Eric Bibb's Eclectic Minimalism

December 29, 2004

Eric Bibb is a master at picking guitar strings and musical collaborators, and he showcases these twin talents on his newest album, Friends [Telarc]. His father Leon played a prominent role in the 1960’s Greenwich Village folk scene, so it’s no surprise that Friends has strong folk overtones. On this eclectic outing—which features the mighty Taj Mahal—Bibb is accompanied by an international ensemble wielding such exotic instruments as fretless gourd banjo, mohan veena (a 19-string Indian lap-slide guitar invented by Vishwa Mohan Bhatt), and kora (an ancient 21-string West African harp-lute).

On Friends, you play both 6-string and 12-string. Which guitars are your favorites?

My main guitar is a Fylde made by Roger Bucknall in England. It’s a brilliant all-around guitar with an incredible midrange like no other that I’ve played. It speaks clearly with a distinct, balanced sound that’s ideal for fingerpicking. The 12-string is a parlor-size instrument that’s also made in England by Dave King.

You also play a high-strung guitar?

That’s a tradition with Nashville players. When they want to double a rhythm part, but don’t want to get all that boomy bass stuff, they restring a guitar so its top three strings are normal and the three bass strings are tuned an octave up. [Some Nashville players replace all but the top two strings with octave strings.] Of course, you have to substitute much lighter-gauge bass strings. A high-strung guitar sounds like half a 12-string—a tone that enchanted me when I first heard it. I love the way it chimes.

Describe your picking technique.

As a youngster, I started out playing classical guitar. I was quite undisciplined as a student, but it did teach me how orchestral and wonderfully expressive the guitar can be if you pick it with your thumb and three fingers. Now I often hear guitar music as consisting of three parts: a distinct melody, a bass line, and something that moves and morphs between the two. I love that texture. I did a lot of busking earlier in life, so I needed to get as full a sound as possible from one instrument. Classical-inspired fingerpicking was the way to make that happen.

Do you use altered or open tunings?

I do. In fact I use dropped-D tuning as much as I use standard. I also tune quite a few of my guitars a half-step below concert pitch. It suits my vocal range to have guitars pitched to Eb, and I just like how they ring in that range.

When you were 11, Bob Dylan told you, “Keep it simple, forget all the fancy stuff.” What would you say to someone starting out?

It’s important to find your own voice in music. You’ll discover quickly whether you’re somebody who enjoys playing very technically or flashy. Some people really lean toward that. My personal feeling is in keeping with what Dylan told me, basically “less is more.” Your sound consists as much of what you don’t do, as what you do. I take a minimalist approach to music, leaving things out, as opposed to adding more and more parts.

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