Wood & Steel, Spring 1995

Wood & Steel

Spring 1995

[Wood & Steel is the newsletter for Taylor Guitars.  This feature on Leo Kottke appeared in the Spring 1995 edition].

     More than any other artist, Leo Kottke has defined the role of the contemporary acoustic guitarist as self-styled virtuoso, amassing a huge world-wide following in the process.  Ironically, he also is the personification of the Reluctant Guitar Hero.  He is self-taught on 6- and 12-string guitar; still largely relies on the theory and harmony he learned as a young trombonist; tends toward eccentric musical concerts and career choices; and remains fiercely protective of his independence and privacy.  The "self-styled" tag is essential to understanding not only his idiosyncratic approach to guitar, but his unique and still-evolving contribution to music, as well.

     In a career spanning 26 years and 21 recordings — from his debut on John Fahey’s indie Takoma label to his latest Private Music recording, Peculiaroso (produced by Rickie Lee Jones) — Kottke has blazed a singular stylistic path that continues to diverge from mainstream guitar music.  Classical precision, pop attractiveness, jazz fluency, 20th-century harmony, bluesy fundamentalism, rubbery, syncopated rhythms, and quasi-literate characterizations all vie for supremacy in his music.  First-time listeners might even have difficulty finding the "guitar" in Kottke’s turbo-folk, because his attack produces low percussives and other tonal elements that challenge our conservative presumptions on how an acoustic guitar should sound.

     But, if he is renowned for his 6- and 12-string skills (he almost single-handedly revived interest in the latter instrument), Kottke is equally beloved for a droll perspective on life that puts a tilt on his material and keeps concert audiences highly amused (see "Soundings," this issue), The humor factor is an effective foil to finger-orchestra virtuosity that seems, at times, almost unnatural.  The Wisconsin Conservatory for Music thought enough of Kottke’s body of work to include it in the school’s guitar studies curriculum.  Guitar Player magazine named him to its Hall of Fame.

     Among many guitarists, an intense interest in Kottke eventually centers on his equipment choices.  That seemed an appropriate subject for Wood & Steel to pursue, but, with Kottke, you’re never sure where any topic will lead.  One of the most frequently asked questions we field concerns the sting gauges Kottke uses on his own Taylor Leo Kottke Signature Model (LKSM — see "Spotlight," his issue).  For the sake of comparison, the Taylor-installed gauges are:

     e/e .013 .013
     b/b .017 .017
     g/G .009 .026
     d/D .018 .040
     a/A .027 (w) .047
     e/E .035 (w) .056

     We say "Taylor-installed" because those gauges felt "right" when Kottke and Bob Taylor were finished collaborating on the LKSM in 1990, and we still use those gauges.  We thought the guitar sounded great, and would work best for most people, if the E is tuned down to C-sharp.  Kottke, however, started out down-tuning his E to C.

     Since then, he has used a number of different gauges and tunings (he now down-tunes his E to C#).  To find out what Kottke’s using these days, we sat down with him last October after his show at the Humphrey’s venue in San Diego.  At that time, his 12-string pairings, as jotted down in his own handwriting, were as follows:

     e/e .013 .013
     b/b .017 .017
     g/G .014 .026
     d/D .014 .036
     a/A .018 (w) .046
     e/E .030 (w) .056

     In December, Kottke visited the Taylor factory and performed a special concert for employees and their families and friends.  Apparently, Taylorites discovered they had many long-lost relatives, because the plant was filled to overflowing with Leo-Heads.  Of course, it was memorable event, and the guitarist left the factory ringing and a rapt audience glowing.  Later, we caught up with Leo and did some brain-picking’ of our own.

     Wood & Steel: Let’s take care of this issue right away — since we last discussed the subject, have you changed the gauges of the strings you use on your LKSM?

     Leo Kottke: Well, it depends on the guitar and the brand of strings.  I generally don’t buy individual gauges anymore.  On one of my two 12-strings, I use a 6-string set of GHS phosphor-bronzes, .013 to .056.  That guitar has more bottom and can handle more punch.  On the other one, I use John Pearse medium phosphor-bronzes, which have a smaller core and tend to clarify the bottom.  The octaves are peculiar for me, and I’ve been hesitating to talk to the string companies about this, but I pair the GHS .056 and the .046 with either a .030 or a .032, and an .018, respectively.  But, on the .036 and the .026, I use a stainless steel octave — a .014 and an .011, respectively.

