Fingerstylists Calum Graham and Don Ross on Their Groove-Heavy Duo

Composer Frédéric Chopin once said that, “Nothing is more beautiful than a guitar, except, possibly, two.”
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Calum Graham (left) and Don Ross.

Composer Frédéric Chopin once said that, “Nothing is more beautiful than a guitar, except, possibly, two.” Through the decades, many guitarists have taken his advice, yielding some amazing collaborations, including the Duo Assad, Ralph Towner and John Abercrombie, and the classic fingerstyle pairing of John Renbourn and Bert Jansch. While playing in a guitar duo can be as simple as saying, “You play rhythm, and I play lead,” the best duets feature carefully arranged, interlocking parts, creating the impression of 20 fingers playing one big guitar.

Enter Calum Graham and Don Ross, whose recent release, 12:34 [Candyrat], is not only a fine example of great modern fingerstyle playing featuring lots of extended techniques, alternate tunings, and gorgeous tones—it also creates a soundscape that is larger than the sum of its parts. Oh, and if you think two guys playing acoustic guitars can’t be a rock band, take a listen to the album’s opening cut, “Indivisible,” and you just might change your mind.

Ross is, of course, no stranger to fans of progressive fingerstyle guitar. Ever since releasing his debut album, Bearing Straight, in 1989, he has been on the forefront of the contemporary fingerstyle movement, and it is no exaggeration that his groove-oriented style has influenced a generation of fingerstyle players who came on the scene after him. One of those players is fellow Canadian Graham, who, though he was born after the release of Bearing Straight, began absorbing every lick he heard Ross play, eventually resulting in his own solo debut, Sunny Side Up, in 2009. Pairing two artists at very different stages in their careers, 12:34 is not only a really fun album to listen to—it’s also a great story of mentorship and inter-generational collaboration.

Calum, how did you get into playing fingerstyle guitar?

Graham: It started happening for me when I was about 13. My dad would come home from work and he’d play songs by bands like Yes and the Rolling Stones. Eventually I got him to show me the songs and the chords, and I just started playing all the time. Then, I heard Don’s Bearing Straight album, and I thought, “Wow, this is amazing!” When my friend told me that it was one guitar, I freaked out. I was like, “How does he do that?” That’s when I really started playing fingerstyle, trying to play the groove, the melody, the rhythm, and everything else at the same time. So I just started learning a bunch of Don Ross songs. I also emailed him and we stayed in touch, and eventually he told me about the guitar-playing contest at the Canadian Guitar Festival. I came in first place in 2010. Don was one of the judges.

How did playing together and recording 12:34 come about?

Ross: I’ve known Calum since he was about 14. He came down to the Canadian Guitar Festival primarily because you could take lessons with some of the players there. I gave him a two-hour lesson at the festival, and then I’d just bump into him every once in a while. He lived not far from Calgary, so whenever I was through town, he’d come to the show, and I’d give him another lesson. We kept in touch very informally. Then, in 2010, he won the guitar competition, and he started asking me for tips about his performing, and so on. About a year ago we started talking pretty seriously about doing a project together, and although originally I was just going to produce the record, Calum ended up saying that he’d really like to do more of a guitar duo album. He sent me some demos and the compositions were really strong, so I thought it was a great idea.

What attracts you to him as a musician?

Ross: Calum displays a tremendous maturity in his compositions, despite the fact that he’s only 21. He writes supremely melodic tunes, which is really nice, because so many fingerstylists don’t focus on melody. Plus, when I played with him up close, I’d watch his hands and think, “Wow, this guy has really worked on this.” He’s already put in the hours to become a fine composer and a knockout guitar player.

Arranging guitar duets can be an exercise in staying out of each other’s way. Did it come easy with this project?

Graham: When you’re playing solo guitar, you have to fill out the whole spectrum on your own—but when you’re playing with another guitar player, or any musician, you have to make sure that you’re not overplaying. Don and I spent time making sure that the person who wasn’t playing the melody was kind of holding back and staying out of the way.

Ross: When I’m working with another fingerstyle player, the smartest thing to do is to let one of the people, usually the person who wrote the tune, play their part the way they normally do it, and then flesh out another part that doesn’t get in the way.

Did you use a lot of different tunings on the album?

Graham: Definitely. Every song on the album is in a different tuning.

And different capo positions as well?

