|Acoustic Guitar, July/August 1994|
Guitar Summit: A Roundtable with Joe Pass, Pepe Romero, Leo Kottke and Paco Peña
by Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers
In the finale of the show last night, you chose to do duets with the nylon-string guitars and then the steel-strings, rather than mixing them all together. Does that imply that you feel there's a large gap between the nylon and steel families of the guitar?
Nah, that's because we haven't rehearsed it. We haven't gotten around to doing a quartet number.
What will you play?
"Flight of the Bumblebee" [laughter]
Yeah, and I'll dance.
At the very beginning of learning to play, we all learned a lot of the same material. We just have to find a tune that we're all familiar with, because we'll be improvising. I think if we sat down for an hour, we would have it.
We did something like this in Australia with John Williams, and we were expect to play something together. At the last minute we decided to play "Ave Maria."
Yeah, let's play that.
Oh, but it was a train wreck. [To Peña] It was grim, wasn't it?
Oh God, it was terrible, because it was meant to be, actually. The thing was that we didn't want to appear as though we were trying to mix anything. John particularly was determined to make it sound like a flood, like just messing around without making any sense at all. We meant it to be a mess, but we didn't know it was going to be such a mess.
I played "Hang On, Sloopy." The rest of them played "Ave Maria." All I remember is that everybody else finished, and I was out on the end of the pier somewhere [laughter].
One thing that your musical worlds have in common is that the guitar didn't come into its own as a solo instrument until fairly recently. Why do you think it took so long for the guitar to take the spotlight?
Well, that's not really how it happened. In the early 1800s, the guitar was one of the most popular solo instruments, and there were guitarists who rivaled the fame of any virtuosos in Vienna. With the classical guitar, you had Guiliani and Sor and Carulli and Molino, who were actually concertizing all over Europe and into Russia. So way back -- I'm talking about the late 1700s and the early 1800s -- the guitar was in tremendous style. It died out with Romantic music becoming popular and the pion coming into vogue. People were searching for more sounds, bigger sounds. The orchestra grew bigger; instead of the chamber orchestras, we went into the symphonic orchestras, and the piano became larger and produced more sounds.
So the guitar went a little bit out of style, and it just retreated back to Spain and Italy,, where it always remained very popular, with great players. And then, with Segovia, it came out again, but it wasn't coming out for the first time.
Didn't Paganini play the guitar?
Yes, he did.
In the case of flamenco, did it take a pioneer like Ramon Montoya to establish the guitar as a solo instrument?
I guess that was the moment. Folk traditions like flamenco -- perhaps even the blues -- are the natural cradle, the natural environment, for an instrument such as the guitar. But it is also natural that with the advance of the popularity of the classical guitar, the [solo] flamenco guitar would also take off. An artist like Ramon Montoya has an ambition and a fantasy that results in taking a huge step forward and making people discover so many possibilities that weren't there before. That is how things grow. With that kind of activity and energy being channeled into the music, you end up with virtuosos nowadays in any form.
I think the guitar belongs rightly where it was, in the group atmosphere, but it has so much potential that it was inevitable that it would shine out.
Leo, for your music, was John Fahey the player who brought the guitar into focus as a solo instrument?
There was a record of Dick Rosmini that must have come out in about '61 on Elektra [Adventures for Six-String, 12-String, and Banjo]; it was the first steel-string flattop instrumental record that I heard that wasn't strictly a genre of some kind. Pete Seeger made The Goofing-Off Suite in '55, which was maybe the first time that somebody started synthesizing everything. He hummed Beethoven's Fifth on that thing, and he recommended nailing a piece of baling wire to your wall with two spools under it if you didn't have a guitar, plunking it, and moving one spool up and down...But for me, John was the guy who kind of absorbed all the lore behind all of the local music in the States; he got the humor and the hook of it. I think it's real immediate music. He was the first guy who really have it a point of view.
Joe, was there a particular person who inspired you in the direction of playing solo?
No, but I heard George Van Eps years ago, his seven-string album. I was impressed with that. I didn't want to paly seven-string, because it's hard enough to play six. And I heard Narciso Yepes playing Aranjuez, and I was really carried away with it. Before that I'd heard Eddie Lang; in 1929, I heard his record of playing a solo acoustic plectrum guitar on a tune called "My Blue Heaven." He played a whole chorus in chords and single notes, and it was as modern as anybody's playing now. it has stood the test of time.
I started playing solo because I used to sit around the house, and my father would say [to visitors], "My son plays the guitar. So play something for the people." What could I do, play scales? I started playing songs.
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