Guitar for the Practising Musician, October 1989

Of Ice Fields, Breath Mints & Corn Flakes

by Bruce Pollock

Page 2

      In no small way, this idea of making a virtue out of tedium, describes Kottke's triumph over the pitfalls of the performing musician's life he's been so surprised to lead tor the past two decades. "There's a picture in Dizzy Gillespie's autobiography that was taken of him sitting in a dressing room in the Lighthouse, up in California," Kottke says "it's obviously one of those dressing rooms that just takes the heart out of you when you see it.  There's a caption, 'Sometimes I wonder...' and he's sitting there with his head hanging down.  That's what gets hard to bear as petty as that sounds; that really gets to be very draining, and if you don't get some confirmation of the fact that it's worth doing, and that it sustains a lot of people, not just you, I think it finally becomes unlivable."  
Kottke interviewed by Pollock:  "Now I know I'll be doing this for the rest of my life."
(photo by Chuck Pulin)
Kottke interviewed by Pollock: 'Now I know I'll be doing this for the rest of my life.' (photo by Chuck Pulin)

      That confirmation, Kottke feels, is what musicians get in concert.  "For myself, and for most people I know, playing in concerts is not what you're originally there for, but once you've had it for a couple years, you could not give it up; it becomes, I think, the center of all of it," he says. "The writing and the playing is what sustains you.  It's what keeps you interested.  Performances are where it all comes alive for that hour or so."  

      When he started out, however, Kottke couldn't even look at the audience. "When I used to sneak a peak early on, it would just blow me out of the water, because I realized that it was real and I'd forget everything that I thought knew."  What he discovered when he finally did start to look, led him to a nearly mystical revelation about performing. "That sense that I didn't have to think about what was going to happen.  That's what I learned best."

      Which he has since developed into an artform in itself, almost as creatively open-ended as his music.  "I usually know what tune I'm going to start the set with and what three or four tunes I will end the set with, and I go out there and I get the ball rolling, and I, just as much as the audience, follow my nose," Kottke reveals.   "Arthur Rubenstein [sic] wrote about it in The Cult of the Secret Current.*  What 'in concert' means is that you are together.  You're not mindreading, there's none of that; it's not doing what the audience wants or what you want, but there's a real communicated sense of where you're going next, and you obey that, because it's irresistible."  

      Where Leo Kottke is going next, is anybody's guess, including his own.  "Probably the biggest thing," Kottke says, "is that Taylor Guitars is about to release a signature model guitar.  My name will actually be inlayed [sic] discretely on the fretboard somewhere.  That's something I never would have dreamed could happen. We started with a bare existing twelve-string, and then I told them what I wanted, which was nothing all that difficult.  The only thing that I wanted to do that they couldn't do was shorten the string scale.  I think it's easily the best twelve-string being built."  

      Which is quite a statement, coming from a relentless customizer such as Kottke.  On a typical Mid-American Saturday morning, you're more than apt to find him out on the driveway, tinkering under the hood of a new acoustic.  "I learned a couple things," he modestly notes. "To remove the pickguard on some guitars really does improve the tone of the instrument, especially older Gibsons.  Any guitar that has relatively light bracing sounds better without the pickguard.  I learned that by ripping braces out of guitars and literally carving on them with a pocket knife.  I would refinish them with my own concoctions that would never cure, and would leave gunk on my elbow when I tried to play them.  I did a lot of that, and a lot of fooling around with muting and different composite materials through saddles and things like that.  Every attempt I came up with was just a dismal failure.  It was just nonsense, what I was doing.  It was all really very much like that guy, Gyro Gearloose, in the comic books.  What I know now is that anything I want to hear, it really doesn't matter that much what the guitar is, I can get the bulk of it just by how I play.  Dick Rosmini told me that twenty years ago, and he demonstrated it for me, but it took me a while to learn it on my own."  

      And then, of course, there's the one that got away. "I think most of us have heard at some time in our lives, a guitar  that was unearthly, really peculiarly good," says Kottke, "I know I did. It was an old Gibson twelve string, one that I'd refinished and fiddled with on the inside.  I'd use raw linseed oil and that would change when it got cold or damp and come back out of the wood, so It greased me up a lot of times when would play it, but it sounded wonderful.  I remember a violin builder, who did some repair work for me; he hated guitars, just hated them, thought they were a joke, but when he heard that thing, he really fell in love [with] it.  It was stolen in Portland, Oregon.  I didn't know how much that guitar meant to me.  It was early on. and I took it for granted how extraordinary it was.  It wasn't just that it sounded good, it sounded differently, and behaved differently, and radically so, than any other guitar I've ever seen"  

      Although most of his concert audiences might tell you different. Kottke is also no stranger to the electric guitar.  "I love the electric guitar," he sighs. "I've got several of them and I play them a lot.  I just rarely use one live, because, physically. just playing it is such a different sensation.  It's weird; it's perfectly comfortable for me in a room, but if walk on stage, I'm so used to a certain kind of thing there, that to play an electric, I feel like I'm musclebound.  You have to really behave yourself on an electric guitar, and I don`t want to.  You have to play them so delicately that it just throws me every time.  I've got a great archtop guitar, which is the best kind of electric guitar, because it's built like a violin, so the note is made less by vibration and resonance than by compression and vibration, so it's great for a pickup.  The only problem is that the string angle is so different that it might bungle my wrist somehow"  

      Among contemporary electric guitarists. Kottke singles out Steve Vai for special praise.  "You can hear him think," he says "it's not just 'I know where I am in this part of the neck.  There's a reason for what he's playing, and, with his hornline [sic] approach to the guitar, that's a real necessity, and not many people have it. especially in the metal area."

      As an inveterate solo artist, where Kottke feels the weakest is "When somebody asks me to sit in. If it's a big paying crowd, I try to let them know that I am not good at it, really not good at it.  I remember with Linda Ronstadt, I went out and played 'So Lonesome I Could Cry.'  Three chords, and I've heard the song a jillion times, it's easier than "Silent Night" -- and I got completely lost after just a few bars.  It's a different sensibility; I just haven't learned that.  But I'm doing it more and more and learning more about it.  I like getting stuck with a challenge.   I've come to enjoy going out and having to come up with something.  It gives you another window, another way to see things, if you're willing to make terrible errors."  

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