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Four Corners of the New Acoustic Universe

June 18, 2012
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Sergio Altamura playing prepared
guitar with a cello bow.
Whether played fingerstyle or with a pick, strung with nylon or steel strings, tuned to standard or non-standard pitches, and played conventionally or otherwise—the acoustic guitar has probably never been more popular, and superb acoustic guitarists more plentiful. Consider the YouTube phenomena—where Andy McKee (featured in the April 2009 issue of GP) alone has racked up more than 100 million views, with scores of others not far behind—and the enthusiasm for acoustic-wielding folk, rock, country, blues, bluegrass, Brazilian, Latin, and Gypsy jazz players worldwide. Even some classical players boast hit records.

Here, we present a sampling of four outstanding acoustic guitarists with very different approaches, some of whom may be new to you. We’ve also included a list of six Google-worthy players that we strongly encourage you to check out. Hopefully, you will dig what they are doing as much as we do.

Sergio Altamura

Italian guitarist Sergio Altamura occupies a unique aesthetic space: one that encompasses deft use of sound-altering objects and devices, skilled looping, and ingenious playing techniques—including the masterful integration of a cello bow. Altamura draws inspiration from a range of artists spanning Brian Eno and Fred Frith to Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page—with Michael Hedges and Steve Tibbetts being his most significant acoustic guitar influences. He is also a member of Guitar Republic, an intriguing trio with Pino Forastiere and Stefano Barone.

What are your primary guitars and how do you amplify them?

I play a Martin D-28 and an old Lowden S22-12 12-string. Both guitars are amplified using a Sunrise magnetic pickup combined with an L.R. Baggs Dual Source internal microphone and piezo pickup system. That allows me to amplify every part of the instrument. The pickups capture the sound of the strings, while the condenser mic captures the sound of the body, which I use as a percussion instrument. There are separate outputs for the two systems.

Where do the signals go from there?

The Sunrise and Baggs go into the Microphone and Instrument inputs on my Boss RC-20 Loop Station. I also use a Lexicon LXP-1 Reverb. When I play with a bow, I run the signal from the Baggs through an MXR 10-band EQ to remove harshness, and sometimes also through a Boss DD-6 Digital Delay. When I’m performing for a large audience, or recording, I use a Boss RC-50 instead of the RC-20, because it records at 44.1kHz, and has three tracks with separate outputs, so loops can be panned and processed individually.

Describe your right-hand techniques.

I use classical technique with a thumbpick when playing fingerstyle, but for other songs, mostly with Guitar Republic, I use a pick. I also play with a cello bow, using classical technique—where your hand faces down—and Vihuela technique—where your hand faces up. My right-hand percussive techniques are inspired by Mediterranean frame drum players, and allow me to play complex rhythm patterns while still having my left hand free to tap strings.

Do you play in non-standard tunings?

Yes. The most common ones are C, G, D, G, B, E and D, Bb, D, G, A, E [low to high], but for some songs with Guitar Republic I tune all of the strings to F#. My 12-string is typically tuned C, F, Bb, Eb, G, C, but sometimes I tune it to Bb, F, Bb, Eb, F, Bb, which is like DADGAD, but two steps down.

 
Antoine Dufour
Describe some of your devices and extended techniques.

Besides the Ebow, I use screws and bolts to pull out incredible low frequency sounds, and CDs, phone cards, and paper scraps when creating percussive sounds. I also use a computer fan with a small wire attached to one of its blades that makes a fantastic sound when it hits the strings. And when playing with the cello bow I place a homemade bridge under the strings, which raises them to a more comfortable position, though it also alters the fret reference so it’s more like playing a fretless.

What is the future of acoustic guitar?

