Frets, May 1986

Fingerstyle Finds Its Heart

At The Milwaukee Fingerstyle Guitar Festival Top Pros Agree:  Emotion is the Key

by Rick Gartner
Leo Kottke shares impromptu lessons outdoors with students
(Photo by R. Luke Stungis)
Leo Kottke shares impromptu lessons outdoors with students (Photo by R. Luke Stungis)

      Just glancing at the title American Fingerstyle Guitar Festival, one might get the impression that this even was restricted in its musical scope.  Not so.  The offerings were was varied as Taj Mahal's blues artistry and Benjamin Verdery's renderings of Bach.

      Milwaukee was the site for last summer's convocation of digital pickers.  It was an intense week of concerts, workshops, and jam sessions that was both edifying and exhausting.  Even if you could be three places at once, you couldn't take it all in.  Still, no matter how little of it you could consciously retain, you had to walk away a better player.

      The attitude of the performers and the audience was one and the same.  Everyone was there to share and learn, which created a very supportive environment.  No egotistical would-be virtuosos trying to psyche each other out.  An absolute minimum of distance between performer and audience.  Where else, in the curse of an evening, could you watch classical guitarist Benjamin Verdery getting pointers from steel-string master Leo Kottke, and then see Verdery returning the favor by showing Kottke some left-hand technical exercises?

      We can only report on a tip of the iceberg here.  But if one governing principle floats above the surface, the message goes like this:  While technical accuracy is important, and musical intricacy is impressive, it is feeling that really counts.  Some longstanding barriers also seem to be falling, and stylistic borders are becoming ill-defined, or non-existent.  Benjamin Verdery's concert program include the majestic Bach Chaconne, but he also presented his classical impressions of the late Jimi Hendrix.  Leo Kottke played some of his familiar tunes, but he showed a bit of his new direction when he spun off a Mozart waltz on his steel-string guitar.

      The trend-setting Windham Hill label was well represented by Michael Hedges and Alex de Grassi.  At their workshops they tacitly replied to critics who have dubbed their work "hot-tub Muzak."  Hedges, working through his explanation of "Aerial Boundaries," displayed both compositional acumen and musical literacy.  What sometimes appears to be guitar mayhem is well thought out, and believe it or not, Hedges writes his seemingly spontaneous lines out in standard notation (often on multiple staffs).  Similarly, de Grassi guided a roomful of guitarists through the nuances of his tune "Western."

      This was the first American Fingerstyle Guitar Festival, the debut of what is planned as a semi- annual event.  The next is set for 1987.  The Festival was sponsored by the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, was hosted by the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, and was administered by the Milwaukee Foundation For Guitar Studies (1522 East Kane Place, Milwaukee, WI 53202).  Funding came from the National Endowment For The Arts, Walreen's Company, and the Segel Family Foundation.

      The full roster of 1985's performers was indeed one for fingerstylists to conjure with:  Pierre Bensusan, Guy Van Duser, Alex de Grassi, Michael Hedges, Leo Kottke, Peter Lang, Taj Mahal, Preston Reed, and Benjamin Verdery.

      What follows are interviews on playing technique with three of those innovative players:  Guy Van Duser, Peter Lang, and Leo Kottke, respectively.  These dialogues were collected [during] interviews at the festival, and during the performer's workshops.

[Leo Kottke excerpt]

You've been talking about some new directions in your musical life -- getting into studying music theory and re-examining aspects of your technique.  With all the guitar players around here, this festival seems like a good place for you.

Yeah, and I'm really enthusiastic about it; but then I've always been a complete pig for the guitar -- I've never been able to get enough.  A festival like this is perfect for me.  I'm surrounded by guitarists.  Some are just beginners, but you can pick up stuff even from a beginner; if you listen you might hear a little shred of something that hadn't ever occurred to you.  Then there are great players like Ben [Vendery].  He's been teaching me some really valuable things today, and who knows if I'd ever gotten to know him if it weren't for this event.

So you prefer to learn things in a one-on-one sharing situation?

The best way to learn is to get out and be with other guitarists.  It's true that I've been studying theory and technique recently, and it's something I really needed to do.  But I'm glad I waited until this point in my career to do it.

Why is that?

I think that a player's special, individual spark can get drowned out if they start to analyze and study before they learn how to play.  Take me:  I've been having this party with the guitar and now I'm ready to really dig into it and understand it.  But at this point I'm not at all afraid that I'll lose that spark of spontaneity.  I think that studying will just make my playing and composing that much better.  I guess I'd really reached the point where I'd used up the stuff that you can just stumble on by sitting around with a guitar in your hands.

How are you going about studying?

Well, other than picking the brains of players like Ben, I've gotten a lot out of George Van Eps' book (Harmonic Mechanisms for Guitar, Mel Bay Publications, Pacific, MO 63069).  In order to get better I have to get more tools, both musically and mechanically.

What are the central issues on the mechanical side?

Working for more legato and refining my right-hand attack for variations in tone color.   Those things come to mind right away.  That's why I quit using fingerpicks, except on the 12-string guitar.

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