The website of classical guitarist David Tanenbaum

Nylon and Steel

Genre-bending guitarists bridge the gap between classical and steel-string fingerstyle

By Scott Cmiel

Originally appeared in Acoutic Guitar Magazine No. 113, May 2002. Reprinted with permisison

The world of the steel-string fingerstylist seems to be light years away from that of the classical guitarist, and yet more and more classical players are teaming up with steel-string soloists on stage and in the studio. Last year, three celebrated classical players collaborated with steel-string guitarists to record trailblazing CDs that are passionate, beautiful, and delightfully beyond category. Cuban-born guitarist Manuel Barrueco joined forces with famed rock guitarists Al Di Meola, Steve Morse, and Andy Summers to record their compositions on Nylon and Steel. Classical artist David Tanenbaum and steel-stringer Peppino D’Agostino met at a festival in Germany and went back home to California to conceive and record a collection of classical arrangements and original pieces entitled Classic/Steel. And finally, the ever-unorthodox Ben Verdery, head of the guitar program at Yale University, crossed boundaries once again to record duets with Celtic soloist extraordinaire William Coulter for an independently released CD called Songs of Our Ancestors.

This burst of innovative spirit did not, of course, spring forth out of thin air. Earlier generations of classical guitarists also strove to cross boundaries and develop new musical palettes. Spanish guitarist Andres Segovia challenged the narrow assumptions of his contemporaries with a series of works written for him by Joaquin Turina, Federico Moreno-Torroba, and Manuel Ponce in the 1920s. And beginning in the 1950s, Julian Bream commissioned an amazing group of compositions by such leading modernists as Benjamin Britten and Hans Werner-Henze.

The steel-string tradition has a shorter but well-established history of innovation. John Fahey showed the way in the 1960s with his compositions based on American roots music. The subsequent success of 12-string king Leo Kottke and groundbreaking Windham Hill artists like Alex de Grassi and Michael Hedges established an unquenchable thirst among steel-string guitarists for ever more daring and experimental outings.

Rocking the Boat

Classical master Manuel Barrueco has what can only be described as a classically pristine background. Raised in Cuba and Florida and educated at the Peabody Conservatory of Music, he studied the classical repertoire exclusively. After a series of highly acclaimed, meticulous, and passionate recordings of the standard repertoire, he developed an interest in combining classical guitar with other styles and released a set of mostly jazz repertoire, Sometime Ago, in 1994 and a collection of Beatles arrangements, Manuel Barrueco Plays Lennon/McCartney, in 1995.

The original idea for his latest experiment, Nylon and Steel, grew out of a Guitar Summit tour in 1995-96 that featured Barrueco as well as Steve Morse of Deep Purple and the Dixie Dregs, Jorma Kaukonen of the Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna, and jazz guitarists Kenny Burrell and Stanley Jordan. Barrueco says, “I was originally petrified that I would bore the nonclassical fans who came to hear the rock and jazz guitarists. Later I found that Steve Morse was afraid he would have trouble with classical fans who had come to see me. We were delighted by how open-minded the audiences were.”

Barrueco decided he wanted to play original duo compositions by Di Meola, Morse, and Summers and was thrilled when each of them agreed to play and write for the project. Barrueco performs three original tracks with Di Meola, followed by five pieces pitting Barrueco’s cool classical strings against Morse’s powerful, often distorted rock edges. Wolvesville is an improvisation on Etude No. 1 by Heitor Villa-Lobos. “If you listen to my channel, you hear a classical piece, and if you listen to Steven’s, it’s a hard-rock improvisation,” says Barrueco. He performs three pieces with Summers, two of which were written by Summers, and the 11 duets are bookended by two Barrueco solos.

“The Nylon and Steel recording allowed me to step into other worlds a little bit,” says Barrueco. “There were times when I thought it would be hard to keep up with these amazing players. Al is known for his blazing speed and technique, and I thought the first time we jammed that an ambulance should be waiting for me outside! But once we settled in, I marveled at how they helped me stretch as a player to places I had never been.”

Barrueco’s parts for the recording were written out in advance, but he added things like string bends, slides, and counterpoint on the fly. He is proud to report that some people who listen to the recording have trouble figuring out who is playing what part. “Classical musicians learn to be stylistically flexible,” he explains, “and this is enormously helpful. I treat the compositions of Di Meola, Morse, and Summers with the same respect I bring to every composer. It always boils down to what works best for any piece of music. I treat each piece differently.”

California Combo

Classical guitarist David Tanenbaum cherishes the partnership he’s entered into with steel-string fingerpicker Peppino D’Agostino. Tanenbaum grew up playing piano and cello in a family of professional musicians. His father is a composer on the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music, and his mother is a piano teacher. At age ten he rebelled, started playing guitar, and joined a rock band. A Segovia recital enticed him back into the world of classical music, where he has become known for his advocacy of contemporary music.

