California Report: Master Fiddler and Instructor Chad Manning

Chad Manning is a Berkeley, California-based fiddler of numerous styles including bluegrass, old-time, and swing. He has played with regional and national acts including David Grisman, Laurie Lewis and the Right Hands, Peter Rowan, and Bill Evens, and has toured with many greats such as J.D. Crowe, Curly Seckler, Alan Munde, and Tony Trischka.

Chad is also an instructor for fiddle and mandolin at Peghead Nation, plus he and his wife, Catherine, run Manning Music which teaches hundreds of students fiddle, mandolin, guitar, dobro,  banjo, and bass at their studio in Berkeley, California.

I couldn’t find much on your background. Tell us what got you started in bluegrass?

I grew up playing Texas style fiddle, Western swing, and country music. I also listened to lots of Dawg and Newgrass music, but my introduction to traditional bluegrass happened my first year after college when I was spending time in Missoula, Montana. I discovered a bluegrass jam at the Top Hat, a local bar that hosted weekly bluegrass events. I sat down next to dobro player Ivan Rosenberg. Right then and there he coached me on the role of the fiddle in a bluegrass band. The local band there invited to play a gig later that night with them in the same bar. 

Ivan continued to give me a crash course in bluegrass, and I dug it. It was pretty different than what I’d been used to playing. Ivan and I were both about to move to California around that same time and we became good friends. He continued to turn me onto lots of the great singers and pickers. But it wasn’t until 2000 that I joined my first bluegrass band, which was Due West with Bill Evans, Jim Nunally, Cindy Browne, and Erik Thomas.

What was your first instrument?

When I was eight, my family lived a few houses down from Lundin’s Violins, which was a hub for the Spokane fiddle community. I’d often stop in the shop on my way home from school to check out the instruments and the music I heard there. I began taking lessons from JayDean Ludiker, who was teaching there at that time. She was a great teacher and taught lots of tunes. 

I ended up buying the first fiddle made by Arvid Lundin. For about a year I’d stop by the shop each week and play that fiddle. Eventually he offered to sell it to me for a small down payment and $20 a month, which I paid for several years. That fiddle meant a lot to me. I played it through my late 20s until I found another fiddle I’d fallen in love with. I was so happy that Annie Staninec, who I’d been teaching for several years, loved the Lundin fiddle and wanted to buy it. I couldn’t sell it to just anyone. I’m so happy to know that she’s still playing that fiddle today!

Who inspired you to keep at it?

Spokane had and still has a robust fiddle community. It felt like a large family, and it was great having so many friends to play music with. Many of the great Texas style fiddlers would spend summers in Spokane, jamming and playing at nearby fiddle contests. I really looked up to them, and I recorded hundreds of hours of them jamming on my boombox. The passion, intensity, and playfulness were everything to me.

When I was 14, Joey McKenzie offered to give me a week of lessons. I stayed at his home in Corvallis, Oregon, and we did like eight hours a day of lessons, much of it focused on bowing. That was definitely a turning point for me. A couple years later I stayed with fiddler Joe Sites for a week or two, and he turned me onto to lots of great recordings, and taught me a bunch of tunes with pretty elaborate bow patterns. 

My family played music as well, and we eventually formed a band, Homeward Bound, that toured the Pacific Northwest. We played lots of state fairs and country bars, and opened for many country bands, ranging from Asleep at the Wheel to Johnny Cash. This is when I discovered how much I loved gigging, in addition to playing contests and jamming. So, yeah, family and community created a space for me to want to keep playing music.

Have you played any Irish music?

When I first moved to San Francisco, I played lot of Irish pubs with my good friend, Bob Bradshaw, from Cork. We would do duet gigs and play in his rock band, The Resident Aliens. I was always a big fan of Martin Hayes and Kevin Burke, and they have definitely impacted my music, though I would never consider myself a trad player. I just loved playing the tunes and the bowing and energy of those two guys always inspired me.

What all instruments do you play?

Mostly fiddle, but I do play mandolin and rhythm guitar as well.

At what point did you realize that music would be your full time passion?

