Guitar for the Practising Musician, February 1997

Over the Top -- With Leo Kottke

by Jon Chappell

      One of the great things about Leo Kottke's approach to fingerstyle guitar is the variety of music that he can undertake and turn into fully realized arrangements.  His most famous pieces range from J.S. Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" to the Allman Brothers' "Little Martha" (where he plays both Duane and Dickey's parts on one guitar) to the driving "Vaseline Machine Gun" to the jazzy "Oddball." To keep the integrity of the style -- and to avoid folkifying it -- Kottke had to free his thumb from the tyranny of the beat.

      "One of the tricks I finally learned that has helped me play other styles of music with fingerstyle is to treat the thumb like another finger," explains Kottke.  "So many players get into a thing where the thumb has to play on the beat, or where it has to play certain strings.  I did that for a long time and it was limiting.  Your thumb cannot be stratified.  " In his own playing, the progression of thumb and fingers fusing to become equal partners is clearly evident in "Bean Time," a rollicking rhythmic number from Leo's recent Live album that sports jazzy chords, percussive delivery, and an off-kilter rhythm.*   

      If you look at the downstemmed part in this excerpt,* it looks like the thumb should be hitting every note, as in a stride-bass part (provided the thumb could play this fast).  The doublestops in the upstem part act as the melody.  "I use a finger to grab those middle notes," says Kottke, referring to the thumb notes inside the staff.  "In this way, the fingers -- my index finger in this case -- is acting as a thumb would.  So it's important that a thumb can act like a finger, but also that a finger can take a thumb's role."

      Kottke employs left-hand muting on these middle notes to further simulate the effect of a thumb-struck string.

      Special mention must also be made of the rhythm in this passage.   Note that the melodic theme -- two ascending doublestops played in dotted-quarter intervals -- rotates around the beat.  The first time the figure appears on beat 2; the second time on beat 1, the third time on beat 3; and then it starts over.

      There's a low note, bouncy melodic figure beginning on beat 3 1/2 of bar 2 and extending through beat 1 1/2 in bar 3.  The thumb plays the B's, but that are heard as melody notes in conjunction with the finger notes of D, D, and D#.  This melody has the added function of throwing the bass-note pattern off.  The low E, previously heard only on beats 1 and 3, no falls on 2 and 4.  "This is another song that I play too fast on the record," says Kottke.  "It sounds like this big, complex thing going on, but it's all quite logical when you break it down."

      The climax comes in the middle of bar 4 with the big slide up to the 7th-fret B7 chord.  Here, the thumb again acts as one of the fingers, because it slides in unison slightly before the beat.  And continuing in the syncopated fashion of the groove, the high doublestop at the apex of the climax comes on the offbeat.  As Kottke advises, "You just have to get everything swirling around in there -- fingers, thumbs -- you have to mix it all up."

Interviews & Reviews | Recordings | Concerts | Tour Schedule | Songs & Lyrics | Guitar Tab
Audio & Video | Photo Gallery | Kottke Network | Links | Search | Credits

Home (Frames) | Home (No Frames)

Comments or questions about Leo's web site? Send mail to