Acoustic Guitar, November 1995

Leo Kottke:  Steel-string storyteller

by Jim Ohlschmidt
     Few acoustic fingerstyle guitarists are as original and creative as Leo Kottke.  Attempts at labeling the music he makes with a six- or 12-string guitar are quickly mired in musicological nonsense.  Kottke is one of those rear musicians who just doesn't play or sound like anyone else.  Not that the 50-year-old Minnesota guitarists creates music out of thin air.  Kottke has derived a wide musical vocabulary from his nearly 30 years of writing and recording guitar music.  Folk, blues and classical music were the most obvious references in Kottke's early records; more recently, jazz, African, and calypso sounds have also had a discernible impact on his writing.  Kottke's gift, then and now, is the way he assimilates such diverse influences without blurring the focus of his inventive playing.  "That's his genius as a composer:  bringing American and world idioms to solo guitar," said John Stropes, author of Leo Kottke: Eight Songs (Hal Leonard).  "There aren't many people in our time who have accomplished what he has done and what he continues to do."

     Essential to Kottke's playing is an irresistible syncopation that is both loose and deadly precise.  Kottke gave up fingerpicks years ago in favor of a more subtle flesh-and-nail approach that has ultimately refined the rhythmic nuance of his work.  Listen to the original recording of Kottke's "Ojo" from 6 and 12 String Guitar (Takoma Records, 1969) and the version on Regards from Chuck Pink (Private Music, 1988) to fully appreciate how his nimble right-hand technique has evolved.

     Kottke's expertise with a bottleneck slide also comes through on his records.  Although it's not as prominent in his playing today as in years past, Kottke is one of the most musical acoustic slide guitarists on the planet.  Records such as Greenhouse, Ice Water (Capitol), Leo Kottke, and Guitar Music (Chrysalis) are rife with masterful bottleneck tunes that rank with Ry Cooder's best work.  Over the years, artists as diverse as Michael Johnson and the Violent Femmes have enlisted Kottke to imbue their records with his clean, graceful slide guitar work.

     Kottke's relationship with the instrument began at age 12 when his mother bought him a cheap guitar with a cowboy stenciled on the front in an attempt to cheer him up during a bout of mononucleosis.  Having played the trombone in grade school, Kottke new enough about music to form an E chord, and through some miracle of cerebral alchemy he made a deep connection with the instrument.  "That's how it all started," he said, "the guitar came and got me.  I tried other instruments, but the guitar was pointed right at me."

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