Ross: Yeah, we did a couple of things where I was capo’d up and he wasn’t and vice versa. And we also did a couple of arrangements where one of us played the baritone guitar in order to get into a different range. For example, he wrote and played “It Is What It Is” on a baritone, and I played a regularly pitched part. And on “Hey Ya!,” which is a cover of the OutKast tune, he’s mostly playing percussion and two-handed tapping stuff, and I’m playing the bulk of the melody down low on the baritone, so it’s two radically different parts.

How did you go about arranging “Hey Ya!”?

Graham: My girlfriend really liked that song, and she said that she thought we should try it out. We did, and it worked great. I had one little riff, and I came up with this cool way of playing it with percussion and harmonics.

Ross: We rummaged over a few different ideas. We both have a deep love of R&B music, and that tune is really just a silly song, but it’s catchy as hell. Calum showed me this part that he had worked out, where he was tapping out a harmony with his left hand, while at the same time doing a lot of percussion on the guitar body. When I heard what he had, I thought, “Okay, I only have to come up with a version of the melody.” I ended up tuning my baritone guitar to the same tuning I use on my old piece “First Ride,” but instead of being in C, it’s in G. We ended up with this cool arrangement that worked perfectly in that tuning and was easy for me to play. And the interplay between the parts worked really well, because they were completely different from each other.

How did you work out the duet version of Don’s tune “Lucy Watusi”?

Graham: We needed one more song, and we were at Don’s place, and he had it written down. So I learned it in about an hour, and we recorded it the next day. I didn’t really know the song before that.

Ross: We kept it pretty much the way it was, except that once we started working together, he was doing my original part in my original tuning: D, A, C, F, C, D, low to high. That’s like a Dm7 tuning, so I decided to do a part in DADGAD, because it meant that I could play without making too many modal mistakes, the open strings would always work, and there would be certain kinds of interesting chord clusters. I worked out my part, and then as we rehearsed together, we came up with new ideas for the piece, like finding ways to make the rhythm a little funkier. For example, there were sections where we decided to leave beat one out of a bar, which is actually more like anti-funk, but it worked really well. That was Calum’s idea.

Don, on tunes like “Waiting,” you take on more of a supportive role. Is that something you enjoy doing?

Ross: Yes, very much so. In that particular case, the piece was already so well formed that all I wanted to do was add some color on the bottom end using the baritone guitar. I just played a bunch of arpeggiated chords rather than a well-thought- out guitar part, but when we finished the record, “Waiting” turned out to be kind of our favorite tune.

What guitars did you play on the CD?

Ross: I played my fanned-fret Beneteau baritone, and my regular-pitched Beneteau 6-string, built from sapele with a cedar top. On “Three Way Street,” we did two passes, one with my acoustic, and one with a Frameworks MIDI guitar going through a Roland VG-99 V-Guitar System. The very plain electric guitar sound I’m using there is a setting called “Chicken,” and it’s supposed to sound kind of like a Telecaster. I also used another setting called “Liquid Guitar,” which is a big, spacey, almost guitar-synth sound, and it creeps in here and there.

Graham: I played my Stonebridge G24SKA, which is a koa guitar with a spruce top, and a Stonebridge Baritone that is the very first one they’ve made. I also played an Oskar Graf 7-string, one of Don’s Beneteaus, and his old Lowden O-10, which is a fantastic guitar. For the solo on “Hey Ya!” I played a Fender Stratocaster.

How did you record the album?

Ross: We recorded most of the basic tracks in about a week at Metalworks Studios, which was founded by Gil Moore, one of the members of Triumph. We sometimes recorded simultaneously, and sometimes overdubbed, only because recording individually was efficient in that the person who knew his part well didn’t have to sit there and re-record it over and over again while the person who was still working his part out tried new things. But some of the tunes, like “Waiting,” were recorded live in the same room, with no click track, and they worked out really well. Then, the remaining third of the recording was done at my home studio. We recorded “Hey Ya!” there, as well as a lot of the overdubs.

Graham: The recording went very smoothly, which really surprised me. I definitely learned how important it is to be prepared when you get to the studio, or else things will take a lot more time. And I also learned to be more open-minded when it comes to dealing with new techniques, new ideas, and new people. Just seeing the amount of focus, concentration, and passion that Don puts into his playing really inspired me.