Peppino D’Agostino

April 22, 2011

“SINGING IS A TRICK TO GET PEOPLE TO LISTEN TO music for longer than they would ordinarily,” quipped Talking Heads’ frontman David Byrne in the liner notes to the band’s 1984 album Stop Making Sense. It’s almost certain that, at that time, Byrne hadn’t heard the music of Peppino D’Agostino. The Italian-born guitarist had only recently moved to the United States then, and he was just coming into his own as a guitarist, composer, and arranger. D’Agostino draws his unique musical vernacular from classical guitar, European folksongs, and Jerry Reed-inspired right-hand techniques. He enlivens these traditional elements with novel guitar-percussion tactics, clever exploitation of alternate tunings, and a flair for melodic romanticism. Whether Byrne has heard D’Agostino’s instrumental music in subsequent years is unknown, but it’s unlikely that anyone who has would need trickery—singing, or otherwise—to find the music intriguing and satisfying.

By the time his U.S. debut, Close to the Heart, was released, a decade after his arrival in the States, D’Agostino’s vision was in full bloom. And, since then, he has released several ambitious recordings—including Bayshore Road (with electric guitarist Stef Burns), Made in Italy (a celebration of traditional songs from his homeland), and Crossing Borders (with the World Guitar Ensemble). Between recording projects, he has kept busy as an itinerant touring artist—most recently wrapping up a nationwide Guitar Masters tour with Eric Johnson and YouTube phenomenon Andy McKee.

“Peppino’s command of the instrument is amazing,” says McKee. “He can play in so many styles, employing many different techniques. He is one of the most versatile acoustic guitarists I’ve ever met.”

Johnson, too, found inspiration in his tour mate: “It has been a great learning experience for me to see how Peppino plays in front of an audience,” he says. “He’s very endearing to them because of the conviction and the genuineness in his musicality. They immediately warm up to him, so what happens is a real appreciation of each musical moment. It’s more meaningful, more heartwarming. I’ve seen it night after night.”

Amazing. Versatile. Heartwarming. The high praise from his peers rings true on D’Agostino’s latest release, Nine White Kites [PDR]. His first collection of original sologuitar music in nearly a decade, the disc is filled with lyrical compositions, toe-tappers, and technical dazzlers, all realized with a simpatico touch. Track after track, the way D’Agostino uses the entire guitar here— including open strings and harmonics, not to mention the instrument’s surfaces for percussive effects—is nothing short of astonishing, and his brilliant arrangements tie it all together. It’s sometimes easy to forget that all the sounds you hear are coming from just six strings and one pair of hands. And yet, none of Nine White Kites sounds show-offy. It’s all done for the sake of making beautiful music, rather than as a for-guitar-players- only album.

“That was my goal with this record,” D’Agostino enthuses. “Today, there are a lot of players who are doing what I call ‘bravado guitar.’ It’s interesting for about three minutes, but pyrotechnics wear out very fast without melody or interesting harmonies. The main elements—melodies, chord progressions, and bass lines—those are important to me. With this album, I really wanted to make music instead of just employing pyrotechnics.”

The music D’Agostino makes on Nine White Kites crosses boundaries and borders— from Italy, to Brazil, to the American heartland. “Barefoot in Rio” is a Brazilian-style samba he has recorded before, re-imagined here as a lilting jazz waltz. “Reggae Ragu” is a mash-up of Jamaican one-drop grooves and Renaissance-era harmonies. With its licketysplit tempo and cascading cross-string runs, “Cowboy Minestrone” is reminiscent of the sorts of fretboard burners that Jerry Reed and Chet Atkins built their reputations on.

“I use the three-finger banjo rolls that Jerry Reed used and expanded,” he explains.

D’Agostino studied the techniques of Reed, Atkins, and Merle Travis while still in his teens, and even covered Reed’s “Jerry’s Breakdown” on his Bayshore Road album.

“I got to meet Chet Atkins in his home in Nashville years ago, and I will never forget that he called me ‘Pepperino’ by mistake. I still smile when I think of that nice afternoon that I spent with him.”

