In this series of interviews, we talk to renowned Mandolin players, makers and enthusiasts.
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Mandolin Interview – Simon Mayor
Those familiar with Simon Mayor’s playing will be aware of the beautiful tone he gets from his Vanden mandolin, whether playing beautifully decorated melodies, complex chordal arrangements of tunes or accompanying the playing or singing of others.
His playing covers a wide range of styles from classical to Celtic to bluegrass to children’s songs.
He can be seen on stage with his partner, Hilary James, with the Mandolinquents and recently with Ms. James as guests of Fairport Convention. His performances showcase not only his considerable talents as a mandolinist but also as a guitarist and fiddle player – as well as his infectious sense of fun.
How did you get started in music? Was the mandolin your first instrument? Why did you begin to play the mandolin?
Apparently I used to play the piano and compose tunes when I was about five. I can’t remember a thing about this now, and I’m fairly clueless on a piano these days. When I was about eight I was going mad for a guitar but my parents couldn’t afford much so they bought me a ukulele. I taught myself for a couple of years; I can’t remember having any tutor book but somehow I learned how to tune it and play chords.
Eventually my parents bought me a guitar when I was ten. It was an appalling instrument but I didn’t know that at the time and I was so excited and so grateful. I took up the mandolin much later, in my late teens. I’d heard Dave Swarbrick and Fairport Convention and about the same time caught some classical mandolin on the radio.
So, the Beethoven Sonatina for Mandolin in C was one of the first things I learned alongside traditional tunes. It was easier than starting from scratch of course, but to be honest, although my fingers were loosened up, I hadn’t made huge progress as a guitarist by that time, I’d just been strumming a few chords and singing a few songs. I didn’t start to make real progress as a musician until my late teens and early twenties.
How did you learn to play to such a high level?
I’m completely self-taught and can honestly say I’ve never pushed myself through any gruelling practice regimes. I’ve always played a lot, particularly when I watch the telly (much to the annoyance of anyone else in the room) and I’ve never found it a chore; it’s just such an enjoyable thing to do. I suppose if you enjoy it, you get better at it naturally. At first I would concentrate on dexterity, but, particularly after I got my first decent mandolin, tone became a big thing with me.
When did you play your first gig in front of a real audience? How did it go?
I would have been sixteen, I suppose. It was with Ian Vernon, my best mate from school, who had built himself an Appallachian dulcimer. We played at a youth club near Doncaster and got a couple of quid for our bus fare from Sheffield and fish and chips. It seemed like a huge amount of money at the time. The evening went OK as I remember. Ian and I were always more of a comedy act than anything.
Tell us about the contexts in which you like to perform. For example, do you prefer to perform as a solo artist, a duo or as part of a group?
What about as a member of a mandolin orchestra?
Do you prefer large venues or small?
Do you prefer a small informal get together with friends to a professional gig?
I like to have at least one other person on stage with me – usually my partner Hilary James of course. We’ve been playing together so long that we have a sixth sense and it just feels very comfortable. I have great admiration for people like Radim Zenkl who do solo mandolin concerts, but, much as I love the instrument, I love variety even more and I don’t want to go that route. As for larger groups, yes I love it.
We play with our quartet The Mandolinquents when we can, and Hilary and I have recently had a huge buzz doing the guest spot on the Fairport Convention tour, playing a few numbers with the band and doing sold-out venues up to 1500 seats. I’ve occasionally sat in as part of mandolin orchestras when I’ve been invited to CMSA and AmGuSS gatherings in the USA.
I love informal get togethers and I also love doing ‘proper’ gigs; they’re just different things. A friend of ours organises bluegrass sessions occasionally and they’re such fun – everyone gets a chance at a 32 bar break and it doesn’t matter what standard you’re at.
The nice thing is that everyone else backs off while you do your break, so even a mandolin gets heard. There’s a strong sense of dynamics there. I never go to Irish music sessions; everyone plays at once, and even with a good mandolin, you’ll never be heard and will probably give yourself RSI trying.
As for gigs, the bigger the audience, the better. This is not to say I don’t enjoy them all, but you can create an informality and an intimacy even in a large auditorium. It’s not really got anything to do with the size of the room, just with how you relate to the audience.
You have played Vanden f-hole instruments for many years and Mike Vanden now builds an SM signature model.
Received wisdom might suggest that you should use a round back for classical, an oval hole for Celtic and jazz and an f-hole for bluegrass yet you seem very happy to use the same mandolin for a very wide range of musical styles.
What is it about your mandolin that makes it suitable for anything and everything?
I used to play a roundback but have been using a carved, f-hole for over twenty years now. For me there is a greater variety of tone colour in this style of mandolin and I’ve never looked back; it just seems to work in any musical idiom. But it’s just a personal thing of course; I should say that some of the greatest technicians I’ve ever heard play round-backs – Tatiana Osipov, Carlo Aonzo – they’re both really exciting players.
When I used a round-back I would play bluegrass on it as well as classical, now I play classical on a carved mandolin. A few people have a problem with that, but I’ve not exactly had any sleepless nights over it. As for oval holes, I’m generally not keen.
They tend to have just one sound which is mellow and tubby and instantly gratifying, but doesn’t have the subtleties, dynamic range or projection of a good f-hole mandolin. I dislike flat top mandolins.
Can you tell us how you have your mandolin set up, and about the strings and picks you use?
