An Interview with Mark Wood of Trans-Siberian Orchestra
Normally, we save this column for actors, athletes, and other noted celebrities that make their living doing something other than playing music. In this latest edition, we feature Mark Wood but this version contains a unique little twist. Mark Wood doesn't play guitar. Mark plays violin. Let me reword that; Mark shreds the violin unlike you've ever heard previously. We're not talking Charlie Daniels on speed. We're talking full-on shred. He's a true student of the instrument, in the traditional sense; a virtuoso, graduated from the Juilliard School of Music but he can play Hendrix like nobodys business.
Seen with The Trans-Siberian Orchestra and numerous other road shows, Mark takes a few minutes out from his crazed schedule to chat about a day-in-the-life of a composer and a touring artist, oh yeah and an educational writer, uh and a manufacturer and let's not forget producer.
Guitar.com: Hey Mark, happy holidays to you. You're still out on the road?
Mark Wood: Yeah, we're in Providence.
Guitar.com: Not that far away. I'm up in Boston. Well, let us start at the beginning and the question that everyone on G.com is just dying to know. Do you or have you ever played guitar?
Guitar.com: Ever tried?
Wood: Never, well, I can play a couple of chords but it was never considered an instrument of serious choice for me.
Guitar.com: How long have you been playing violin?
Wood: About 25 years.
Guitar.com: My, my, my you started when I was in grade school (cough, cough laughs)
Wood: Yeah, right (laughing). Seems like a long time for some reason, doesn't it?
Guitar.com: Yes it does. When did you realize that traditional violin wasnt allowing you to create the sounds you heard in your head? Or maybe a better way to say that is, when does the electric violin become a part of what you do?
Wood: Very good question. I think because of my background as a string player and discovering rock, The Beatles and Sgt. Peppers and all of that music, I was already playing a stringed instrument at that point. So it never occurred to me not to use a stringed instrument in a rock context but the instrument certainly had its limitations. Mostly because it was amplified music that I liked. Distortion, Hendrix, wah-wah pedals, echo all that stuff. You can't really access all that stuff with acoustic instruments.
Guitar.com: Hard to put a Floyd Rose on a violin.
Wood: (laughs) Exactly. But that's what led me to a solid body. I was good enough on my violin at that point. I could play Hendrix on the violin. I could get that phrasing and sustain that he loved to use. Guitar is truly the inspiration to a lot of my playing style.
Guitar.com: So after Hendrix death, the spike in attention to guitar players grows dramatically. So in the early to mid '70s, you decide that you want to plug your violin in somewhere?
Wood: Yeah, in the mid-70s I'm working that out. But being at the Juillard School of Music and being able to play Bartok and Stravinsky, hands down, blindfolded, I still couldn't improvise. I couldn't play the blues. I couldn't play anything. That was so frustrating and so eye-opening that I said the training that I'm getting right now just isn't working. There's no better conservatory but I have to develop my own training. It developed from that point. That was the turning point, when I realized that I couldn't play or improvise on the instrument.
Guitar.com: An abbreviated hit list for those that may not be familiar with you and your music might be, and correct me if I'm wrong, you trained at Tanglewood School of Music at 14.
Guitar.com: You move on and work with Leonard Bernstein and the BSO at 15.
Wood: That's correct.
Guitar.com: You then receive a full scholarship to Julliard at 17.
Wood: Also correct.
Guitar.com: You graduate from Julliard and where do you go from there?
Wood: Well one thing that was going on at that time was I was working in my father's family workshop and I would go every night and build violins. So I was also getting better as a craftsman so that when I was really ready to build a kick-ass instrument, I was ready.
Guitar.com: I remember seeing you at the Cat Club in the mid-80s and saying to myself, who is this guy? And how come no one knows he can play better than 70 to 80% of the guitar players out there? Was that a frustrating experience for you to not get the recognition, than maybe some of the less-talented guitarists were getting?
Wood: Yeah, it's an interesting point. What I was really battling was popular thought more than the instrument or players. I'd come into a club and they'd say hey man you play violin? The thought was, hey I don't want to hear country music.
Guitar.com: Right, that was more the pre-conceived notion of the instrument.
Wood: So their expectations were attached to this labeling. So there was little in the way of social acceptance. But I never felt too frustrated because right after that point, I got the deal with Guitar Recordings and my face and image was all over the place. I finally got on the Tonight Show. So if anything the attention might have been delayed, that just happens.
Guitar.com: Yeah, tha'ts probably not unlike a number of peoples path.
Wood: The moment before you launch out, that's the darkest point.
Guitar.com: More true words were never spoken.
Wood: Yeah, because it's like boom and thank god I waited. And I'm still doing it twenty-five years later.
Guitar.com: Gotta love it. So much has changed musically since you started. Are you as excited about music and the music scene, now as you were back then?
