Acoustic renaissance man Stefan Grossman has had a busy year, to say the least. He’s been doing his fair share of globe-trotting, with various concerts and workshops taking place in England, New Zealand, Japan and the US… including a high-profile appearance at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Blues Festival outside of Chicago this summer. Somehow, Grossman has still managed to keep cranking out new CD and DVD releases via his Guitar Workshop, from blues and ragtime guitar instruction, to the latest installments in the Guitar Artistry DVD series, to a group of indispensable CD reissues of classic Kicking Mule albums. This new release schedule hasn’t been easy to stay on top of, but with such a wealth of acoustic guitar music to dig into, this writer certainly isn’t complaining! Continue reading
Many acoustic guitarists probably have some degree of acquaintance with the work of John Renbourn and Stefan Grossman, but for the unfamiliar, allow me to offer up a short history : After cutting his teeth in clubs during the British folk and blues revival of the early 60’s, Renbourn recorded a series of classic solo albums on the Transatlantic label, and also began a fortuitous allience with Bert Jansch, resulting in their classic Bert and John duet album, and the influential folk-jazz group Pentangle. When that group initially dissolved (it would reform in assorted incarnations over the years, centering around singer Jacqui McShee… Renbourn would be an occasional participant), the guitarist delved ever-deeper into folk and blues forms, as well as jazz and ancient Medieval music. On LPs like The Hermit and The Black Balloon, Renbourn developed a sophisticated compositional style that, while complex, also overflowed with beauty and nuance.
Stefan Grossman started as a determined young blues devotee from New York City, studying under the tutelage of Reverend Gary Davis. Grossman himself quickly became something of a guitar guru… having a keen ear, and having learned first-hand from many of the original blues masters, Grossman began authoring instructional books aimed at disseminating classic American acoustic guitar styles, from country blues to ragtime. After a short stint at architecture school, he headed over to Europe, where he lived and worked for twenty years, starting the legendary Kicking Mule record label (alongside Takoma Records cofounder Ed Denson) which was instrumental in launching the careers of world-class guitarists like Duck Baker, Peter Finger, Dave Evans and Ton Van Bergeijk. Continue reading
For a long time, I’d known about “Acoustic Routes”, the legendary documentary about Bert Jansch which aired in the UK in the early 90’s… now, through the magic of YouTube (and thanks to the efforts of user mrcmxoner) this obscure little film is available for all to see! There are so many great moments… Bert and John reunited, Bert playing a blues with Brownie McGhee, one of his first heroes, and commentary from Hamish Imlach, Anne Briggs, Wizz Jones, Archie Fisher… wonderful stuff! The proceedings are affectionately hosted by Billy Connolly (click link to see his nutty Flash site), and I thought I’d embed the entire thing right here, to save everyone the trouble of skipping around on YouTube. Enjoy!
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve gotten to know Denis Turbide, a very fine fingerstyle guitarist from up Canada way. Denis has a self-titled, self-released CD out now… you can read the Work & Worry review here. The man also obliged W&W with a nice interview, presented below.
W&W : How old were you when you started playing guitar?
Denis : I was 13 years old when my parents got me a classical guitar for Christmas, and I took lessons for a few months after that.
W&W : When did your interest in fingerstyle guitar develop? Please talk about your early influences… what moved you to work in the style?
Denis : There was always fingerstyle, right from the start. It was a classical guitar my parents had given me, after all. My dad was a classical/opera guy. He sang on French-Canadian radio and early TV with choirs when he was younger. He wanted me to play classical guitar.
My first teacher taught me Beatles and Supertramp…the pentatonic scale. I had a classical teacher after that first summer but I didn’t like reading music. At the same time, I was listening to, and trying to learn, a lot of Simon and Garfunkel, Cat Stevens, Beatles, Led Zeppelin, James Taylor, Neil Young, America… obviously anything acoustic. Jimmy Page’s acoustic playing is still some of my favourite music.
W&W : Did your dad enjoy the rock and pop music that you were getting into? Could he appreciate the stuff you were working to learn?
