California pickers: Ed Neff

This post is the first in what will be a series of articles on prominent west coast musicians who may not be familiar names back east.

Ed Neff is a mandolin and fiddle player from Petaluma, California. Though those are his two main instruments, Ed is also capable on guitar and bass, along with ‘a smattering of banjo.’

Neff was born in St. Louis, MO in 1946. He began playing the piano at age 7, and formed his first band in the 8th grade. In the early ‘60’s Ed’s family moved to California where he heard his first bluegrass. That was over 40 years ago, and the obsession that started that day is still raging today.

Here are some of his claims to fame:

Ed played fiddle and sang on the first two High Country records. First, High Country (Warner Bros/Raccoon Records), released February 1971, which was produced by Lowell Levinger (known to most of us these days by his stage name, Grandpa Banana). The second album, Dreams (Warner Bros/Raccoon Records), came out in 1972.

From there Ed went to the Done Gone Band, which featured songwriting great Don Humphries (whose songs have been recorded by Del McCoury and the Nashville Bluegrass Band) and other California luminaries.

Ed then went on to become the fiddler for the Vern Williams Band. His time with Vern included many performances and a recording with the legendary Rose Maddox, Beautiful Bouquet (Arhoolie 1983). During these years, Ed was working with everyone in California bluegrass including another record with High Country in 1987.

In 1996, Ed, known as the “utility infielder for bluegrass music” got the call from Rounder’s Ken Irwin, who had the idea for a recording that would become the quintessential California Bluegrass Album, Bluegrass From the Gold Country (Rounder 0131). The group included Vern’s son Delbert on guitar, a young Keith Little on banjo and Kevin Thompson on bass. That recording, and the bootlegs that have surfaced since, have sparked one of the most fervent traditional bluegrass music discussions in the country, and California’s obsession with the old sound is one of the loudest voices.

Ed’s playing can be described as truly sublime. His mandolin tone is perfect: soft, round and with the tasty timing of a guy that’s been at for this many years. He prefers mandolin to fiddle, probably because it’s just a little ‘cooler,’ and not as far of a reach (this is the authors’ opinion, of course).

His band Blue and Lonesome (named after the Monroe/Williams epic of the same name), plays every Thursday night in Petaluma, California at the one of the most rundown roadhouses you could hope to find. But here, at the Willowbrook Alehouse, you will find bluegrass at its finest, played the way it’s been played since its inception: in a noisy place, with inferior sound reinforcement, to a handful of extremely appreciative listeners.

The band includes Paul Shelasky (Lost Highway, David Thom Band), a two-time California state fiddle champ, and Larry Cohea (High Country) on the banjo, Mike Wilhoyte on guitar and Jeff King (David Thom Band) on bass.

Ed’s commitment to this style of music has provided countless people with entertainment over the years, but more importantly, he sets an example for musicianship, professionalism and grace in a musical field that can yield sparse pay and even less gratitude.  Ed has inspired countless musicians to pursue melody, good timing, and masterful tone. All of these Neff gets each time he picks up an instrument.

I can only scratch the surface of Ed’s musical accomplishments in a short article. I suggest on your next trip to California, you look him up and ask him yourself.

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About the Author

David Thom

Based in Sonoma, California, David Thom is the guitarist and front man for the David Thom Band, as well as mandolinist for the Flatt and Scruggs Tribute Band and Grandpa Banana’s Band. He also runs his own IT consulting business,