After a devastating illness, the creator of the chop builds a new life outside of music, picture by picture
By David Templeton
“Two years ago I was doing a tour of Japan,” recalls fiddler Richard Greene of Los Angeles. “It was billed as the Jim Kweskin Jug Band Reunion. We were over there for about a week, and I came back with some kind of a heart condition, a bacterial condition that might have been contracted in Japan, or maybe I had it before I went. I don’t know, but by the time I got back home, I was in bad shape.”
Greene was diagnosed with endocarditis, a condition that affects the heart muscle, and leaves those who contract it with severe fatigue. It was devastating.
“I couldn’t play music,” he says. “My hands just couldn’t do it. Everything was too weak. So, that produced a lot of down time for me.”
Downtime, for Greene, was not something to which he’d ever been accustomed. Considered one of the hardest-working innovators of the mid-20th century, Greene has played on hundreds of recordings, produced dozens of albums, contributed to television and movie soundtracks, toured the world a number of times, and played with countless bands and ensembles. During a stint with Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys in the 1960s, Greene invented the fiddle technique known as “the chop.” Later, as a member of the rock band Seatrain in the ’70s, Greene became the first musician to use an electric violin to play rock ’n’ roll music. So, when he was suddenly sidelined by the heart condition, his decades of virtuoso performing appeared to have come to an end.
“It lasted about two years,” Greene says with a laugh. “Around February or so of this year, I picked up the fiddle—and much to my surprise, I was actually able to play it for the first time. I hadn’t even picked the thing up in months, but someone offered me a gig, out of the blue—a recording session. I was curious, so I gave it a shot.”
Greene did the recording session soon after, and in spite of his concerns that he might have lost some of his stuff, he believes that he was playing as well as ever. “So after a whole long period of nothing, I’m back into it, but very, very casually,” he says. “I’m not doing any teaching anymore. To be really honest with you, I still feel more-or-less done. I might play if a really good job comes up, or if it’s something I really want to do. I’d like to play with Geoff Muldaur and Jim Kweskin some more, but I guess you could call me mostly inactive—if not completely inactive.”
In spite of Greene’s tentative attitude toward becoming the tireless, hard working, hard touring, bluegrass, rock, classical legend he is known to be, he’s also clearly relieved that he can play again.
“Well, there’s a good ending to the story now, so that’s OK,” he acknowledges, “but for a while there, I do have to tell you, it was really, really tough. But I’m a strong guy—so I got through it.”
I was playing a lot of rhythm, which can be boring, and that’s where the innovative side of me kicked in. I was always thinking, “OK. I’m playing rhythm. How can I make it different? How can I make it my own thing?”
Greene, 73, was born in Los Angeles, and for a time, seemed headed toward becoming a classical violinist. Then the ’60s happened, when musical boundaries were exploding, blending, and constantly redefining themselves. Greene, who would reinvent himself over and over during the next 50 years, was right in the middle of several of those musical revolutions.
He chalks up his tendency toward innovation and invention to a lifelong streak of independence and a compulsion to tinker with things. While that streak has served him well, it’s also led to ambivalence with the business side of the music industry.
“Basically, I was just never good at being told what to do,” he says with a laugh. “As a recording musician, you get into these studios, where maybe you are doing a session for a television show, playing the music for the score. There might be producers there, calling the shots. Actors are sometimes even there, people who don’t know anything about playing the fiddle. But they will still stop you over and over and tell you how to play it differently. I had a person once tell me, ‘No, no, no! You’re playing the music too well! Play it worse!’
“I’m actually glad I’m done with all of that now.”
Whenever Greene had a free moment, he would sit around in whatever recording studio, tour bus, hotel room, or backstage area where he happened to be, and made things up. The goal, in most cases, was to figure out how to play something better, faster, more innovatively—to play in a way that was just plain “different.”
“I don’t know where it came from, but my whole career, I insisted on being different,” Greene says.
“I thought there was a virtue in being innovative. So whenever I was presented with something, I had this obsessive urge to change it. That’s who I am. I don’t ever want to leave something the way it is. When I’m done with it, I want it to be something completely different. I always want to break the rules.
“Of course,” he allows, “in art and music, there are always exceptions to the rules, and for me, the exception to the rule that I always needed to break the rules, was that, with the right guru or teacher, I loved nothing more than following the rules as an unquestioning disciple.”
Such was the case of his tenure with Bill Monroe. “It is good, now and then,” Greene says, “to set aside your need to change things, and to become the devoted disciple of a superior practitioner—and that was Bill Monroe. When I joined his band, he was the boss, and I wanted him to be the boss. There were never any discussions. I literally sat at his feet.”
