California Report: mandolinist Alan Bond

Alan Bond is a fixture in the Bay Area and California bluegrass scene. He mostly plays instruments in the mandolin family, but is no stranger to the guitar, fiddle, uke, and other instruments. An avid instrument collector who has played in many bands, all discussed below, Alan is also a major contributor to the California Bluegrass Association Photo Gallery. It’s great to get his story out there. 

Hey Alan, Tell us how you first got into bluegrass and related music.

My dad played jazz guitar, so I heard jazz around the house. My grandmother, Mabel (on my father’s side) had a big collection of early popular records, we call it jazz now. I really liked hearing that old stuff. My dad’s jazz was way more advanced. I liked Louie Armstrong, and still do. My family moved from Davis, California to Nebraska when I was a teen. While working an after-school job at Montgomery Wards I’d watch the long row of TVs for sale. They’d always play country music shows. Well crazy me liked that corny old country music.

I already played guitar but after hearing mandolin on country TV I found an A-style Gibson mandolin. Got it from a demolition man who had found the mandolin while tearing down an old farmhouse near Lincoln, Nebraska. That mandolin led me to the Stanley Brothers records, and eventually Bill Monroe. Heard The Highwoods String Band play at a Hastings, Nebraska college concert. Wow, I loved that old time! We then moved to South Carolina, where I heard real live bluegrass. My mind was completely blown. I was only there for a very short time before college, but my life changed forever.

When did you return to California?

In 1972 I moved back to go to college at CCAC, California College of Arts and Crafts. I worked for 36 years with the title of Artist, as a graphic designer.

By 1975 I was in a Berkeley hippie bluegrass and western swing band called Oakum. I still know some of the people from that band, including bass player Beth Weil and fiddler Extraordinaire Candy Girard.

You’ve played at the CBA Father’s Day Festival, haven’t you?

Yes. In 1977 Oakum played at the Father’s Day Bluegrass festival thanks to Ray Edlund. I think Ray asked us because they didn’t have anyone for a time slot. But we did play. That was the second year of the festival. Oakum played there again (maybe 1982)

I’ve also played at the Father’s Day Festival with Dark Hollow on the main stage, and Vern stage a few times. My recent band, Savage Bond, was rejected from Vern stage this year. But we’ll try again with a better video next year. I have a good song I wrote and perform often about how I learned bluegrass from hearing and standing near Vern and Ray. I was a kid in my early 20s. My old band was on the same bill as Vern and Ray at a CBA event once. Also saw them at Wolf Mountain, and the Vern Williams band at the FDF. My song about them is called Learning From Vern and Ray. My dream is to sing it on the Vern Stage.

Alan with the Dark Hollow String Band doing Big Big Heartache at the NCBS Bluegrass Award ceremony

Were your parent’s musicians?

My mom liked the song, Poppies Golden Poppies, an old California song. Dad was a jazz musician who grew up in Kansas City.

What instruments do you play?

I tried clarinet but got into folk guitar. Mandolin next. Then banjo, ukulele, mandola, mandocello, octave mandolin, and fiddle.

Alan with his 1918 Gibson Mandocello

What was your first instrument, and do you still have it?

I still have my first instrument. A 1969 Gibson J-50 guitar. I bought it with money from my first real job at age 16.

What current bands or ensembles are you active in?

Savage Bond, with Hope Savage, Alan Bond, and Tom Lucas. We play original music, bluegrass, plus some other things. We call it Americali Music. Also, Michael Van and the Movers, an alt-country rock band.

Do you have any gigs or releases coming up that you are excited about?

Savage Bond has recorded twenty-four original songs. We might put them out as two CDs. It’s really good. Best recordings of my life. Should be released soon. Hope and I have written quite a few new songs. Tom Lucas has also contributed great songs and instrumentals. The three of us have worked together really well to make all of the music. Also I have songs on the new Michael Van and the Movers CD called When the Big Girl Has Her Say. It’s on Apple Music and other online places.

What is your approach to songwriting?

Usually, when I decide it’s time to write a song, I sit and ask the universe for it. Then I channel everything that comes. I write it down and record it on my iPhone as fast as I can. Lately, my approach has changed a bit. I stopped all drugs, pot, or alcohol. So now I dream like crazy. Sometimes I dream songs. I’ll wake up in the morning with a song. I’ll make coffee and spend the morning until I have a good recording. It’s so much fun.

How long does it typically take for you to finish something?

When a song is recorded you might say it’s finished. But it still evolves. A painting or photograph might be finished when it’s framed. But a song is finished every time you stop singing it. So it can keep on until nobody sings it anymore.

What is the first thing you do/play when you pick up your instrument?

