was very into The Cream, Johnny Winter and Ten Years After. They had a really fast lead guitarist called Alvin Lee who was a big influence on me. I think that trying to play like him was good early training for fast tunes like reels, actually.
Around the same time I became more aware of folk music. My mum took me to see the Corries, which would probably have been the first time I saw a mandolin being played. She also took me to the Inverness Folk Festival, where I saw Davey Graham and Martin Carthy on the same bill. I played both rock and folk music (only on guitar) till I was about 19, when I first tried a mandolin.
Was the mandolin your first instrument?.
So the guitar was my first instrument. I went to Stirling University and met Nick Keir, who’s now in the MacCalmans. He played the mandolin, and it was by borrowing his mandolin that I got started.
When did you play your first concert in front of a real audience? How did it go?
I did various things at school -‘battle of the bands’ and the like. They went quite well actually! At Stirling I would do floor spots at the folk club. I teamed up with a singer/songwriter there for a while. He liked the mandolin behind his songs, so my first gigs were probably with him.
After Stirling, I formed a group with Duncan MacGillivray and Christine Martin back in Easter Ross, where I come from. Duncan went on to join the Battlefield Band, and Christine has published a lot of Scottish music books with her company Taigh Na Teud, now based in Skye. Duncan is best known as a piper, but is also very good on guitar, whistle and mouth organ. Christine mostly played fiddle, but later became good on the clarsach.
There wasn’t really anybody else doing what we were in our area. It was a period where I learnt a lot about Scottish music and began to think of the mandolin as my main instrument. We ran a folk club, and we used to be the resident band. That would have been my first real performance I suppose. Probably pretty rough but OK, I think.
Afterwards, I formed a group called Black Donald, with Iain MacBeath on fiddle and Ian MacDonald on guitar and vocals. We did a lot of gigging and released an album on Lismor.
What mandolins do you own? Which one(s) is(are) your favorite(s)?
I have 3 mandolins. My main one is a 10 string Sobell. I also have a Gibson A model, and somewhere I have a solid -bodied Errington, which I haven’t played since I got a pick-up in the Sobell.
I recently had some work done on the Gibson, and I’ve been enjoying playing it around the house. For live stuff I always use the Sobell.
Can you tell us how you have your mandolin set up, and about the strings and picks you use?
My 10 string Sobell is tuned standard with an extra pair of D strings on the bottom. I usually use D’Addario J74 strings, with bottom E guitar strings on the bass. I’m still
trying different things on the Gibson. I’m currently using J74s, although I quite like light gauge J62s for it. For plectrums I always use white Sharkfins.
I had a soundhole pick-up put in the Sobell by Mike Vanden in the early 90’s. He has since sold the design to Fishman. It is much the same as their Rare Earth guitar pick-up. No pick-up in the Gibson. I quite like to bring it to sessions, but have rarely gigged with it.
How do you tackle the thorny problem of pick direction in jigs?
I’m not sure, because I never think about it at all when I’m playing. I know that many people say you should play DUD DUD, but I went to a workshop a couple of years ago with bluegrass guitarist Steve Kaufman, who insisted you should always play down up, down up, although I have to say I’ve never heard him play a jig. When I have tried to analyze my playing, it seemed to me that it varied depending on the tune. If the tune started on the top string, I sometimes seemed to start with an upward movement.
Let me give you an example. The jig ‘Stool of Repentance’ has got a lead-in note which is open top E, before the tune really gets going. I definitely play that with an up movement, enabling me to hit the first note of the first bar with a down movement. I actually reckon Steve might be right. Your up movement should be as strong as your down movement. If that’s the case, I don’t see why you wouldn’t play a jig DUD UDU etc. But as I say, I never analyze it.
Do you have any advice or tips for beginning/intermediate/advanced players?
It depends where they’re coming from. Quite often they can play the fiddle or guitar, so obviously that has a bearing on the advice I would give them. I do find that getting good tone and volume can cause problems. I would say one of the main things is not pressing down hard enough on the left hand (if you’re a right-handed player, that is). For the right hand, you need to get a lot of power from wrist movement. Try not to use your arm. As I often say, ‘You’re not chopping wood!’
Apart from yourself, of course, which players do you particularly admire and why?