     I would use a narrower gauge than the .011, but they aren’t available in stainless steel.  I use stainless steel to accommodate the magnetic pickup.  To the ear, it has about half the magnetic zap of regular strings.  If you use a magnetic pickup, those octaves on the .026 and .036 are just unbearably loud, unless you’re using nickel strings, which I think are still too loud.  After a lot of years, I’m happiest with phosphor-bronze and a magnetic pickup, with that stainless steel solution to the level problem.

     W&S: Now that you mention it, probably the second most frequently asked question is about which pickup(s) you prefer, and why.

     Kottke: I found out, after all this time, that there is no answer.  It is possible, though, to find what suits your own playing style.  I have a very punchy transient in my playing, and all of the piezopickups (or whatever they’re made of now) — both Lloyd Bagg’s under-the-saddle pickup and Larry Fishman’s — have a feature where they’ll distort.  I don’t know if that’s the correct technical description, but if you hit that kind of pickup very hard on the transient, it breaks up very quickly.  That’s something I hear, and it scares me to death.  And, I want to make this as clear as I can — it’s also something I do not understand technically, and I could be telling you stuff that’s so full of hot air, I probably shouldn’t even open my mouth.

     What I should tell you is that, depending on the sound system — wait a minute, let me start all over again.  I’ll stick with "there’s no answer to it," because I use different pickups in different situations.  Secondly, what you use is determined by your own personal attack, the room you’re in, and the kind of sound system you’re using.  So, these days, I’m generally using a Sunrise pickup, because that suits my attack the best.  It’s also the easiest for me to balance.  In some situations, the sound system turns the Sunrise to just .  .  .  mud.  Or, you have no top and no bottom, in which cases the Fishman or the Baggs seem to work better.  And depending on whether I’m flying or driving [laughs], I use a variety of pre-amps.  The ideal situation, which is also the silliest, is to have everything you’ve got with you at all times, and adapt to each job.

     In the past few months, I’ve got a Fishman Matrix and a Sunrise in the LKSMs, with a Fishman Dual Parametric [two-band parametric equalizer with built-in direct-input box].  I can run either pickup through that device, with just enough EQ to solve the more glaring problems that come up.  I love that practical approach, because it allows me to adjust, if the system I happen to be playing through prefers a piezo-type pickup.  It makes my life a little easier.

     W&S: One of our readers wrote to ask if it’s true that you drill two holes in your guitar, in order to run separate wires to your pickups.

     Kottke: Yeah.  I really don’t like to blend the two sound sources [saddle and soundhole].  I prefer to keep them separate.  These days, the main reason [I run separate wires] is that, if I’m using a Fishman Matrix, it allows me to use their internal pre-amp.  If I ran one plug as a stereo jack, with a different pickup dedicated to each side, I wouldn’t be able to use the Matrix.  By the way, without a shadow of a doubt, that’s the most common question I get> "What kind of pickup is that?" Usually, it’s followed by, "What kind of pre-amp is that?"

     W&S: So .  .  .  what kind of pre-amp is that?

     Kottke: To give an accurate answer, there are several types of pre-amps that work beautifully: The Pendulum; the Rane Map-33; and this little Fishman Dual Parametric.  Also, the Sunrise tube interface.  By the way, at the [Taylor] factory concert, I was conducting a little experiment.  I used a Sunrise through a little TC Electronics booster box, which elevates the signal, through a dbx compressor/limiter.  That worked pretty well, but I don’t think you can get that little booster box anymore.  In an ideal situation, I’d have all of those things at every job, plus the Fishman, Baggs, and Sunrise pickups.  If that sounds a little ridiculous, it is.

     W&S: It’s interesting that you can talk to six guitarists, and each prefers a different pre-amp.

     Kottke: I think that’s a function of how different players attack the stings, whether you use a pick, how much [fingernail you use .  .  .  The crystal pickup, which is still real prevalent, responds best to people who have a light attack and use a lot of nail of pick.  As fr as I can tell, using my ear, that would describe James Taylor, for example, who gets a beautiful sound using a Jim Olson guitar and a Lloyd Baggs pickup.  But, if you really pop ‘em, like I do, you start to sound kind of tinny and harsh.  With a parametric, though, you can notch that.  And, by the way, that’s a really valuable thing — a notch filter.  There’s only one pre-amp that gives you that, and that’s the Rane.  That has saved my skin in a couple of situations.

