Petteri Sariola on How to Drum Up Beautiful Guitar Music

Petteri Sariola discusses his unique, percussive acoustic grooves with GP in this new interview.
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“Guitar Heroism was uncool around the circle of DJ and drummer friends I knew growing up,” says Finnish fingerstylist Petteri Sariola, “so instead of concentrating on fast single-note lines, I focused on learning how to play in the pocket. That was a nice balance to my classical studies, which were all about making melodic phrases ‘sing.’”

Sariola takes percussive acoustic grooves to unprecedented depths on Resolution [Lasso], and he balances them with lofty melodic flights. If you’ve heard a funkier two-hand acoustic throwdown than Sariola riffing up “San Francisco Drive,” please send an email naming it! Listen to “Freedom Rag” to hear him blend DADGAD chime with blistering rhythmic flourishes. “Howling at the Moon” is a tender tenor-guitar fingerpicker, and the life-affirming R&B slow jam “I Sing Mmm” drips like tears of joy.

Players are clearly curious about how Sariola slams a 6-string. His You-Tube video “How to Drum Your Guitar” has nearly 350,000 views. It’s hard to find a player possessing such a satisfying combination of technical virtuosity and musicality.

What influences give your style a distinctly Finnish flavor?

You can hear a lot of kantele influence in my playing. It’s the national instrument of Finland, as well as my late grandfather’s main instrument. It’s like a harp, and it’s related to the zither. If the sound of classical guitar resembles harp, the sound of steel-string guitar resembles kantele. I subconsciously mimic its unique sustain in my compositions.

Did you always have your sights set on playing acoustic fingerstyle?

I wanted to play rock as a kid, but only classical guitar lessons were available, so I started them when I was seven. I finally picked up the electric when I was ten, and studied both instruments seriously in school while noodling with electric bass on the side. The bands I played in didn’t last, and I ended playing by myself a lot. I started to mix techniques, and hearing Michael Hedges in 2002 sealed the deal. He blew my mind by bringing everything together through alternate tunings on steel-string acoustic guitar. Before that, I thought it was a dumb campfire instrument. Boy, was I wrong.

Can you cite how certain bass, DJ, or drum influences factor into your approach?

The main bass influences I’ve tried to mix into my work are Doug Wimbish’s sound, Les Claypool’s energy, and Victor Wooten’s chops. I’m a sucker for a good backbeat, whether it’s provided by Taylor Hawkins in the Foo Fighters, Clyde Stubblefield with James Brown, or Pete Rock [legendary hip-hip producer].

How did you learn to play polyrhythms so well?

Besides electric guitar, I studied Indian rhythm patterns and African drumming of the Malinke region at Helsinki Pop & Jazz Conservatory. Those lessons still echo in everything I do. They gave me the fundamental tools to divide complex rhythms, and dive deep into the fine-tuning of polyrhythmic phrases.

Can you describe how you use your fretting hand and plucking hand in conjunction to create drum-set rhythms on the guitar?

My right hand mostly takes care of hits creating sounds corresponding to kick drum, snare, and eighth-note hihats, and my left hand is usually responsible for the sixteenth notes in-between.

How exactly does the slap of your right-hand fingers on the strings at the top of the fretboard work to create your snare drum sound?

I hit the end of the fingerboard with the latter three fingers while the index finger hits the guitar top to give the snare sound more body.

How do you get everything else going on?

Here’s the trick: Don’t completely snuff out the strings. Leave a little space between the fingers and the fretboard. That way you end up slapping the lowest strings, giving you a chance to move bass lines on them while simultaneously laying down a powerful snare.

It must be tough keeping track of so many motions?

The right hand has sort of a dance to it—like salsa. Certain moves follow each other. Usually, every eighth note in between the snare and kick is a thumb slap [on the lower strings], followed by a reverse-motion slap of the middle finger. The main methods of taking contact to the strings are pluck, hammeron, strum, and slap. I’ve tried to teach the fingers of both hands to execute all of these actions, plus utilize the counter movement while returning back to starting position—like Victor Wooten’s double-thumb technique. Teaching all that to ten fingers means forty movements, and doubling that for the counter movements equals eighty. Putting that whole concept into action is a very good challenge for the fingers.

What are the details on the tenor acoustic you used to play “Howling at the Moon,” and what’s the electric guitar on the solo?

That 1965 Martin tenor guitar is a delicate little thing. I wanted to use it for something very intimate and meditative in the footsteps of Dave Grohl, Nickel Creek, and Steve Reich. Tuning to B♭, F, C, F [low to high] just felt right, and offered me a realm where I could move the harmonies in an efficient way. I used my Ruokangas Duke Supersonic for the guitar solo. It’s a double-cutaway made in Finland with a stoptail bridge and P-90 pickups.

Is your Andrew Cuntz signature model your primary instrument?

I have two Cuntz guitars—my signature model CWG23s made in 2009, and a CWG23s+ 10th anniversary model made in 2005. I drummed on the anniversary too hard, and the top eventually lost tone. It practically broke down, so Cuntz created the signature model in 2009 with a re-enforced top for percussive playing. In 2013, Cuntz re-topped the anniversary model, and reworked its scale length to 27"—which is a baritone length—but I still string it up like a normal guitar. I altered my playing position in adjustment to the longer scale length. It brought my right hand closer to the end of the fretboard, and that’s become very natural. My signature guitar was primary for many years, but when I was composing songs for Resolution, the anniversary model suddenly became my main axe again.

Can you compare and contrast the guitars in terms of woods and sonic qualities?

They’re quite different. My signature model has ovengkol back and sides, and it’s like a snappy, funky drum set with a great guitar tone. The anniversary model has a rare koa-like blackwood. It sounds more like a jazz drum set, and the guitar has a unique cello-like character. Both guitars have practically identical pickup configurations: a Seymour Duncan magnetic soundhole pickup for the strings, and two Schatten Design pickups for the box—an HFN and a Dualle Inside’R that I use for kick drum sounds. I process it separately through an MXR M87 Bass Compressor, and an MXR Ten Band EQ pedal with the mids scooped and the lows boosted.

What effects factor most into your current sound?

Compression, compression, compression! I studied professional studio engineering for six months while working on the album, and it opened a whole new world. I rebuilt my home studio where I recorded Resolution using all analog outboard gear, and instead of compressing tracks so much individually, I did a lot of parallel compression [mixing an unprocessed—or lightly compressed—signal along with a heavily compressed version of the same source sound]. That inspired me to update my pedalboard with a TC Electronic HyperGravity multiband compressor pedal.

What’s your favorite acoustic amp?

I use a Hughs & Kettner era 1 because of its quality components and simple design. The I/O options are extremely flexible for pickup and mic setups. You can have your own EQ settings, and still send a flat signal to the the front-of-house mixer. The era 1 has proven to be great companion for small shows, and it provides an excellent, clear monitor when playing on a bigger stage, or in a group.

Do you use a looper?

Only at home for fun. People assume I use a looper because I have a pedalboard onstage, but I play everything live in real time. I won’t even put a looper on my pedalboard, because I don’t want that image out there.