As Greene recalls, before that, he’d had very little group-playing experience, and was lucky to be included in such a prestigious ensemble. He also admits he still had a lot to learn. “My technique was not yet very good,” Greene says. “I tended to rush the beat a lot. I sped up all the time, the sign of a rank amateur. And Bill, after a few months of this, told me something that changed my life. He said, ‘From now on, I want you to only play rhythm. Stop doing all of the little fills and stuff bluegrass players do, and just do rhythm—except when it’s time for your solo.’”
So, for the next several months, that’s what Greene did, because Bill Monroe told him to. “And boy did that straighten me out,” he says. “It was one of the best music lessons of my life.”
It was also how Greene came to invent the chop, now a standard bluegrass fiddling technique. “I was playing a lot of rhythm,” Greene explains. “Which can be boring, and that’s where the innovative side of me kicked in. I was always thinking, ‘OK. I’m playing rhythm. How can I make it different? How can I make it my own thing?’ So I found a lot of ways to do that. And one of those ways was the chop.”
Originally dubbed “the chunky chop,” Greene’s signature technique—later adopted and popularized by the members of the Turtle Island String Quartet (violinist Darol Anger learned the technique from Greene)—is basically a method of creating percussive energy through dropping the bow onto the strings, then playing the note (see the Strings 101 lesson on p 20).
At the time of its creation, it was considered revolutionary. He first used the technique in the spring of 1966, which means that 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of its invention.
What Richard Greene Plays
“I primarily play on two instruments, both made by James Wimmer, who works and lives in Santa Barbara, California,” he says. “The first is a Strad copy and the other is a 13-string violin d’amore, complete with nine sympathetic strings under the fingerboard.”
“My bow is from the Hill shop made by Charles Leggatt.”
“On the Strad copy I use Pirastro Wondertone Solo with a Pirastro No. 1 E, and on the violin d’amore I use Pirastro Evah Pirazzi,” he says. “All 17 of my pegs are internally geared, custom made, and installed by pegheds.com. My rosin is a special blend made by TC Baker.”
“It was a youthful, muscular time in my life, when I was eager to be taken seriously, but also wanted to discover new things,” says Greene. “Fortunately, Bill Monroe loved the chop. He loved that I pushed the envelope.”
That said, Greene points out that he never would have been able to make his famous discovery had he not first had a thorough grounding in the strict disciplines of playing the violin, and the no-nonsense inspiration of traditional masters like Monroe.
“You have to learn the technique before you can break it wide open,” Greene says. “Once you learn the skills, faithfully, then you are prepared to use those tools to innovate with, to break the whole thing open, and change the world.” Today, after decades devoted to breaking music wide open, Greene is still innovating, though not in the way he used to. For one thing, having only recently regained his ability to play, Greene admits he’s lost some of the drive that got him through all those years of hustling.
“I hustled all the time,” he says. “I hustled to make it as a violinist. I hustled to get every gig. I was always sending out materials to promoters, working the system hard right up until I had the heart problem. It was always an effort to put a paycheck together. I had 40 or 50 years of that. If you don’t do that in music, then you’ll never play professionally. The constant hustle is just part of the program.”
Now that he’s stopped hustling, Greene has realized something astonishing.
“I’ve realized I hate hustling,” he says, and laughs, “despite having shown, I think, that I was pretty good at it.”
Now Greene is “hustling” in an entirely different way: through photography. “I have basically reestablished myself as a different kind of artist,” he says.
“I went back to my first love, which was taking pictures. I took all of the music stuff out of my studio. I moved out anything that had to do with music, and moved in everything to do with photography—tables and flat files and computers and all that. That’s what I spend most of my time doing these days.”
The subject of his photographic work is whatever interests him at the moment.
“I kind of object to the term, but I do what’s called ‘fine art’ photography,” he says. “It’s photography that’s not commercial in any way, except in art galleries. Whatever I like to shoot, I shoot. If I find it challenging and interesting, I do it. What can be better than that?”
He’s had a few small exhibitions, and is looking forward to more.
“Photography is like music,” Greene says. “All you can do is put your art out there. You do the work, you give people a chance to discover it, and you keep on doing it. But most important of all, you have to love it. You have to love what you’re doing, whether or not anyone is looking at it, or listening to it.
“If you’d do it just to do it, just to be happy, then you’ve found what you should be doing,” says Greene. “And if you happen to make some money from it someday, well, then, that’s just something extra.”