Guy Buttery

May 1, 2010

“THE GUITAR REALLY IS A POTENTIAL ORCHESTRA waiting to be blasted apart by its endless sonic possibilities,” professes South African troubadour Guy Buttery. Buttery’s avant-garde world music is exceptionally beautiful—from composition to technique to atmospherics— and his latest release, Fox Hill Lane [Poems], is one of the most adventurous acoustic recordings in recent memory. If it were a movie, the credits would reveal that the work was written, directed, and produced by Buttery, and created on location throughout his home continent. The vibe ranges from expansive to intimate, lush to dusty, depending on the inspiration. In addition to playing steelstring acoustic, nylon-string, dun-dun, sitar, and electric guitars, Buttery makes effective use of the EBow, as well as organically bowed guitars and basses on tunes such as the ethereal “Chefchaoun” and the challenging “Half a Decade.” A stellar supporting cast including Piers Faccini, Syd Kitchen, and Ronan Skillen backs Buttery on an array of interesting acoustic instruments, including dulcimer, harmonium, hosepipe flute, and tabla.

Your music exudes a unique sense of place. Can you explain how environment informs your art?

I was very much inspired by my immediate surroundings when I was growing up in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, and it continues to amaze and inspire me unlike any other place on Earth. I spent a large part of my youth exploring ancient Zulu forests and grasslands, and developed a very deep connection to the land. I feel the greatest sense of accomplishment when people tell me that they can hear some of these places in my humble little guitar tunes.

What inspired you to become an acoustic guitar player specifically?

Unlike the banjo, accordion, or sitar— which are generally genre limited—the guitar is a ridiculously versatile instrument that can be applied to almost any genre. Led Zeppelin probably inspired me more than any other rock group. They introduced me to fingerstyle guitar with tunes such as “Bron-Yr-Aur,” and “Black Mountain Side.” As a teen, I just loved the notion that an acoustic instrument was capable of such raw power.

What led you to use alternative techniques and accessories to augment, enhance, or alter the guitar’s organic sound?

I don’t think I’ll ever tire of the acoustic guitar’s organic sound because I love every shape, texture, and color. It compels me to create, and explore its possibilities. Songs give birth to themselves in numerous ways, but they often emerge from a new texture or sound, which has led me to use many unorthodox techniques—hence the use of EBow, actual bow, paper between the strings, and percussive smacks on the body.
Because I mostly perform solo, I try to view the instrument holistically. I look at the basics of harmony, melody, rhythm, and chord movement, and try to simulate the illusion of a band on six strings. It’s a lot easier than it sounds, and I don’t think about it too much. The guitar just happens to be capable of sounding like a harp, sarangi, piano, drum, Jewish harp, or a waterfall. It can imitate almost any sound if you put your mind to it. When I’m exploring, I try not to be too “guitaristic” in my approach, because I honestly believe that can help a musician create a unique voice on the instrument.

What are your primary acoustic guitars, and how do you take full advantage of their attributes?

My primary instruments are a Martin OMC-16E Premium, and a Takamine ND25C. I use each for specific pieces. The Martin has a relatively small body, and is great for fingerstyle tunes. Its onboard pickup has more clarity, dynamic range, and definition than most, and it always cuts through— even in small ensembles. The Takamine’s jumbo body delivers a boatload of low-end that is great for groove-based and rhythmic pieces. I also do all my EBow and looping stuff on that old workhorse.

“Half a Decade” starts with some percussive, chordal stuff before incorporating precision runs, and eventually chilling out into a section of pure slap harmonics with ambient effects. How did you develop that tune?

It took five years to write—hence the imaginative title. The tune started out with a very solid rhythmic idea, which you hear right away on the recording. The tuning is based on an E major chord with a 6 and a 9 thrown in, which makes for an interesting starting point. I then wrote the melody separately in a different tuning, and it took me about four years to think of pairing the two ideas. It was a bit of a challenge rhythmically at first, but I managed to fit them together pretty seamlessly over time.
I play the guitar on my lap for the ambient section. I drop a capo in at the 7th fret mid-tune, and create a simple melody out of pinched harmonics with the right hand, which is set against a textural backdrop from all the slap harmonics being played on the 12th and 19th frets.

Can you explain how “Burnside” came about, and how you achieved the muted, buzzing effect on the intro?

“Burnside” is based on some Zulu Maskanda tunes—our local brand of fingerstyle guitar— I heard in a township way back in my teens. The intro mimics a South African tin oil can guitar. To authentically emulate that rattling timbre, I used a particularly cheap nylonstring guitar, and placed some cardboard between the strings near the bridge. That’s one of the only songs on the album in standard tuning.

Can you explain your relationship with Pierre Bensusan, and his influence?

Pierre Bensusan has been a huge inspiration to me since my early teens. I fell in love with his impressionistic Celtic vibe the first time I heard him. We chatted for some time via e-mail, and met for the first time at the Clonakilty Guitar Festival in Ireland. We’re currently in the process of setting up a tour of Southern Africa. I’m pretty apprehensive about performing alongside Pierre, but he makes it easier by being such a sweet guy. It shows in his music. I hope to get a bit more DADGAD training between gigs.

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