Despite his rock ‘n’ roll beginnings, Tanenbaum had little knowledge of contemporary steel-string guitarists until he met late fretboard tapper Michael Hedges, who asked for advice before making his first Windham Hill record, Breakfast in the Fields. “The music was amazing,” Tanenbaum recalls. “All I could say was, Go make that recording!”

He first performed with D’Agostino at the Schorndorfer Gitarrentage Festival in Germany, which features guitarists of all styles. Although they had never met (despite the fact that they both live in the San Francisco Bay Area), they were asked to perform together and immediately formed a musical bond. “We were brought together by a suggestion from 6,000 miles away,” says Tanenbaum. “The concert was a success, and a friendship was born.”

D’Agostino’s music is distinguished by rich compositional gifts, technical prowess, and a lyrical artistry. Few musicians are as eager as he is to challenge the limits of their instrument. He learned to play guitar in his native Italy by ear, listening to records over and over and driving his mother crazy. “Learning by ear helped me develop a musicality you cannot learn through books or videos,” he says, “but when Marcel Dadi and Stefan Grossman started publishing tablature, it saved so much time! I thought it was wonderful.”

He learned to read standard notation and began playing some classical pieces after falling in love with a recording of John Williams playing Barrios with “heart, technique, and finesse.” But the idea of going public with his classical playing was intimidating. “There are a lot of acoustic [steel-string] players who concentrate on their own repertoire,” he explains. “They are fantastic writers and performers, but they are not open to reading the music of others. Playing classical guitar expanded my horizons.”

Tanenbaum and D’Agostino both love a wide spectrum of styles and decided to include Baroque music, contemporary world music, and several D’Agostino originals on Classic/Steel. Tanenbaum was fascinated by the way the sonic differences between the steel-string and the nylon-string clarified the counterpoint in Baroque music. D’Agostino’s playing of this material is beautiful and amazingly reminiscent of the Baroque harpsichord.

Both artists developed new ways of working for this CD. On his previous recordings, D’Agostino created performances with musicians who improvised their parts in the studio, while Tanenbaum has always worked from incredibly intricate classical scores. On Classic/Steel, D’Agostino meticulously wrote everything down and Tanenbaum improvised and even composed some of his own parts in the arrangements. ”
A lot of classical players are not skilled at improvising,”
says D’Agostino. “David is a master at reading but can also improvise. He is able to jump from place to place easily. And for me, this is the first time I have written everything down in the classical manner. This project confirmed my belief that if you really pay attention to how you arrange things, you can achieve something beautiful.”

No Boundaries

Ben Verdery and William Coulter met in 1984, when Coulter attended a Verdery recital at the University of California at Santa Cruz and fell in love with his music. They spoke afterward and found that they had common ideas about arranging, improvising, and the guitar. Ten years later, Coulter invited Verdery to be a guest performer on a recording he was making, Celtic Crossing, and the interaction left them both wanting more.

The collaboration wasn’t much of a stretch for Verdery, whose 1992 recording Some Towns and Cities featured Leo Kottke on steel-string guitar. Verdery does not see clear divisions between popular, classical, ethnic, and jazz music and is just as likely to cover Jimi Hendrix or Prince in concert as Bach or Lou Harrison.

Although Coulter has made a name for himself over the past 20 years performing and recording Celtic and American Shaker music on steel-string guitar in open tunings, he, too, was primed for the Songs for Our Ancestors project, having trained first as a classical guitarist. “Bill is an accomplished classical guitarist, who went D A D G A D,” Verdery quips. The challenge for Coulter was creating arrangements for guitars only; most of his previous recordings feature guitar and other traditional instruments, such as fiddle and flute.

The material on Songs for Our Ancestors comes from Ireland, Africa, Tibet, and the United States. When it came to choosing tunes for the recording, “trad” instrumentals were the obvious place to start. “Both Ben and I love traditional melodies from many places,” says Coulter. “The traditional Irish slip jig Drops of Brandy and the traditional Shaker melody How Great Is the Pleasure are tunes that I have known for a while. Also on the record are tunes that come from Ben’s interest in world music, as far-reaching as a Tibetan chant and an African mbira tune.”

Improvisation, composition, and reading come naturally to both musicians. Their parts for the duets were developed through improvisations, which inspired the ideas that led to the final arrangements. “Bill and I are not improvisers in the sense that we can play blistering solos over chord changes,” Verdery explains, “but we allow flourishes and nuances to occur that might not have occurred in rehearsal. The intro to Frieze Britches was completely improvised, and that was really fun to do.”

Their work together was made easy by a common background and a shared sense of humor. “Our playing techniques and concepts of sound are similar,” says Verdery, “and we have very sympathetic work styles. We both cry when the guitars go out of tune and then debate whether we should smash them. We make rude sounds in the recording sessions. And we both do 60 takes when we need only three!”

«Back to “Publications”»