Like Atkins, Reed, and Travis, D’Agostino employs a right-hand technique built around the use of a thumbpick. Yet, although he is well versed in the styles of these pioneer pickers, he has developed a right-hand concept all his own. One striking aspect of his playing is the fluidity and apparent ease with which he can execute harmonics—as heard on Nine White Kites’ title track, as well as on “Clare’s Gifts” and “Jump Rope.”

“You have to be precise with your left hand,” he says, “touching the string in just the right spot to create the desired harmonic. With your right hand, you should strike the string closer to the bridge for a clearer, more precise sound.”

Another track that features his extraordinary right-hand control is “Imminent Dawn.” The piece is played on 12-string, but there are a few lines that sound less overtly chimey, as if D’Agostino is momentarily playing a regular 6-string guitar.

“I’m very discriminating about touching either the higher course or the lower course in order to achieve my musical ideas,” he says.

D’Agostino plays a Seagull Coastline Cedar 12-string (with a solid cedar top and wild cherry back and sides) on “Imminent Dawn.” Elsewhere on Nine White Kites, he favors his Seagull signature model (with a solid Sitka spruce top, solid Indian rosewood back and sides, and a fi ngerstyle-friendly fretboard— 1.9" wide at the nut). His namesake flat-top is strung with light-gauge (.012– .054) Dunlop phosphor-bronze strings. D’Agostino plays a nylon-string guitar built by Italian luthier Camillo Perrella on “Barefoot in Rio.” He uses a Godin Multiac Grand Concert SA for live gigs.

“I have been playing more and more nylon-string guitar these days,” he says. “I tend not to use my thumbpick when I play nylon, and my attack is more gentle than on steel strings.”

Such nuances of touch and tone are most effective when captured properly in the studio. All of the tracks for Nine White Kites were recorded and mixed by engineer Masaki Liu at One Way Studio in Benicia, California. Liu used a combination of large- and small-diaphragm condenser microphones on Peppino’s guitar: a Neumann M149 aimed towards the bridge, a Soundelux U99 towards the neck side of the soundhole, and a pair of Earthworks SR25 mics—one aimed towards the neck side of the soundhole, the other toward the bridge side. All four mics went through a Grace Design m801 preamp, and then directly to Pro Tools HD.

There are two bonus tracks, not penned by D’Agostino, at the end of Nine White Kites’ main program. One is a two-guitar arrangement of the overture from Rossini’s opera La Gazza Ladra, performed by D’Agostino on steel-string with Flavio Sala on classical guitar. D’Agostino plays nylon-string on the other bonus track, “Nella Fantasia”—a gorgeous reworking of Ennio Morricone’s “Gabriel’s Oboe” from the soundtrack to The Mission. D’Agostino’s daughter, Aleza, sings the song’s poignant melody, and he accompanies her on his Perrella classical guitar, tuned low (C, G, C, F, A, D, low to high; like dropped-D, but with all six strings tuned a whole step lower).

Alternate tunings are de rigueur for most modern acoustic stylists, and D’Agostino has explored many on past recordings—from simple dropped-D to fairly obscure tunings. His use of such tunings never seems gimmicky, however, because of his overriding musicality. (For an incisive look at his use of tunings, as well as tips for better rightand left-hand performance, check out his book of solo-guitar arrangements Peppino D’Agostino’s New Acoustic Guitar, published by Alfred.) Nine White Kites is relatively tame, tuning-wise, though D’Agostino does break away from standard here and there—notably, on “Clare’s Gifts” (dropped-D) and on the album’s title track (C#, G#, E, F#, B, D#, low to high).

“That tuning is an interesting one,” D’Agostino says. “I learned it from a student of mine. It’s unbelievable how much I learn from my students!”

That enthusiasm permeates every aspect of D’Agostino’s musical life. “I’m lucky,” he says. “I get to play with so many different kinds of musicians—classical musicians, jazz musicians, rock musicians. I’m out here with Eric Johnson now, one of the best electric guitarists who ever lived.” Asked if he prefers playing live over recording in the studio, he embraces the duality. “I like both experiences,” he says, “because they both help me grow as a musician. The precision required in the studio and the excitement of a live performance are both essential and fulfilling elements in my life.”

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