TIM SPARKS’ CAREER NEARLY ENDED before it began when he broke his left wrist as a child. “When my arm came out of the cast, it was frozen in a palms-down position,” he explains. “So I had to work for a few months to get my wrist to rotate. My doctor said if it wasn’t for wanting to play guitar I might not ever have regained the use of my hand.” Fortunately, Sparks’ wrist rotated well enough for him to go on to become one of the most accomplished and eclectic fingerstyle guitarists of his generation, delving deeply into the blues and other roots music that surrounded him as a child, and eventually moving on to classical (his first album featured an arrangement of The Nutcracker Suite), bebop and Brazilian jazz, and ethnic Greek, Portuguese, Russian, and Jewish Klezmer styles (recording three albums of avant-garde Klezmer for John Zorn’s Tzadik label, including 2009’s Little Princess).
On Sidewalk Blues [ToneWood], Sparks returns to his early blues roots to play swinging fingerstyle arrangements of blues tunes originally penned by artists such as Jelly Roll Morton, Willie Brown, Eubie Blake, Fats Waller, Scott Joplin, and Louis Armstrong on a 1917 Gibson L-3 and Collings, Hoffman, and Lakewood instruments. “I began the project more than ten years ago when I was playing the Collings,” says Sparks. “But when I returned to it I was playing a Hoffman, which has a shorter scale. There are two versions of ‘Mississippi Blues’ on the record: the earlier fast and punchy version played on the Collings, and the slow version on the Hoffman. In each case the unique qualities of the guitar called forth a particular version of the song.”
When you learn a blues song, do you separate it into sections and learn them separately, or do you tackle the whole song from start to finish?
It depends to an extent on the song. Some are straight-up adaptations of the songs as they were originally played. For example, Louis Armstrong played “Potato Head Blues” with his Hot Five band, and I transcribed his trumpet solo and Johnny Dodds’ clarinet solo, and then adapted them for the guitar—so that was done a few sections at a time. I had to learn it in the original key, and then transpose it into a key that worked better for the guitar. I think that for guitar arrangements— particularly solo-guitar arrangements— it’s important to find the key that gives you great chords and riffs and makes the song really shine. That can be quite a chore.
Describe your approach to chord voicing when re-harmonizing traditional tunes using “Mississippi Blues” as an example.
I like to start from the melody tone and build a chord from the top down to discover different chord substitutions, and I always try to visualize the chord shape that corresponds to whatever riff or scale I’m playing. On “Mississippi Blues” I am working out variations of the theme and signature cadence up and down the fretboard. A good way to understand this is to begin by playing blues licks and chord shapes in the five first-position guitar keys: G, E, D, C, and A. Once you are familiar with those shapes, you can transpose them up the neck to the 3rd fret, 5th fret, etc., by using your 1st finger to bar what would be the open string notes in first position. So, for “Mississippi Blues,” which is in the key of A, I play part of the theme at the 5th fret using an E7 chord shape. Later on there is Willie Brown’s famous boogie-woogie bass line and triplet chord figure that is worked out to a D7chord shape at the 7th fret and so on. As I move up and down the fretboard I can see that I am in the D-shape zone, the A-shape zone, the G-shape zone, etc.
So you play in standard tuning?
Yes, though I play in dropped-D occasionally for gospel tunes. You can get a nice bass groove going on the fourth and sixth strings, and then stretch out over the top.
Describe your right-hand technique. It looks like you primarily use your thumb and first two fingers.
“I like to start from the melody tone and build a chord from the top down.”
My thumb and first two fingers move kind of like a spider, hovering over consecutive groupings of any three strings a lick or scale is being picked out on. I also use my third finger classical-style when arrangements call for it. To mesh a melody and a bass line, I play stop-time bass, which means I play a pedal-tone bass note repeatedly on the back beat.
Do you use artificial nails?
I use long press-on acrylic nails for greater articulation.
What is your primary guitar these days?
I’m currently playing an OM-style cutaway custom built for me by Charlie Hoffman in Minneapolis.
What strings do you use?
I use John Pearse Slightly Lights, which are gauged .011, .015, .022, .030, .040, .050, top to bottom. I’m told these strings have a smaller core so they are a bit more flexible. I use a lot of chord shapes all over the neck and do a lot of barring in the Latin manner, and these strings help facilitate the twang and moan of steel-string bending while using a nylon-string fretting vocabulary.
How do you amplify your instruments?
For the Collings, I used an LR Baggs M1 pickup combined with a D-TAR transducer, but that wasn’t quite what I want for the Hoffman, which has a softer and more resonant sound than the Collings. I am currently checking out the Dean Markley West Coast La Jolla pickup system through an UltraSound PRO-250 amp. Leo Kottke once pointed out to me that the pickup should suit the picking style. He favors soundhole pickups for the way he digs in with his thumb, while someone with a more delicate, classical left-hand posture would get more from an internal microphone.
You have mastered several distinct styles of playing. Describe some of the ways in which you combine them to create new hybrid approaches
My style began to gel when I made Guitar Bazaar [Sparks’ 1995 multicultural mash-up]. When I started recording for Tzadik, John Zorn encouraged me to be wildly eclectic in my arranging and improvising, and this is where I really started to blend blues and jazz licks with Middle Eastern scales that overlap in places on the fretboard. For example, the blue note of an E minor blues pentatonic scale is Bb, which corresponds to the raised 4th of E Hungarian minor. That’s standard jazz stuff, but mixing it with string bends makes it interesting. I also started substituting equivalent phrases and licks when developing an arrangement, rather than trying to strictly play the melody of the original. Joe Pass said that there are three fundamental chords: major 7th, minor 7th, and Dominant 7th, and everything one plays can be thought of as falling into one or more of those categories. That’s a very useful system to organize riffs, scales, chords, etc.—and the rest is imagination!