Nowadays there are many incredibly talented acoustic guitarists, but not as many incredible composers for acoustic guitar. The future is in the hands of those who will bend the instrument to serve the composition, rather than the other way around— a great example of which was Michael Hedges. —BC

Antoine Dufour

When the Acoustic Masters tour hit San Francisco’s historic Great American Music Hall, the first player made a lasting impression on everyone in attendance. Canadian virtuoso Antoine Dufour sat on a stool playing a Beauregard OM mounted on an Ergo- Play Professional support, as Leviathan lows and sparkling harmonics reverberated gloriously off the decorative walls. Supporting his latest release, Sound Pictures [CandyRat], Dufour dazzled the capacity crowd with spider- like fingerstyle moves, adept thumbpicking, and gargantuan grooves rendered with body slaps, finger whacks, and fretboard taps. Afterward, zealots patiently waited to pick the accomplished acoustic ambassador’s brain.

 
Mark Kroos
Why do you favor a cedar top compared to more common soundboard woods such as spruce?

Cedar sounds thicker and more complete with more sustain and overtones compared to the clean, clear sound of spruce. I prefer a textured, blended sound. My builder, Mario Beauregard, had me knock on pieces of both woods, and from that alone I could hear qualitative differences that reflect in the sound of a finished instrument. With a cedar top, harmonics sound like bells and notes die more slowly and progressively compared to the fast fade out of spruce.

How do you transmit such a full harmonic range and percussive punch live?

My guitar is equipped with K&K’s Quantum Trinity System that includes a pickup, a little internal microphone, and an outboard preamp to which I send both signals via a stereo cable. I favor the pickup heavily in my blend. I cut all the bass, some mids, and quite a bit of highs from the mic’s signal, and send the pickup’s signal through a Radial Tonebone PZ-Pre preamp. Mic and pickup signals enter my laptop through Native Instruments’ Komplete Audio 6 interface. I use Apple’s Logic software to process the sound further. I send a rather flat stereo signal through a Radial Engineering JPC Computer Direct Box to the house, and a wet mono feed to my Phil Jones Cub AG-100 amp.

How do you generally start and then develop a composition?

I start with a riff, a bass line, or a chord sequence with a groove. I write that out in tablature, either using Guitar Pro software or on a piece of paper if I don’t have my computer. Next, I create a melody and write a tab of that. I examine the two tabs to see if I can play the parts together, and if not, I’ll try other fingerings, or I’ll see if I can make them work in an altered tuning. For the song “En T’Attendant” from my Convergences CD, I wound up dropping the A string a half-step and applying a Spider- Capo to strings 2, 3, and 4 at the fourth fret. I’ll do whatever works. In fact, I’ve been working on electronic music for the past couple of years, which is fun because I don’t have to figure out how to play it on guitar and reproduce it live. —JL

Mark Kroos

Mark Kroos caught GP’s attention in the most direct way possible—he won our 2011 Guitar Superstar competition in dramatic fashion by simultaneously tapping and slapping the dual fretboards of a doubleneck Ovation acoustic. The story of how Kroos came to play that way is as unique as his doubleneck technique.

“I went to Bowling Green State University in Northern Ohio to study jazz, and I just didn’t have the feel or the aptitude for it,” admits Kroos, who is somewhat of a punker at heart. Dejected, he quit playing guitar altogether, and spent the rest of his college years working on a general bachelor’s degree while playing bass in the punk-ska outfit the Argonauts on weekends. Kroos returned to the guitar after graduation when he took a gig teaching. He re-discovered his affection for innovator Michael Hedges, delved into DADGAD tuning, and picked up new two-hand techniques by watching young lions Andy McKee and Antoine Dufour.

How in the world did you wind up playing two necks simultaneously?

 
Eric Skye
I wanted to break new ground compositionally, and I focused on fretting with both hands because I felt there was room to take it further. One day I ran into a roadblock working on “Indigo Child,” which eventually appeared on my debut CD, And Grace Will Lead Me Home. I couldn’t play the melody and harmony parts simultaneously on the same neck because they were in the same region. I laid a second guitar in its case on a keyboard stand and started playing the main part while I played the harmony with my left hand on the guitar slung around my neck. It was surprisingly not impossible, and it became a lot easier once I got a doubleneck. I ordered an Ovation Celebrity CSE 225 and immediately removed the octave strings from its 12-string neck.

