Leo Kottke: 20th Century Master of the Acoustic Guitar
An Introduction to Leo Kottke
Note: This introduction was written way back in 1997, when this version of guitarmusic.org was launched, so it is naturally out of date!
Leo Kottke, from the cover of his most recent CD Welcome to the the unofficial web site for Leo Kottke, one of the most important and influential acoustic steel-string fingerstyle guitarists of the 20th century.
Leo has had a prolific career, delivering 19 studio records, four live records, six compilations and at least four movie soundtracks. He has jammed and recorded with a wide range of musicians, from Chet Atkins to Procul Harum to the Violent Femmes. He has won the Guitar Player magazine annual readers poll as best folk guitarist for four years in a row, from 1974 to 1978. Leo has also influenced an entire generation of acoustic guitarists -- including such fingerstyle innovators as the late, great Michael Hedges, Preston Reed, Peppino D'Agostino and Don Ross, to name just a few. Given these accomplishments and the general accessibility of his music, it is unbelievable and almost tragic that relatively so few members of the general public have heard of him.
Leo Kottke performing in concert
In the more than 25 years that Leo has been composing, arranging and playing guitar music, his style has evolved from the blindingly fast and aggressive to the rhythmically delicate and intricate. He is always reinventing and reinterpreting his own music and that of others. While you'll usually find Leo in the "folk" section of your record store, or sometimes in the "new age" section and rarely in the "jazz" section, his music is in fact all and none of these: it is simply "Leo."
But Leo Kottke is not just a remarkable guitarist, songwriter and arranger. He also has a rich baritone singing voice, often underrated or dismissed by those used to the top-40 tenor strains of a Van Morrison or a Sting. Yet for a song like Paul Siebel's tenderly tragic "Louise," or for Leo's own vocal compositions and spoken poems set to guitar, a more appropriate vocal timbre is hard to imagine. What's more, Leo is not just an amazing guitarist and singer-songwriter. He also has a capacious sense of humour that can be heard in his lyrics and experienced in his concert performances. Although off-beat and occasionally bizarre, his humour is as much a part of his style as is his guitar.
Guitar-playing aside, Leo just seems to be your average middle-class guy living the American dream. Fifty-two years old in September 1997, Leo lives with his wife Mary and son Joe in Wayzata, a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota (his daughter, Sarah, is now off at college). As an interesting aside, I'm advised there is an improbably high number of listings for "L. Kottke" in the local telephone directory. Since Leo himself has an unlisted number, this leads one with too much time on his hands to consider all sorts of fantastic theories. Are Minneapolis guitarists naming their first-born children after their resident guitar hero? Or maybe residents are changing their own names as a fanatic gesture of hometown pride (could "Kottke Avenue" be far behind?) Or perhaps, as one of the local residents suggested to me, this is simply a clever ruse on Leo's part to confuse would-be guitar pilgrims and thereby maintain some much-desired privacy for him and his family. If so, what would the phone company name this new service -- call diversion?
A very young Leo, pictured on a recent European compilation of his work
From all accounts, Leo Kottke is a modest fellow, one who often diminishes his abilities in a self-effacing "who, me?" manner. Like a deer caught by headlights, Leo always seems to be surprised at all the idolatry directed his way. But despite Leo's modesty, there are those of us who continue to be astounded by what he does and how he does it. These include the amateur guitarists such as myself who stay up into the wee hours of the morning with our tape decks or CD players or VCRs, scrutinizing a particularly intriguing Leo-ism in a clumsy attempt to imitate it on our own seemingly inadequate instruments. Many of us feel like prehistoric cavemen who, confronted with a modern-day computer, attempt to figure out its workings using sharpened sticks and stones. We usually end up grunting and scratching our heads.
Program for Guitar Summit Tour
Although many guitarists readily admit Leo's genius and express a fond admiration for the man and his work, there is a whole generation of listeners whose idea of acoustic guitar comes from seeing grunge-oids perform on "MTV Unplugged" or watching Eric Clapton's video of his cocktail-lounge version of "Layla" (I'm sorry, but Duane Allman is still turning in his grave over that one). For these uninitiated ones, only blank looks will greet our awed utterance of Leo's name. Ah, but if only we could invite these listeners to sit on Leo's porch and hear him play "Vaseline Machine Gun" or "Airproofing" or "William Powell," they would surely be astonished.
Another shot of Leo in concert
And that, ultimately, is the purpose of the following pages. Although acoustic guitarists with a love of Leo's music will get the most from these pages, those unfamiliar with Leo Kottke should take a few moments to explore, and perhaps download one or two samples of his tunes. Most likely, you will be pleasantly surprised. If not, some of the links in this site may take you to other interesting and informative places. There's a lot of information on this site, too much to get through in one visit, so I suggest you add this link to your browser's bookmarks or otherwise note the location and come back again. I would request that, before you continue into this site, you take a few minutes to read this information about copyright infringement.
The man behind the curtain...
All comments, corrections and suggestions for improvement to this site and the information herein are welcomed and encouraged. Most importantly, if you have information on Leo you would like to archive, please send me an e-mail.
I'd really like to hear about any printed material, collectibles, photographs, videos, recordings, etc. related to Leo Kottke that you may possess and wish to have recorded for prosperity (I do not sell or trade Leo Kottke memorabilia but would be happy to make it available on the web for educational or research purposes).
Comments or questions about Leo's web site? Send mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.