Guitar Player, October 1997

Leo Kottke:  Fingerstyle Master Gets Funky

by James Rotondi

      "I guess my stuff is more slippery than I thought," laughs Leo Kottke, explaining the arduous process of grating drum beats onto his legendary acoustic steamrolls.  Acknowledged as a steel- string superman since his 1968 debut, 6 & 12-string Guitar, the 40-something picker has just finished his 24th studio album, produced by David Z., a longtime Minneapolis pal and Prince alumnus.  Standing in My Shoes (Private/Windham Hill) pits Kottke's chugging slide and alternating-bass figures against woody hip-hop beats from live and programmed percussion.  Simple 4/4 chemistry, right?  Wrong.

      "My stuff can sound more straight-ahead than it really is," explains Kottke, who exploits open-G, D and C tunings on Standing.  "I've spent a lot of time avoiding straight-ahead rhythms -- organic loops, if you will -- in my own playing, because they can be a great curse for fingerstyle players. You hear those damn patterns and you want to kill the guy!  So I've managed to eliminate those from my playing, unless I really want to hear them.  That means my rhythms can be deceptively hard to count -- David and I ran into that time and time again while we were programming.  It required a lot of math."

      The task of solving what Leo describes as a "psycho-acoustic riddle" wasn't made any easier by decidedly un-beatbox-oriented cover tunes like "Cripple Creek."  "I've tried that tune a million time with live drummers" Kottke relates, "and I always end up with 'Green Acres.'"  Leo raised the ante further by recasting a couple of his own classics -- "Vaseline Machine Gun" and "Standing in My Shoes" -- to fit the new funk-friendly arrangements.  The results will throw more than a few diehard Kottke fans for a, uh, loop.  "In the end it's always going to sound like me no matter what I do to it, "  he shrugs.  "I just wanted to make an album I could listen to with my feet."

      Lest you think Leo's given up on listening with his ears, the guitar sounds on Standing are among the richest of his career.  Kottke and Z. used  multiple inputs to record Leo's Taylor Leo Kottke Signature Model 6- and 12-strings.  (He tunes the 12-string down to a rumbling C#).   Most of the album features a combination of Sony ECM-50 clip-on mike, Roland VG-8 processor, two condenser mikes and an ambient mike to pick up room sound.

      Though Kottke the road warrior still thinks of making albums as "almost a necessary evil," he's nevertheless a savvy studio tonesmith.  "My favorite mike is the AKG C-12, and the stereo version, the C-24," he says.  "They represent the guitar experience for me better than anything else.  I doubt any mike will ever be totally accurate, but they can reproduces the feel of it."   Kottke favors large-diaphragm mikes because of of the way they handle bottom end.  His recommendation for  acoustic recordings is "the old X/Y thing, where the capsules and cardioid of two mikes are at 90 degrees to each other, pointed towards the end of the fingerboard.  It's a good stereo image with a solid center feel, and it will always be good enough."

      Such technical concerns weren't even on the horizon when Kottke picked up his first instrument, the trombone, as a junior high student in Muskogee, Minnesota.  Enamored of jazz, particularly Jimmy Giuffree and his band with Jim Hall and trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, Leo had paid scant aattention to the guitar before his younger sister died of a brain tumor.  The 12-year-old Leo's own health declined rapidly, finally landing him in the hospital for two months with mononucleosis.  Doctors feared rheumatic fever.

      As Leo explains in the liner notes to Rhino's recent 2-CD The Leo Kottke Anthology.  "My mother brought home this toy guitar, because you can't play a trombone flat on your back.  It was plywood and had a cowboy stenciled on the front.  The toy guitar cured me, literally.  I was out of bed in a week.  I was just one of those lucky people who happened to stumble over the instrument they were made to play.  Everything about the guitar happened all at once that day and has been unfolding ever since."

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