Denis : Dad was a real Bach, Beethoven, Vivaldi, Rossini, Leoncavallo kinda guy. Glenn Gould, Yehudi Menhuin, Mario Lanza, Pavarotti, Beverly Sills, Maria Callas… Pop [music], when he was young, was Elvis and Chuck Berry, but Dad didn’t dig it too much. Classical music did rub off on me, though. I love hearing Bach especially. Some of the most incredible and powerful music ever written. All that said, I’m sure he could sing a few Beatles tunes…
W&W : So you gave up on the lessons pretty early on, and decided to follow your ear? How long was it before you switched over to steel strings?
Denis : The lessons I did for about 8-9 months altogether, over the course of about a year and a half. I learned fast and nobody ever had to force me to practice. I knew a lot of chords, found changes and learned new songs all the time. The next guitar I got after 2 years with the classical was a 12-string. I guess I didn’t play much fingerstyle on it, but I’m sure I played some… we’re talking some 25+ years ago.
W&W : Have you always flown solo, or did you spend any time playing in groups?
I wasn’t ever really in a group. There was a duet for while, over a decade ago, but since then it’s been pretty much me.
W&W : What tunings do you use on your recent s/t CD?
Denis : “A Little Bit” is in standard, “Derivatives” is dropped D, “After the Battle” is in DGDGBbD (open G min) and then DADGAD for “Samuel”, “Havre-aux-maisons” and “Firstborn”. My new tune, “That Face”, is in open G or DGDGBD.
W&W : You have a lot of YouTube hits and a lot of people requesting TABs for your songs… it has obviously been very good exposure for you, but how do you feel about the internet and social networking sites (Myspace, etc) and how it relates to the essence of playing guitar? Do you think it’s a natural progression from learning about guitar through books, concerts and albums?
Denis : How it relates to the essence of playing the guitar? Natural progression? Not sure about that but it’s been helpful getting the music out there, [though] obviously it does take up a lot of time getting things together. There are so many different sites now as well. How does anyone choose the one(s) that will get the most exposure? They all want you to join their site and all of them say that they will get you noticed….blah, blah, blah.
It is fun being an indie artist, though. Everything I’ve acheived so far is all because of the effort I put into it. The fact that people actually ask for my tabs is still a bit mindblowing for me, though. Sure, I’d love for more people to hear my music and to love it, but the fact that some out there want to actually learn my stuff is pretty exciting.
W&W : What was the process of getting the TABs together?
Denis : I checked around online looking for someone who tabs out tunes as it would have taken me a long time to do it. Writing out a few bars on some tab paper with a pencil and doing a whole tune on a computer are two different things. Alois Kleewein checked out the tunes… he really liked “Samuel”. He sent me some Tabledit previews, then he ran them through some software he’s got. They came out pretty nice. He plays in a funk band in Austria and we’ve only ever communicated online.
W&W : Talk a little bit about the guitars you’re using, string gauges, fingerpicks or no? Do you use the ring finger when you pick, thumb and two fingers, no particular approach?
Denis : I’ve been playing Larrivées for the last few years. Great guitars. Late last year, some members of the Larrivée online forum came up with some specs for a custom model that I was really interested in. It’s a smaller version of their proprietary L model, an LS, but they made it with a 12 fret neck, which I love. Mine has an Italian spruce top and mahogany back and sides. Outstanding.
For the CD, I used an L-03R and OO-50, both Larrivées and both I no longer own. The new LS I used for [the new recording] “That Face”. Uncoated D’Addarios are pretty much what I use when it comes to strings. The plain old EJ16, phosphor bronze light gauge. Their quality is consistent, they’re cheap and everyone has them in stock pretty much all the time. I’ve never been able to use finger/thumbpicks. I use a combination of flesh and nail when it comes to the picking, and I do use the ring finger as well. When I used to teach, I would tell the students to use the ring finger for the first string, middle for the second, index for the third and the thumb was for the top three. But then, no rule is written in stone.
W&W : Earlier this year, you talked about pursuing gigs again, after a pretty good hiatus… how has that been going? Do you see any touring in your future to promote this or future releases? Any upcoming gigs to report?
