Mark O’Connor

Virtuoso Comeback
Mark O’Connor
O’Connor with his ’45 Martin D-28 herringbone.
Mark O’Connor: Maggie O’Connor.

Some musicians are multi-instrumentalists, but Mark O’Connor is something else – a multi-virtuoso. Regarded as a master on guitar, violin, and mandolin, he’s also a noted classical composer and educator behind The O’Connor Method.

A 20-year bout with inflammatory bursitis forced O’Connor to focus on fiddle, but the condition eventually subsided and he once again picked up his flat-top to record a sequel to his 1978 album, Markology (recorded when he was just 16).

Markology II is a jaw-dropping acoustic extravaganza. Here, O’Connor talks about the album, longtime heroes Tony Rice and Steve Morse, and his beloved ’45 Martin D-28 herringbone.

How did Markology II come about?
When I came back to guitar after the two-decade layoff, it was really the dreadnought sound that drew me back in. The tone of my ’45 Martin D-28 was always in the back of my mind. It was also the sound of Tony Rice’s guitar – his playing that had always been with me, even when I wasn’t playing guitar at all. It is a profound experience to have a mentor as a child and also have that person’s music remain with you for life. For me, that’s the case with Tony Rice.

When did you first hear Rice?
I was a young bluegrass guitar player and greatly influenced by the major guitarists of the day – Norman Blake, Doc Watson, Dan Crary, Clarence White. Then, Tony came into the picture and quickly became the guy for me, I learned all of his licks I could figure out from the records. When he passed away last Christmas, memories came flooding back. It’s overwhelming when a major figure in your childhood passes on. So, I dedicated the new album in Tony’s memory.

When did you first play alongside him?
In ’79, he asked me to be in the first version of the Tony Rice Unit, after I had accepted the job of replacing him in the David Grisman Quintet. It didn’t last but a month before Grisman made a stink about it, and then Tony did, as well. I was 17, and it was really tough to figure out what to do when they both wanted me to play. It was complicated even more so that Grisman’s first tour was accompanying my greatest violin hero, Stéphane Grappelli. They had Carnegie Hall scheduled and there was more to come. So I went with David, but Tony’s music was always in my mind; he was a huge figure in my musical and personal life.

For rock players, playing with Rice was equivalent to jamming with Eric Clapton.
Yes, the acoustic version!

O’Connor with Tony Rice in 1978, both with D-28s.

By the time you were 20, you’d played with Grisman and Grappelli, essentially stepping into the shoes of both Rice and Django Reinhardt.
I was hyper-aware of replacing Tony in the David Grisman Quintet, and the accompanying pressure. I’d been on the road as a traveling musician since age 12, competing against the greatest fiddlers in the country for several years, and winning. I knew about nerves, intimidation, and what was at stake when you messed up! Add Stéphane Grappelli and trying to provide a Django-styled accompaniment with a bluegrass flavor, and it was a tall order, especially since Stéphane became my mentor on violin and wanted me to play twin parts with him on jazz tunes during those tours.

How did you navigate that kind of pressure?
I was used to filling roles and pushing myself into new musical territories. I’d been straddling the worlds of bluegrass and Texas-style contest fiddle, hanging out at the highest levels in those areas… though this was one level up! I felt all the pressure you could imagine, and if I was getting too comfortable – even for a minute – the principals around me made sure I remained at attention. I felt like every single rhythmic pick stroke was analyzed, in real time, by everyone around me. High pressure, day in and day out.

On the new album, “Flailing” is based on your famous “Lonesome Pine” TV performance from 30-some years ago.
“Flailing” is a jam-tune that has been around, though this version is 90 percent new; there’s only about 45 seconds that hold over from each version through the years – but everything else keeps changing.

Like Steve Morse, you use high-speed chromatic runs.
Yes, I love modal-type uses for passage work, and Steve was a huge influence in that area. His use of runs that build from low strings and end on a high note on the E-string is something I applied to my own guitar playing from those days. And with the heavy strings on an acoustic, I can find weight and sustain to end on. It’s payoff for the effort to make it up there!

How is playing fast runs on acoustic different from electric?
With the thin high E on an electric, the top note wimps out and falls off the cliff. Morse often ends with a nice, big sustained note high on the fretboard, similar to what I do with the violin, actually. But with a .014 high E, I can get that payload up there to finish (laughs).

What kind of strings and picks do you use?
A lot of my sound comes from heavy strings – D’Addario .014 to .059 – and a very thick BlueChip .55 triangle pick. I have the action high enough that I can play very aggressively with no fret buzz. That’s how I put out some volume on an acoustic guitar.

When you played fiddle with the Dixie Dregs in the early ’80s, you pulled out a Les Paul for the encore. Was it vintage?
It was a black ’69 Custom with custom pickups; I used it to try keeping up with Steve on a few twin-guitar tunes each show. I played electric in my high-school fusion group, but even when I was 19 in the Dregs, I was still mainly an acoustic player. I never got to play an acoustic in the band, to my disappointment – I always thought it could’ve stretched the Dregs’ sound way more. Still, trying to stay with Steve on the electric was my job! He had his great rig, and I was playing guitar through my violin rig. It never quite sounded right, but it was incredible training, even if it was an exercise in humility.