     W&S: Such as .  .  .  

     Kottke: The most common place for that to happen is outdoors, when the sun is setting, like at Humphrey’s.  If you’re playing outdoors when the temperature and humidity are shifting, you frequently get this enormous "hump." It’s just the loudest, most gawdawful thing in the sound spectrum, somewhere between 100 and 140 cycles.  If you use the parametric to knock that out, you have nothing left.  But if you have a notch filter, which is narrower than what you can get with the parametric, you can just hit it right on the nose and it’s gone, and you’re home free.  You can get a passive, dedicated notch filter that will match the impedance of your device and you can plug it in.  But you’d be carrying four or five of them around with you, so then you’re getting silly again.

     W&S: Let’s talk about guitars.  I understand that one thing you really like about Taylors is their consistency, that you can pick one up almost anywhere you go and be able to play it.

     Kottke: Yes.  When I buy a Taylor, I usually call T.J.  [Baden, Taylor Vice President] and tell him to send me one.  I don’t look at it, hear it, or see it.  The first time I did that, I talked to Bob [Taylor].  I said, "Well, pick out a good one." and Bob said, "No, we don’t have to do that.  They’re all good." I remember thinking, "this is nuts," but I didn’t want to argue with him, you know [laughs].  But it’s true.

     I’ve played Taylors in stores, and there are natural variances from guitar to guitar, but the differences are not nearly as wide as I’m used to hearing in instruments.  I don’t think I’m imagining that.  I know I’ve been perfectly happy with the guitars I’ve bought.  I use them to record with, to perform with.  Of course, I have been drawn to a guitar hanging on a wall.  I bought a [Taylor] 510 once, and it’s still one of my favorites in the studio.  It has a beautiful way of going on tape.

     W&S: Talk about your collaboration with Bob Taylor on the LKSM.

     Kottke: I was at a guitar store in Clearwater, Florida, that had an adjacent theater where they booked people to play.  Ken Spooner, who owned the place, brought a Taylor 12-string over to the hotel one day, and I liked it a lot, and bought it.  I did what I frequently do with a 12-string: I took out my pocket knife and started carving on the braces.  I didn’t do much of that, because I had learned by then that most of that impulse is pathology o my part.

     Anyway, I used it for a little while, and somebody mentioned it to Bob, and I later learned that Bob wanted to talk to me about the guitar.  He thought that my comments made some sense, and he was interested din building a variation on the guitar I’d bought.  The bulk of the experimentation had to do with the bracing.  I essentially wanted less wood than is common on a 12-string, and I also wanted it built to be tuned down, instead of to pitch.  I don’t think a 12-string makes sense tuned to pitch.  If you want that, I think you should play a mandolin.  I think the real virtue of a 12-string is that it can just explode out of the bottom.  So, that’s what we aimed for.

     W&S: How long did it take to achieve the desired results?

     Kottke: We went through several variations.  The first guitar died when the peghead snapped off on an airline.  Somehow, that resulted in a thicker curve up there by the nut, which I liked.  Also, I drove through Death Valley with both guitars in the trunk — the 12-string and the 510 — and the necks left the body, at the upper bout.  So, I got to experience what was then the controversial idea of the bolt-on neck.  Basically, I liked the idea, but I wasn’t sure about it.  I wound up in this place near the Paul Masson winery in California around the Los Gatos area.  Took it to this guy who removed the necks, re-glued them, and put them back on.

     Now, re-setting a neck has always been my nightmare.  I’d tried doing that with an old Gibson and another guitar, and it did not work in either case.  It’s just a horrible thought to me.  But, I stood there and watched as he re-set them.  It took him less than an hour to do both.  And, this is someone the Taylor people didn’t know about; he was just a guy the store sent work to.  And the guitars worked beautifully.  They played well, and sounded exactly as they had before, which was astounding to me.  I’m still using the six-string.  That sold me on the bolt-on neck.