Just making sounds. Try for beautiful tones. Sometimes scales. Finding new surprises.

Who would you say are your major musical influences?

I’m influenced by everything Monroe. I’m inspired by his true-life songs. Today it has been Antônio Carlos Jobim. Desafinado is a song I want to play on the mandolin. Lately David Lindley. When he passed away recently I just dug into everything I could find. I’m very inspired by Lindley as a musician, I’d like to be as good.

Tell us about your work as a CBA photographer.

I enjoy doing photography for the CBA Music Camp. It brings out the clown in me, and I’ll do anything to get people to smile. I’ve spent a lot of time doing photography when I worked, so I’ve got the experience. I’d probably rather be playing music but photography is fun.

Did I also read that you are a luthier? Are you still doing that? 

Not a luthier. I’m too impatient. I do make nuts and saddles for my mandos and guitars, and sometimes I make picks.

Do you still do mandolin workshops or other teachings?

Not much, I’m more of a learner. My approach to teaching is good for self-motivated types who don’t need me. I would do workshops if there was a need for me. I have plenty to share. I loved taking some lessons from Frank Wakefield way back when I was young. He’s a great teacher. I could just teach what he showed me.

Do you have a practice or warm-up approach that you can share?

I like to make coffee and sit with a few guitars and a few mandolins, an A model and an F Style. I’ll spend time on scales, tunes, writing songs, listening, and playing along. Reviewing and learning songs for bands.

What do you do when you hit a wall musically?

When I’m ready to play music, it’s all I want to do, and the wall is life getting in the way. If I get stuck on something I’ll just work it. Find a new way or play it backwards, whatever it takes. Sleep on it and work on it again.

I think of you playing both Monroe and old-time mandolin styles. How would you describe the difference to a layman’s ears?

Monroe is like rock and roll, it’s got desire and longing. Real life. Old-time is like you’re going to the county fair, and you’re gonna have a good time.

Got any new favorite fiddle tunes?

I like Sal’s Got Mud Between Her Toes.

What do you do when not playing music or taking pictures?

I like to paint. Watercolor is the thing I’ve done almost all my life. My grandmother (Mabel again) got me into it. She painted, mostly oil painting. Also black and white film photography and printing. I like grain. 

I’m into Yoga and hiking. I have a hard time staying healthy so I’ve been trying to eat a plant-based diet and moving. I’ve had a few heart attacks. One while I was on stage playing music. I had to stop in mid-song and go outside for fresh air. I ended up in an ambulance going to Kaiser in Oakland for some new stents.

Talk about your instruments.

I never intended to collect but after so many years of music, my closet is full. There are short videos I’ve done about the Musical Instrument Closet.

The highlights include:

The two Stan Miller F-5 mandolins. The original Stan Miller is from 1976.

That’s the one that was stolen and missing for five years. There’s a good story full of suspense and intrigue in a Bluegrass Breakdown by Bruce Campell about that. A good lesson for all musicians.

The 1939 L-5 Gibson Guitar, inherited from my father. He bought it new from Sherman and Clay music in downtown San Francisco.

The 1917 Gibson F-2 three-point mandolin that I got from a 104 year old man who had kept it in his dresser drawer for eighty years.

All of these and many more are in videos on my YouTube channel.

Alan’s 2007 and 1976 Stan Miller F 5 Mandolins

Do you still have a day job?

Haven’t worked since 2014. I retired from UC after being a graphic designer. It was a good union job, I paid into the pension system for a lot of years. I’ve paid into Social Security since I was 16. Now I have to pay taxes on it. HaHa.

Read any good books lately?

I like Bob Dylan’s new book, The Philosophy of Modern Song. To hear all the exact versions of the songs he talks about I subscribed to Apple Music. It’s been great having access to so much music.

Otto Wood The Bandit by Trevor McKenzie. I’ve loved the song, Otto Wood the Bandit, for so long and this book tells the story.

Breath by James Nestor

Interesting book about breathing. Breathing is important as a singer.

Is there anything else you would like to say?

I recommend music for most people. As long as it doesn’t ruin your life. I’ve been married a few times and destroyed a lot of good things. Whether music was the cause or my savior, Angel or Devil, somehow music has stuck with me as a friend.

Alan and Hope for Alan’s 70th Birthday Celebration

Copy edited by Mary Ann Goldstein

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About the Author

Dave Berry

Dave Berry is a California based author, mandolin picker, and composer who writes the California Report column for Bluegrass Today. He grew up in the Ohio Valley right between where the Big Sandy and Big Scioto rivers dump into the Ohio. His articles, Morning Walk album, and video are available on streaming sites and his website at