Guitar Player, January 1991

Leo Kottke:  Acoustic Pioneer Shifts Gears

By Mark Hanson

Leo's Gear

      During much of the '80s, Kottke's everyday guitar was a Hoffman Series II 6-string, which he often tuned one half setup lower than concert pitch.  For example, "Little Beaver" is fingered in the key of D and uses drop-D tuning (D A D G B E, low to high); however, it sounds in the key of C#.

      Leo's arrangement of "Little Martha" [A Shout Toward Noon] is fingered in open D (D A D F# A D, low to high), but also sounds a half-step lower.  According to Leo, "That guitar, like a lot of others, really likes being tuned down just a bit."

      Kottke recently has replaced the Hoffman with a stock Taylor 555 jumbo mahogany instrument when he goes on the road.  "I like these guitars, but one of the reasons I play them is because I know I can get one off the wall that'll sound pretty much like the one I've got."

      The same is not true of Leo's 12-string Taylor, which has been designed specifically for him.  Taylor and Kottke finally arrived at one that satisfies him, but not until they had gone through three years' worth of redesigns.  "The design isn't very radical," Kottke says.  "The two big things for me are that the guitar has mahogany back and sides, and very light bracing compared to most 12-strings.  The ticklish thing is that I believe in tuning the strings two whole-steps below standard. [Ed. Note:  Earlier in his career, Kottke tuned down another whole step below that, putting the sixth string down to Bb.]  That's the way I'm hoping the guitar will be sold.  Taylor is comfortable with that.  I really don't know how the guitar will work with light-gauge strings at standard pitch.  I haven't tried it."

      Of course, tuning down affects Leo's choice of string gauges for the 12-string.  "These days I use medium-gauge; .013 for the treble to .056 for the bass," he explains.  "They hold up well tuned down two steps.  The E and A high-octave strings are .030 and .022.  The octaves on the G and D strings vary depending on what I am doing.  The high-octave D is a .014 or a .013, and the G is a .009.  Even though that is awfully thin, the guitar tunes up very well and doesn't give me any of the bark or noise problems that you can get from those two octave strings if they're a little heavier.  The lighter strings really help with amplification, too.

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