Emory Lester - The Man Behind the Black-Top Mando
By Ginny Hollon
After blazing a bluegrass and new-age music trail across Canada where he lived for five years, Emory Lester returned to his roots in 1993 where he now creates his music sitting high atop a peak in Virginia's northern-most Blue Ridge Mountains near the town of Front Royal. It is here that he finds the inspiration which feeds his passion in three diverse areas of music--bluegrass, jazz and new age.
From the age of three, Emory remembers hearing the music of Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs and the Osborne Brothers. He was born into a musical family in 1962--his father, Jake Lester was a banjo and guitar player who performed throughout northern Virginia.
"I think my father had visions of his son playing the banjo. I was surrounded by music at home. Watching and listening to jam sessions every Friday night, I wanted to take part. My grandfather played the fiddle and I was smitten by it--it was all I could think about."
Soon he was playing fiddle and by six was on stage with his father, Jake, and older brother, Dale, on bass. They played shows for local radio stations and schools in the area.
The Lester Boys Band was invited to appear on the Don Reno / Bill Harrell television show in Washington D.C in 1970. Dressed in big hat, a western shirt and tie, Emory stood on an old wooden box in order to reach the mike at its lowest setting.
As teens, Emory and Dale found themselves into rock and roll with Emory playing guitar.
"I was caught up by the tone of the mandolin the first time I heard it and knew then I would play it." In 1973 he first heard the music of the Country Gentlemen and the mandolin playing of Jimmy Gaudreau and Doyle Lawson.
"Their playing was clean. Doyle Lawson's right hand and pick techniques are still evident in my playing."
Soon Emory was listening to other players, experimenting with jazz-style chords. He began exploring those possibilities and discovered David Grisman. "That changed my whole outlook. It just blew the door down. It was so significant that it just changed everything."
It was in 1988 that Emory moved to Canada and began a five-year musical odyssey that culminated in winning the Canadian Bluegrass Association's Mandolin Player of the Year award four times.
"When I came back to the states, I was at a very low time in my life and several very neat things happened. Within a week or so Jimmy Gaudreau gave me a call that had a serious impact on my life. He invited me to a show with Tony Rice. It was the first time I had played with Tony or the Unit and was a big pick up."
After that Emory played with Country Gentlemen's Founder Bill Emerson and former Virginia Squires leader Mark Newton in the Emerson / Newton band for four years, leaving the group when Bill Emerson retired. "We still do re-union concerts from time to time with a bluegrass thrust."
Emory's powerful Bluegrass attack, with its impressive intensity and energy, along with his refined technique--his fingers and hands hardly moving--produce the big sound which has become one of his trademarks. His jazz playing retains that energy. In contradiction, Emory's original new age instrumental compositions are lighter and flowing, showing a delicate balance and sensitivity.
Emory has performed many shows with his long-time friend, jazz guitar virtuoso Francois Vola and his band in central North Carolina, with Emory contributing mandolin and violin playing to the group.
"In 1997 I plugged the mandolin in for the first time when I performed a series of jazz concerts in Martha's Vineyards alongside jazz guitar legend Babik Reinhardt, the son of the great Django Reinhardt, and the Francois Vola Group. What an experience."
Emory's diverse musical interests have led him in several directions, all of which he continues to pursue:
Jazz--In April of this year, Emory was once again on stage in a grand reunion of the Emory Lester Set, the first performance since the group disbanded nearly two years ago. He says the Set will continue to do periodic performances.
Bluegrass--Emory's main performing vehicle in the coming year will be the Mark Johnson / Emory Lester duo, a new collaboration featuring a variety of "Americana" bluegrass/new acoustic original music.
New Age--He's looking forward to doing some recording with Billy Oskay, Windham Hill Artist, in California.
On the Mandola--"Although its softness makes it hard to use in performances, it's tones are magical in the recording studio, incredibly sweet, covering the range between guitar and mando." Emory said that he's working on a recording that will include bluegrass tunes on the mandola.
