TIM SPARKS’ CAREER NEARLY ENDED
before it began when he broke his left wrist
as a child. “When my arm came out of the
cast, it was frozen in a palms-down position,”
he explains. “So I had to work for a
few months to get my wrist to rotate. My
doctor said if it wasn’t for wanting to play
guitar I might not ever have regained the
use of my hand.” Fortunately, Sparks’ wrist
rotated well enough for him to go on to
become one of the most accomplished and
eclectic fingerstyle guitarists of his generation,
delving deeply into the blues and
other roots music that surrounded him as
a child, and eventually moving on to classical
(his first album featured an arrangement
of The Nutcracker Suite), bebop and
Brazilian jazz, and ethnic Greek, Portuguese,
Russian, and Jewish Klezmer styles (recording
three albums of avant-garde Klezmer
for John Zorn’s Tzadik label, including
2009’s Little Princess).
On Sidewalk Blues [ToneWood], Sparks
returns to his early blues roots to play swinging
fingerstyle arrangements of blues tunes
originally penned by artists such as Jelly Roll
Morton, Willie Brown, Eubie Blake, Fats
Waller, Scott Joplin, and Louis Armstrong
on a 1917 Gibson L-3 and Collings, Hoffman,
and Lakewood instruments. “I began
the project more than ten years ago when
I was playing the Collings,” says Sparks.
“But when I returned to it I was playing a
Hoffman, which has a shorter scale. There
are two versions of ‘Mississippi Blues’ on
the record: the earlier fast and punchy version
played on the Collings, and the slow
version on the Hoffman. In each case the
unique qualities of the guitar called forth a
particular version of the song.”
When you learn a blues song, do you separate it
into sections and learn them separately, or do
you tackle the whole song from start to finish?
It depends to an extent on the song.
Some are straight-up adaptations of the
songs as they were originally played. For
example, Louis Armstrong played “Potato
Head Blues” with his Hot Five band, and
I transcribed his trumpet solo and Johnny
Dodds’ clarinet solo, and then adapted
them for the guitar—so that was done a
few sections at a time. I had to learn it in
the original key, and then transpose it into
a key that worked better for the guitar.
I think that for guitar arrangements—
particularly solo-guitar arrangements—
it’s important to find the key that gives you
great chords and riffs and makes the song
really shine. That can be quite a chore.
Describe your approach to chord voicing
when re-harmonizing traditional tunes using
“Mississippi Blues” as an example.
I like to start from the melody tone and
build a chord from the top down to discover
different chord substitutions, and I always
try to visualize the chord shape that corresponds
to whatever riff or scale I’m playing.
On “Mississippi Blues” I am working out
variations of the theme and signature
cadence up and down the fretboard. A good
way to understand this is to begin by playing
blues licks and chord shapes in the five
first-position guitar keys: G, E, D, C, and A.
Once you are familiar with those shapes,
you can transpose them up the neck to the
3rd fret, 5th fret, etc., by using your 1st finger
to bar what would be the open string
notes in first position. So, for “Mississippi
Blues,” which is in the key of A, I play part
of the theme at the 5th fret using an E7
chord shape. Later on there is Willie Brown’s
famous boogie-woogie bass line and triplet
chord figure that is worked out to a D7chord
shape at the 7th fret and so on. As I move
up and down the fretboard I can see that I
am in the D-shape zone, the A-shape zone,
the G-shape zone, etc.
So you play in standard tuning?
Yes, though I play in dropped-D occasionally
for gospel tunes. You can get a nice
bass groove going on the fourth and sixth
strings, and then stretch out over the top.
Describe your right-hand technique. It
looks like you primarily use your thumb and
first two fingers.
“I like to start from
the melody tone and
build a chord from the
My thumb and first two fingers move
kind of like a spider, hovering over consecutive
groupings of any three strings a
lick or scale is being picked out on. I also
use my third finger classical-style when
arrangements call for it. To mesh a melody
and a bass line, I play stop-time bass,
which means I play a pedal-tone bass note
repeatedly on the back beat.
Do you use artificial nails?
I use long press-on acrylic nails for
What is your primary guitar these days?
I’m currently playing an OM-style cutaway custom built for me by Charlie
Hoffman in Minneapolis.
What strings do you use?
I use John Pearse Slightly Lights,
which are gauged .011, .015, .022, .030,
.040, .050, top to bottom. I’m told these
strings have a smaller core so they are a
bit more flexible. I use a lot of chord
shapes all over the neck and do a lot of
barring in the Latin manner, and these
strings help facilitate the twang and moan
of steel-string bending while using a
nylon-string fretting vocabulary.
How do you amplify your instruments?
For the Collings, I used an LR Baggs
M1 pickup combined with a D-TAR transducer,
but that wasn’t quite what I want
for the Hoffman, which has a softer and
more resonant sound than the Collings.
I am currently checking out the Dean
Markley West Coast La Jolla pickup system
through an UltraSound PRO-250
amp. Leo Kottke once pointed out to me
that the pickup should suit the picking
style. He favors soundhole pickups for the
way he digs in with his thumb, while
someone with a more delicate, classical
left-hand posture would get more from
an internal microphone.
You have mastered several distinct styles of
playing. Describe some of the ways in which you
combine them to create new hybrid approaches
My style began to gel when I made
Guitar Bazaar [Sparks’ 1995 multicultural
mash-up]. When I started recording for
Tzadik, John Zorn encouraged me to be
wildly eclectic in my arranging and improvising,
and this is where I really started to
blend blues and jazz licks with Middle Eastern
scales that overlap in places on the
fretboard. For example, the blue note of
an E minor blues pentatonic scale is Bb,
which corresponds to the raised 4th of E
Hungarian minor. That’s standard jazz stuff,
but mixing it with string bends makes it
interesting. I also started substituting equivalent
phrases and licks when developing
an arrangement, rather than trying to
strictly play the melody of the original. Joe
Pass said that there are three fundamental
chords: major 7th, minor 7th, and
Dominant 7th, and everything one plays
can be thought of as falling into one or
more of those categories. That’s a very useful
system to organize riffs, scales, chords,
etc.—and the rest is imagination!