Flatpicking Guitar Magazine: Tell us more about your contest preparation and any suggestions you have for people trying to do well?
Mark Cosgrove: For me, I felt there were a few basic ingredients required. You need to be able to play real strong continuous 16th notes without fatiguing; you should be able to crosspick well, including some trick playing like floating. But it's also real important to just get a real good feel and a good sense of the melody and making sure the judges hear that right away. Let them know you know what tune you're playing, and that you're not just riffing over changes. Hearing Steve Bennett in 1987 play "Greased Pig" and winning Winfield with that arrangement made an impression on me. The players that stand out didn't play the same old same old; they had a different voice. I had rock and Tele influences in my playing, so I sounded different from the average "Bill Cheatam" flatpicker. Try to come up with own voice a little bit. There's no time limit at Winfield except three minutes, and that's a long time to fit a lot of stuff in there, so throw in everything but the kitchen sink.
FGM: Your right hand is amazing, unlike anything else I've heard in flatpicking. Was that a goal to develop such power and clarity and drive in your playing, something you specifically sought out?
MC: My acoustic playing is the antithesis of my electric playing. I developed a strong attack from trying to be heard over banjos and fiddles. I was a quiet player just trying to be heard and making sure I could play on top of a racket was the main thing that contributed to my RH technique. When I need to dig in and be accurate and loud and reach the loud end of my dynamic range, I float the ring and pinky fingers on the pickguard. Most of that power is result of finding a way to be heard in a jam situation or where playing with less experienced musicians. It's really hard to be heard on the guitar.
FGM: One quality that sets you apart from a lot of players is your tone production. You get a huge sound that is highly musical. What goes into that?
MC: I fooled around with my tone and pick choice and attack quite a bit, especially in last five years. I've experimented with turning the pick slightly at angle, leading with edge to get rounder sound. I do not like the clacky pick noise people get when really dig in. So I experimented with tone, and it means a lot to me to have people say I get decent tone. I have tremendous respect for number of players like Grier or Sutton, those guys have a tone I like. I try my best to improve my sound. To be loud with tone, one of the most important things is realize what's your dynamic range, what's loudest and softest I can play and get decent tone, and how use those tones to create interest and make my solo effective and allow it to breathe a little and avoid the typewriter effect, which can make this music a little wearisome at times.
FGM: Where do you fall in the great cross-picking technique debate? D-U-D or D-D-U? Do you vary from one style to another?
MC: The difference between me and other players is that most people starting to come up stick with a technique. I didn't know what I wanted to do, so I always used D-D-U. I was just trying to get a sound; I didn't know that was a specific technique. I fall in D-D-U category, but I will use the D-U-D when it suits me, not by design, just though necessity. Now that I'm teaching and doing clinics and workshops around the world , I find I have to explain myself more. That's the only reason I have studied why I do what I do. Sometimes I will start with an upstroke, not sure if it's a good idea for a beginner to try. It just comes from trial and error.
FGM: You mentioned experimenting a lot with picks to develop your tone. Can you talk about your choice of pick, bevel, and shape, which also must affect that dramatically.
MC: I use the rounded end. (The material) is, not get into a big controversy, but I've been using tortoiseshell ever since I was a teenager, When I was coming up, you could get them as music stores. Now I make my own. I have a friend who spends a lot time in the Bahamas, and he finds shell on beach and brings back hunks for me. They're very heavy, not sure of gauge. It's heavier than a Fender heavy, tri-corner shape, but I now favor a more rounded picking end. I like the slightly softer tone I get from it. Looking at other players whose tone I admire, I find they use a more rounded end.
FGM: You also have great left hand technique, which helps more than most people realize in producing great tone.