Three recording projects in the works are a Pinecastle release of a Pale Rider follow up, a CD together with Mark Johnson and an Emory Lester Set recording. "All, hopefully, will be finished recording by the end of this year and released early next year."
Where does an individualist who sees the challenge of doing something new and being different and go from here?
"If I could do anything I wanted--without rules or marketing considerations--I get the most satisfaction from new age 'light jazz'. The mandolin has not been a large part of new age music, but I will make it that. New age includes piano, guitar, violin and winds, but I don't know of anyone using the mandolin. I'd like to be the first."
Emory likes the melodic, advanced chord progressions. "It's a soft, free form and that's why I like it most. I can paint a picture, not so many notes.
"Actually, I need it all. After a while I get the hankering to rip away again."
And what's his secret to getting all of that sound with his hands hardly moving?
"It's so important to get a big sound, for example, Karen Carpenter's voice is big. It has a spread of the sound, with a lot of balance or pan. Some people have a knack for that and some don't.
"It's all encompassing, like Neil Diamond. I want to do that with a mandolin and when I put it in front of a mike I want it to reach out and grab listeners around the neck!
"It's a little in everything I do. I use tortoise shell picks. I use D'Addario strings--inside I use FT74s. They work for me and sound bigger. But outside they clam up. Outside I use J74s. I use a Neumann KM84 which is an out of production microphone. It's the best for mandos.
"For beginners, it's very important to anchor the wrist on the edge of the bridge. It stops the arm movement. That's essential. Play with just the very little motion you need. Keep hand motion to a minimum for clarity and speed.
"Use a thick pick, that doesn't necessarily mean harder. At first it feels like you're trying to push a tree over, but relax the hand and it is easier to get volume and sound with less hand motion."
What about his instruments?
"I started out in the 70s playing a Bradley F-5 copy mandolin, which was a store-bought instrument without any customization. In the late 70s a man named Vern Bryant, a former Martin repairman living in Springfield, Virginia, made me my first custom F-5 mandolin, which had an all black top and a one-piece curly maple back."
In 1985, Emory commissioned John Monteleone of New York to build "one of his legendary F-5 models, which he had stopped making in 1983. He had already introduced his Grand Artist model, but with some persuasion, he agreed to build one more F-5 and customized a number of features on it." Those special features include a round neck, radius fingerboard and medium fret wire.
"Then in 1994 when I was performing at the Merle Watson festival in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, I notice a nine-year-old boy playing mandolin under the merchandise tent. He was surprisingly good, so I stopped to listen and watch.
"The youngster recognized me and said it would mean a lot to him if he could play a tune with me. Of course I was flattered and since I didn't have my mandolin with me, we took a couple of mandolins down at the Gibson display and sat and played together.
"While I was concentrating on the boy's playing, unknown to me, the Gibson representatives were concentrating on me! When I got up to leave, one of the reps stopped me and said, "We sure would like to see you playing one of ours'."
Emory said that a series of correspondence started between him and the then acting-manager of the Gibson Mandolin Division Bruce Weber. "I flew out to their plant in Belgrade, Montana, in the fall of 1995 and Bruce measured and took vital information from my Monteleone F-5--at my insistence--and we picked out wood.
"They were such kind people and in the summer of 1996 they sent me the mandolin--black top, arched fingerboard, rounded neck, beveled, fretted fingerboard extension--that has been my mainstay ever since. The company has been great with me."
Emory's mandola is a 1921 Gibson H-2 that he purchased at the 1995 Merle Watson Festival. "I purchased this mandola--with a black face, of course--from someone on the spot and have featured the instrument on several recordings already."
One of his dearest Canadian friends for years, Oliver Apitius, is designing a new Emory Lester Model that will have all of the features that he is known for including black top and un-dotted fretboard. The prototype is being constructed and the model will be introduced in the near future.
In addition Martin Macica, who Emory met at the IBMA convention last fall, and Emory have been discussing an instrument that will probably "be even more customized" that he plans to use in future jazz and electronic performances.
"New and different, that's the challenge," and it's with that fresh attitude that Emory Lester faces his music and his life.