     So, Bob and I tried some woods — Engelmann spruce, African mahogany, Honduran mahogany (which I greatly prefer), and Bob did what he said he’d do: he built me a guitar I wanted.  The only thing I wanted to try that I didn’t get to try was shortening the string scale.  That probably wouldn’t have worked anyhow.  It probably would have required the guitar to be tuned higher to function right, and I’d be losing some of that low stuff.  In order to do all that, you’d probably have to build a new factory.  I’m not sure that would be cost-effective.  [pause] Any other guys you do interviews with talk as long as I do? I’d bet not.  You know, one of the things that sold me on the idea of working with Bob and trying this 12-string was that Bob is the first person I’ve run into who can talk as long as I can about guitars.

     W&S: There’ a story about you losing your "dream guitar" at one point.  Is that true, and did that have something to do with the development of the LKSM?

     Kottke: Oh, yeah.  It was a freak instrument, a Gibson B-45 12-string, which they stopped building years ago.  The one I had was for sale in ‘62 or ‘63, and I bought it new.  Shortly thereafter, they started fussing with the bracing, and they were never the same, and then the actual shape disappeared, as well.  That guitar was stolen around 1970 or ‘71 in Portland, Oregon, out of the back of a car, in less than five minutes — a real lesson on how fast that can happen.  It was a weird guitar; I’d taken all the finish off and re-finished it with raw linseed oil, which is what they used to do with violins.  That will sound good for about six months, and then the guitarturns into a cantaloupe.

     But, apparently, I hadn’t taken all the finish off, because this guitar continued to sound remarkable.  However, it did have other problems common with the linseed oil finish, such as "bleeding." If it was a cold day, this thing would bleed all over you.  It was a little screwy.  So, I spent 20 years trying to replace that guitar, and get that sound.  I learned two things: That I couldn’t; and that your music doesn’t depend on your guitar, anyway.  That’s probably a heretical thing to say in an interview like this.  [laughs]

     W&S: What’s the connection between that old Gibson and the LKSM?

     Kottke: I was splaying a couple of weeks [after the theft] at the Troubadour in Los Angeles.  It was my first time playing there, and I was mortified at how I sounded.  Well, Dick Rosmini, who was someone I’d listened to in high school and relay admired, came backstage afterward and started playing my guitar.  He made it sound like a million bucks, and he said, "It doesn’t matter what guitar you’re playing." On the other hand, if you have the right guitar, you don’t have to compensate for it in your playing, and you can spend a lot more time on the music.  So, when Bob Taylor and I built this thing, that was nail in the coffin of that old Gibson.  I had to forget about it.

     In the course of making the LKSM with Bob, I started remembering things about my old Gibson that I didn’t like.  It had a rally obscure high end, and no sustain.  It was a nightmare to tune; basically, you couldn’t tune it.  But with the Gibson, I learned that I prefer mahogany.  So, the LKSM is mahogany, and it has more high end, better sustain.  Countless numbers of people who heard me "way back when" have told me that this Taylor sounds like that old Gibson, and I think it does have many of the same characteristics.

     W&S: We’ve heard that you "retire" guitars after they’ve reached a certain status.

     Kottke: There have been a couple.  But, usually, the status has been incipient collapse.  Anymore, I try real hard not to fall in love with a guitar, because they’re still vulnerable if you’re checking them onto planes.  I’ve got the ideal situation now, where these [Taylor] guitars are built the way I like them, so I know they can easily be replaced.  That takes a real load off my mind.

     By the way, let me put in a plug for those cases you guys are building.  They work beautifully.  I check them all the time on airlines, and I haven’t had nay problem with them.  And I have had problems with much heavier, denser, more bulletproof cases, because guitars don’t fit in them properly.  One of those other cases which shall remain nameless, broke in half on the way to Australia not long ago.  The also tend to break your arm, so that even if the guitar is intact, you can’t play it.

     W&S: Is it true that you’re a closet guitar repairman?

     Kottke: Oh yeah.  They don’t like that [laughs].  I carry my truss rod adjusting tool with me, and on several occasions, when someone is showing me their Taylor, I’ve offered to adjust the neckfor them.  Almost every time, the owner will pull his guitar back and say something like, "That’s okay, it plays fine." I don’t aim to do anything radical, but I understand how it might look like it.

