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Tony Rice Was My Guitar Hero

Tony Rice performs on stage during Bonnaroo 2009 in Manchester, Tenn..
Jason Merritt/TERM
Tony Rice performs on stage during Bonnaroo 2009 in Manchester, Tenn..

Tony Rice was my first guitar hero. He inspired me and so many others to strive for excellence on the acoustic flat-top, explore new genres and never be afraid to take risks. To discover Rice's playing and singing is to discover his deep love for music that oozes out of every note, and his passion for sharing that beautiful gift with the world. His expansive catalogue of recordings reflect a curious spirit devoted to exploring uncharted territory on his instrument. Many of us have learned Rice's songs and licks note for note but no one can make the guitar sound quite like he did. He continues to set the standard for masterful guitar playing and singing.

I'm heartbroken by his passing but comforted by the way his spirit lives on in these songs. Whether you have loved Rice's music for years or are a new listener, I hope you enjoy this list of some of my favorite songs that he recorded. It was hard to narrow it down since so much of his music is incredibly dear to my heart, but I tried to put together a collection of songs that showed his many sides as an artist and displayed his development through the years as he continuously pushed boundaries as a guitar player and vocalist.


"Freeborn Man," Guitar (1973)

You hear Rice's classic voice and signature guitar style on full display in the first few seconds of this song. To this day Rice is in a league of his own as both a singer and instrumentalist. When this recording came out in 1973, the licks you hear at the beginning were unlike anything else being done on the guitar. The fluidity of his technique and his note choices that often broke from the melody of the song and leaned heavily on blues and chromatic scales created a sound that was all his own. Now his style has been imitated by countless players. Almost 50 years since the release of "Freeborn Man," the recordings Rice made throughout his life continue to set the standard for great bluegrass guitar playing.

"E.M.D.," the david grisman quintet (1977)

In 1975 Rice moved to California to play with David Grisman and they recorded The David Grisman Quintet. This is the first track from that groundbreaking album. Rice's lead and rhythm playing fuse the intensity of bluegrass with the harmonic complexity of jazz in a way that no other guitar player in the world had done at this point. I love this tune because the melody Grisman plays at the top is catchy and accessible, and then Rice takes it to another dimension with his mind blowing solo. "E.M.D." strikes a masterful balance between complexity and musicality.

"manzanita," Manzanita (1979)

To me, Manzanita is Rice's quintessential solo album because it showcases his talents as a composer and versatility as a guitar player and singer at the top of his game. I think of this tune as Rice's take on the blend of bluegrass, jazz and folk that Grisman pioneered, known as dawg music. You can hear how much influence Grisman had on Rice's playing and writing. In his autobiography, Rice talks about how Grisman was the one who encouraged him to write his own music. "Manzanita" is the only original song on the album, but it shows Rice coming into his own as a composer and displays his unique interpretation of jazz through the lens of bluegrass guitar playing.

"Bury Me Beneath The Willow," Skaggs & rice (1980)

Even though Rice only sings on the chorus of this track and doesn't take a single guitar solo it will always be one of my all time favorite recordings of his because it showcases his brilliance as a rhythm guitar player as well as the incredible chemistry he had singing with country-bluegrass superstar Ricky Skaggs. I get chills every time when Rice comes in on lead for the chorus and Skaggs jumps up to the high harmony. Listen for the tasteful bass runs that he plays to lead from one chord to the next, and to the way his strumming pops out at all the right times.

"Church Street Blues," church street blues (1983)

My favorite Rice recordings will always be his solo guitar outings because you can hear all the nuance and beauty in his playing and singing. One of the central elements of bluegrass guitar is cross picking (a picking pattern where you alternate between three adjacent strings on the guitar.) "Church Street Blues" is a true cross picking masterclass. Close your eyes and listen to how Rice's pick glides across the strings and dances around the melody. He uses cross picking and strumming to fill out the chord changes around his leads so that the song sounds full even though there is no band behind him. He also uses the cascading runs behind his vocals to compliment the lyrics and tie in each section of the song seamlessly.

"Old Home Place," J.D. Crowe & The New South (1975)

Here's a recording of Rice from when he was 24 years old, before he'd joined The Grisman Quintet. He takes a beautiful half solo towards the end of the song and you can hear how early in his career he was exploring uncharted territory as a guitar player. His singing sounds less mature here than on some of his later recordings but you can still hear the signature baritone sound that cemented him as one of the all time great bluegrass vocalists.

"Blue Ridge Cabin Home" The Bluegrass Album (1981)

This album was recorded entirely live and has become one of the most influential bluegrass albums of all time. Rice's voice never sounded better and recording technology had improved since the early 70s when he was first recording with J.D. Crowe. If you love hearing Rice singing and playing straight-ahead bluegrass classics, then this is the album for you!

"Salt Creek," Norman blake & Tony rice 2 (1990)

"Salt Creek" is a standard in bluegrass jams and a must know for any aspiring flat picker. Rice puts his own spin on it as a duet with fellow guitar legend Norman Blake. This was one of the first tunes I ever learned on guitar. I've played it countless times throughout my life, but when I listen to this recording I always hear something new.

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Molly Tuttle