A-T interview with acclaimed fingerstyle guitarist Richard Gilewitz

Composer, educator and one of the most graceful fingerstyle guitarists on the contemporary acoustic scene, Richard Gilewitz stands out in his command of the 6- and 12-string guitar. His offbeat sense of humor and tales from the road captivate audiences whether he is playing a solo performance or sharing the stage with other artists.


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Composer, educator and one of the most graceful fingerstyle guitarists on the contemporary acoustic scene, Richard Gilewitz stands out in his command of the 6- and 12-string guitar. His offbeat sense of humor and tales from the road captivate audiences whether he is playing a solo performance or sharing the stage with other artists. Recently he sat down with us for an interview…

A-T: When did you first pick up the guitar?
Richard Gilewitz: When I first began trying to play the guitar I was a 14-year old living in Huntsville, Alabama. I started taking lessons at a local music store within walking distance of my home, and I'll never forget the first tune I tried to strum. It was a Neil Young tune, “Heart of Gold.” Shortly after, my first teacher attempted to show me how to play the theme song to the film, "Love Story." I have absolutely no doubt that he was trying to weed me out!

My second teacher was a fellow named Stan Lee. I also have no doubt that had it not been for Stan's kindness, patience, and most importantly his methods, I would not have stuck with the instrument. Stan realized quickly that I seemed destined to be a fingerpicker. Flatpicking was apparently out since my playing attempts led to taking up most of the lesson time by trying to shake the pick out of the hole in the guitar. We both lost count how many times I dropped it in there, and I faced constant embarrassment when Stan would consistently see candy and gum wrappers fall out of the hole as well.

Were you from a musical family?
Yes and no. Although members of my family did not play any instruments, their support and general involvement in music played a huge role in my destined career. My older brother actually attempted to play the drums a few years before I picked up the guitar. His efforts caught my interest, but I recall my mother deterring me from this by encouraging me to play the guitar instead of drums. She claimed I could pick up girls at the beach, which in retrospect seems rather odd since at the time I was only 7 years old. We also lived over a hundred miles from any beach. I firmly believe she simply did not want to hear more drumming from her children.

My father did notice me bouncing around a bit too much to the tune of "Sugar Sugar" by the Archies and thankfully rescued my fate into cheesy pop by giving me the Beatles LP “Help.” I was never the same after that, and many late nights he and I would listen to the unique offerings of players on the Dr. Demento Radio Show. While I was still a teenager, we began to travel as a family and camp out at the Bluegrass Festivals in Renfro Valley, Kentucky. It was there where I first heard the sounds of Eddie Adcock playing the banjo. Unbeknownst to me, the combination of the sounds of music emanating through the trees, the camaraderie of the musicians, and the social event itself began the initial foundation to a career in music.

What musicians have influenced and inspired your playing?
I would have to say that "Hurdy Gurdy Man" by Donovan, "Alice's Restaurant" by Arlo Guthrie and eventually the music of Doc Watson, Stefan Grossman, John Fahey, Leo Kottke, and Peter Lang were the initial songs and players surrounding my brain on the launch pad. By the time I entered college at the University of Alabama in the late 70's, I was exposed to an incredibly diverse palette of musicians spanning from classical guitarists John Williams, Julian Bream, Christopher Parkening, and Andres Segovia to the some of the European players such as Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, and the slide playing of Sam Mitchell. Outside of the guitar world I soaked up everything from Kraftwerk to Fleetwood Mac, Heart, the list simply goes on and on. However, the strongest undercurrent of inspiration came from my guitar teacher David Walbert, whom I met in college.

Can you tell us about your formal training on guitar?
The trick to this question may have to do with that word “formal.” I was definitely exposed to solid technique from classical guitarist David Walbert, who has studied with renowned violinist Frances Magnes, and guitarists Gil de Jesus and Sophocles Papas. I also studied with master jazz guitarist Joe Pollari. But even more importantly, I believe it was the attitude of freedom of expression within the music that enabled me to sustain my passion. With a minor in music at the University of Alabama, I very much enjoyed the courses I took in experimental music, ear training, theory, and sight reading - the notion of absorbing music through notes rather than tablature. Unfortunately these days, standard notation is often relegated too much to the back burner with the advent of tablature. On the other hand, tablature is a crucial form of notating music when referencing pieces written in open tunings where the guitar is tuned to an open chord. An example of this would be an open G tuning, similar to a banjo, where the guitar is tuned to a G chord. This is the foundation of what is often referred to as Hawaiian Slack Key.