Wood: Absolutely. It's called the Internet. It's saved all us self-employed business people. We're musicians but we have to function as a business. There has to be income. Our bills have to be paid. We take care of our families. That's very essential and that's what the Internet has done for us. The Internet most definitely has changed my life.
Guitar.com: Very cool. That's good to hear. There's still much to learn about the Internet, much like our site, we're growing and changing all the time.
Wood: Yeah, I think without the Internet, I probably wouldn't be as excited about music as I am. The Internet is really important. I mean, we sell our instruments online without ever speaking to these people on the phone. It's all through the Internet.
Guitar.com: That's incredible.
Wood: That's 50 to 60% of our business; exclusively via the Internet.
Guitar.com: Not to over-simplify the significance but that shows the power of word-of-mouth. What a powerful tool.
Wood: Yeah, I agree.
Guitar.com: Okay back to business, was it composition or performing that really got your career off the ground, so to speak?
Wood: It was the double whammy. In '88 or '89 my record comes out. All of a sudden, it starts to sell and I'm a guest on the Tonight Show. Big, big huge thing; I'm on CNN. All the networks are picking up on it. At the same time, I'm composing music for the Winter Olympics. So my publicist had the composition side and the rock n' roll violin career going at the same time, which was really intense. I couldn't hide behind either of them. I had to be a composer but I also looked like a freak because of my hair, looking like Motley Crue and yet I'm doing the Olympics music. But that was the big bang at that point.
Guitar.com: Well, you've been incredibly busy just in the last few years. You premiered a new composition, Nest of Vipers back at Juiliard.
Wood: Yeah that was this past spring (2003). It wasn't really a workable relationship when I went there. To be invited back as an alumni and to build my electric instruments, pretty much to what I had been working on back then and they hated so much. The old guard dies. And that's how I slipped back in.
Guitar.com: And that was played on your new Viper Instruments?
Wood: And a Viper Cello.
Guitar.com: Right, I saw that. Very cool looking instrument.
Wood: We've got it's exploding. We've got tons of orders all over the world. We are developing string programs I have five rock orchestras in the country, from Providence (RI) to Lakewood, San Diego, and up in Boston.
Guitar.com: Wow, that's great to hear. Well, you are a very patient man, I'll give you that.
Guitar.com: Continuing, you also won an Emmy for your composition and production of the 2002 Tour de France bicycle race on CBS-TV.
Wood: The CD will be released in the spring, I think. We're still trying to make that happen.
Guitar.com: You've also managed to release several CDs and in your spare time, you become a manufacturer by bringing your very own creation, Wood Violins to the masses. Let's talk about your Violins. How many models do you offer?
Wood: Yes, we're Wood Violins. We manufacture four to five different models. The Viper, The Sabre, The Stringray and the Viper Cello and we're developing a fifth. Those are the main ones right now.
Guitar.com: Price range on these will run?
Wood: About $800 to $4000.
Guitar.com: What about stock equipment? You must have a pickup of choice, strings, etc..
Wood: Also to keep this in perspective regarding price sorry didn't mean to interrupt. A professional acoustic violin in any orchestra for any pro-level player, were dealing with a $30,000 to $50,000 instrument as the base price. The guitar world doesn't really have that reference point. String players definitely have that reference point so to them, luckily, it's a non-issue. Three of the Dallas Symphony players have Vipers.
Guitar.com: That's great.
Wood: We have Vipers in symphonies throughout the country. This is a pro-level instrument and people are responding to it in a creative way. Our website features some of these players and they're doing incredible things with these instruments.
Guitar.com: So what about pickups?
Wood: Pickups are Barbera Transducers. They're hand-built, custom-made in New York by a friend of mine and they're the best pickup in the world. Double piezo under each string; you can't get better fidelity and output. It took us years to get to that point. We had the crappiest equipment as violin players. Compared to where the guitar technology was at that point.
Guitar.com: Right, no comparison. Do you preamp that?
Wood: It doesn't need a preamp but there is one available.
Guitar.com: Strictly off-board. I understand you've been working in the field of educational publication as well. What are you up to in that regard?
Wood: We're doing a Hal Leonard book with John Stix, which is going to redefine violin pedagogy for the next two-thousand years and hopefully becomes the Suzuki replacement system. So that the system becomes more relevant so that string playing is much more credible and worthy of participating in, as guitar and keyboards have become.
Guitar.com: You did a book with or for Boyd Tinsley (of Dave Matthews Band), as well?
Wood: Yup, we did an instructional book with him.
Guitar.com: So how do you get involved with the Trans- Siberian Orchestra?
