In this series of interviews, we talk to renowned Mandolin players, makers and enthusiasts.
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Shetland band Hom Bru have been playing together since 1978. The band currently consists of Gary Peterson (Banjo, Mandolin), Davie Henry (Mandolin, Vocals), Brian Nicholson (Guitar, Vocals) and John Robert Deyell (fiddle). They have played all over Europe.
Gary Peterson is a superb mandolinist with a mastery of the music of his native islands. The way he ornaments tunes is a joy to the ear and his use of short bursts of tremolo in place of the triplets others might use is especially distinctive and most impressive.
How did you get started in music? Was the mandolin your first instrument?
There was always a mandolin in our house. Both my father and grandfather played the mandolin: in fact my grandfather used to play a banjo mandolin at dances long before I was born. The fact that they both played and I found it easy to learn influenced me to take up the mandolin.
The mandolin is not a traditional instrument in the Shetlands, as far as I know. How do you adapt traditional playing styles – and especially traditional ornaments – to the instrument? In particular, how did you develop those amazing “triplets”?
You would be surprised how many mandolins there are in Shetland! Lots of Shetland seamen took them home from their travels abroad: it would have been an easy instrument to carry aboard the ships. I think my ‘triplets’ developed themselves. I used to try to play Italian and Greek tunes with lots of tremolo, and when I started to play traditional tunes, rather than playing three notes, I just naturally did short bursts of tremolo.
When did you play your first gig in front of a real audience?
I can’t remember what age I was, but it was a regatta concert in Unst, the most Northerly of the Shetland Isles. It went down really well, just me on my own with the mandolin.
Tell us about the contexts in which you like to perform. For example, do you prefer to perform as a solo artist, or as part of a group?
I definitely prefer playing with the group, or in a good going session. Also small venues can be great, and less worrying, but if you get a big crowd with you, you can’t beat it.
What mandolins do you own? Which one(s) is(are) your favourite(s) (for performing with, casual playing at home, in the studio, etc.)?
I use a Kentucky F5; I’ve had it for about 20 years. It has a Fishman pickup in the bridge, which saves a lot of feedback problems on stage. I also have a Flatbush Parrotblaster, an electric 5 stringer, made for me by Victor Smith of Flatbush Mandolins in Denmark: it’s like a small Fender Telecaster, but with a low C string. I only use the electric for experimental stuff, with effects pedals. I always use the acoustic for the serious stuff.
Can you tell us how you have your mandolin set up, and about the strings and picks you use?
I am not too fussy what strings to use – whatever I can get in the shop in Lerwick – but I always use Jim Dunlop nylon plectrums 0.60s and 0.74 mms.
Apart from yourself, of course, which players do you particularly admire and why?
I love the recordings of Dave Apollon and Jethro Burns, and I love the sound that Simon Mayor gets out of his mandolin.
You also play tenor banjo. How is your approach on the two instruments different?
With the mandolin I use my 1st, 2nd and 3rd fingers for the main scales, but on the banjo I use my 1st, 3rd and 4th (pinky) due to the longer scale length of the tenor banjo.
How would you like to develop as a musician in the future?
I would like to do a bit more experimenting with other types of music, and continue to get the chances to play outside Shetland with Hom Bru.
If you had to start over again would you still choose the mandolin?
I think so!
Do you have any advice or tips for beginning/intermediate/advanced players?
When beginning, get a fairly good mandolin: some of the really cheap ones just hurt your fingers and put you off. If you get a really good one and you give up, you will always get it sold.
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!)
Little Wing (Jimi Hendrix), Reach For The Sky (Jackson Browne), The Pearl (Phil Cunningham).
What would you do if a friend sat on you favourite instrument?
I would greet(cry).