|Guitar Player, January 1991|
Leo Kottke: Acoustic Pioneer Shifts Gears
By Mark Hanson
With his mile-a-minute schedule, Leo has little time to actually practice the guitar. "I'm still spending time harmonizing scales and doing remedial music theory practice," says Kottke, who claims to read music only when he has to. "I have time about once a week to sit down and work on that. When I practice, I often get sidetracked, because I'll hear a scale or something and start trying to make up another tune, instead of concentrating on what I should be working on. That's fine, but I really want to conquer that stuff. I would really love to have as much of a guitar and music education as Joe Pass. I was at a party with Joe, John Williams, and Paco Pena. John played some piece, and Joe immediately played a little three-note riff from what he heard. Then he proceeded to improvise on it and go through who knows how many keys. When he wrapped it all up, my jaw hit the floor, and he handed the guitar to me. It was an exercise in humility."
Many listeners may be surprised to hear that not all of Leo's guitar skills come naturally. "When I practice scales, I try to alternate the thumb and middle fingers," he explains. "Sometimes I use the thumb and the index. I'd like to use the nail of my index finger as a kind of flatpick, but the nail might not hold up. I use thumb/index alternation for the run at the end of the bridge to 'Little Martha.' I'm real proud of that arrangement. Somewhere along the line I realized that the Allman Brothers used open-D tuning for the original version, which is what I use. Years ago, I recorded a duet of it with Albert Lee that was an outtake. Back then, I played it in standard tuning."
One particular picking technique has simplified Kottke's approach to syncopation: "Instead of worrying about changing the rhythm or where the 'push' is in a measure, I use the index finger to pick a note that the thumb would ordinarily play. It knocks the picking fingers over half a beat, so you wind up coming out differently. Some tunes are real open to it. I used to think that you had to come back with your thumb half a beat before you normally would to get that syncopation in the bass, but you don't. For example, by using the index finger to pick a bass note on the fourth beat of a measure, you make the thumb's job real easy. Otherwise, it struggles to pick two fast notes in a row."
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