Todd Hallawell Puts Tone on Par with Chops

With a Winfield National Fingerstyle Guitar Championship under his belt and accolades from such heavyweight pickers as Doyle Dykes and Tommy Emmanuel, you might expect Todd Hallawell ( to dazzle you with virtuosity. And make no mistake, the guy can play. But listening to From Nashville and Back [Soundset Recordings], his second album of fingerstyle instrumentals, one’s reaction is more along the lines of, “What tone, what touch.” Despite his monster-chops cred, Hallawell is a tone freak.

Together with bass player Darrell Muller (who tastefully supports almost every track), and aided by various other stringed instruments, Hallawell lays down artful arrangements of classic ragtime, country blues, and swing tunes that rival Chet Atkins for tonal elegance and Jerry Reed for deft chord work. Hallawell’s ability to craft an album that expresses musicality and virtuosity in equal parts is due to his varied background, which includes formal guitar study, studio engineering, and a stint as a classical music producer.

On From Nashville and Back, your tone and phrasing are sublime. How did you accomplish that?

It’s very difficult to explain why I choose to phrase this way or that, but the tone is a little easier. The left hand has something to do with tone production—vibrato, pull-offs, and so on—but the right hand is the key. In my tone production, every note, every snap I get, every change in timbre can be traced back to Mauro Giuliani’s 120 Exercises for Right Hand Development. If you can master these exercises, your right hand will have gone through every conceivable permutation, and as a result, you’ll never have a problem with your picking technique. I always know where everything is, and I can grab any string with any finger.

What is your recording background, and how did it affect your approach to tracking From Nashville and Back?

In 1992, I was living in England on a Rotary International Scholarship. As a part of my study, I worked with recording engineer Keith Andrews at Amazon Studios in Liverpool. That’s where I received most of my training. When I returned home to Arizona, I wanted to build a studio of my own. With the help of Arizona State University guitar professor Frank Koonce, I founded Soundset Recordings, a classical label. With this type of music, realism is everything. Lee Furr, who used to be Buck Owens’ recording engineer, helped me to refine the techniques I use in my own recordings.

As a Winfield winner, do you feel you have to wow the crowd?

Yes, there’s a certain amount of pressure to choose material that is difficult to play—just because it’s difficult. Most my audiences these days are guitarists themselves. I play every year at the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society, and the audience is full of people who really should be on stage.

On Nashville, almost every track features another player. And now you’ve hooked up with another Winfield champion, flatpicker Robin Kessinger. Why?

Playing fingerstyle guitar is a lonely business. There’s very little interaction, and that’s why I love going to music festivals. I met Robin at Winfield where we play fiddle tunes together—I’m a closet flatpicker. Robin can easily add to what I do, and I get to flatpick a little too. So for audience appeal, the duo has a lot to offer. As I get older, what I like about music is hearing people play off one other. I already know what I can do. It’s a lot more fun to be a part of something bigger.