The Glory of José Feliciano

“I like challenges,” says José Feliciano. “I’ve never been afraid of a challenge.”

“I like challenges,” says José Feliciano. “I’ve never been afraid of a challenge.”

The guitarist is referring to an ongoing project to record Mozart arias on guitar, but he could also be talking about his life. Born blind, Feliciano took up the guitar at age nine, and taught himself to play by listening to records. At age 17, Feliciano made his first TV appearance as a member of “The Modern Sound Trio” on Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour in 1962. Playing a borrowed Gibson hollowbody guitar, Feliciano’s Les Paul-inspired licks can be heard throughout the jazz standard “Down Home in Indiana,” but the group didn’t win this early incarnation of America’s Got Talent.

“The piano player—who was the leader—insisted on playing jazz,” says Feliciano. “If we would have played some rock and roll, I think we would have appealed to the kids and won.”

Six years later, Feliciano won his first Grammys for Best New Artist and Best Contemporary Pop Vocal (Male Performance) for his cover of the Doors’ “Light My Fire.” Unfortunately, his promising career was derailed later that year when he performed an unorthodox interpretation of “The Star Spangled Banner” at the World Series. The resulting furor got him blacklisted on many radio stations. Happily, his career picked back up in the ’70s, when he recorded his own composition, “Feliz Navidad” (which ultimately became one of ASCAP’s Top 25 Most Performed Holiday Songs, as well as being chosen for the Grammy Hall of Fame), and also earned an Emmy nomination for his theme to Chico and the Man.

To date, Feliciano has amassed more than 45 Gold and Platinum records, has won eight Grammys, and is enshrined in Guitar Player’s “Gallery of the Greats.” He continues to release albums regularly—the latest being 2012’s The King, a tribute to Elvis Presley—and has mastered an astounding number of musical styles from classical to pop, soul to flamenco, and jazz to rock (not to mention a Mozart project). And all of this hasn’t been easy the past few years, as Feliciano was struggling with a debilitating hand ailment while bravely continuing to tour and record.

You had been battling Dupuytren’s Contracture until fairly recently—a horrific condition for a guitarist, as it causes the fingers to contract unnaturally. How is that going?

I am very grateful. My guitar is my life, after all, and after successful treatment in 2013, I found could play guitar in the manner that I expect. I refused to be under the knife where they cut the thing out, because then you have scars on your hands. I chose a much better treatment where they inject collagen into your hand. Then, you go back the next day, and they inject you with Novocain and pull your fingers back to straighten out the knuckles. It’s not painless, but the results are fantastic. I’m hoping it never comes back.

Did your struggle with Dupuytren’s influence your choice to record Django Reinhardt’s music for your Djangoisms album in 2009?

No. The thing that influenced me is that I love his music. Django has been an idol of mine since I was about 16, when some friends in Connecticut played his music for me. I wanted to do an album kind of like him, but with José Feliciano’s flavor in it. On that album, I play rhythm guitar, lead guitar, and bass. The drums are programmed—I ain’t going to tell you no lie. [Editor’s Note: Mysteriously, after the interview, the Djangoisms album was not available for download on Feliciano’s website, and it doesn’t seem to appear elsewhere.]

So you played all of the instruments on the album?

I did, but not to show off or anything. It was cheaper, and I didn’t have to fight with anyone [laughs].

Speaking of Django, there’s a story that he was once playing in Paris, and Andrés Segovia was in the audience. Segovia told Django that he loved what he heard, and asked where he could get the sheet music. Django replied, “I just make it up.”

Ah [laughs]. I’ve been a Segovia follower ever since I was a kid. My mother saw him on TV, and she was impressed that he could make one guitar sound like two. My mother wanted me to play like that, so I used to go to Sam Goody’s to pick up Segovia’s records, and then play them until I wore them out. I learned to play some of the pieces on my own, and then, when I was about 16, I met a fantastic guitar teacher at the Lighthouse for the Blind. His name was Harold Morris, and he played jazz and classical. Harold really helped me out with my left hand. You see, when I first learned guitar, I had no teacher, so I had to figure out the chords all by myself. I played the right chords, but with the wrong hand positions. I used to use my thumb to make barre chords, for example, and he straightened me out on that one.

Let’s talk about guitars a little bit. What nylon-string are you playing these days?

I prefer the Laguna by Kirk Sand. The only problem with Kirk is he makes his guitars by hand. If you order a guitar now, you’ll probably get it next year [laughs]. Once I find a good guitar, I try not to deviate. For acoustic steel-string, I don’t think any guitar out there can compete with the Martin D-28. Not even Taylor. As for 12-strings, I don’t care what anyone else comes out with, to me, Guild makes the best 12-string acoustic guitar. For electric 12, of course, it’s Rickenbacker.

What 6-string electric do you play?

The guitar I use on stage is made in Germany by a fellow named Frank Weber. The reason I like the Weber is because it’s made of acrylic and it’s very light—though the neck is wood—and it also keeps me from having to carry a rack of effects. The only thing I bring on the road is a wah pedal, because chorus and distortion effects are built into the Weber, where they are really accessible. I can press a button and go into distortion, or press another button and go into chorus. It’s wonderful. It puts things right at my hands, right where I need them. It’s really a cool guitar. I’m happy with it. I still have my old DiCarlo, which has effects built into it, as well. Then, I have a PRS, and I want to get a new one. I think Paul Reed Smith is one of the best electric guitar makers on the planet.

Is there anything special about your technique that people tend to miss?

Yes. It’s my vibrato. I try to make the strings sing. With some people, their vibrato is too fast, and with others, the vibrato is non-existent. I try to make my vibrato like that of a violin. I learned this from Manuel Gayol, who was a fantastic classical guitarist. He never got much recognition, but he taught me about vibrato by my listening to his records.

I’m aware it’s still a continuing project with no set release date, but what inspired you to perform some of Mozart’s arias on guitar?

My manager pushed me into it [laughs]. I love Mozart, no question. But to do this thing takes a lot of concentration—so much so that after each session, I have pain in my brain. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s more work than I want to do. I’m doing it because it’s a challenge. But I’m doing it at my own speed and in my own time.

It’s obvious that you still have a passion for music after all these years.

Oh, definitely. The lord blessed me in giving me a job that I love. A lot of people hate their jobs. I’m grateful and happy, and I thank my fans for keeping me out there. It’s always a thrill for me to play for people.