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String Strategies: Christie Lenée Reveals How She Became A Fingerstyle Guitar Champion

GP sits down with fingerstyle guitar champion Christie Lenée.
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Christie Lenée won the prestigious international fingerstyle Guitar Championship at the Walnut Valley Festival in Kansas last fall, and she got high praise from our April cover artist Tim Reynolds. So when we saw Lenée had a gig scheduled at a new acoustic venue near GP’s California headquarters, a trip to see the troubadour was in order.

The Acoustic Den Café in Roseville, California, is a haven for acoustic-guitar players, where instruments and classic Americana album covers adorn the wood-paneled walls. Armed with a Maton EGB808 6-string, a Martin D12-35 50th Anniversary 12-string, a few effects pedals, and foot percussion, Lenée proceeded to wow an appreciative audience in the well-tuned room with an array of virtuosic overhand tapping, harmonic slapping, and classically inspired fingerstyle techniques. Lenée demonstrated impressive vocals, as well—particularly on a stellar cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.”

The guitar highlight was clearly her blow-by-blow account of how she went about winning the International Fingerstyle Championship. The audience reacted as if the competition was happening again right then and there. Lenée had everybody pulling for her, and by the time she got through performing, they might as well have wheeled out a podium and draped a medal around her neck.

What made you decide to enter the 2017 International Fingerstyle Guitar Championship?

My manager called me up one day, and said, “I’ve entered you in the competition, and you’re going to win.” Just like that. I agreed, and I made a deal with myself that I could live with any result, as long as I gave it my very best shot.

How did you go about getting ready?

Choosing material is a big deal, because judgment is completely based on execution of the composition. I considered familiar covers, but I wound up going all-original, and I think that helped. Coming from a background of classical, jazz, and folk rock, I fuse a lot of different styles into the new-age guitar thing. I wanted to make sure there was a balance of melodic fingerstyle, rhythmic tapping, and a bit of flashy playing, but nothing too over the top. Foot percussion wasn’t allowed, so my challenge was to incorporate percussive hits on the guitar with my hands. Two weeks out, I made sure I rehearsed that material specifically for at least 100 hours before the competition.

How did you feel once you got to Kansas?

I was feeling pretty good about my chances until I got there. There were 50 amazing guitar players sitting around warming up. It was intimating, and then there was the unique way the competition works. It’s a strictly acoustic situation, so even though I love using effects, I played a Martin D-18 Golden Era sitting down in front of a microphone. They don’t want anything interfering with objectivity, so the judges aren’t even in the same room watching. They listen remotely via headphones, and they don’t even know your name. They just know the number you were given. You have five minutes to play two songs. If you make the cut to the final five, then you can play two more. I chose to play “Ivory Coast,” which is a tapping tune from my from my 2013 instrumental album Chasing Infinity, as well as the title track, which is completely fingerstyle. They’re in the same tuning—low to high it’s C, G, D, G, A, D. I put a capo on the first fret.

What’s the backstory on the first song you played?

“Ivory Coast” came from hearing a melody in my head. I figured out how to play it by tapping the lower strings on the fretboard with my right hand. I outline a 9th chord, and the melodic variations are based on that. I keep the groove flowing with my left hand playing continuous sixteenth notes, using hammer-ons and pulloffs on the first and third strings to vary the high-end harmony.

Can you detail your overhand tapping technique?

I mostly use my right-hand index, middle, and pinky fingers. “Ivory Coast” has a couple of trills where I tap on the fretboard with my first finger, hammer-on with the pinky, pull off from that to my middle finger as it’s being tapped-on, and then slide my middle finger down a whole step. It’s the most difficult move that I’ve ever had to do. I try to keep my wrist as straight as possible so that I don’t damage my hand.

Got any tips on overhand tapping?

I was trained to play classical guitar, so I have acrylic nails on my right hand. I didn’t think that it was possible to tap with long nails, but I figured out a way. I kind of balance my right elbow on the top of the guitar, and angle my hand in such as way that I only use the very small muscle controlling the very top fingertip joint to tap. I try to use the minimal amount of motion. Sometimes, I rest my thumb on the top of the neck, and my fingernail kind of bypasses the string a little bit, so that I can tap using the fleshy pad of my fingertip.

Can you explain your fingerpicking when “Ivory Coast” breaks down to cascading descending melodies?

