|Guitar Extra!, Winter 1991|
Leo Kottke: A Sense of Place
By Doug Caldwell
How was that affecting your playing?
I just couldn't play. My arm froze up, and it hurt a lot. And I went out and stiffed for a couple of years; did terrible shows, bored the audience to death, and got real depressed.
So when you switched, you had to pay attention to where your fingers were going.
Yeah; when you use your fingers as opposed to picks, you don't have to pay as much attention, because you can feel where you are before you have to strike. That's part of the fun of it, that you have more contact with the instrument. But immediately after taking your picks off, you sound horrible, because you don't know how to produce tone, you don't know how to apply force, and you don't know how to use balance to your advantage. Picks hinder your development in your right hand. It's not hard to lose the fingerpicks and continue with just the thumbpick. I did that right in the beginning. That's not so alien when you've been trained on picks. But to throw that thumbpick away, you're in a whole new geometric universe.
Your thumb is way up in front. It's very much like they suggest you do in all those classical method books. Did you consciously work on that?
No. No, it'll go there eventually, because that's where the proper balance point is. It'll dictate. If you just listen to your hand, it'll let you know. . .it'll feel wrong, too. That's the weird thing. But your hand will know that it's right.
Do you use your fingernails?
I use a very little bit of nail; less and less as time goes by. Just very little. It's mostly finger. I need some nail to produce a certian part of the high end in my attack, but it's mostly finger. And when you play with your fingers what you're really doing -- I saw this explained once somewhere, and it's a fact -- is you're bowing the string; you're not picking it. You need to have the right relation between the nail and the fingertip to produce that bowing effect, otherwise, if you have too much nail, you just get some kind of a "spang." And most of my attack is on the edge of the finger towards the thumb. I don't have anything happening in the middle of the finger.
On your more recent albums, I think your playing sounds more expressive, in a way. I'm thinking specifically of your newer  version of "Mona Ray," as compared to the older one . There seems to be more heart to it now; more dynamics, more vibrato, more phrasing, more separation of the voices. And I wondered if you're specifically striving for this.
Yeah. That's what I hope for, and that is what is more available to you if you play with your fingers. It's, again, that appetite. I love to hear the voices distinctly, and I like to hear the guitar speak. I'm a tone player, I think. A lot of guys don't care too much about that. They want to hear the information; they want to hear the notes. I like that also, but to me it doesn't mean much unless the instrument is there -- unless it's real guitar-y sounding.
Though the overall feel of most of your music may seem very straightforward when one analyzes it, when you try to play it, it's not. A lot of your stuff is deceptively complex, rhythmically.
Yeah, and it really derives from the way I use my thumb, 'cause I cannot bear to hear that dead thumb quality in a piece of music. I have pieces like that (sings root-fifth, root-fifth, etc.). It can be played so that you enjoy it, but it is the single most problematic spot in finger guitar. Classical players avoid the problem because they don't syncopate, at least not in the way that is contemporary. Other people, like Pierre Bensusan, avoid the problem by implying the rhythm, rather than making it explicit. But I've always been drawn to a more apparent rhythm; something that you actuallv hear rather than feel. So it's been critical for me to hide that thumb. The whole thing about this kind of playing is rhythm.
Does it come naturally to you to work in these more irregular rhythm patterns?
Yeah. I like surprise; I think music should have a lot of it, and if you're going to play solo, you really need to have it. If you remain regular all the time, it gets really boring, but I don't do it just to be irregular. It's just how I like to play. That's what appeals to me about other players. I think, if you can't immediately grasp something, but it still gets your attention, it sustains you longer.
In trying to get around the straight rhythms and that dead thumb, do you run into problems?
Yeah, there was a time when I ran into the problem of how to do it, for the first time and that was on a piece that I wrote called "Ojo" from [6 & 12 String Guitar] (plays Ex. 1). That D [third measure, last note] right there; everything in there is straightforward, except for that one note.
That comes out an even four beats in the end.
Yeah, but it won't unless you add this extra note. What it means is that you have to bust any sense of a pattern that you may have in your right hand. And I suppose it's not an extra note, but, for what your right hand is up to, it's an extra note, because you're making your index finger do something ahead of a spot where the thumb would be doing it. That was when I ran into the problem, and that's when I first figured out how to fix it. It meant leading with the index instead of with the thumb. There's also some harmonic stuff I'm doing, like in "The Great One" [That's What], where you have two choices of how to resolve the opening phrase, and so you do both. It resolves in two different places at the same time.
"The Great One" uses part of Jackie Gleason's theme song, doesn't it?
Well, I thought it was, but I found the record -- I paid $25 for it at Sanders Chase Rare Records in L.A. -- and it's not the same, but it's close enough that it reminds you of it.
You were basically self-taught, but you're doing some studying now. I've talked with other artists who don't want to get too familiar, academically, with their instrument. They want to go to it as a mystery every time they sit down.
I think it's unavoidable; sooner or later you're going to learn it. And, I think, sooner or later you have to learn it. There are too many good arguments from people like Charlie Mingus that convinced me of that, or Dizzy Gillespie, that you should learn theory, you should learn to read, you should learn harmony. At least get some grasp of it. Maybe not even ever learn it, but just know what it is and why it's there.
What do you study?
For me, I'm taking a real rudimentary approach, and just harmonizing scales. So, I'll take an E major scale and harmonize each degree of the scale with a 1, 3 and a 5 [triad], or add the major 7th to it and go all the way up and down the scale.
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