You’ve written about the right hand being the “engine that drives the machine—the guitar.” Can you explain what you mean by that?
Although both hands are obviously involved in technique, along with the body itself (breathing, posture, focus, etc.), my right hand picking fingers are the tools or digits that pluck the strings. During this process there are many considerations, such as the use of a fingernail versus a flesh attack, the angle of attack from the fingers, position of the hand itself, thumb stops, and accenting of particular selected notes through a development of independent finger control. All these contribute to the initial production of the music before the left hand gets involved, although for the most part, both hands do tend to work in tandem with each other when considering other techniques such as hammer-ons and pull-offs.

You keep up a relentless schedule, traveling worldwide as a performing guitarist and master teacher. When do you have time to focus on composition?
Composition appears to be affected in many ways other than just sitting down with the instrument and navigating through trial and error, recording, or transcribing notation. Simply running a tune through my head may lead to a reversal of notes; a mental note to leave a note out during a future performance, possible substitutions, and varying a dynamic attack can all contribute to the growth or evolution of a tune. I have been fortunate enough to be able to accomplish this to a degree while flying on a plane, traveling in a vehicle, or even watching a movie! Other effective times to work with compositions are generally throughout the day or later in the evening when there's a spare moment. The real trick is just picking up my instrument and while it's in my hands begin the search for a new motif.

As a teacher, what areas do you emphasize with your students?
Maintain a broad spectrum. One of the first things I have to do with a student is to determine a path to follow to keep their interest. Another point is not to let the student attempt to control the lessons, which they can sometimes subconsciously try to do. I want to make sure they are always having fun and looking forward to working on the material, but I insist on exposing them to crucial elements such as technique, timing with a metronome, respecting the music for absolute accuracy, standard notation as well as tablature study, and the intention of building a repertoire. A student can't survive too long if they don't feel like they have something worth playing or a goal in mind.

Any comments on the challenges of effectively miking an acoustic guitar?
Listen to knowledgeable recording engineers with years of experience and qualified soundmen. Read literature and accept trial and error. I almost exclusively use microphones during recording sessions and a top-notch recording engineer will enlighten the player with a variety of techniques for mic positioning and will determine the type of sound the player is after, whether it’s a full room sound, a focused sound, single mic, dual mic, etc. They are also pros at anticipating potential problems such as phase cancellation.

I tend to use a quality condenser mic on the fretboard angled in slightly toward the sound hole of the guitar at about the 14th fret. A second mic is positioned either farther out in the room directly in front of the guitar or just down and below the bridge of the instrument to pick up a full bodied sound.

In a live setting I usually combine a magnetic soundhole pickup in conjunction with my Artist Elite AE5100 Audio-Technica condenser mic angled in as mentioned above. This allows me to maintain a more natural acoustic guitar sound when amplifying in a large venue.

What’s your favorite Audio-Technica microphone? What do you like about it?
I am very fond of the AE5100 for the acoustic guitar since it provides a nearly absolute replication of the instruments I am playing—which are currently a Gilewitz signature model Breedlove 6 string and Breedlove 12 string cutaway myrtle wood guitar. Since they are such fine instruments, I was very concerned about losing any of their qualities during a performance. The A-T mic puts that concern to rest. For a vocal microphone, I very much like the AE6100. The dynamic range and clarity appears to beat hands down any other mics I've tried. It is such a good mic it apparently makes my stories more intriguing and my jokes funnier!

I am extremely satisfied with a pair of AT4040 mics that I have used during concert performances as they pick up both the sound of the guitar and the audience response. The results are so good that I have a live recording of one of my concert performances that I plan to release as my next CD.

Any advice to fingerstyle players starting out?
I would advise any new fingerstyle player to focus on utilizing the thumb and all three fingers – index, ring, and middle, with the pinky shadowing the ring finger. Also find a good and patient teacher. Studying classical would not be a bad idea, but when using a steel string guitar try using a different type of plucking or bowing technique to generate a more dynamic sound and protect the fingernails, which I tend to keep very short. I have addressed a number of simple techniques in detail in a 2005 Mel Bay release titled "Acoustic Fingerstyle Guitar Workshop" book. The accompanying DVD and audio CD allows for the player to actually examine hand positions while hearing the tune, as well as discover a library of fingerstyle patterns that are the essence of creating that right hand positional foundation and language.

Richard Gilewitz has been using A-T microphones for a number of years and is always experimenting with new ways to capture his sound. Read more about Richard at www.richardgilewitz.com.