     Actually, a couple of people have submitted their guitars to my ministrations, and I do keep an eye on how much their pupils dilate when I pull out my wrench [laughs].  I don’t want ‘em to freak out .  .  .  Basically, all I offer to do is tweak the neck.  It always seemed to me that was something that should be possible to do.  And it is.  But I have to take tiny steps, and not go as far with it as I would on my own guitar, just in case I’m pushing some envelope on theirs that’s different from mine.

     W&S: It’s surprising that people would turn down an offer from such a well known guitarist, especially an artists they happen to follow.

     Kottke: Yeah, I would think so, too.  Matter of fact, I’d be inclined to let a guitarist that I respect work on my guitar simply because I might learn something, but .  .  .  People have a more personal relationship with a guitar than with other instruments.  I know, ‘cause I’ve played a few other instruments, and hung around other players.  Guitar players seem to be really close to their instrument.  It’s an interesting phenomenon to look at, and I don’t think anyone has studied it much.  But its certainly part of why it’s such a popular instrument.

     W&S: You’ve mentioned that when you were younger, you followed other guitarists the way today’s aspiring guitarists follow you.  There’s a funny anecdote about how you used to sneak in to see Kenny Burrell, when you were "under age."

     Kottke: It’s a true story.  There’s place in Washington, D.C., owned by Charlie Bird, called the Showboat Lounge.  They’d get a lot of great guitar players in there, but Kenny was the main act.  He was one of my first real guitar idols and a major influence.  I’d go to hear him play at the Showboat because it was the only club I could get into as a minor.  The bouncer had a strange bone disorder in his back, and could only stand bent over at a 90-degree angle.  It didn’t matter whose ID I’d show him, because he could only see your legs anyway, and he’d wave you in.

     Matter of fact, I met a woman recently who used to go there, and she knew this guy.  I just happened to mention the Showboat Lounge, ‘cause I was talking about a drummer named Buddy Deppenschmidt, who payed with his face, and —

     W&S: wait a minute —

     Kottke: Yeah, he played the drums with his face [laughs].  I always leave it at that, ‘cause I figure what people fill in is actually funnier than the reality.  But, Buddy was the first guy I ever saw with an entire repertoire of grimaces.  He couldn’t hit something without his face making a corresponding motion.  And, he never liked what he played.  This guy’s still working and recording, and he’s a good player, as far as I can hear.   But, back then, he didn’t like his own drumming, and his facial expressions would get worse and worse and worse.  It was great theater.

     W&S: Here’s a question that doesn’t rank among the most-asked.  People have mentioned that youalways look dapper on stage, and one guy actually wanted to know what kind of shirts you wear.

     Kottke: [hearty laugh] They’re, uh .  .  .  Mark Shale, button-down, white shirts.  Yeah, my wife found them.  I like to wear white on stage.  It’s a terrible color for photographs, or for wearing on television.  But, it’s nice on stage, because it animates the act, the way the lights work on it.  I’ve noticed that, if you ever see a band play in somewhere, and one of those characters is wearing a white shirt, they just look more .  .  .  "up there."

     W&S: Any new projects you’d like to announce to Wood & Steel readers?

     Kottke: Well, I’m starting a "live" record, which will probably be the next thing that shows up.  And, it looks like we’re going to continue this "Guitar Summit" thing without Joe Pass [who died of cancer on May 23, 1994].  I think we’re going to Australia with it, as a trio — Pepe Romero, Paco Peña, and me.  We have found it impossible to fill Joe’s slot.

     W&S: That’s understandable.  He’s gong to be sorely missed by anyone who loves jazz and/or guitar.  Probably the only people who will be relived that Joe’s not with you are those running the soundboard at each venue.  If you happened to arrive at one of his shows early enough to catch him setting "levels" with the soundman, you saw a side of Joe that didn’t jibe with the beauty of his playing.

     Kottke: I know exactly what you mean.  You know [laughs], the first thing he said to Pepe, when they met, was "Hi, fatso." [laughs] But, what Pepe got, immediately, was that as cranky as Joe could appear — and I would not have wanted to be a soundman at his jobs — he was truly one of the most kind-hearted people I’ve ever met.  Really an endearing guy.  But he was hard on sound guys.  He wouldn’t even let them set the trim level.  The minute they’d even try to turn him on, he’d say, "No, no — let me do that!"

     On the other hand, he died in his sleep with a smile on his face.  Which, I guess, is something we can all aspire to.

[The End]

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