Guitar Player, August 1977

Leo Kottke:  His Techniques, Guitars, Slide, & Tricks of the Trade

by Gil Podolinsky

Cover Photo
Cover Photo

     Five years ago GP referred to 6- and 12-string guitar player Leo Kottke as a  young fingerstylist on the horizon, fast becoming known to guitarists through word of mouth and his latest Capitol release, Mudlark.   Kottke was linked to such commercially tangent, self-taught guitarists  as John Fahey and Ry Cooder.  The artist's sound was loosely defined as an integration of a wealth of styles:  ragtime, folk, bluegrass, country and western, classical and bottleneck.  Other pop music journals reflected the persistently uncategorizable quality of Kottke's music.   If you like classifications, one critic piped, here's a new one:  pop virtuoso.

     Fellow guitarists and guitar fanatics have been responsible for a large measure of Kottke s fame; GP readers have voted him Best Folk Guitarist for the past three years.  Yet in January of this year, Leo was featured in People magazine -- hardly a guitar society's newsletter.*  In the all-seeing eye of the public, Kottke's reputation had spread beyond the musician's grapevine to a weekly read by millions.  How to account for the rapidly growing artistic and personal draw of this somewhat reclusive, humorously introspective, and distinctly non-pop Minnesota eccentric?  Of course it's his guitar playing.

Article photo
Article photo
     Leo was born in Athens, Georgia, but his childhood homes included Michigan, Missouri, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Virginia, and Minnesota, where he now lives.  Critics have placed Kottke in a school informally termed the American classical guitarists,  but this guitarist's influences are as various as the places in which he grew up.  The range extends from Bach (whose compositions Kottke includes in his own repertoire) to Buddy Holly; from Beethoven to Burl Ives.  In between fall musicians of virtually every known genre:  protest singer Pete Seeger, 12-string player Fred Gerlach, clarinetist Jimmy Guiffre, as well as music from the scattered parts of America where Kottke has lived.

     In addition to nine solo albums, Leo s work has been used on TV sermonettes and shows such as The Dating Game, on weather and traffic reports, and in concert halls and campuses across the nation.  Perhaps all this diversity helps to explain the elusiveness of Kottke's musical and personal image.

Article photo
Article photo
     Any listener who has been caught by this guitarist's unique, albeit unnameable, style would most probably say that classifying the sound is hardly relevant.  As yet another would-be defining journalist, Tom Murtha in the Minneapolis Star, offers:  Kottke's fingers somehow always touch the implicit logic of the guitar fingerboard.  His unpredictable melodies extract a truth from the instrument every guitarist has always known is there but has never been able to state himself.  The notes stay within the mind, then return to the listener when he least expects them...That is why so many listeners who hear Kottke's music for the first time have a feeling they have come to the end of a long search.

     In notable opposition, however, to the Kottke mystique is the interview which follows.  The artist is open, deliberate, and clear in imparting an unusually rich depth of insight into the structure of his own playing.  -- GP

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