Triple Threat Guitarist

Triple Threat Guitarist

Dimitri Vandellos:
David Grisman’s Triple-Threat Guitarist

Jon Sievert

Over the past dozen years, mandolinist David Grisman has showcased some of the world’s finest steel-string acoustic guitarists-including Tony Rice, Mark O’Connor, Mike Marshall, and Jon Sholle – while producing his unique blend of Jazz, bluegrass, classical, and ethnic music.  Thus it’s a surprise to discover that Dimitri Vandellos, the current occupant of the guitar chair in the David Grisman Quartet, never played or owned a steel-string until he joined the band.  The 29-year-old New York native was, instead, hired for his prowess on hollow body electric and nylon-string classical guitars.  He now plays all three.

Vandellos, the son of first generation Spanish and Russian immigrants, has been playing a nylon-string guitar since fifth grade, though he admits he started out whacking rock and roll on it with a pick.  By the time he reached high school, Dimitri had begun formal classical studies and had restricted his rock and roll to playing a Fender Stratocaster in a series of Top 40 and garage bands.  An introduction to the music of Django Reinhardt and Wes Montgomery, however, promptly shifted his focus to jazz, though he continued to maintain his classical discipline.

Following graduation, Vandellos moved west to study guitar at the University of Southern California. He left in 1982 after three years of theory, composition, and electric and classical guitar studies. “I got what I came for a degree didn’t seem important.” he says. “And, after a while, I realized classical music wasn’t where I could find my voice.  I was more into jazz and improvising.”  After leaving school, he moved to San Francisco and began teaching guitar while continuing to woodshed.

Dimitri met Grisman in September 1985.  Vandellos and string bassist James Kerwin had been jamming for several months and decided they wanted to make a record.  They called George Marsh, a highly respected San Francisco Bay Area drummer / percussionist, and asked him if he wanted to get together to play and possibly get involved with the album. “We had this project going on, but we really just wanted to meet George,” Dimitri admits. “He said, ‘Sure. Do you mind if David Grisman comes by later?’

They came by, we played, and it was fun.  So we decided to do it again.  There was never any plan for it to be anything; it was just play.”  Gradually, however, the rehearsals turned into something more.  In November 1985, Grisman dissolved his old group, and Vandellos, Marsh, and Kerwin were in.  “David called one day and said, ‘If you’re into it, you’re in the band.’  All I could think was ‘Oh, geez. I’ve got to find a steel-string.'”

He finally chose a new Martin OM-28 to complement his Ibanez GB-1 0 electric and Ron Hatch and Contreras classicals. “I like the ‘0’ series better than ‘D’ models because they’re more evenly balanced,” he declares. “The dreadnoughts are good for bassy fills, but they’re not so good for playing all over the neck.  It was really a struggle when I started playing it.  The technical stuff wasn’t that much different – the notes are in the same place and you use a pick.   The toughest part was learning to understand the rhythmic feel of bluegrass and how to make bluegrass swing as opposed to making jazz swing.  Not that David plays straight bluegrass, but that rhythmic feel dominates his music.  As a jazz accompanist I can emphasize the backbeat, but in bluegrass the mandolin plays the backbeat.  So I have to feel one and three instead of two and four. I finally learned all the beats [laughs].”

A second problem was learning how to get volume and a good sound out of the instrument.  “We rehearse acoustically, so I need instruments with inherent volume.  But getting volume is not the same as getting a good sound.  The trick is learning to project.  It’s the same with the classical, where you’re generally playing by yourself or with another guitar, so the volume level isn’t very high.  When you add the mandolin and drums, it’s quite an adjustment.  At the same time, I had to learn to make adjustments downward with my electric.”  To supplement his acoustic sound onstage, Vandellos clips an omni-directional Countryman mike to the classical and inserts a cardioid Countryman inside the steel-string.

Of the three instruments, Dimitri says he still feels closest to the classical, although in recent shows he has tended to focus most on the GB-10.  “They all have their own personalities, and I’ve found knowing them all really helps when I switch between them.  I use fingerstyle comping when I play jazz on the electric; I seldom use a pick.   And I’ve developed a lot of strength and stamina by playing the Martin.   Being a good acoustic player helps your electric playing because you learn how to get dynamics from the instrument, as opposed to just tweaking a knob.  The only hard thing is keeping my chops up for each instrument.  Before we do gigs, I make sure I touch them all.”

To date, Dimitri’s only recording appearance has been on the recently released Svingin’ With Svend, a David Grisman Quartet effort featuring Danish jazz violin great Svend Asmussen. Although Dimitri contributed several fine solos and masterful backup, the album does not fully represent his current role in the band.  That should be corrected when Grisman takes the band into the studio later this year.

Meanwhile, Dimitri is enjoying the benefits of increased exposure, recently sitting in with pianist Mose Allison at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall.  And drummer Max Roach hired him for a month long stint in the orchestra pit for Eugene O’Neill’s play The Hairy Ape.  For that gig, Vandellos employed his Ibanez MIDI Guitar plugged into a Roland GM-70 that drove a Yamaha TX 802 Tone Generator, which he otherwise uses primarily as a compositional tool.  “Playing with David has been the best musical education I’ve ever had,” he states, “He has such a history, and I really dig that. I’m like a sponge, and I try to soak up whatever I can.”

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