“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
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.
What are your primary acoustic guitars, and
how do you take full advantage of their attributes?
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.
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.
Can you explain how “Burnside” came about,
and how you achieved the muted, buzzing effect
on the intro?
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.
“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
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.