I remember being on a road trip, and one of my fiddling buddies, Rudi Booher, showed me a jam session recording of Oklahoma fiddler Orville Burns from the 1940s. Just hearing Orville warming up hit something deep in my soul. He was just messing around with the unison drones in A, bringing out those “ancient tones,” before kicking into an iconic Texas style version of Sally Goodin’. That was the very clear moment when I knew I would love fiddling forever. I still love playing Sally Goodin’ because it brings back that feeling I had listening to Orville for the first time.

I knew I would always play, but I didn’t necessarily plan on being a professional musician. I wasn’t even sure that was a realistic option. But I kept doing, teaching, and gigging, which I loved to do, and eventually I was making a living at it.

Orville Burns at Texas State Championship Fiddlers’ Frolics, Hallettsville, Texas, April 1994

What fiddle style best describes your playing?

That’s a tough one. I do my best to stay true to whatever style I’m playing, but I love it all. I see my style as some combination of my favorite players, who include Terry Morris, Vassar Clements, Stuart Duncan, Johnny Gimble, Stuff Smith, Svend Asmussen, John Hartford, Bobby Hicks, Chubby Wise, Kenny Baker, Benny Martin, and Darol Anger, to name a few. I also go through phases where I dive into various old-time fiddlers, such as Marcus Martin and John Salyer. But bluegrass fiddling is really where my heart is and has been for many years. 

Sally Goodin’ – David Grisman Bluegrass Experience with Chad Manning

I’ve seen you play twin fiddles with the likes of Darol Anger and Brandon Godman. What are some things that make it work well?

It’s been so much fun twinning with Darol and Brandon in different contexts. Having a shared vocabulary definitely helps, but the most important element is really listening deeply to each other, going for the musical mind-meld. When you hone in on the nuances like the slides, vibrato, and phrasing you can really get a good blend. Brandon and I will often say let’s do this one like Kenny Baker, or that one like Chubby Wise. Having listened to all the same fiddlers makes it easier to match our feel with each other. When Darol and I were rehearsing a few weeks ago, he made the profound point, it’s all listening and reacting. I love that.

What’s the most standard twin fiddle arrangement?

It varies, but often whoever is playing the harmony will play double stops that surround the melody note. For example, if I’m playing the melody, Brandon will often grab the next chord tone above and below. Also, both he and Darol play so many colorful chords using 6ths, 7ths, and 9ths. 

When did you first start on mandolin?

I started playing mandolin the week my son Jasper was born. It was hard to play fiddle while carrying him in the Baby Bjorn, but I realized I could hold a mandolin in front of him when he was strapped in. That’s when I began to really start practicing the mandolin. I still remember how hard it was to first start using the pick!

What bands are you active in?

I play guitar in Birches Bend, and fiddle in Grasswood, which is a new band with Brandon Godman, Jasper Manning, Jack Kinney, and Yoseff and Katya Tucker. Though this band is on hiatus until Yoseff and Katya return from their travels. I also occasionally play electric fiddle in the Afro Blue Grazz Band led by Pascal Bokar. It’s a full on funk soul band that incorporates fiddle and banjo with traditional African music. Avram Siegel plays banjo in this group.

I first saw you in the David Grisman Bluegrass Experience. How did that come about?

That was a special day, and happened sort of last minute. Bill Evans had been playing with David in the Bluegrass Experience. Joe Craven was the fiddler but couldn’t make one of the rehearsals, so Bill asked David if I could fill in. I suppose it was sort of an audition. I kept getting asked back, so that was very exciting. Joe and I continued to twin in the band for the first couple years. I owe a great deal to Bill, who’s given me many incredible opportunities to play with so many of the greats. And I have to say I really miss the Bangers and Grass gig at the Kensington Circus Pub in El Cerrito that Bill organized each month.

I could talk about my experiences playing with David for days. I learned so much from him about bluegrass music and playing in a band—what it means to really listen and respond to one another, finding your place in a band, ways to approach solos, etc. I kept a notebook collecting the many words of wisdom he passed along. And the countless stories. David is so supportive and generous, and he brings out the best in whoever he plays with. 