I’m a great fan of Andy Statman. Looking forward to his new live mandolin album. The sound clips on his web-site are fantastic Johnny Staats is amazing, but his album was spoiled for me by the unremarkable vocal tracks. However, the mandolin playing is really fabulous, and so is his tone. John Reischman, Mike Marshall, Thile, Grisman, Matt Flinner – all these guys are great.
Do you play any other instruments?
Yes. I play a Windsor tenor banjo with a nice short neck and an 8 string octave mandolin by Sobell which I tune ADae (from the bottom). I also have a Freshman guitar which cost me an unbelievable £75 about 4 years ago. Not a bad guitar, actually. Loud, good tone, plays perfectly right up the neck. I don’t use guitar for gigs, so it does me fine for guitar lessons etc. I can also play tin whistle a bit.
How would you like to develop as a musician in the future?
Well, even after all these years I still feel the need to play every day, just for myself. I try to keep up with all these whizz kid young players, not least my own children. I’ve been doing a lot of music in primary schools in the last year as part of Youth Music Initiative. The idea is that you involve all the children in the class in making Scottish music together. I take in various old guitars and my banjo and get the kids to have a go.
We also use keyboards, glockenspiels, whistles, fiddles, percussion, anything at all really. I usually get them to hold down the chord of D and get rhythm patterns going on the guitar. Tunes like Fairy Lullaby, for example. The results are better than you might think. I also do a weekly guitar class, so teaching has become more important to me, and I’m trying to get better at it. I usually play my Gibson mando when I’m doing the schools.
Outwith of that, most of my gigs are dances. These are long gigs, and you need to have plenty of material. I’m not sure I see myself necessarily developing as a musician doing those, but I like it and it helps your playing. It’s important to have good timing, with lots of ‘lift’ in your playing. Note: that is NOT the same thing as playing fast and furious. Lift is a difficult thing to describe, but you know it when you hear it, or more accurately you dance to it.
Apart from that, I’ve been working on a lot of stuff with my son Colin, who is 19. He is a really good guitar and bouzouki player, and has already had some TV exposure. We’re getting some nice things going which we’ll probably record reasonably soon.
Desert Island discs: which would be the one piece of music you would have to take? (throw in a second and third if you like!) Sheet music? Or recorded?
Impossible question, of course. I would probably have to cheat and make up a compilation. If I had to, I think I would choose ‘The Crossing’ by Tim O’Brien, which I think is a classic album. He’s a great mandolin player, but I also love his singing. His albums are always good. I particularly like his ‘Red on Blonde’ Dylan one. If it was only mandolin, probably ‘Into the Cauldron’ by Mike Marshall and Chris Thile.
Some people seem to find that album a bit flashy with no soul, but I don’t agree. There’s some interesting compositions and amazing playing. I enjoy their use of mandolin as a rhythm instrument. I like Mike Marshall’s stuff. Very tasteful player, I would say.
What plans do you have for forthcoming CDs and performances?
As I mentioned, Colin and I will probably make an album soon. I’ve been playing a lot of older Scottish tunes. I’m aware that there are lots of new tunes which younger people play all the time, but they often don’t know the basic old ones. I’ve been digging out these great old tunes from books like Kerr’s Vol 1, which I never hear anyone playing. Hopefully we would then do some gigs on the back of that. I would also like to spend more time accompanying singers. I’ve done quite a bit with Julie Fowlis, who of course is becoming huge now.
How has your location influenced your music?
It’s the biggest single influence, no question. I’m a farmer. I have an upland cattle and sheep place. I see my farming and music as integral parts of my Highland lifestyle. The music I play at weddings, birthdays etc is very much tied in with what Highland people want for a ceilidh dance. Things like the right speed to play a Highland Schottische or a Canadian Barn dance, and what tunes you would play. I can’t really emphasize enough how important I think playing for a dance is.
Years ago people were very influenced by Irish music – Planxty and Chieftains etc – and you heard those tunes a lot at sessions. Now that has changed and people tend to play mostly Scottish tunes. I think it’s good that people can identify with tunes from their own area.
What burning issues do you have that you would like to have been asked about?
I think that’s pretty much it. I’m generally quite happy with how things are going. Not enough people are playing the mandolin, but there’s lots of good young fiddle players around. Perhaps I can get them to try the mandolin.