Frets, April 1982

Leo Kottke

by Mark Humphrey

Page 3

Article photo (uncredited>
Article photo (uncredited)
Did it take you a long time to develop that clean technique?  

It really did. It really was a problem.  I haven't put any slide on record for a while, and it's a sound that you can't get anywhere else.  I would like to do a great big slide record.  The reason I haven't started on that is because I don't have any material for it, but I can feel it kind of bubbling around back there.  

Are you still using an Almaden Mountain Red table wine bottleneck?  

Yes.  I keep it in a plastic pill bottle.  I used to lose these by the ton.  It can be really terrible if you drop it as you're going up on stage -- shattering!  

Do your compositions grow out of finding intriguing riffs?  

Sometimes they happen all at once, but in the last few years they tend to happen in parts.  There seem to be disparate parts lying around, and then one day they click.  I can't make it happen, I just have to be patient.  But it's what I enjoy the most.  More than performing, much more than recording, I like getting an idea.

Do your ideas undergo any conscious compositional process?

No.  They used to be completely unthunk, which is how I wound up with that "Prodigal Son" lick. You have to be pretty unconscious to get an idea, otherwise you're hanging all kinds of stuff on it and it might not even come, to begin with. Many players who have studied know what they're going to do before they do it, and I think that might choke you up a little.  If you do it the other way around, I think it will work.  Studying is something you eventually have to do, otherwise you're just kind of a bump on a log.  

Do you ever improvise?  

Sometimes. When I do it, I usually have a lick that I whipped up that day, and then I'll just depart from it.  I have to know where I'm going to wind up.  One time I was playing for 2 1/2 hours in a room in Seattle with two other people.  I got on the front end of whatever this was, and it went all by itself.  I played things I would never think of, things I didn't know I could do.  When it is really working right, there's no hesitation and no rush.  It doesn't matter if the tempo is breakneck or real slow.  You know right what's coming.  I suspect that is what jazz is all about.  I would hate to have to go out every night,  hoping that would happen.  When I finally study, I hope I'll be able to do more of that.  I had a nice night in Amsterdam when I took off on something, but I have to feel really good and be real happy before I try that.

What guitars are you touring with now?  

The Martin that was converted by Jon Lundburg [2126 Dwight Way, Berkeley, CA 94794] and a Gibson J-45.  The piece I'm happiest with is that prewar Gibson J-45.  I got that at Norm's Rare Guitars [6753 Tampa, Reseda, CA 91335].  I love Gibsons, they're my favorite guitars -- up until about '63.  

What was converted on the Martin 12-string?  

The Florentine cutaway was added, and the neck was removed and replaced with a walnut neck that brings the string scale to 28".  It's a 12-string D-20.  Because of that scale, it's a real finger-buster.  I use that one mainly for slide.  I don't have the Bozo I once played, because the bridge pulled up on me recently.  I made the mistake of ignoring the lack of humidity in the house  

What ever happened to the nylon 12-string guitar you were having built?  

A guy named Jeff  Eliot, an apprentice of Richard Schneider [326 W. Kalamazoo, Suite 2A Kalamazoo, MI 49007] built it, and it worked!  All I have to do is get it on a record.  The thing is kind of remarkable, because neither one of us thought it would really come through.   It was something that I wanted to do because of records I heard by lutenist Walter Gerwig.  I wanted to get that fat, contained sound without so much resonance.  I think this thing has it; it`s still a little new, but if really feels good.  It has a little sort of cutaway on it and a 10-fret neck.  It started out to be a standard Kasha-style top, but Jeff rebuilt five guitars in the style of [master German luthier] Hermann Hauser, during the time he was working on that guitar, and he imitated some of their structure for the sake of volume.  He thought we wouldn't get that much volume with the nylon strings.

What tunings are you using now in performance?  

I'm trying to avoid using [non-standard] tunings, but the one that I stick with is G [from low to high, D-G-D-G-B-D]  on the Martin cutaway.  That seems to be the most normal.  It's not hard to get to, and it's not a freakish sort of tuning.  It sort of fits in with the dobro tuning; it's not so eccentric.  Otherwise, I stay in concert tuning.  I was getting to a point where I had a lot of tunes I liked, but every one was in a different tuning.  Other tunings I've used are C [C-G-C-G-C-E], D [D-A-D-F#-A-D], and one odd tuning that I can't recall.  I have played with Pierre Bensusan, and he had a tuning [D-A-D-G-A-D] that was the best one I've heard, because you couldn't hear it working. We were sitting up there with [jazz guitarist] Diz Dizley, and he played "Night in Tunisia" and "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" and played some sort of country thing -- he could just do anything.

What sort of strings are you using?

I use Bill Lawrence.  They're always the same from package to package.  I'm using his original mediums on the 12-string.  The Martin conversion is tuned down five half-steps, so my D is an A.  I'm down there, and with that 28" scale, it's really like being down to C.  

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