I would describe the action as comfortable, lower than a bluegrass player would use. I play right up the very top of the fingerboard sometimes, so a high action would be impossible, however I do use heavy strings (11-40).
I use a medium gauge plectrum (0.75mm -ish), usually on one of the rounded corners rather than the sharp one. Bluegrass players usually find my set up on the light side, but I’m often surprised at how heavy some other people consider it to be when they try my mandolin.
In your travels, you must have played a huge number of instruments by a wide range of makers. Which makers do you particularly admire?
There are many good makers around these days. I look for a bell-like sound with lots of sustain which is why I like Mike Vanden’s instruments. I think Phil Davidson in Bristol is an extremely good maker. Richard Collins in our quartet has just bought a Christofek F5 (Czech) which, frankly, is the sort of instrument you just can’t argue with. It sustains like crazy and the craftsmanship is faultless.
Of the American makers, I think Nuggets (Mike Kemnitzer) are good. They’re very sweet, nutty sounding mandolins. They’re no good for my style, but can sound superb in the hands of other players. I also admire John Monteleone’s instruments.
Do you ever play electric mandolin? When would you choose this rather than an acoustic instrument? (I’ve seen the pictures of you and Fairport on the website!)
I used a solid, four string mandolin built by Martin Cole on the recent Fairport Convention tour. I went the whole hog and put it down various distortion and delay gizzmos. I’ll leave others to judge how tasteful it was, but I don’t care, I had huge fun! Having said that, my desert island mandolin would be acoustic.
How did you develop your unique approach to Celtic tunes?
Unlike many other players, you seem to use triplets sparingly, preferring other types of ornament, and you often play chordal arrangements of slower tunes. Where did these different ideas come from?
Because I’ve never really sat in on sessions for the reasons I mentioned earlier, I’ve never absorbed the ‘session’ style for playing traditional tunes. I know some people think my approach is too classical (which is ironic as I’ve not had any training) but I’ve always been more concerned with bringing out the beauty and shape of a tune rather than just flying through it at high speed and cluttering it with an excess of triplets.
I think lots of triplets can sound good coming from fiddle players but on a mandolin it tends to sound more like a machine gun. It’s more the stuff of tenor banjos I suppose.
So I use them sparingly and prefer to decorate using various right hand techniques – lots of hammers, pull-offs and slides. This has been my thinking for the fast tunes as well as the slow airs. A lot of the tunes I play are not in their usual keys, for the simple reason that I’ve worked out arrangements which suit the mandolin in a different key and since I never intend playing them in a session, it doesn’t matter.
Playing chordal arrangements of slow airs is something I find fascinating. Norms of left hand fingering go out of the window, and you have to approach it more as a classical guitarist would, looking a bar ahead all the time and using the most ergonomic fingering available.
Because you have less strings at your disposal than a guitarist, it’s also very important to work out just the right inversions of chords to imply the mood you want. In some ways this is more of a challenge than on a guitar.
Still on Celtic music, how do you tackle the thorny problem of pick direction in jigs?
I favour Down-Up-Down, Down-Up-Down most of the time as I think it retains the pulse, the danceability of the music better, but there are no hard and fast rules.
Apart from yourself, of course, which players do you particularly admire and why?
I’ve already mentioned round-back players Tatiana Osipov and Carlo Aonzo. I think Mike Marshall is a superb all-round mandolinist; he’s into South American music a lot these days, but I was sitting next to him once at a festival and he launched into some impromptu be-bop which was so exciting; he just leaves me smiling .
I love John Reischman’s tone. I think Patrick Vaillant from France is doing some very interesting things in the whole sphere of music from the Mediterranean area.
What other instruments do you play? Are you self-taught on all these instruments?
I play mandola, mandocello, guitar, violin and a bit of tin whistle – self taught on all. I’m planning on getting a soprano saxophone soon.
How would you like to develop as a musician in the future? And what plans do you have for future CD releases:
I tend not to plan; I just blow with the wind. There are various projects I’m thinking of, but I’ve not actually issued a solo album for a few years now, and this is the immediate priority, In fact, it’s nearly finished and it should be out for the Autumn.
If you had to start over again would you still choose the mandolin?
A difficult one. Probably I would still choose the mandolin because it’s been such a wonderful voyage of discovery for me, and in many ways it’s still unexplored territory as an instrument. However, when I listen to Heiffetz, I regret starting the violin at seventeen instead of three.
Do you have any advice or tips for beginning players?
What about those like me who have played for 30 years and haven’t improved since 6 months after we started? Any new instructional material coming out soon?
I’m not planning any new instructional material at the moment, but the two videos will be available on DVD very soon.
For beginners, I think getting a decent instrument is important, and the nice thing is that these days there are some pretty good mandolins around at less than £200.
I can’t tell you how horrible my first guitar was, and I can’t tell you how elated I was when, many years later, I got my first really good mandolin. Whether or not you’re having formal lessons, if you don’t enjoy it you won’t learn well. Getting fun and enjoyment from music is far more important than worrying about what standard you reach.
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!)
1. Heiffetz playing the Sibelius violin concerto
2. Heiffetz playing Max Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy
What would be your reaction if a friend sat on your favourite mandolin?
Mike Vanden still owns it so it would be his problem!
Seriously, while my SM model Vanden (his prototype incidentally) is on extended loan, I own a few Vandens and I tend to rotate them on gigs to keep them all happy, so I could still function perfectly well. Mike’s output seems to just get better so I’m sure I wouldn’t be disappointed with the replacement.
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