Guitar Player, April 1992

Leo Kottke:  Exorcising the "Dead Thumb"

by Mark Hanson

Article photo
Article photo

      A veteran of 24 albums, Leo Kottke is best known for his powerhouse 12-string instrumental work.  But his recent mini-hit, the recited "Jack Gets Up," has turned him into something of an FM vocal hearo.  His latest recording, Great Big Boy [Private Music] continues in that vein.

      Kottke tries to sidestep the expected in his music.  "I try to avoid that 'dead thumb' steady bass, where the thumb plays on every beat," he says.  "I first heard how to break away from that in Pete Seeger's 'Living In The Country.'  He often picked a bass note with his thumb an eighth-note before the downbeat."

      Leo's composition "Ojo" forced the issue.  "I had a  long melody going in my head," he explains, "but it clashed with the regular thumb pattern.  That tune made it very clear to me that I had to find a way around that dead thumb.  I finally learned to adapt the thumb pattern istead of adapting the melody.  I also found out you don't have to follow the rules of alternating bass.  'Mona Ray' is another example."  (Both songs are transcribed in Hal Leonard's Leo Kottke:  Eight Songs).

      "I've heard John Fahey call that 'Living In The Country' effect 'leading with your thumb,'" continues Kottke, "but I call it 'leading with my index finger.'"  The accompanying excerpt from Kottke's "Theme From 'The Rick And Bob Report,'" on My Father's Face, is a good example of an alternating-bass piece that breaks the pattern by "leading" with the index finger.

"Rick & Bob Report" Excerpt
Rick & Bob Report Excerpt

      In measures 1 through 3, Kottke plays the main them using an alternating bass.  On the last eighth-note of measure 3, he leads with his index finger, anticipating the upcoming F chord by picking the fourth string, 3rd fret.  He picks the downbeat of the next mesasure with his thumb, but the anticipated note picked by the index finger has the effect of breaking away from the steady thumb.

      Kottke switches from the alternating bass to an arpeggio for the first two beats in each of measures 5 through 8.  He leads with his index finger on the fourth eighth-note of each measure, anticipating each G7/B chord, which gives the phrase a nice rhythmic kick.  A complete transcription of "Theme From 'The Rick And Bob Report'" is available in The Music of Leo Kottke [Accent on Music].

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