Luthier and picker Topher Gayle talks bluegrass and fiddle tunes

Today we welcome a new columnist to the Bluegrass Today stable, Dave Berry, who writes a monthly column for the California Bluegrass Association newsletter. In his Porch Talk column, Dave interviews both CBA members and touring musicians visiting the state. We have hoped for some time to have a correspondent on the west coast, and were delighted to meet Dave during World of Bluegrass last month in Raleigh.

This month on Porch Talk we hear from Topher Gayle, a Santa Rosa-based CBA member, instructor, musician, luthier, composer, and who knows what else. Topher is active in the California Coast Music Camp and teaches private lessons for mandolin, guitar, ukulele, percussion, and music theory.

DB: Hi Topher, thanks for your time. I see from the detailed bio on your website that you wear a lot of hats. How would you like to introduce yourself to the CBA crowd?

TG: Well, let’s pick! Nothing beats a good jam session, so let’s make one happen.

DB: You were improvising at a young age. Tell us about that.

TG: My mom gave us kids piano lessons. She was a very good piano player and church organist. She taught us the basics herself, then got the church organist to give us more lessons. I wasn’t very disciplined about practicing, but I’d screw around on the keyboard well enough that they thought I was practicing!

DB: What sort of tunes were you playing?

TG: I’d learned to play My Country ‘Tis of Thee in the key of C, and I discovered early on that if you shifted the whole thing over two notes but still just played the same sequence of white and black keys, it sounded cool and tragic. Already I was exploring with changing the mode of the tune.

DB: I’m guessing you continued down that improvisation path.

TG: Later on, in high school, my buddies were all playing blues and rock guitars, and improvising was nearly all we did. One time I was playing some song with a piano player, and he said, “What’s wrong with you! That’s not how it goes!” He wanted me to play the actual melody! Well, I didn’t know how to do that. I’ve gotten a little better at it since then – it took me some years, but now when I improvise, I try to develop my ideas from the melody.

DB: You spent your college years in Boston. Tell us about the music scene there.

TG: For me, it meant playing music with my friends and commuting to work with the radio on. I wrote and recorded original songs (many of them funny) with friends. I also was exploring the very early digital music process – MIDI based drum machines and so on. We were very creative and unconventional, since we had no one there to tell us the ‘right way’ to do things. It was terrific fun.

DB: Boston has a great bluegrass and old-time scene. You must have experienced that.

TG: There was a guy at work who started a weekly lunchtime jam session where I took my guitar. There were already six guitars. People were playing fiddle tunes, which I’d never heard done before. St Anne’s Reel, Sheebeg and Sheemore, Calliope House – common tunes from what I now know is the contra dance repertoire. But I’d never heard of contra dancing at that point! So I borrowed a mandolin and taught myself how to play it, to be not just another guitar player.

DB: How did you find your way to the Bay Area?

TG: My wife, Louisa, got a job offer from Adobe Systems in San Jose in 1997, and it was ‘California, Here We Come’! We like it here. We’re not too crazy about all the fires, but the winters are such an improvement.

DB: You seem pretty busy. Did you retire or just switch careers?

TG: I got laid off in 2002 and decided to take a year off before looking for work, and here I am still taking a year off. I was a mechanical engineer in my former life. That was good, but music is better.

DB: Do you still have that Harmony Stella?

TG: You’re referring to my first guitar, which I mentioned on my website. I wish I still had it! I paid $40 for it, and the strings were like suspension bridge cables. The action was really high, and it played sharp. I figured out how to lower the saddle – the beginning of my instrument building career! – and put light strings on it, and I played it ’til my finger literally bled. I was about 15, and I had that ability then to obsess at will. So I chose to obsess over playing guitar. I had this idea that playing guitar would result in a girlfriend. Eventually it did, but it took years.

DB: What other instruments did you play then?

TG: My friends had electric guitars, and I wanted one, but I didn’t have another $40. Somebody gave me a broken electric bass – the neck was smashed up. So I took off the pickup, wrapped it up in black electrical tape with two pieces of coat hanger wire sticking out, and then screwed the coat hanger wires to the edges of the sound hole so the pickup was inside the sound hole. It worked pretty well! It had a nice funky sound. I thought it sounded a little like Bonnie Raitt’s guitar. I don’t know what happened to the guitar, but I still have that pickup, I think.

