For those in the know, the name of Germany’s Peter Finger has long been synonymous with some of the most engaging fingerstyle guitar music ever played. Growing up in a musical household—his father was an orchestral conductor—Finger started out as a violin prodigy, winning competitions and being groomed to become a classical musician. But as a teenager, he found his way to the guitar, in part to go against the formal view on music he’d been exposed to. Clearly, his background gave Finger a serious head start, because by the time he was 19 in 1974, he found himself recording his first album, Bottleneck Guitar Solos, for the American Kicking Mule label. Finger’s debut was heavily rooted in blues finger-picking styles, but it didn’t take him long to begin fusing the guitar styles he was discovering with the classical sense of composition he grew up with. When his 1977 album Acoustic Rock Guitar was released, he was fully formed as a highly individual voice on solo steel-string guitar.
Even though Finger is not a classical guitarist, his love for impressionistic and modern composers is heard throughout his playing. A highly dynamic player, Finger has chops that are second to none, yet they always serve the music. Playing almost exclusively in E, B, E, G, A, D (low to high) tuning and using metal fingerpicks, he gets a unique sound that is part of his highly identifiable sonic picture.
Being a total badass who commands the respect of his peers isn’t where Finger’s accomplishments end, however. He is also the founder of Acoustic Music Records, publishes Germany’s Akustik Gitarre magazine, started the annual International Guitar Night tour (which inspired the North American counterpart), and owns and operates a cultural center that includes a performance venue as well as a guitar store and recording and video studios. In other words, the guy has a lot going on, and anyone who complains that their day job is getting in the way of their playing ought to take some inspiration from Finger’s ability to multitask. Amazingly, in addition to everything else, he also builds his own guitars.
Finger’s first steps into lutherie came because he lacked the funds to buy a good ax. Even though he describes his maiden effort as looking “like an egg with a neck attached,” he still managed to use it to record that first Kicking Mule album. Finger built several more guitars over the next decade, getting advice from the late German luthier Roland Oetter along the way. He used his guitars to tour and record, but then, Acoustic Music Records kept him too busy to make sawdust. For many years, he played guitars by Lakewood, Lowden, and Kevin Ryan, but in 2004, be began building again. Since then, Finger has built more than 20 guitars, most of which could be described as OM-ish, and all using Brazilian rosewood backs and sides. Examples of these “second period” instruments already made an appearance on his 2010 album Flow, but now, Finger has done what may be a first: His latest album, Made of Rosewood (Acoustic Music Records) uses a different guitar he built for each one of its ten tunes—which, naturally, are all original compositions. Make no mistake, Made of Rosewood would be an impressive album regardless of what guitars were used, as it continues Finger’s knack for writing with incredible depth and dimension, as well as featuring the chops to realize the music. But having all the tunes played on guitars built by the artist himself takes it over the top and makes it a stunningly impressive accomplishment. If you’re curious, head on over to acoustic-music.de, where you’ll find an online version of the CD’s lavish booklet, which includes color photographs and descriptions of each guitar used.
What does it feel like to have recorded an entire CD using only guitars you built yourself?
First of all, with every CD I make, I’m never sure whether I should actually release it until the very end. I could have done the whole album with one guitar, but since I enjoy the building so much, I wanted to put the concept of using the different guitars a little more front and center. I wanted to express my love of building instruments, and I’m pretty proud of the fact that I managed to do it.
Early in your career, you built your own guitars because you couldn’t afford to buy a good one. But what attracts you to it now?
I’ve always had the urge to build something. When I was five years old, I wanted to make my own record, so I cut out a piece of cardboard and put it on the turntable. I’ve always wanted to do things myself, and the idea of building instruments just fascinates me.
Do you feel that you can build a better instrument for your way of playing?
I tell myself that, but I also know that a guy like Kevin Ryan is pretty good at what he does [laughs]. It really is mostly about the urge. I just finished four guitars: three to sell, and one for me. They turned out great, but I’m also happy that there are areas where I know I can still do better. It’s what keeps pulling me into my workshop. I love working with wood, but to build an instrument—one that I’ll have a real relationship with—is just amazing. I’ve had endorsement deals with Lakewood, Lowden, and other companies, but at some point I lost the relationship to the guitars. Then I realized that I really want to express feelings with my instrument, and ever since I started giving some blood and sweat to get a new guitar, it’s been a completely different relationship.
How much do you think about the music that you’re going to play while you build a guitar?
It’s not really about that. I do everything myself, and it’s important to me that it’s done by hand. Sanding by hand is like a meditation, which is really what the whole experience of guitar building is for me. Of course I look forward to playing the guitar, and I try to achieve certain things that I’ll then also realize with the music. It doesn’t always work, but I’ve had some success.
How about the other way around? How does the guitar influence the music?
It influences it a lot! Every guitar is unique. For example, one might not have much sustain on a high C note, so if I’m writing on that guitar, I probably won’t be inspired to use that high C for a long, sustaining note. I compose a lot to tone and sound, rather than according to a system. I’ve written a lot of things in my head that didn’t end up sounding good on the guitar, which is why I like to write with the guitar.
The oldest guitar featured on the CD is a dreadnought from 1988, which is a guitar you toured with for years.
Yes, I used that guitar for a long time because after I built it, I started Acoustic Music Records, which meant I was too busy and just didn’t have the headspace to build guitars for several years. That was the first guitar I built after Roland Oetter, from whom I got most of my wood, passed away.
You didn’t build for more than a decade. What was it like to come back to it?
It was wonderful! It’s so different from working at a desk, and also different from practicing guitar. When you’re practicing, you’ll spend weeks working on just one lick, and then you might still blow it on stage. When you’re building a guitar, you sand a piece of wood, and when you’re done, it’s smooth. You have an immediate result.
You started out just building for yourself, but now you’re taking a few orders?
Very few—that’s a whole other thing. I didn’t do it for a long time, because I wasn’t interested in building for anyone but myself. But I ended up with more than 20 guitars, and I really only play on whichever is the latest instrument. Since the others started gathering dust, I’ve slowly started selling some of them. It’s not supposed to become a business. I’m happy to sell a guitar, but I also want to have the luxury of saying no.
What does your new album represent for you as a guitarist and composer?
There are a lot of influences on the album, from Chet Atkins-style boom-chick to South American styles. I’ve recorded players like Yamandu Costa and Guinga, and it’s impossible to not be influenced by experiences like that. If you work with as many different guitarists as I do, you end up absorbing a lot. I had a lot of fun allowing all the various influences to flow. Sometimes it’s good to listen to a lot of music, but there are also times when it’s important to stop and listen to your inner self for a while.