Wood: It's crazy isn't it? Like I don't have enough to do already. Here's my day: I travel with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. These are friends of mine from New York. Savatage (a broadway show of sorts). When they first starting putting this together, Al Pitrelli called me and said, we're putting together this thing called Trans-Siberian Orchestra and we want you to do the strings. The orchestra part. And I'm like sure man. I get to play my Viper Violin. I get to run around on stage and rock out. And now after about six-years or so, we have arenas sold-out. We're playing to over 10,000 people a night.
Guitar.com: That's incredible. I saw the feature on PBS the other night. It was great.
Wood: It's really incredible. Your career can afford you so many opportunities. You mean I get to play my violin as part of a big rock and roll show? I'm there in a heartbeat. Shania Twain called and I'm like I'm not into that fiddle stuff, at all. And they perused me a little bit because the guitar player, Mike Thompson, is my cousin on all of her records. There's an inside scoop for you. But it's gigs like that, that are more the norm for violin players, not the TSO.
Guitar.com: Right. You've also been fortunate with the talent that you've been able to hook up with in your career especially within the TSO; Al Pitrelli, Alex Skolnick. Who else does the guitar chair?
Wood: Chris Caffrey and Tristrian Avakian.
Guitar.com: I remember that guy. He can really shred.
Wood: Yeah, he was with David Rosenthal's band, Red Dawn, I think they were called.
Guitar.com: Yeah, I remember him. Good player.
Wood: Yeah, he's with us this year. Skolnick is in our back-up band because he wanted to stay in New York and work on his new record.
Guitar.com: How does the east coast version/west coast version thing work?
Wood: I'm in the East Coast version. The West Coast Version is Al Pitrelli and his wife, not another name guitarist. I mean, do you really need one. You have Al, what else do you need?
Guitar.com: Good point.
Wood: With the two bands, we're out on a seven-week tour and were able to cover a greater portion of the country.
Guitar.com: The point being that your top-selling recording is your holiday releases and obviously are specific to the holidays. So you have a finite point in time to promote that, so it makes sense, in that regard.
Guitar.com: Do you find TSO to be a great vehicle for your solo work or your Violins?
Wood: Yeah, it really is. We're going to be doing some side projects in the coming year. Much to do before then though. It's a relationship that benefits us both. Fans are digging TSO and vice versa.
Guitar.com: I remember reading at one point you were working with Dee Synder of Twisted Sister. Did that ever happen?
Wood: Yeah, that record already came out. You gotta get it.
Guitar.com: A record? I thought it was some type of ride at Universal or Disney or something like that?
Wood: An amusement park ride? That's still being developed. I don't have an update on that currently.
Guitar.com: So you did a record with Dee? What's it like?
Wood: Well, Dee called me to be the evil violin player. How much better can you get than that?
Guitar.com: Perfect casting.
Wood: I've loved Dee for years. I was a huge Twisted Sister fan and he's just the real deal.
Guitar.com: What the record called?
Mark Wood: Van Helsing's Curse
Guitar.com: I saw this great quote from Yngwie on your site and I want to share it with our members: "This music is totally different from anything else I've heard! Totally different. When I came around the first time, everybody said 'this is weird.' Yet that's the initial thing to do; something that no one else has done. That's very important. Mark Wood's done that. It's completely nuts! It's great!" My comment is, for Yngwie to say it's great, it's nuts, is a rare and totally appropriate compliment.
Wood: (laughs) Yeah, I was pretty moved by that statement. It was from a listening room that John Stix did. He played Voodoo Violince, my first record to him. There's nothing like it when a guitar player hears something like that because it's like check this guitar player out. So a guy like Yngwie is not going to fall for that. He's going to know. The articulations that I do are different. It's a different instrument but he flipped.
Guitar.com: Did you catch G3 on this time around? Yngwie was out with them.
Mark Wood: No, I missed them. Maybe next time.
Guitar.com: So you're going to be busy at least from now through the holidays, I would think.
Wood: Yeah, you could say that. I don't think I finished my thought on what my typical day consists of.
Guitar.com: Right, oh, finish that.
Wood: Well I have an ESPN Olympic show that I'm completing, that's due next week. So I fit a 24-track digital recording studio in my suitcase. It's insane. After we finish these big arena shows, we sit in the lobby and sign autographs for two hours. The people are so appreciative and were glad to do it. Then we hop on the bus, drive to the next city. Get up, I go to the gym and then write music all day. At 3:00 I rehearse strings til 6:00, dinner, show, signings. Back on the bus and off to the next city. Seven days a week.
Guitar.com: What are you using for the recording studio?
Wood: Perfomer. With my laptop, it's great. It's far more simple then it used to be.
Guitar.com: Mark, thanks for taking a few minutes to talk to us. I think G.com members are going to be floored by hearing what you do. Good to hear your voice again.
Wood: My pleasure. See you at NAMM.
You can catch up with Mark via his website - Mark Wood.com