|Guitar Extra!, Winter 1991|
Leo Kottke: A Sense of Place
By Doug Caldwell
It would be a transcendent thing, in a way.
Yeah, absolutely. It comes and gets you, is what happens. After a while, you know, I started to get curious about what else I could get into, and the first thing I did was try to find some records. Well, there weren't any at that time in Muskogee. I remember looking at a Johnny Nash album, but there wasn't any guitar on there that I could grab. And the two records I found -- I had to go to Oklahoma City to find 'em -- were a record by [classical guitarist] Laurindo Almeida and a record by Sabicas...the father of flamenco guitar. And all I knew from those records was that I couldn't play like that. So I went back to making up my own stuff. I did listen to the Sabicas record quite a lot.
You weren't a rock'n' roll kid then?
Well, actually, while all this was going on, I had a plan to learn piano -- put it up on pop bottle crates, and play standing up, down at the golf course -- because I'd seen Jerry Lee Lewis, and that's what I wanted to be. It's odd; I had this parallel track that only existed in my imagination. There was a piano in the house, but the piano's not my instrument. It didn't come and get me. The guitar came and got me. I remember looking at a Telecaster that year -- brand new '57 Telecaster -- and I remember thinking, "Jesus, that sounds awful!" So that ended my electric guitar experience.
I started trying to really play guitar after, probably, about six months, doing sort of banjo-like steps, you know: thumb-finger-two fingers-finger-thumb, that kind of thing. No syncopation, no right-hand experimenting. I knew what I wanted to do, which was not to play horn lines on the guitar, because I could hear pop radio -- KOMA to be specific -- and everybody had taken a plectrum and was playing lines. I had had that up to my ears on the violin and trombone (I con tinued to play the trombone for probably another five years after this). And I didn't want it. I wanted chords, and I wanted that orchestral approach, 'cause it was available on the guitar. And I knew it was, after hearing Sabicas. So I was trying to do that, and I met a kid, some college kid. I don't know how this happened, but I wound up at this house. I was there for about an hour, and a guy came down the hall playing a pattern with his fingers, and I'd never heard that. He showed me the pattern, and it's a pattern I've never seen any- where; a very, very long one. And that was it. I knew there was a key to this, and it was this pattern. So I learned the pattern, and then I immediately had to unlearn it, because you've got to get rid of them as soon as you have them. But patterns are another sort of trigger.
Two-page article photo (by Robin Visotsky)
I always thought the first thing you would have learned would have been the Travis pick.
No, and I didn't like that sound when I did hear it. It was too repetitive, and it was to -- for my ear -- it was too apparent. I wanted the pattem to be obliterated by the music that it was serving.
Was there ever a point where you were learning things off records?
Yeah, in about '62, '63 -- actually, more '63 -- records werc becoming available that were not made up of show tunes or covers of whatever the year's hits were. Things like bluegrass suddenly were findable. All of these blues players were beginning to resurface, like Skip James and John Hurt. And record labels like Elektra or Vanguilrd were finding people my age who were playing stuff that wasn't necessarily traditional. I got exposed to all of that, and that's when I first heard the 12-string. The first 12-string playing I heard was Pete Seeger, in a song called "The Bells of Rhymney." Then I got my first 12-string in late '63. As soon as I heard "The Bells of Rhymney," I started searching through Pete Seeger's stuff for his instrumental things, and that led me to a song called "Living in the Country," that he recorded on a 12-string at the Bitter End in New York. And, at the time, that was the greatest guitar solo you could find, and I learned it. And it had a highly formative influence on my playing. I mean, I definitely stole as many licks as I could off of records, but I usually was an abject failure at that. You go through people, definitely. I went through Pete Seeger. I tried to go through Kenny Burrell, but I didn't have the willingness to work that single-line harmony concept. That would have been a little too academic. You have to learn your scales in order to do that, and I'd had that up to my ears with the trombone, so I didn't go that way with it. I am now, though.
From the Pete Seeger things, how did your repertoire build up?
Well, I started trying to write pieces that fell into this area somewhere be tween blues and bluegrass. I wanted to have the rhythms that I could get out of blues or r&b, and the melodies that I could get out of bluegrass, fiddle tunes, and banjo stuff. I figured there was some kind of area through there that was available to me, especially on the 12-string, 'cause in some ways it's a great solo instrument. And, I didn't have much ot a conscious idea; I was just trying to write stuff that I liked, and it started slowly to pile up. Except for "Living in the Country," and some sort of version of a Scruggs tune, I didn't have anything that I could do, of other peoples'.
So, you're still experimenting with patterns at this time?
Yeah, but by now, though, I'm trying to get rid of the patterns, and I'm just -- as I look back on it -- what I was really trying to do was explore rhythm.
You weren't doing any studying, so was your concept of harmony and theory just your own versions of them?
Yeah. I was just staying in that ballpark that I've described; you know, I-IV-V bluegrassy sort of things, suspensions, and the blues-sort of excursions. But not so much the Delta stuff like John Hurt.
You were using fingerpicks in those early days, weren't you?
Right. I started using picks when I saw a picture of Lester Flatt with a thumbpick, and I thought I was supposed to wear one. That happened quite late -- I think my last year of high school. And that damn-near ruined me. I'm glad I got away from them, cause it screwed up my arm for a while. You can go beyond your threshold. If you're like me, and you tend to really rip with the strings a lot, and you're wearing picks, you can rip them harder than you can without the picks. And what it means is that the amount of time that your muscles and tendons have to recover from each stroke is shorter, and you need more time. The best analogy is when you're trying to open a door, or turn a handle that won't budge, and you put a whole lot of force on it and then you can't make it budget, and then you let go. And it it hurts sometimes; when you let go, there's sort of a recoil in your arm. You've overdone it with them, and you don't know it until you let go. So that's what happened to me, 'till I got rid of the picks.
Comments or questions about Leo's web site? Send mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.