Neil Jacobs' Gypsy Vamps

It’s an enduring romantic image of the troubadour: traveling folk singer—12-string in hand—wanders the countryside like a gypsy bringing his songs to the people. For Neil Jacobs, it’s an accurate career description, only the folk music is of Eastern European origin, and the countryside is in Spain, Hungary, and even the war-ravaged Balkans and refugee camps of the former Yugoslavia. For more than 25 years, Ohio native Jacobs has circumnavigated the globe performing his exotic hybrid of gypsy jazz, flamenco, and Eastern European folk on solo 12-string guitar, and releasing several genre-blending CD’s, including 2001’s American Gypsy, and his latest, Secret Places [Adena].

Why did you choose the 12-string as your primary instrument?

It’s a portable orchestra. I can make it sound like a piano, an accordion, or an entire string section just by altering my picking technique or changing chord voicings. I can’t play scales as fast or bend strings as easily as on a 6-string, but that’s fine, because I’m more interested in composing arrangements than I am in playing solos. A ringing 12-string has this rich set of overtones that open my ears to a world of ideas for voicings and contrapuntal lines.

On “Singing Dunes” and your arrangement of Ravel’s “Bolero,” it really does sound like two separate instruments—one playing the ostinato bass and one playing the melody line. How do you manage that on one guitar?

I’m using a pick on the lowest strings and muting them with my palm to get the bass notes. For the melody, I’ve assigned the middle finger to the third course, my ring finger to the second course, and my pinky to the first course. I actually play a lot with my pinky, and I’ve learned to voice melody lines up and down one course in a linear fashion. I suppose it’s different than how most guitarists—even fingerstyle ones—play, but because I’m completely self-taught and play this way all the time, the technique seems pretty basic to me. It came from a desire to work out cohesive arrangements, not from a need to be technically clever.

Is there anything unusual about how your guitars are tuned or strung?

I don’t use radically altered tunings, as I find you can orchestrate a lot with just a few small changes. For example, on “Bolero,” I pitch the two lowest courses down to D and G. Instead of doubling the G at the octave, though, I string it so it’s in unison. As the song is in G, it really helps the ostinato bass line resonate. I set one guitar up with silk and steel strings for more intricately fingerpicked songs like “Train to Zanzibar,” but when I’m strumming hard I prefer the resonance of bronze-coated steel strings.

You often accompany the American Balkan music dance ensemble Zivili. How has that influenced your own compositions?

In Balkan folk there is a strong connection between music and dance. They love these odd-meter rhythms broken down into groups of twos and threes that really slam the hell out of the downbeats. Playing a traditional one-two-three, one-two, one-two breakdown of seven is as normal to me as playing in four, and I’ve written a lot of things in that meter. There is something about the way these kinds of phrases fall in on themselves—combined with the bittersweet melodies that float between major and minor sonority—that I find mesmerizing!