No matter how long I’ve played my instruments, worked with my teachers (past and present), or relived the memories of indoor and outdoor stages I have performed on, as a solo fingerstyle player I am completely aware there is always going to be a new challenge around every corner.Sometimes it can be an absolutely hair-raising experience, such as when you wind up on stage with other players in front of a live audience and are called on to do your thing in a duo or group setting. As a fingerpicker, this can either turn into a disaster or a celebration depending on the tunes and the other players.
My entire career is built on the solo act – performing my shows with just my 6 & 12-string guitars, no picks, my microphones, capos, and me. I’m on the line to pull together full sets that will entertain the audience for a couple of hours while I stay clear of anyone even thinking of pelting me with fruit. I am on my own with my successes and mistakes under the lights like a lab rat in a cage. There’s no one to blame for that wrong note that decided to show up in the middle of a tune, the flow of the set, or a joke that falls flat.
Generally I’m pretty good at covering up the occasional goof and can pull stories out of my years of traveling the globe. But until recently, I had felt a little awkward and left out in a group setting because I didn’t know the other player’s tunes, chords, or just where to jump in.
All this has changed as I started to put myself in the position to play with others and began to collect bits of tips about how to fit in during an encore session or group jam. I offered to share my knowledge with others and found many, many players out there – performing at an extremely high caliber – were willing to share their trade chops. I’ve encountered some phenomenal players I’ve had the privilege to work with – from Michael Fix in Australia, Jim Murray in Ireland, Stephen Housden from The Little River Band in Ireland, or Franco Marone from Italy. As seasoned of a player I have become with over 30 years of touring, I still start out a little uneasy as I never know what these players will pull out of their fingers. My latest scare came from my good friend Tim May who can sometimes hit a lick that makes me feel like I can’t even spell the word geetar!
Tim and I have been friends for years, have recorded and toured together, and even had some humdinger conversations at the good ole Waffle House. When he recently toured Florida, we had a chance to perform together again, discuss musical set design, jam, and even do a bit of recording and composing.Tim, who will “Aw, Shucks” anytime I mention that he swept first place in the category of Best Instrumentalist of Nashville, is always quick to share everything he knows about rhythms, jazz chords, and theory – basically anything we can get our hands on to help expand our dual repertoire and add to my plethora of solo fingerstyle tunes. He’s also been game enough to add some gem notes of musical sprinkles on my originals or solo pieces.
This added dimension of fun that comes from sharing licks with other players, learning when to be restrained and when to blast out, and the feeling of a sense of companionship is a real perk for the solo fingerstyle player brave enough to venture outside the safety box of the sometimes lonesome woodshed. I might even see my shadow next time I peek out of my hollow and bask a little in the sunshine while I learn another jazz chord.
Richard Gilewitz, February 2015
A little side note here: I met Tim in a cave in Oregon, but that’s another story. In the meantime, here’s a fun video of a two handed “Freight Train”.