That section is interesting, because it’s a combination of the right hand playing a classical-fingerstyle tremolo-picking sequence and the left hand doing pulloffs. It sounds very difficult, and it took some practice, but it’s not as difficult as it seems. It starts with the thumb hitting the full chord harmonic at the 13th fret. While those overtones ring, I hit the low Db, again with my thumb, and then pluck with my ring, middle, and index fingers, while simultaneously playing five notes with my left hand. The first three notes are the same, and I play them with my pinky. Then, I pull off from my pinky to my middle finger, and then from middle to index. So it’s a total of five notes sounded via three plucks and two pull-offs. That’s my way of playing five notes on one beat.

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Can you detail the fingerpicking on “Chasing Infinity”?

The tremolo plucking on that is ring, middle, and index fingers playing the first, second, and third strings. The rhythm has a 12/8 feel, with a four-on-the-floor beat happening underneath. There are a couple of really fun runs that I attribute to learning a piece by Andrew York called “Sunburst.” Wanting to play that song inspired me to learn classical guitar. I learned a lot of techniques by studying that piece, such as what I think of as “backwards pulloffs”—hammering-on a string with the third finger, and then pulling off to the first finger, and then again to the open string. “Chasing Infinity” is fun because it’s a fingerstyle piece that incorporates the entire guitar neck. There are runs in the low end, and high-and middle-register melodies that happen in a call-and-response fashion. Then, there’s some exciting rhythmic strumming in the high register. It’s a very different feel from “Ivory Coast,” and, as the second song I played in the competition, it displayed my fingerstyle chops. I was very aware that no full-on tapper has ever won that competition.

So you made the cut to five, and for the finalist round, you played “Song for Michael Pukac.” Can you share a story about its composition?

“Song for Michael Pukac” was the first instrumental song I ever wrote. Michael is my favorite living artist. He did all the artwork for my first album. He had a new painting, and he asked me if I’d write a composition to help tell its story about love and motherhood. I gave it a shot, but I didn’t think it was very good. A few days before I was to turn it in, I saw an incredible underground guitarist named Sean Frenette at an open mic in Tampa, Florida. He played Bach etudes on a 3-string guitar using all tapping. It inspired me try different tunings to produce harmonics while tapping, and I ended up rewriting the composition completely.

What tuning did you wind up using?

It’s an open F tuning. Low to high it’s F, A, C, F, C, F. I chose the key of F, because according to the sound healing and music therapy I’ve studied, F is associated with the heart energy center, or chakra. Playing an F frequency activates feelings of love and connection. I begin the song playing melodic ideas over a C bass note to create anticipation, as well as a mysterious, uncertain feeling. When it resolves to the F for the start of the main melody, there’s a feeling of relief.

How did you musically convey the idea of love and motherhood?

To symbolize the moment of conception, I hit a harmonic chord on beat 1. The accompaniment comes in on the “and” of 1, and it goes through variations on that theme. For the big boom symbolizing the birth of a child, I start playing an up-tempo rhythmic section that’s almost bluegrass, and that leads to a flurry of tapping symbolizing a celebration of life. The piece is almost like a Bach cello suite in that the main melody is established, and then there are lots of variations.

Did you learn any valuable lessons about how to advance in a guitar competition?

While I was there, I heard a story about a player from the previous year who thought he’d played horribly in the first round. So he packed his guitar away in its case and put it in his car. Eventually, they called his number to play in the finalist round, and he was flipping out trying to get ready to play again.

It felt like an eternity hoping for my number to be called, but I spent the whole time practicing “Song for Michael Pukac,” so I was ready when they finally did call my number. I guess the lesson is a simple one—always be ready to play!

To hear more about Christie, go to christielenee.com

What’s On My Pedalboard?
Here’s a list of some of Lenée’s go-to pedals.

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Radial Engineering Tonebone PZ-Pre
I mostly use this to dip 80Hz, which has always created feedback issues for me—especially when I perform with a band. My Martin J-40 is particularly hot at that frequency. I also use the boost when I need one for a lead.

MXR Ten Band EQ
I cut the Maton’s signal in the low-middle range—particularly at 125Hz—to reduce muddiness, and then I boost pretty significantly at the subsonic low-end at 60Hz.

BOSS DD-20 Giga Delay
I love the Analog Delay setting on this pedal, and the tap tempo works well. I’m obsessed with getting the delay in time with the song, and I like to have one part trail off while I start another. Sometimes people think I’m looping, but I’m not.

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Kopf Percussion ToeKicker
This has a great kick sound, and it’s nice and durable.

TC-Helicon Harmony Singer
Because my guitar signal runs through it, I can modify guitar parts to trick the pedal into creating non-standard vocal harmonies.

Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail Nano Reverb
I use the Spring setting to add a bit of ambiance in conjunction with the house system’s reverb.

Eventide H9
I recently got the H9 because I’m interested in its harmonizing capability, but I haven’t programmed it yet.

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