Tony Rice was a flat-picker, which meant he played an acoustic guitar with a flat pick, playing rhythm as well as lead in a fast but clean style.
Rice was born on June 8, 1951 in Danville, Virginia and grew up in Los Angeles. His father, Herb, had a bluegrass band and Tony and his brothers soon formed their own bluegrass band. In Los Angeles, Rice and his group opened for the Kentucky Colonels, which featured Roland and Clarence White; Clarence White became a major influence on Rice.
Tony moved to Louisville, Kentucky and joined the Bluegrass Alliance, and then J.D. Crowe’s New South, one of the best and most progressive bluegrass groups ever formed. In 1974, Ricky Skaggs joined the lineup that included J.D. Crowe on banjo and vocals, Jerry Douglas on Dobro, Bobby Slone on bass and fiddle, and Rice on guitar and lead vocals.
Rice met David Grisman and moved to San Francisco where they formed the David Grisman Quintet. Rice began studying chord theory, learned to read charts and expanded his playing beyond bluegrass. Renowned guitarist John Carlini taught Rice music theory and helped him learn the intricacies of jazz playing and musical improvisation.
During the 1980s Rice recorded 6 albums with the Bluegrass Album Band. Band members J.D. Crowe, Bobby Hicks, Doyle Lawson, Todd Phillips and Rice recorded a number of old standards from the roots of bluegrass. He also recorded with Ricky Skaggs and Norman Blake.
In 1983 he won a Grammy for Best Country Instrumental Performances and was the International Bluegrass Music Association’s (IBMA) Instrumental Performer of the Year—Guitar in 1990, 1991, 1994, 1996, 1997 and 2007.
In 1993 Rice, Jerry Garcia, and David Grisman recorded The Pizza Tapes, an album of informal playing in Grisman’s home studio.
Rice had a distinctive baritone and was lead singer in his groups but in the early 90’s he was diagnosed with Muscle Tension Dysphonia which constricted the muscles around his voice box and he had to quit singing. From that point forward he was an instrumentalist whose guitar work delved into jazz, bluegrass and experimental music.
During the 2000s Rice performed with guitarist/singer-songwriter Peter Rowan, bassist Bryn Bright and mandolinist Billy Bright.
Rice, his brother Larry, Chris Hillman (formerly with the Flying Burrito Brothers and Byrds), and banjoist Herb Pedersen founded the so-called “anti-supergroup” of Rice, Rice, Hillman & Pedersen and recorded three albums 1997-2001.
In 2014 he developed tennis elbow, which made playing the guitar painful. Rice stopped performing live shows because he did not want to let his audience down by not playing as well as he had in the past.
Tony Rice created what he called ‘spacegrass’ music, which was bluegrass heavily influenced by jazz and experimental music. It has been said that Rice redefined bluegrass guitar playing and left a lasting imprint on the genre, a complete musician of the highest caliber and the single most influential acoustic guitar player in the last 50 years.
Rice died on December 25, 2020 at his home in Reidsville, North Carolina.