DB: Tell us how you approach composing a tune.

TG: Sometimes I wake up at 4:00 a.m. with some melodic idea running through my head, and all I can do is go figure out where that idea is taking me. While my PC boots, I’ll pick up my mandolin and learn to play that idea and see what develops. Eventually, the idea will solidify and I’ll write it out using Finale. That’s usually the A part of a fiddle tune. At that point I’ll make some tea. Then I’ll figure out what chords I like for that A part using my guitar. Those chords will often suggest alterations to the original melody, and those changes will inspire new chords – back and forth, until at some point a B part will start to emerge. It’s magic! One 4:00 a.m. tune like this is a slow, mysterious piece I call Blue Heron, which you can hear on my new CD, Fiddle in a Tree. We were camped at the beach by a lagoon, and as the sun came up, I saw a small flock of egrets fishing along its shore, and just one big heron.

DB: Do any of your instruments have interesting stories?

TG: Most of them do. I have a 1958 Guild guitar that used to belong to my ex-wife. Her grandfather had bought it for her from a pawn shop for small change. The neck was broken off, the back was punched in, the top was all chewed up, and the bridge was split through the pins’ holes. He’d taken a gallon of Elmer’s and glued everything back together, reaching inside to smear the glue on every joint he could reach. He also put two big brass bolts through the bridge to hold it down. He smeared Elmer’s into the dug-up top. Well, when I fell in love with that girl, it was the best sounding guitar I’d played (remember the Harmony?), and I fell in love with the guitar too. 

DB: That sounds like a win-win situation.

TG: Many years after we split up, remembering that I liked to work on instruments, she gave it to me for my 40th birthday present. In the intervening time, the neck had pulled up and the body had really started falling apart. I took the back off and started hacking away fistfuls of Elmer’s chips. I built a new bolt-free bridge and refretted the fingerboard. I filled in deep fingerboard gouges. Grandpa’s back repair was pretty good, but he’d covered it up with a patch of contact paper, so I took that off and cleaned the repair. When I glued the back on again, I inadvertently did right the right thing, and the neck got reset by accident! I remember stringing it up the first time, and being blown away by the tone of that funky old guitar. Rich, loud, balanced – it’s a great guitar. Much better than it had been. It is so beat up it has zero vintage value, but it is worth a mint to me.

I have a lot of stories about my instruments – but I think not enough space here to tell them!

DB: Tell us about the bluegrass/old-time bands that you’re active in.

TG: After my bluegrass band Briarwood folded after 9 fun years, I started playing contra dance music. Some of that repertoire is familiar in the old-time scene: fiddle tunes such as Spotted Pony, Arkansas Traveler, and Red Wing. The first of those bands was The OpporTunists, followed by the Rosin Doctors, and now the Chaos Wranglers – all three of these bands are trios with Erik Hoffman and various others. I’m also in a couple of trios with fiddler Lee Anne Welch – the Swingin’ Chickens, and Mercury Rising (which just put out a CD). I’m currently not in a bluegrass band, but I’d like to be!

DB: What inspires or brings you the most pleasure in music?

TG: No question, it’s the people. In any band I’m in, I have to really enjoy being with the people. After all, I’m going to spend a lot of time with them, at rehearsals, in the car, and possibly sharing a room if we’re on tour. If I don’t like spending time with them, why do it at all? Aside from that, I enjoy the surprises of improvised music. I like it when on stage or at rehearsal, things don’t go as planned, and we end up faking it for a while – the energy is so great! Much more fun than when things are all polished and predictable. I prefer that in watching others’ performances, too. It makes me feel like I’m not just playing a record, I’m witnessing a little bit of history.

DB: Yea, mistakes are where the fun is. Anything else?

TG: I also really enjoy taking a familiar tune and changing it in some way – like playing My Country ‘Tis of Thee in Am instead of C when I was a kid. The Rosin Doctors used to play the fiddle tune, Goin’ Down to Cairo straight in D, then swing it, then play it in a Middle Eastern D mode and rhythm, then  jump to G for a while with a sort of bluegrassy drive, then swing it in A, and back to D. We’d change the order of things on the fly and just have fun with it. Why play the tunes straight, I say. There are lots of amazing musicians playing them right, and doing it better than I ever can. I’ll screw around with them instead.

