Calum Graham (left) and Don Ross.
Composer Frédéric Chopin once said that, “Nothing is more beautiful
than a guitar, except, possibly, two.” Through the decades, many guitarists have taken
his advice, yielding some amazing collaborations, including the Duo Assad, Ralph Towner
and John Abercrombie, and the classic fingerstyle pairing of John Renbourn and Bert Jansch.
While playing in a guitar duo can be as simple as saying, “You play rhythm, and I play lead,”
the best duets feature carefully arranged, interlocking parts, creating the impression of 20
fingers playing one big guitar.
Enter Calum Graham and Don Ross,
whose recent release, 12:34 [Candyrat], is
not only a fine example of great modern fingerstyle
playing featuring lots of extended
techniques, alternate tunings, and gorgeous
tones—it also creates a soundscape that is
larger than the sum of its parts. Oh, and if
you think two guys playing acoustic guitars
can’t be a rock band, take a listen to the
album’s opening cut, “Indivisible,” and you
just might change your mind.
Ross is, of course, no stranger to fans
of progressive fingerstyle guitar. Ever since
releasing his debut album, Bearing Straight,
in 1989, he has been on the forefront of the
contemporary fingerstyle movement, and it
is no exaggeration that his groove-oriented
style has influenced a generation of fingerstyle
players who came on the scene after
him. One of those players is fellow Canadian
Graham, who, though he was born after the
release of Bearing Straight, began absorbing
every lick he heard Ross play, eventually
resulting in his own solo debut, Sunny Side
Up, in 2009. Pairing two artists at very different
stages in their careers, 12:34 is not
only a really fun album to listen to—it’s also
a great story of mentorship and inter-generational
Calum, how did you get into playing fingerstyle
Graham: It started happening for me when
I was about 13. My dad would come home
from work and he’d play songs by bands like
Yes and the Rolling Stones. Eventually I got
him to show me the songs and the chords,
and I just started playing all the time. Then,
I heard Don’s Bearing Straight album, and
I thought, “Wow, this is amazing!” When
my friend told me that it was one guitar,
I freaked out. I was like, “How does he do
that?” That’s when I really started playing
fingerstyle, trying to play the groove, the
melody, the rhythm, and everything else at
the same time. So I just started learning a
bunch of Don Ross songs. I also emailed him
and we stayed in touch, and eventually he
told me about the guitar-playing contest at
the Canadian Guitar Festival. I came in first
place in 2010. Don was one of the judges.
How did playing together and recording
12:34 come about?
Ross: I’ve known Calum since he was
about 14. He came down to the Canadian
Guitar Festival primarily because you could
take lessons with some of the players there.
I gave him a two-hour lesson at the festival,
and then I’d just bump into him every once
in a while. He lived not far from Calgary, so
whenever I was through town, he’d come to
the show, and I’d give him another lesson.
We kept in touch very informally. Then, in
2010, he won the guitar competition, and he
started asking me for tips about his performing,
and so on. About a year ago we started
talking pretty seriously about doing a project
together, and although originally I was just
going to produce the record, Calum ended
up saying that he’d really like to do more of
a guitar duo album. He sent me some demos
and the compositions were really strong, so
I thought it was a great idea.
What attracts you to him as a musician?
Ross: Calum displays a tremendous maturity
in his compositions, despite the fact that
he’s only 21. He writes supremely melodic
tunes, which is really nice, because so many
fingerstylists don’t focus on melody. Plus,
when I played with him up close, I’d watch
his hands and think, “Wow, this guy has
really worked on this.” He’s already put in
the hours to become a fine composer and a
knockout guitar player.
Arranging guitar duets can be an exercise
in staying out of each other’s way.
Did it come easy with this project?
Graham: When you’re playing solo guitar,
you have to fill out the whole spectrum on
your own—but when you’re playing with
another guitar player, or any musician, you
have to make sure that you’re not overplaying.
Don and I spent time making sure that
the person who wasn’t playing the melody
was kind of holding back and staying out
of the way.
Ross: When I’m working with another
fingerstyle player, the smartest thing to
do is to let one of the people, usually the
person who wrote the tune, play their part
the way they normally do it, and then flesh
out another part that doesn’t get in the way.
Did you use a lot of different tunings
on the album?
Graham: Definitely. Every song on the
album is in a different tuning.
And different capo positions as well?
