In this series of interviews, we talk to renowned Mandolin players, makers and enthusiasts.
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Mandolin Interview – Nigel Gatherer
Nigel Gatherer is both a teacher and performer on the mandolin. His specialty is Scottish music and he teaches classes around Scotland and workshops all over the UK. His website, www.nigelgatherer.com, has become a terrific resource not just for mandolin players, but for any people interested in traditional music. He lives in Crieff, Perthshire.
How did you get started in music? Was the mandolin your first instrument?
Actually ukulele was my first instrument. My two elder brothers were sent to piano, but because they didn’t take to it, by my turn my parents had given up. However, they did give me a ukulele one Christmas, and I loved it. My brothers then went onto guitar, and I would sneak shots and dream of being The Beatles. When I got my own guitar as a teenager I thought it was the way to meet girls. In my late teenage years, after a brief flirtation with jazz (which is hopeless for meeting girls, by the way) I discovered Scottish music and, not having much money, the penny whistle became my main instrument. It was great, but these pesky Scottish strathspey in B flat were a bit of a challenge, so I looked around for something else, and my hands rested on a mandolin; the rest, as they say, is history.
Why did you begin to play the mandolin?
I needed something more versatile than the whistle, and my brother happened to have a mandolin lying around. To this day I thank providence that he didn’t play the tuba. For years I wasn’t that interested in the mandolin itself, but rather what I could play on it. When I started teaching I started researching the mandolin and the music played on it. That’s when I’d say I became a mandolinist.
When did you play your first gig in front of a real audience? How did it go?
After years of playing music by myself, I joined a folk group and started playing with others. It was exhilarating, and I formed the conviction that music is FOR playing with other people: there’s simply nothing like it. Anyway, we had loads of public performances, and I went from being extremely nervous the first time, to enjoying it later on. It helped that the reactions were generally favourable.
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? Do you prefer large venues or small? Do you prefer a small informal get together with friends to a professional gig?
I’ve performed in various contexts, from being part of a large ensemble, through a folk group, to solo playing. Nowadays I play as part of a mandolin/guitar duet with Sam Gifford from Loch Tummell, and that’s ideal for me. There is a dynamic which happens when we play together that is priceless. I joke by saying that anyone who makes me sound good is OK by me, but the truth is that when Sam and I play together, the sum is greater than the parts, and it’s hugely enjoyable. We often play in informal settings, such as at hotel functions almost as background music – that’s fine because there’s absolutely no pressure on us. It’s like we having a rehearsal, but we get paid for it! We also play concerts, and there’s a little more pressure in that; however, I made up my mind ages ago that I was going to enjoy myself playing music, and I think that helps. I don’t usually feel I have anything to prove.
What mandolins do you own?
My mandolin for the past year and a half has been a Kai Tonjes. Kai is a German who works in Ramsgate, and his instruments suit me perfectly. I saw them on a stall at a festival and tried them out – I knew they were good, but didn’t feel I could afford one. couple of months later he lent me one for a few days, and he never got it back! I also have a mandolin by Ewan Cattanach from Aberfeldy.
What would be your reaction if a friend sat on your favourite mandolin?
I know what my reaction would be because something similar has happened, except I can’t blame a friend. Twice I have dropped my Kai Tonjes, and the second time was rather serious, producing a nasty crack in the neck. I sent it back to Kai and he ended up fitting a carbon rod in the neck to strengthen it – so far it has behaved well, and so have I. I treated the mandolin to a Pegasus case which offers great protection, so I’m looking after it more these days.
Can you tell us how you have your mandolin set up, and about the strings and picks you use?
Nothing special about the set-up. I use Newtone strings which I like, and which are not very expensive. I used to scoff at people who talked about picks a lot. I’d say I could play with anything; however, lately I’ve been going through phases with picks. For a while I liked Golden Gates, huge thick blunt picks from the states. Now I have an old tortoiseshell plectrum which is my favourite. I keep losing it, but it finds its way back to me.
Do you ever play electric mandolin? When would you choose this rather than an acoustic instrument?
Never played an all-electric mandolin. I’m so enamoured of acoustic music that I can’t see myself going for an electric. However, I have just had Kai fit a pick-up into my mandolin, so I’ll be playing amplified a lot more in the future.
Which players do you particularly admire and why?
There are so many. Dave Swarbrick was possibly the first musician I was aware of who played mandolin, and I’ve always loved his playing on both mando and fiddle. There is a joy of playing and love of music which comes across, and that’s not easy to fake. Kenneth “Jethro” Burns is another favourite, again for the joy he conveys, but also because there are few people who have ever displayed such a mastery of the instrument before or since.
How would you like to develop as a musician in the future?
I’d like to be less focused on repertoire and more focused on technique. I’d like to play for dancing more. I’d like to get together with other musicians and play for the fun of it. I’d like to keep enjoying playing music, full stop.
Desert Island discs: which would be the one piece of music you would have to take?
Jethro Burns: Tea for One
If you had to start over again would you still choose the mandolin?
Without a doubt. Last week a chap came 200 miles to meet up with Sam and me. We spent the afternoon in a bar talking and playing mandolins and parted best of friends. I can’t see that happening with a couple of tuba players, but I may be wrong.
Do you have any advice or tips for beginning/intermediate/advanced players?
Beginners: Go on a voyage of discovery; find out what your passionate about. Listen to other mandolin players on record and in person. Play, play and play. The two things you need more than anything else at your stage are patience and perseverance.
Intermediate: Keep playing. Find other people to play with, not just mandolin players.
Advanced: Do what you love and love what you do.
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