DB: You play many styles of music. How do you feel they relate to bluegrass/old-time music?

TG: All Western music uses the same notes. Every melody is a mix of scale fragments and arpeggios. To me, the differences between musical genres are mostly stylistic. For example, Bob Wills (and others) took fiddle tunes, and would “swing them and make them new,” as he says in Time Changes Everything. As another example, I recall being really surprised that bluegrass jammers wanted to play Sitting on Top of the World. I only knew that from hearing Eric Clapton and Cream playing Howling Wolf’s version. So I dug into it a little bit and found out that it was an old jug band tune before Howlin’ Wolf bluesified it. Another relationship might be Aaron Copeland’s Hoedown, which takes a fiddle tune and plays it in a symphonic manner.

This is all a rather long-winded way to say that I think melody, harmony, and rhythm are universal, and they all can relate to each other. In my ears, they all constantly do. I’ll hear a snippet of a melody and it’ll remind me of another from a totally different place. At rehearsals, this can irritate my bandmates, since sometimes I’ll just start playing these connections in a sort of stream-of-music-consciousness way.

DB: What instruments do you regularly play?

TG: Mandolin, guitar, electric guitar, Irish tenor banjo, string bass, doumbek, and ukulele. I’ve recently added octave mandolin, and I’m starting to fool around with lap steel and dobro. And I’m also starting to learn to play a little classical mandola. I tried to learn clawhammer banjo but gave up on that.

DB: You teach at many camps. I hear people say once you’ve been to one music camp you’ve been to them all. Is that true?

TG: NO! Emphatically not! Each camp has a different program, different people teaching, and different regular students – each camp has these important regulars! Each camp has a different vibe, emphasis on musical approach, ages of participants, non-musical opportunities, approach to concerts, accommodations, and food. And all these things matter to different people.

DB: How many private students do you have?

TG: At present, just one! And he’s late!

DB: Who’s your ideal student?

TG: Anyone who’s self-motivated and who doesn’t already know more than I do. I enjoy working with adults.

DB: What do you do in your spare time?

TG: I like to answer interviews. Otherwise, cooking, traveling, napping.

DB: What music do you listen to?

TG: I listen mainly to instrumental music and prefer jazzy and bluesy sounds, so Dawg music certainly is in the mix. I just got a CD album by a young SoCal mandolin/fiddler Kyle Murphy, called Eucalyptus that  I really like. For vocal music, I tend to like funny songs, so I’m a huge fan of the Austin Lounge Lizards and the Hoosier Hotshots.

DB: What gigs or camps do you have coming up?

TG: It’s too early to know which camps I’ll be at in 2019. On November 24th the Swingin’ Chickens play the Sebastopol Contra Dance, and on February 7th I’m playing some of my songs and tunes live on KCRB radio at 7 p.m.

DB: Is there anything else you would like to say or plug?

TG: I just produced two CDs of mostly original instrumentals! Waltz of Wings features my band Mercury Rising, with Sidesaddle fiddler Lee Anne Welch, pianist Ruth Anne Fraley, and me on guitar, mandolin, octave mandolin, percussion. We recorded this about 80% live, and I think it sounds like us. 

The CD Fiddle in a Tree features my tunes played on fiddle, mandolin, accordion, guitar and bass. This music is improvisational, exciting, quirky, evocative, and groovy in turns. The melodies are fun and tasty. A few are Dawg-like. One has been described as “a Klezmer tune about bacon” but is intended to be my setting of a P. G. Wodehouse short story to music, in just 16 bars.

My CDs are available from my website! They make great stocking stuffers for your square-footed friends.

DB: Thanks Topher, we appreciate your time.

TG: Thanks to you, Dave! I enjoy reading your interviews, and it’s fun to participate in one!

Websites of camps I’ve taught at:

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About the Author

Dave Berry

Dave Berry writes an interview column for the monthly California Bluegrass Association (CBA) members publication, featuring California regional and national artists who tour California. He grew up in bluegrass country on the Ohio River right between where the Big Sandy and Big Scioto Rivers dump into the Ohio. He is deeply indebted to copy editor Jeanie Poling for cleaning up his act.