Guitar for the Practising Musician, January 1997

Over the Top -- With Leo Kottke

by Jon Chappell

      In the almost 30 years Leo Kottke has been dazzling audiences with his amazing fingerstyle approach, he's also managed to evolve while remaining identifiable.  This is no easy feat, as people who try to reinvent themselves often come off sounding like something totally unrecognizable -- and insincere. Not Kottke.  His brand of fingerpicking retains the drive, fluidity and inventiveness that's been there since 6 And 12 String Guitar (Takoma, 1969), continued though such landmark albums as Green House, Ice Water ('71,'73, Capitol), and is still there in his latest releases, My Father's Face, Great Big Boy, Peculiaroso, and Live:  Leo Kottke ('89,'91,'94,'95, Private Music).

      But there has always been an evolving approach to technique.  What started out as unparalleled virtuoso Travis-picking has transformed into a nearly inscrutable synthesis of thumb and fingers.  "I've worked a long time to get out of that incessant, on-the-beat sound of the thumb playing quarter notes," explains Kottke.  "I don't assign a string to a certain finger or to the thumb.  That's too limiting and it affects the rhythm."

      And what rhythm!  To sit across from Kottke, as we did for this lesson, is to witness the incredible drive emanating from his right hand.  "For me, it's all in the rhythm," says Kottke.  "My stuff isn't that hard to play, when it comes down to it, but if there's not that rhythm, it sounds totally ineffective -- fatuous, even.  My intellectual development may be reflected in my left hand -- with chord forms and such -- but the rhythmic evolution you refer to is manifested in my right hand.

      "A lot of my music sounds like there's more going on than there is," continues Kottke.  A perfect example of the "less is more" effect is the opening figure to one of Kottke's most memorable early songs, "The Fisherman" from 6 And 12 String Guitar.  As Kottke explains, the notes look fairly simple on paper, but when you hear it played, you're aware of two different energies:  the driving thumb sound contrasted against the almost leisurely way the melody unfolds (ex. 1).*  It sounds fuller than the stark-looking sheet music would indicate.

      "But the fact that the guitar is so ringing and full sounding with simple figures can actually be a problem when arranging for it, because things really pile up in there," Kottke stresses.  It's true.  To hear the ringing, open-string sounds of Kottke's "Ojo," "The Fisherman" or "Little Martha," you would think there's a virtual riot of fingers and thumbs,  but it just isn't so.  All the music looks elegant in notation.  See the [em]a tempo[/em] section in Ojo (Ex. 2)* for another example of this phenomenon.  

      "'Ojo' is a song that has two voices, so there really isn't a problem with clutter," explains Kottke.  But when you start to add middle voices in there, you really have to be careful.  In fact, I've found that it's sometimes better to [em]imply[/em] notes through harmonies and incomplete chords than it is to literally state them.  Especially when you add the rhythmic factor.  The guitar's not like a piano, where you have the right and left hand to differentiate different approaches to musical parts.  In the guitar, every part is played by the same fingers.  It's much more difficult to delineate the parts."

      We'll take a look at the harmonically complex and jazzy sides of Leo Kottke's playing next month, and also hear how paying with [late] jazzer Joe Pass and flamencoist Paco de Lucia* influenced his music.  Until then, drop those thumbs and give me four (to the bar).


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