Denis : I would love to tour and stuff but I’ve got shared custody of my 3 and 6 year old sons, a full-time job, a mortgage… responsibilities. I’m not 20 anymore either! I should be more proactive, more aggressive but I’ve got so much going as it is. I’d love for this to become a career but, as everyone knows, the music business isn’t exactly a steady job with a regular paycheck. I have a regular monthly gig in Ottawa, Ontario at a pub called Woody’s. Great place. I started playing the open mic on Mondays about 2 years ago. It’s a relaxed, no pressure kind of place.
No future releases in the works right now but that could change if I come up with something new.
W&W : What cover songs are in your current repertoire? Which songs, cover versions or originals, do you find the most challenging to play?
Denis : My repertoire includes just about anything I can remember! I’ve been learning songs and pieces for nearly 30 years so there’s a lot that I forget I know how to play. Some of my favourites are up on YouTube now… “Little Martha”, “Never Going Back”, “That’s the Way”, and “Take Five”. I do a fingerstyle/vocal version of “Whiter Shade of Pale”, “Fragile” by Sting… I’m a big Beatles fan, so I do a bunch of their tunes like “Blackbird”, “Norwegian Wood”, and “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”. I do a couple of [Pierre] Bensusan tunes, John Renbourn’s “Luke’s Little Summer”… that’s one of my all-time favourite pieces on the guitar.
W&W : Your picking style seems to have a healthy dose of American Primitive influence (Kottke, Fahey, Takoma Recs… steady boom-chick with melodies in the high strings, etc..) Would you say that that was an important influence, and have you kept an eye on the current crop of American Primitive-style players?
Denis : Well, I started learning the alternating bass thing way back with tunes like “The Boxer” and “Dust in the Wind”… still play those live too! But Leo Kottke, Fahey… amazing players. I don’t really play any Kottke tunes but there are some that I love… anything off of 6 and 12 String Guitar… wow, what a great album!! Jerry Reed’s “Heavy Necking” book… great stuff for any picker in there! I’m not really familiar with much new music/players these days. It appeals to me but I just can’t seem to find the time to really listen and enjoy. I barely have time to sit and play myself!
W&W : Your children seem to be one of your biggest inspirations. Do you think your children might follow your lead and become players?
Denis : My kids are my life. I’ll love them no matter what. I’m not sure if they’ll ever want to play, let alone want to play with the old man! I just want them to be happy with whatever they choose to do. That’s all any parent can hope for.
Interview by Raymond Morin
by Raymond Morin
This short, self-titled collection of instrumentals is the first by Canadian fingerpicker Denis Turbide, and it’s certainly a lovely little debut. Denis has a clean, easy-going style, and his compositions are informed by both classic fingerstyle and classic acoustic rock.
Opener “A Little Bit” is a fine example of Denis’ relaxed approach, with a healthy mix of arpeggios and hammer-on riffs, both in the high strings and the middle-bass… but it’s the song that follows, “Samuel”, that I consider to be Denis’ signature tune. The feeling is upbeat and hopeful from the first chord, with some nice, light snapping on the bass strings. A playful hammer-on riff is explored over several chords before a few short but exuberant rounds of strumming. “Samuel” is a great example of effectively composing in DADGAD, without sounding overly/overtly DADGAD… if that makes sense!
Third track “Derivatives” starts heading more in a Euro direction, albeit by way of Stefan Grossman… reminds me a little of Grossman’s Shining Shadows period… clean, steady boom-chick over a few two-chord vamps. In a way, this song might be the weakest in the bunch, as that it struggles to find a memorable melody… from a technical standpoint, the recorded performance is very clean and very fine.
Next up is “After The Battle”, a very appropriately titled song. Denis is in the classic John Renbourn open G minor tuning, and the music very much conjures images of a battlefield being surveyed, with a melancholy that suggests the old adage “Nobody wins a war.”
The opening riff of “Havre-aux-maisons” is again very evocative of Renbourn, but at his most effervescent. It reminds me of “Glastonbury”, from his obscure Lost Sessions record. “Havre…” is a jubilant little tune that, like many of the others, cycles through its themes and flies by without overstaying its welcome. Perhaps the musical climax of the disc, since the closing song, “Firstborn” seems to echo the ideas of the earlier tracks.
All tablature by Alois Kleewein, provided by Denis Turbide.