Do you still have the Custom?
When I quit guitar for those 20 years, I sold every one except for my Martin herringbone. After the Dregs broke up, I acquired a beautiful ’55 Les Paul Junior I loved more and used it on a couple of my early Warner Brothers solo albums. Steve guested on one of those, too.

Your acoustic tone on “Greensleeves” is so warm and sweet. How do you achieve that with such a fast, aggressive picking technique?
I was impressed with the tone of the guitars I got on these tracks. Béla Fleck, who wrote the album’s liner notes, asked me the same thing. It’s one of the reasons I decided to release a full album. We talked about microphone selection, and he has some similar to mine – AKG C12 and C24 condenser mics – but he said his don’t sound as good. We came to the conclusion it was partly about the AKGs, but also had a lot to do with my two amazing guitars – a Colorado Guitar Company flat-top made in the style of my old Martin, and the herringbone, which I played on Markology 42 years earlier.

What’s the story behind that Colorado flat-top?
It’s a very special instrument, built by John Baxendale. We’d been on tour with my Mark O’Connor Family band for a year at that time, and there was one tune from our Grammy-winning album that everyone was encouraging me to play guitar on, even though I had no callouses for guitar; you can hear the result on A Musical Legacy. To make the song come off, I borrowed a guitar from my son, Forrest, who mostly played mandolin in the group. It was an awesome new flat-top made by John with the dreadnought sound I loved as a kid. That really impressed me. There’s a polish to the Baxendale guitar that I absolutely love, as well. I can put heavy strings on it and not worry they’ll tear the top off like they would on my old Martin.

How does the D-28 figure into the picture?
My wife, Maggie, who played violin and sang in the group, encouraged me to get my own guitar to take on the road, but also to play at home. While I was waiting for the guitar from John, I started to practice on that old herringbone and fell in love with the sound again – it was like I was a kid discovering that tone for the first time. Today, the herringbone is mostly a backup again, even though it’s a freak-of-nature guitar. It and the Colorado have something in common, but also have unique characteristics. I’m glad both are on this album.

The 1978 Markology sessions included Dan Crary (left), Tony Rice, and a teenaged O’Connor, here recording “Fluid Drive.”

You’re a famed fiddler. How does violin inform your guitar pickin’?
Fiddle has always influenced my flatpicking approach. Many flatpickers play fiddle tunes on guitar, and that was something of an automatic connection for me. Two tunes on the album, “Beaumont Rag” and “Salt Creek,” are obvious examples of fiddle tunes, and of course, the influence of violin playing is heard throughout my guitar playing on the record.

How about your classical-composition side?
My American classical composing helped me create arrangements for guitar on the album and develop the improvisational ideas. With it, I could extend the forms in a unique and hopefully meaningful way for solo flatpicking, which is an unusual setting. I employ my own brand of American classical harmony, rhythm, dynamics, and longer-form structures to carry Markology II to a conclusion; part of the “orchestral” nature of my approach on guitar is the use of non-pattern cross-picking, resulting in a bit of counterpoint and syncopation. For me, that resembles more of a pianistic approach. I can also equate it to plucking out the ranges and counterpoint of a classical string quartet.

How do you create such a dynamic approach for solo guitar?
One application is through simply strumming the guitar. Many flatpickers don’t often think of strumming as “lead” playing, but I incorporate it to provide contrast in texture and density, as well as finding dynamic builds and tension. One of the interesting things I’ve worked on a lot over the last three years is strumming aggressively at a lower dynamic, then playing single-note lead lines at a stronger dynamic in the effort to make them equal. This increases the control I have in creating a broader palette of colors with the flat pick.

Since you’re so good at so many instruments, you must drive marketing people crazy. Did anyone at the labels ever try to get you to focus on one?
I had those warnings mostly as a kid (laughs). Once I got a contract with Warner at 23 and played all the instruments on those recordings, that pretty much shut up most of those folks.

I always used the multi-instrument thing to my advantage. In the early bands, I was doubling and tripling instruments. Same thing as a studio player in Nashville. I played three instruments on the Strength In Numbers album in ’89, The Telluride Sessions, and all through my solo projects.

You spent a long time playing just the violin.
For the first time, I became the player of a single instrument, at age 36. Bursitis forced me to lay down the guitar and mandolin for good – or so I thought. For the next 20 years, I was a fiddle player and that saw me through all of those violin concertos I composed for symphony orchestra and string quartet pieces. I also played violin in ensembles like the Hot Swing Trio with Frank Vignola, the Thirty Year Retrospective with Bryan Sutton and Chris Thile, the Yo-Yo Ma projects, and our Appalachia Waltz trio.

Did Markology II come from being on lockdown?
Yes, it’s definitely a result of the pandemic, which kept Maggie and myself home for more than a year. I had five of the tunes recorded before lockdown, but had no idea they would result into a complete solo guitar album. As I had much more time to experiment, I had more guitar renditions to preserve on tape. When I got to about the ninth tune, I sat back and thought, “Heck, I almost have enough for a solo guitar album.” So, just when I thought I was done making CDs – I got one more!

This article originally appeared in VG’s July 2021 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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