MC: I stress a good left hand arch and not grabbing the neck in a baseball bat grip. That gets the fingers pointing down move perpendicularly to the fingerboard, which also creates a cleaner, clearer tone. I have learned that I want to include all four and sometimes five fingers on left hand in the mix. When I want to stretch out and use my pinky, and it's important to be able to do that, I've come to realize not to grip the neck with thumb near 6th string but more at the V of a V-shaped neck. That way you get more reach. I do not have large hands, but using that technique helps my reach, helps clear the strings and leave them alone when the next string is sounding. It's important in open string or floating playing, you need to clear out to have those strings rings out. I feel it's essential to take a classical approach to arching that left hand and reach the strings to float like that.
FGM: What tips do you have for people on how to practice effectively?
MC: For me, I always loved to accompany songs. I really like to do a good job supporting and selling a song. That comes from years of just taking solos and learning to love that aspect of guitar playing. I'm enamored of the idea of working on a song and supporting a singer, creating fills and techniques to make a song sound better. So when I practice, I pick up and play along to a song unless I'm working on something specific. Lately I've been attempting to expand my musical vocabulary a bit. I took one of the few lessons I ever took from John Carlini, who's a tremendously well-rounded jazz and acoustic musician. So I went to John and took a lesson to expand my vocabulary. What I try to do is in a loose improvisatory way, take a cassette player and lay down chords to fiddle tune or ideas for a good five minutes, and then play over that and try to come up with ideas. Playing with a great songwriter like Liz is great, too. I've spent years with her, where I have to play every kickoff, solo and fill. So I have ample opportunity to create phrasing to sell the song. I also have to get out of the way when it's time to step back. That's not a role that came easily to me, because I've always been a band guy.
FGM: What kinds of things did Carlini help you with?
MC: Carlini set me up with a bunch of really difficult finger exercises, some [jazz guitar legend] Pat Martino stuff, and his 'crabwalk' stuff in the Sept/Oct 2002 issue of FGM. I want to work on things that don't come naturally to me. I concentrate on them, then I'll go back for another lesson
with him again after I practice the stuff he gave. As flatpickers, we tend to stick with what's comfortable to us, a habit that's human nature. I will always lean toward my strengths, but I have to remember that some of that stuff I already know. With the time that remains to me as a musician to grow and expand what I know, I want to step off the edge and not try to hold on to anything. Keeping your chops up is one thing, which always means playing the familiar and be smoother and getting better tone. But it's a great big world of music out there. I want my ears wide open, and my heart ready to listen to anything that goes by. If I can catch a flavor of something Latin or world music or an old Coltrane lick, or learning with Carlini to open my ears to new melodic ideas, I stand ready to do that. The beautiful thing about this instrument and being a musician is that the quest is never over. If that frustrates you, you should try something else. To me, there's not a musician alive who will say he's complete or become an entity unto himself. We're all striving to get better.
FGM: How skilled are you in music theory? Do you read notation and sight read proficiently? Do you understand chord construction?
MC: I have huge holes in my musical education. I came up as an ear player. Teaching has afforded a necessity to convey musically or through tab what I need to convey. I can read [music] extremely slowly and laboriously, and my tab reading is pretty lame. I have students who come to me who can sight read tab faster than I'll ever be able to. I have used tab to get things across to players. The things I know about chord construction and the mathematics of music have come from the school of hard knocks.
FGM: You make a great point in your workshops about not worrying about scales, but try to use the guitar as a voice? How do you develop to that point, though? Do you advocate students use scales and memorized licks as a base to build on first? Your playing is very musical, not scale-driven, which is great. You use lots of bends, floaties and double stops and techniques like that which get away from single string, 8th note approach so common. Can you talk about that and where you developed some of those ideas?
MC: I think it's a really good idea to listen to instruments other than guitar. It's our chosen voice and I wouldn't trade it for anything, but I find it limiting to listen to only guitar players. Listen to drummers, horn and keyboard players - the whole range of musicians. There's breathing involved in a horn or a singer, and rests that create rhythmically engaging sounds. Clarence White really keyed in to that. His playing had a sense of breathing and being naturally interesting in the same way a horn or singer is. I try to capture that in my own playing. The most important aspect is getting out and playing yourself, being in a band, interacting with other instruments and holding that conversation with another player and keeping up your end of the conversation while allowing room for the other person to say something. One of most fun things of being a musician is allowing space and allowing room to breathe and allowing another player to make their statement
while providing them with an excellent place to play. That's what I aim at.