Once you found your ax, how did you work out your mechanics?

I’m right handed, and at first I used my right hand on the upper neck because there was more space between strings. I eventually realized my right hand was better suited to playing parts requiring more power on the lower neck, and that the angle of my left hand on the upper neck was better suited to playing faster, more intricate parts.

According to your Web site, your debut album features “two signals from the doubleneck for stereo purposes.” What’s your tracking technique, and do you also utilize stereo doubleneck in the live arena?

I made a slight modification to my Ovation. It comes stock with one monophonic output, but I added two additional outputs— one for each neck. Those signals are the heart of my studio sound, but I’m currently using only the monophonic signal onstage. I tried sending the independent signals to my two-channel, stereo-capable Genz Benz Shenandoah 300LT 2x10, but I ran into phase cancellation problems. VFE Pedals is working on a pedal designed to fix my phasing issues and allow me to control stereo panning via an expression pedal.

What’s on the horizon for you musically?

I’m working on some complex new material with completely independent parts, which requires a ton of practice. I should have a new release this fall if all goes according to plan. —JL

Eric Skye

“I strive to be somewhere between Ralph Towner and John Lee Hooker,” says Portlandbased Eric Skye, who is typically billed as a jazz guitarist, but plays in an inventive and eclectic style that’s also heavily influenced by blues and bluegrass, with vestigial traces of early classical training.

Skye plays his Santa Cruz Eric Skye Signature Model 00 exclusively. “The guitar has cocobolo back and sides and an Adirondack spruce top,” he enthuses. “It’s also 1/8" deeper than the standard 00 model for added bass and volume, and has a widerthan- usual string spacing and a 24.9" scale length. I use a lot more bends and vibrato than many acoustic players, which is one reason I prefer a shorter scale.”

Skye’s upcoming release, A Different Kind of Blue, is a reimagining of Miles Davis’ 1959 masterpiece.

Describe a few of the right-hand techniques that you use.

When I’m playing solo I mostly use my fingers, though sometimes I’ll use fingerpicks and/or a thumbpick. When I’m playing in a trio I use a flatpick, which I’ll sometimes combine with my fingers when playing chords. I also use my thumb or a thumbpick to get Lenny Breau-style false harmonics.

What kinds of picks do you prefer?

I use Alaska fingerpicks and Fred Kelly thumbpicks. For flatpicking, I use triangular- shaped 2mm genuine tortoise shell picks.

Why did you decide to cover Kind of Blue?

That record has always been important to me, and it sums up a lot of what I’m interested in. It’s jazz, but two tunes are straightahead blues, and all of the pieces have open spaces for stretching out. It’s just right for me to do what I like to do, in the context of a record that people know and love.

How did you decide which elements were essential to your arrangements?

“Arrangements” may be too strong a word. I worked out the heads and beginnings and endings—but in terms of all the stuff in the middle, I just jotted down outlines and I’ll wing it from there. If I copied anything it was little pieces of Bill Evans’ piano parts, some of the horn parts like in “All Blues” when the three horns form chords, and the spirit of what Miles’ trumpet is doing. I want to bring my own history to it, and approach each tune in a way that is more about what I do. For example, “All Blues” turned into a gospel kind of thing and “So What” has a funk vibe.

Many modern players use non-standard tunings and post-Michael Hedges extended techniques, but you don’t. Why not?

There’s enough for me to concentrate on just using standard techniques. I think its great for others to do those things—but they should be wary of the temptation to just work on technique. There are nine-year-olds on YouTube that can mimic others with astounding virtuosity, but most have no voice of their own. Michael Hedges used extended techniques, but they weren’t the music. His music would still be valid if you arranged it for piano. —BC

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