*Longtime Canadian Musician contributor Jeff Gunn speaks with busy L.A.-based guitarist Dru DeCaro (Miguel, Jay Z) about all-things acoustic guitar.
If you’ve attended any of Grammy Award-winning artist Miguel’s energizing shows, or happened to score a ticket to the latest Jay-Z 4:44 Tour, or better still, caught a pop-up L.A. performance by space-faring rock band Falconry then you’ve seen Dru DeCaro in action.
Decked in white like a modern-day guitar saint, his onstage presence captures the essence of rock ‘n’ roll while contributing unlimited vitality to whichever show he may be performing.
It was during a coffee break on a day of recording at DeCaro’s LP House Studios in LA that the two-time Grammy-nominated guitarist (he co-wrote and co-produced songs on Miguel’s Kaleidoscope Dream and Wildheart) revealed that he has always felt an intimate connection to his acoustic guitars.
Jeff Gunn: What role does the acoustic guitar serve in songwriting and arrangements?
Dru DeCaro: Songwriting lends itself well to the acoustic guitar. A lot of my ideas are developed on my PRS Angelus acoustic. I craft and shape a song before bringing it to the band and letting the electricity take over. Then there’s the opposite process when band arrangements are stripped down for acoustic performance. With Miguel’s music, for instance, we do a lot of re-imagining when big, lush records become intimate, off-the-cuff guitar and vocal renditions. My acoustic guitar is an essential part of all that.
JG: How should a beginner go about selecting a guitar?
DD: My first acoustic guitar was an Ovation. It just called to me. I held it and knew it was the one. The action was low, which was nice at the time, it had a tuner on it, and the neck is unfinished, which I love. You have to play the guitars in the shop until you find the one that feels right and speaks to you, because the acoustic guitar is truly an extension of the self. It’s a very personal instrument and I’ve only ever had one or two at a time compared with the electric guitar, where I have many, and the whole approach is less vulnerable and naked. When buying an acoustic guitar, I seek out homegrown guitar shops and buy a lot of used instruments that already have a story and a few scuffs on them. Recently, PRS has given me a couple and it’s just unfair how superior their guitars are.
JG: Describe your practice routine.
DD: I wake up and play every morning until I’m hungry – that’s how I start my day off. Or if there’s a session in the studio, I might get down there and start dialing in tones right away, and try to capture that first-thing urgency and energy. When practicing on my acoustic, I’m focused on tone and sustaining notes. I am also looking to get the most dynamic sound out of an instrument with comparably very little range. One thing to always ask yourself is: What is my sound? The acoustic guitar allows for many roles in soloist, accompaniment, small band, and full group contexts. Practice how you’d play in these various roles because it ought not to be in the exact same way. In full band situations, I play chord fragments and leave the low end and the percussive playing to the rhythm section, as compared with solo guitar, which requires full chords and extra attention to right hand pocket. Know your role. Be consistent with your practice. It’s spiritual and physical and emotional and radical.
JG: What impact does the size of guitar strings have on acoustic performance?
DD: On my electric guitars, I’m using D’Addario .10 gauge strings right now. On acoustic, I go heavy, maybe .13 gauge. It’s pretty standard: I want a rich, full tone, and the heavier strings boast a broader spectrum and more sustain. I think you can do a lot of damage with a well-made guitar, fresh strings, and keen attention to groove and dynamics. The size doesn’t particularly matter, but if you’re practicing often enough, you’ll stumble upon the size and feel that work for you.
JG: What advice do you have for up-and-coming guitarists?
DD: Surround yourself with people who share a similar work ethic and curiosity. Surround yourself with people that are better than you. Also, recently, I find myself tuning down a half step to E-flat. That little extra slack gives a round tone and adds more range for vocalists. Stay active in your scene. Playing guitar should be a collaborative art form. Start an acoustic night at your local pub, restaurant, or coffee shop. Always be writing, always be sharing what you’re writing, and always open your heart and ego up to some critique.
Visit Dru DeCaro’s website at: www.drudecaro.com.
Photos by Bradford Hunter Wray.
Jeff Gunn is a contributor with Canadian Musician, Juno-nominated songwriter/producer, author of the Hidden Sounds Guitar Series, and musical director/guitarist for Emmanuel Jal. Visit www.jeffgunn.ca and find Jeff on Twitter and Instagram @jeffgunn1.