FGM: You mentioned earlier that you started as a good improviser, then developed into a player who could create great contest arrangements. What do you feel are the keys to good improvising?
MC: I think the key is experience, developing a spoken vocabulary on your instrument. I do not mean to give the impression that scales aren't important - I think Kaufman said scales are to be discovered inside fiddle tunes, and I think that's entirely true. But it's also important to shake something loose by working with a scale and seeing where it fits well in different chord changes. Improvisational ideas come from strange places. If I set out to learn a scale or mode, maybe I can apply it in one situation, but 9 times out of 10, it rears its head in some other area. That makes it so worthwhile to have done it, but not necessarily in the way you thought it would.
FGM: Tell me about your instrument choices. Do you always use the Winfield Collings, even for recording, or is that your stage/travel guitar?
MC: On my last three projects, I recorded them all using the Winfield Collings. It's really starting to open nicely. It gets a great sound for me. I use it both for recording and live. When play in Europe in March and October with Liz, she owns a Martin D-18V, which I use while on road there
so I not have to carry my guitar overseas. It's a great instrument with a wonderful voice. I've had the good fortune of being on Lynn Dudenbostel's list, and he's building me a guitar. I'm getting a D-28 basically, with Indian back and sides, Englemann top and braces, a very traditional-looking guitar. I do not necessarily need another guitar, but want to take this opportunity when I can. It sure beats the stock market. That guitar will be ready in next 18 months. When I get it, I would love to have Marty Lanham build me one, too.
FGM: What about your set-up and action? It's probably fairly high because you hit the guitar so powerfully and still get such a clean tone.
MC: I definitely have medium-to-high action, but it's not out of this world. I've never measured it. The guitar was set up for me by Richard Starkey, who does a terrific job. He did the saddle for it. It has fossil ivory pins, bone nut and saddle. I use John Pearse phosphor bronze mediums. I'm not into the coated string thing. I used lights on the LoPrinzi, which was a leftover from making jump from electric guitar. In the last five to six years, I care so much about improving my tone I've made the jump to mediums and I'm very comfortable with that set-up now. For a capo, I've used the Shubb, but I recently did some studio work with Rolly (Brown), and he gave me an Elliott, which I understand is expensive. I've ever used a thumbscrew capo before, and I've gotten very fond of it. I use the Shubbs a lot because I like playing with drop D in D position capoed at second fret, and that shortcut appeals to me.
FGM: On stage, do you ever use a pickup? How do you manage your on-stage sound?
MC: The pickup thing is tough. The Fishman Rare Earth is a simple concept, and it's a good pickup. With an acoustic, the simpler the better. So I'm using the Rare Earth soundhole pickup without the mic attachment, to keep it simple. In a large hall, you have very little choice in my mind to use the pickup quite a but and make the compromise. It's not the most woody sound in world, but Lord knows I want to be heard, even at the expense of a little tone.
FGM: Where do you see your playing going, what are you working on? Will we hear more jazz stuff like "Ornithology" on the "Round Island" CD?
MC: I feel that only one aspect, but it's not in my comfort zone. I want to learn things and want to stretch., but I still love old-time and acoustic music, fiddle tunes, the flatpicking form the in Doc and Dan Crary genre. I love that style of music and I will always be doing that. So you'll find me at Winfield at the Kessinger's soaking up Robin's arrangements and learning new tunes that he turns me on to. It's never something I'll forsake for jazz wholeheartedly. I want to try to be a better flatpicker in the traditional sense, be a better entertainer, a better singer, which I'm learning more about from Liz, who's helping me find parts and improve my vocal technique. I just want to be a better musician all around. I'm still incredibly enthusiastic about it. I do not seem to have lost any edge in my desire to be better. I'm doing what I was always meant to do. That feels great.