Ross: Yeah, we did a couple of things
where I was capo’d up and he wasn’t and vice
versa. And we also did a couple of arrangements
where one of us played the baritone
guitar in order to get into a different range.
For example, he wrote and played “It Is What
It Is” on a baritone, and I played a regularly
pitched part. And on “Hey Ya!,” which is a
cover of the OutKast tune, he’s mostly playing
percussion and two-handed tapping stuff,
and I’m playing the bulk of the melody down
low on the baritone, so it’s two radically different
How did you go about arranging “Hey
Graham: My girlfriend really liked that song,
and she said that she thought we should try
it out. We did, and it worked great. I had one
little riff, and I came up with this cool way
of playing it with percussion and harmonics.
Ross: We rummaged over a few different
ideas. We both have a deep love of R&B
music, and that tune is really just a silly
song, but it’s catchy as hell. Calum showed
me this part that he had worked out, where
he was tapping out a harmony with his left
hand, while at the same time doing a lot of
percussion on the guitar body. When I heard
what he had, I thought, “Okay, I only have
to come up with a version of the melody.” I
ended up tuning my baritone guitar to the
same tuning I use on my old piece “First
Ride,” but instead of being in C, it’s in G.
We ended up with this cool arrangement that
worked perfectly in that tuning and was easy
for me to play. And the interplay between
the parts worked really well, because they
were completely different from each other.
How did you work out the duet version
of Don’s tune “Lucy Watusi”?
Graham: We needed one more song, and
we were at Don’s place, and he had it written
down. So I learned it in about an hour, and
we recorded it the next day. I didn’t really
know the song before that.
Ross: We kept it pretty much the way it
was, except that once we started working
together, he was doing my original part in
my original tuning: D, A, C, F, C, D, low to
high. That’s like a Dm7 tuning, so I decided
to do a part in DADGAD, because it meant
that I could play without making too many
modal mistakes, the open strings would always
work, and there would be certain kinds of
interesting chord clusters. I worked out my
part, and then as we rehearsed together, we
came up with new ideas for the piece, like
finding ways to make the rhythm a little funkier.
For example, there were sections where
we decided to leave beat one out of a bar,
which is actually more like anti-funk, but it
worked really well. That was Calum’s idea.
Don, on tunes like “Waiting,” you
take on more of a supportive role. Is that
something you enjoy doing?
Ross: Yes, very much so. In that particular
case, the piece was already so well
formed that all I wanted to do was add
some color on the bottom end using the
baritone guitar. I just played a bunch of
arpeggiated chords rather than a well-thought-
out guitar part, but when we finished
the record, “Waiting” turned out to
be kind of our favorite tune.
What guitars did you play on the CD?
Ross: I played my fanned-fret Beneteau
baritone, and my regular-pitched Beneteau
6-string, built from sapele with a cedar top.
On “Three Way Street,” we did two passes,
one with my acoustic, and one with a Frameworks
MIDI guitar going through a Roland
VG-99 V-Guitar System. The very plain electric
guitar sound I’m using there is a setting
called “Chicken,” and it’s supposed to sound
kind of like a Telecaster. I also used another
setting called “Liquid Guitar,” which is a
big, spacey, almost guitar-synth sound, and
it creeps in here and there.
Graham: I played my Stonebridge G24SKA,
which is a koa guitar with a spruce top,
and a Stonebridge Baritone that is the very
first one they’ve made. I also played an Oskar
Graf 7-string, one of Don’s Beneteaus, and
his old Lowden O-10, which is a fantastic
guitar. For the solo on “Hey Ya!” I played a
How did you record the album?
Ross: We recorded most of the basic
tracks in about a week at Metalworks Studios,
which was founded by Gil Moore,
one of the members of Triumph. We sometimes
recorded simultaneously, and sometimes
overdubbed, only because recording
individually was efficient in that the person
who knew his part well didn’t have to sit
there and re-record it over and over again
while the person who was still working his
part out tried new things. But some of the
tunes, like “Waiting,” were recorded live in
the same room, with no click track, and they
worked out really well. Then, the remaining
third of the recording was done at my home
studio. We recorded “Hey Ya!” there, as well
as a lot of the overdubs.
Graham: The recording went very smoothly,
which really surprised me. I definitely learned
how important it is to be prepared when you
get to the studio, or else things will take a
lot more time. And I also learned to be more
open-minded when it comes to dealing with
new techniques, new ideas, and new people.
Just seeing the amount of focus, concentration,
and passion that Don puts into his playing
really inspired me.
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