I remember the day I first heard Tony Rice’s album Manzanita. I was a cash-strapped college kid quickly becoming obsessed with bluegrass when I saw the CD at a shop. I dropped $20 for it at the register, put it in the Sony Discman that was rigged through my car’s tape deck, and drove back to my apartment amazed by Rice’s vocals, his effortless playing, his warm tone, and the skill and playfulness of his bandmates. I later dug into all of Rice’s albums: the duets with Norman Blake and Ricky Skaggs, his solo records, his bluegrass groups. They are all perfect. Fifteen years later, I still keep that memorable copy of Manzanita in my car.
Many guitarists flock to Tony Rice because of his jaw-dropping leads. However, Rice’s epic solos are only a small element of what made his music so special. He reinvented bluegrass rhythm guitar, he was one of the genre’s greatest vocalists, and I personally am most drawn to his sincere and humble musicianship. Rice’s intuitive musical sensibilities elevated the performers around him, revealed deeper meanings in the songs, and made his recordings some of the best acoustic albums of all time.
I was talking about this with Marcel Ardans, a specialist in Rice-style guitar who runs the Lessons with Marcel YouTube channel. Marcel has become known for dissecting and analyzing Rice’s approach, and he says, “While I can write down the licks and explain them, none of us can execute them like Tony.” There is something special about Tony Rice that no one can truly emulate. In a genre with many who try to play just like him, there was and forever will be only one Tony Rice.
As a slice into the mystery of Rice’s guitar, presented here is “Beaumont Rag” from the 1975 album California Autumn. I chose this arrangement for a few reasons: “Beaumont Rag” is a well-known standard that can be played at any jam. The transcription serves as an excellent introduction to Rice’s approach, and it’s not readily available elsewhere. Plus, this version incorporates both typical flatpicking approaches (bars 1–2 are similar to how Doc Watson played it) and passages that are Rice-style gems (bars 10–11 and 14–15).
I naturally play “Beaumont Rag” using alternate picking, as shown in the second pick direction line in the transcription. However, this is not how Rice did it. His pick-direction choices were largely dependent on the most efficient way to sound notes. The top line approximates how I believe he played it, based on reviewing live footage of him performing this tune. His approach is not an exact science. It requires an exceptional degree of right-hand control and timing and is nearly impossible to mimic. I sometimes use Rice’s approach as a picking drill but choose alternating when it comes time to play the tune.
Rice’s recent passing was a saddening shock for longtime fans. For those who are less familiar with Rice, this AG issue can open you up to his music, much like that classic CD served as my introduction. Either way, now is a great time to give one of his albums a spin. Thankfully, Rice’s recordings will always be here, and they will always be perfect.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.