When I first joined the David Grisman Quartet it was hard for me to believe—it was a dream come true—but if I thought about it too much it could be overwhelming, considering the other fiddlers who played in the band before me. I had to basically put up a road block in my mind and not think about it. Early on, when David was teaching me the songs and arrangements, he said, “Hey, just so you know, I don’t expect you to be Mark O’Connor or Darol or Stephan Grappelli. They did that, but I do expect you to be you. Find your place and do your thing.” 

Minor Swing – Chad with David Grisman Sextet at FreshGrass 2014

I love the pictures on your website playing with many of the greats. Do you play the same with each of them or is there some adjustment required?

I adjust to whoever I’m playing with, no matter who they are. I try to ask myself what the song needs now rather than too quickly superimposing my own thing on it. So, yeah, always adapting.

The Banjo Extravaganza tours are a perfect example of having to adapt. One year the featured banjo players were Sammy Shelor, Bill Evans, and Tony Trischka. They each have their own unique and particular way of feeling the groove, which meant the band had to radically adapt the way we played individually and as a group to make it work. I remember us laughing about how extreme the change felt for each player. Same thing the year Bill Keith and Alan Munde were in the band. I have to say that playing fiddle with a banjo is one of my favorite things in the world to do. I always felt sort of changed after playing with these banjo players. Each of them brought out new ideas and grooves in my fiddling, so long as I was willing to adapt to the moment with them. 

Tell us about your time playing with Laurie Lewis.

I played with Laurie Lewis and the Right Hands for many years, and I have to say fiddling behind her singing is a dream. She has so much emotion, so much feel. I have no doubt her singing has had a profound impact on my playing.

You seem to be having a lot fun mentoring your son Jasper’s band, Birches Bend. Is it tricky being the player’s dad?

Nope, it’s just a blast. Jasper, Lucy Khadder, and Sophia Sparks love it so much, and they have such a deep connection to the music. And they really blow my mind. They seem to grow as musicians every month. Jim Kerwin from the David Grisman Quintet has been playing bass with us this last year, and that’s really helped bring the best out of all of us. Jim and I both see ourselves as mentors, but at the same time we both feel we’re learning from them as well. And I’m excited to say that we’re in the process of recording our first album, which will hopefully be out in February. 

Hidden Comforts – Birches Bend at the Giddings Horse Ranch

Jasper certainly has got the Monroe chops. Where’s that from?

Yeah, Jasper is all about Monroe style mandolin.  He’s always learning solos and licks from the Monroe records, he’s also been working with Mike Compton which has been so great for him.

Heavy Traffic Ahead – Featuring Patrick Sauber and Jasper Manning

When did you start teaching music and how did Manning Music come about?

I started teaching when I was 14 years old and have had students ever since. I really love teaching and can’t imagine not having that in my life. And I have just the coolest students. In addition to being so excited about fiddling, they’re just good and interesting people. I feel lucky to know them. My wife, Catherine, started teaching fiddle in 2001. We taught out of our home for many years. In 2007 we formally formed Manning Music, and we began teaching at a space in Berkeley. Catherine is such an inspiring fiddle teacher for kids, she makes it so fun and exciting. They just love their lessons with her. Also Catherine has had countless ideas for creating more opportunities for students at Manning Music. She so often has a new idea and then she makes it happen. She’s amazing. 

You have a pretty big staff don’t you?

Yes. We soon began to mentor some of our students to teach. We brought Robin Fischer and Savannah Tuma on board, and it kept growing organically from there. Eventually we realized we had many wonderful fiddle students but it was all fiddles all the time. So we decided to bring in mandolin, guitar, banjo, and bass teachers, which really helped round out the instrumentation. Soon students were able to connect with other players and form bands and have jams with all the instruments. 

We try to create as many opportunities for our students as possible. In addition to private lessons, we offer all sorts of group classes. For example, Tessa Schwartz teaches a bluegrass band class for kids, and Mike Witcher runs band classes for adults as well as listening classes. I teach weekly group classes for theory, blues fiddle, fiddle tune standards, and a bluegrass licks and vocabulary class as well. We also create opportunities to play together, such as playing at square dances, retirement homes, open-mics, jam sessions, a student concert at the Freight, etc. Manning Music is very much a school, but we really think of it as a community. 

