Power Pickers
of the '60's

Musicians of the Flower Generation


Archive for September, 2009

SCOTT HAMBLY: Good Pickin’, No Dickin’

Long-haul (47 yrs) friend of mine, mandolin player Scott Hambly, sent me this link http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rCCu5V5HZPc

of him with Phil Marsh,  frequent figure at the famous Berkeley music non-profit dive, Freight and Salvage, and some of  its  friends celebrating its move from Addison Street to Addison Street (Berkeley’s a small town).

Scott is prob. the least recognized, most under-appreciated mandolinist in all Bluegrass. This has always seemed strange to me since he is so musical and his playing so forceful, on an instrument that often sounds like it’s decorating wedding cakes w/arabesques and fru-fru. But ten notes into a Scott Hambly instrumental break and you know you’re listening to someone who doesn’t dick around.

Original Ridgerunners, ca. 1962; Scott Hambly, mandolin, Greg Lasser, banjo, Country Al Ross, guitar.

Original Ridgerunners, ca. 1962; Scott Hambly, mandolin, Greg Lasser, banjo, "Country Al" Ross, guitar.

I’ve known Scott well since our college days at Cal (Berkeley), when he co-formed, with banjo-player Greg Lasser and myself (guitar), the Ridgerunners , an oft-gigging, carefully ignored band that worked the Bay Area for fun and profit in the early ‘Sixties.

My fear is that Scott will eventually pass to his reward without having recorded enough material to document just how good, and important to Bluegrass and American roots music in general, he is.

So here’s my plan: friends of his and mine are going to kidnap and record him, then shoot him and market the tapes as the “Last Recordings of Scott Hambly.” Don’t tell him.

Mandolin players do not get the popular attention guitarists, banjo and fiddle players do; there seems to be room for only a half-dozen or so names in even BG afficionados’ hearts and minds. E.g., in my own echoing caverns there are, besides Scott, Bill Monroe, Jesse McReynolds, David Grisman, Roland White, Bobby Osborne and Cowboy Herb Steiner, and there is no question Scott is in this club. I won’t say exactly where; not first but not last.

Scott was an original Redwood Canyon Rambler, the Berkeley band that started playing ‘Grass as early at 1958 or ’59. I don’t want to go into their history since you can Google it yourself, but anyone who was in that band, or even came to see it, qualifies as a first generation urban shit-kicker of the highest order.

They were slightly ahead of my time in the Bay Area, so I never actually saw them play. But I’ve heard tapes of them and I think they set the bar pretty high for the era—as well as the area—they were playing in. There was naught but a dearth of talent in Northern California in the late 1950’s to actually see and learn from. Plus, they were basically college students, not Tennessee dirt farmers.

They were quite dedicated to authenticity, even if they could only cop it from records. But Scott was more driven than the rest. He seems to have always had an F-5, which he constantly traded up to the one he has now, which I’ve seen and heard—sounding exxx-cellent, Dude!—within the last year, and I know is worth a quarter mil if it’s worth a Riyal.

He also pushed himself hard on technique. He developed a style of playing he calls “cross-picking,” something like Jesse McReynolds’ style, but with more arpeggiation and fewer scale steps. Largely because of this modification, cross-picking affords him an awesome amount of power and clarity, two qualities which help define his playing style.

His linear, i.e., melody-line, playing doesn’t exactly suck, either. He’s eschewed noodling all his career, has never indulged in shticky ornamentation for its own sake. His stuff reminds me most of Bill Monroe’s: hard-hewn and no-nonsense. He digs into the strings like they were a brand new Ben & Jerry’s flavor.

Btw, before I forget, Scott adapted cross-picking to the guitar in a limited (it only works in certain fingerings in certain keys) but  really exciting way  in that it makes you want to dive for cover to avoid incoming ordinance.   Again, his use of it is marked by power and clarity, and is sometimes even more Scruggs-like than when he uses the technique on the mandolin.

Hambly and Ross with Pete Berg subbing for Greg Lasser on banjo, at the Cabale, 1962.

Hambly and Ross with Pete Berg subbing for Greg Lasser on banjo, at the Cabale, 1962.

He taught it to me, and I further adapted it to electric guitar. However, it seems to only work well, i.e., feel good,  in the plugged-in guitar world if you use a hollow-body, e.g., my Gibson ES-335TDC, because the technique needs the trampoline-like resilience of a guitar top that a solid body, like a Les Paul or a Stratocaster, just doesn’t have.

I used the technique on sessions in the mid-‘Sixties and early ‘Seventies, most notably on an album my band, Evergreen Blueshoes, made on the Amos label in 1968 , and which is available from the trunk of my Camry with no coaxing at all. This excerpt from the Hedgehog Song sort of illustrates what I’m talking about. I use the picking technique today to get girls. I give Hambly absolutely no credit for it at all. I mean, what are friends for?

I’ve played with Scott within the last year, and he seems to still have the same kind of juice in his picking I remember from 40 years ago and back, even if I don’t. Do NOT judge his playing from the utterly dumb YouTube clip I made you listen to earlier in this article. He was playing with friends, not all of whom were pros and we all know what that can do to even the best of pickers.

Listen, instead, to this clip of Way Downtown and Footprints in the Snow which he made with the Country Boys when their bandleader and regular mandolin player, Roland White, Clarence’s brother, was doing a stint in the service around 1965 or ’66. Here my man’s singing high harmony to bass player Roger Bush’s melody and doing some fancy cross-picking at the same time. Kind of gives “walking and chewing gum” a new meaning, don’tcha think?

(This is the first public exposure of this recording, and if you know what to listen for you can hear some of Clarence White’s fine guitar work bubbling up to the surface from time to time.)

Anyway, I’m going to finish writing this shameless encomium, post it, and tell Scott about it so that maybe he’ll scan a picture he has of him and Clarence playing together and send it to me, like he promised he would. I have no pride at all, do I?