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Obituary: Greg Townsend was a bluegrass master

For musicians who wanted to learn the finer points of flat-picking or mandolin strumming, Greg Townsend will be missed as one of Sacramento’s go-to teachers. The acclaimed bluegrass musician and instructor at The Fifth String died Monday from heart failure, said John Green, owner of The Fifth String and a longtime friend of Mr. Townsend.

Mr. Townsend was 60.

A native of Southern California, Mr. Townsend established himself more than three decades ago as a beloved musician and instrument repairman in the Bay Area’s thriving bluegrass scene. He was adept on a variety of string instruments, including guitar, banjo and mandolin.

Mr. Townsend was a member of Grant Street String Band, a popular Bay Area bluegrass band of the early 1980s featuring fiddler and future Grammy nominee Laurie Lewis. Mr. Townsend was considered a key member of the band not only for his musicianship but also for a keen mechanical sensibility.

Lewis recalled a trip to Minnesota in 1984, where the band was booked for Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” radio show. The van broke down in South Dakota on the trip home to California, and Mr. Townsend quickly put his hands to work.

“He spent a day under the van fixing it,” said Lewis. “He just had great hands. He was also a wonderful carpenter and luthier. Greg was invaluable because he had so many talents.

“Greg was a really good player who strove for tone and melodicism in his solos,” Lewis added. “Though he didn’t sing much, he was a very moving singer, and it was always fun to sing harmonies with him.”

Mr. Townsend moved to Sacramento in 1999 and found a musical home at The Fifth String. He served as a master repairman at the shop for guitars, violin bows and mandolins, and established himself as a beloved teacher. He generally taught more than 30 students at a time.

“He was extremely loved,” said Green. “He was very humorous and always had a joke, and was very good at explaining music.”

Fellow instructors remember Mr. Townsend for his technical prowess and deep respect for bluegrass traditions. Many of his lessons were taught in an oral tradition to help students develop their listening ear.

“He was a great guitarist and kind of a purist with acoustic and bluegrass music,” said guitarist Ross Hammond, who taught alongside Mr. Townsend for nearly 10 years. “He really had an idea of what bluegrass was, and in a good way. He shredded on mandolin, too. He had a lot of technique, but didn’t use it for the sake of (showing off).”

Mr. Townsend’s musical spirit will be celebrated at memorial services scheduled for the weekend of Nov. 29 at The Fifth String. Check www.thefifthstring.com or call (916)442-8282 for updated information.

Townsend’s friends in music look forward to celebrating him at The Fifth String, while surrounded by a variety of handcrafted instruments and time-honored bluegrass tunes.

“It’ll be at the shop, where it belongs,” said Green.

He is survived by his parents, Gene and Dorothy of Buena Park.

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