How many instructors and students are part of the Manning studio?

We’re lucky to have 15 fantastic teachers at the studio, each bringing their own approach and style. Every teacher is passionate about teaching—you can really feel the love of music from each of them, and all of us continue to grow as teachers, learning so much from one another. There are roughly 250 students.

Fiddle: Catherine Manning, Jan Purat, Robin Fischer, Leah Wollenberg, Miles Quale, Tessa Schwartz, Sophia Tuma, and myself.

Guitar: Stash Wyslouch, John Gooding, and Rowan McCallister

Mandolin: Rowan McCallister and Jasper Manning

Clawhammer Banjo and Ukulele: Rowan McCallister

Dobro: Mike Witcher

There was a major fire at the studio a while back. How did that impact things, and is it back to normal operations?

That’s right. We had a fire in October of 2019. Luckily the sprinklers doused the fire almost immediately, but the water damage was severe. We basically had to gut and rebuild most of the studio. We were very fortunate not to have lost any instruments. It could have been so much worse. The Manning Music community organized a fundraiser to help cover the costs not covered by insurance. We’re so grateful for that help. Amazing!

During the rebuild, which took a few months, Sophia Sparks’s grandmother Margaret generously offered up her beautiful home to us. Those three months turned into a very special time, as we all worked together to make the best out of this turn of events. We enjoyed being in such a beautiful space and getting to know Margaret better. It sort of felt like a retreat. 

But during that time I continued to stay focused on the rebuild, using it as an opportunity to better the space. We were able to soundproof the walls, put in new floors, closed off of the larger room for more privacy, etc. About two weeks after we moved in, COVID hit and we had to close down. So once we returned to teaching in person, after that year and a half of quarantine, it was still brand new. Just had to dust everything off. And it’s so good to all be at the studio again together each day.

You teach on Peghead Nation. Tell us about that. 

I’ve been teaching on Peghead Nation since they first launched in 2014. I was honored to be asked to do this. It’s been a great experience. I have around 400 students, and some of those students now take private lessons as well. It hasn’t conflicted with Manning Music in any way. As a matter of fact, some of my students at Manning Music also take one my Peghead courses. The theory course I teach has been helpful for many of my students in conjunction with their private lessons. 

What are some ways you inspire students to keep at it and get better? 

That’s a good question. I think it varies from student to student. Generally, I like to begin each lesson with a slow fiddle warm up played in harmony, which is a great way to sort of leave the world behind and enter the world of music. It’s relaxing and a good way to get present. Then we typically jam together, just having a good time making music—making good music together is always an inspiring experience. And then we often figure out what we want to work on. We try to keep a specific and realistic focus that typically leads to improvement. Recognizing that you’re actually getting better on your instrument is always inspiring. Seeing my students continually improving is inspiring to me too! 

What is the most pervasive bad musical habit you see that’s really hard for students to break? 

Probably doing things too fast, rushing the process. Taking it easy, taking it slow is generally a much more efficient way to practice. It can be tempting to get ahead of yourself, but playing the fiddle is so much easier if you learn to stay in the moment, taking one challenge at a time. This doesn’t mean not to also practice at tempo or even faster than standard tempo, but build your way there while keeping your ears ahead of your fingers. 

What keeps you busy when you need some music downtime?

I love hanging out with my family. Jasper and I love to take our fishing boat, Lil’ Mon, out to the Delta, and we also do lots of foraging for mushrooms. Jaina and I love to do building projects together and to go for drives along the ocean and find places to get good lobster rolls and cioppino. But when we have a completely free weekend, I love just hanging out at the house with the Catherine and the kids playing games, reading, and relaxing. 

Great stuff. Thanks so much for your time, Chad.

Thanks Dave for doing this. I really appreciate it.

Copy Editing by Jeanie Polling

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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 daveberrymusic.net.