It has been five years since Don Alder won Guitar Player’s Guitar Superstar 2010 competition with a stunning solo-acoustic performance, surprising charisma (given that he stepped onstage looking like a history teacher), and a pretty hilarious sense of humor. He hasn’t stopped blowing minds—he performed a duet of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” with Space Station commander Chris Hadfield last year, for example—and winning awards since.
But for his latest album, Alder took a left turn way off the beaten path for a solo-acoustic guitarist and singer/songwriter that few could have expected—even those well aware of his sense of humor. Apparently, his self-produced Armed and Dangerous is an epic song cycle inspired by the zombie apocalypse. Yeah, no touchy-feely odes to mountain sunshine, everlasting love, or butterflies fanning across a gentle breeze in Alder’s new world order.
Yes. I had a hard time deciding what I wanted to do for the new album [laughs]. But what happened is that I became a big fan of The Walking Dead TV series, and this helped guide my project, because I started thinking what it would be like to be a guitar player in apocalyptic times. I would have to have the ultimate warrior guitar to kill off zombies, and that became the theme of the album. I even went to a British artist named Rob Sullivan to design this guitar for the album cover. We put together a guitar that’s a fanned-fret instrument with a blade on the headstock, a chopping knife on the bottom of the body, a chainsaw on the lower bout, and a whammy-bar flamethrower to clear paths, as well as whips and Wolverine claws. This guitar kind of drove some of the songs, and some other songs were directly influenced by The Walking Dead. The title track is dedicated to the entire cast, “Boy Meets Girl” is about the show’s characters Maggie and Glenn, and “Arrows Will Fly” deals with tough-guy archer, Daryl.
Okay, I get all of that, but I still find it difficult to wrap my head around zombies inspiring acoustic compositions.
Well, these aren’t really coffeehouse songs. They are very aggressive compositions that I kind of had in the works anyway, but having the guitar visualized helped everything make sense. “Arrows Will Fly,” for example, has this unique, muted circular chicken picking done with three or four fingers that, to me, evokes arrows flying all over the place. “Armed and Dangerous” is about as close as you’re going to get one acoustic guitar sounding like a dance mix. I needed something to come right at you out of the gate, so I started with this rhythmic, single-note thing, and then I kicked in with a palm hit on the soundboard. It’s very aggressively percussive.
What are your main guitars at the moment?
My favorite guitar right now is a small-body Yamaha AC3R with multiple pickup sources. It has a piezo output, as well as onboard mic modeling, and I also added a Seymour Duncan Mag Mic in the soundhole. I run the outputs through a Soundcraft Notepad mixer for live performance. For the singer/songwriter stuff, I’ll use a larger body acoustic, the Yamaha LL16D. I use Ernie Ball Aluminum Bronze strings. The general consensus is that they have more brightness to them, but I find they’re warmer. My little Yamaha is fairly bright-sounding guitar to begin with, but when I put these on, it seems to produce a bit more warmth. Also, the lows are crisp. They’re not muddy. I like a fairly low action, so on the AC3R I’ll use a .013-.056 set. If I’m ever having buzzing problems, I’ll put on heavier strings to try to help the situation. When you travel through different climates with an acoustic, the neck is always changing on you.
How do you keep people engaged throughout an entire solo-acoustic performance?
I don’t plan it on paper where I say, “This is exactly what I’m going to do.” I mean, I get onstage, and everything I planned to say kind of goes by the wayside for one reason or another. But I’ve learned that one of the biggest factors in getting an audience to buy into your act is to have 100-percent fierce belief in what you’re doing. So I mostly go from my gut when I step onstage. I try to be honest about what I am presenting to the audience, and then I just hope for the best.
Well, you’ve got something going on, because you win a lot of competitions—our Guitar Superstar, Worldwide Guitar Idol, International Fingerstyle Championship, and so on.
I’m always driven by an “I suck” attitude. For me, it has been a long time of justifying, “How the hell can I win this? What I’m doing sucks in comparison to everybody else.” But here’s where I’m at: I’m not a professional musician. That would require a professional skill set—like Steve Lukather. You can throw ten charts at him, and he can read them from ten feet away and fly through them. That’s not something I can do. Now, the other route is that of the artist, and that path has a certain beauty to it, because you can break all the rules. The big challenge with that direction is that you have to sell yourself to the public if you want a career. You have to make them like you, and that’s a whole other challenge. But this is the path I’ve gone down. You have to read your audience, and then let your fear of failure lead you to the right choices for making that audience happy. You trust in those decisions, and you just play.
Do you ever run up against someone who says, “Hey, Alder, I want to see some technique, man. You’re being too much of a showman”?
In the acoustic genre [laughs]? Yeah, for sure. It’s all about if you can tap, whether you can do this or that… There are two camps, I think. There are the Andy McKee kind of guitar geek bands, and there are the Tommy Emmanuels. They’re quite different because Tommy is more the Chet Atkins kind of school, and Andy is more the Michael Hedges school. So if you’re going down either of those tracks, you’re always going to be compared to those guys. Of course, you keep your technique up no matter which direction you take. That’s a given. But I’ll tell you, the hardest thing to do is to come up with fresh new melodies and great songs. It’s not easy to be the Beatles. So, once again, when I went into all of these contests against all of these players who were technically so much better than me, and far more virtuosic, my tactic was to find my own magic onstage. If you can connect with the audience—have a conversation with the people out there—then it doesn’t really matter how good you are at that point. You’ve found that “X Factor.” And you’re going to win.