What new things did you discover about yourself as a singer-songwriter as you were working on EJ?
Well, that I just wanted to push towards more sincere, honest, spontaneous recordings as I was losing interest in manipulated recordings. It was important for me to just try to play the songs live in the studio. In doing that, I’ve discovered things that I want to work on musically, as well as little things that I was happy to hear that were a little different.
How long did it take to record these tracks using this live approach?
Some tracks I just did in a few takes and other ones, I spent a couple of hours doing them three takes at a time. If I didn’t get them, I’d go on to something else and return to them in a few days, as opposed to sitting there trying to piece them together. I avoided that on this record. Some of the tunes I actually sang and played at the same time and that was kind of challenging for me. I just had to rehearse a lot.
How do you practice as a singer?
I don’t work on it as much as I should. I basically just sing the songs over and over, but it would probably be good to do exercises and approach it like an instrument.
Your technique and style as a guitarist has been well documented over the years, but how did you develop as a singer?
I was not very good when I started. I just listened to recordings of myself singing and went, “Wow, I need to work on this and that”. I just kind of started taking notes and tried to work on different aspects.**What specific things did you practice on the acoustic guitar to prepare for recording *EJ*?**
I just practiced the tunes. There were certain right hand fingerpicking passages I ran through that helped me, but usually, I kind of learn right hand fingerpicking indirectly through writing and working on the tunes.
How do you practice right now while you’re on tour?
I usually play acoustic and electric backstage for awhile before the show. If I don’t, it’s kind of risky. I’ll run certain difficult passages of a tune I’m playing that night or a vocal thing. Or I’ll exercise a certain kind of technique that I’ll be using on a tune just to get more agile. I’ll also play the songs or passages with a metronome.
Is there anything you find on the acoustic guitar that is significantly more difficult to do than on electric?
Definitely the fingerpicking. I started many years ago, but in the last few years, I’ve tried to get better.
Are there any artists you listen to for inspiration regarding that technique?
Well, Doyle Dykes is a great player. Others would be Tommy Emmanuel, Michael Hedges, Paul Simon, James Taylor, Chet Atkins, and Merle Travis. All those guys are great fingerpickers.
As you were working on that technique, were there any songs from those artists that you learned that you think were essential for your development?
I learned some of Simon and Garfunkel’s tunes. Regarding Chet Atkins, I tried to learn some of his fingerpicking technique, but I don’t really play any of his songs.**What things do you consider when you sit down and compose an acoustic guitar instrumental?**
I think of content and ask, “Does it have musical merit to listen to?” and “Does it have melody and harmony?” I usually just improvise until I come up with something that seems to have substance and naturally elaborate from there. At some point, when it really has some kind of structure, then I’ll spend some time to hone it into a song.
I can get stuck in a rut a lot of times. I think the best antidote for that is to let go of all your previous history and just start at a zero point in the present and try to introduce new ideas. It can start kind of simple. You almost get out of the way and things present themselves. And don’t judge. Let it be simple. It can always become more elaborate later. Just give yourself permission to try something you normally wouldn’t play.
How has your view of being a virtuoso changed over the years?
I don’t know about “virtuoso”. There are so many great players. Now with social media, you can check out so many players doing so many magnificent things. It makes you realize that you’re just one of many people playing the guitar. It kind of gives you more of a reality check.
I think you just try to find your own unique voice and I’m still searching for something that’s a little different. I’m trying to keep a really classical type tone to the guitar and come up with new ideas that push the envelope a bit. That’s what I try to do.
Hal Rodriguez is a published writer and musician based in Toronto, who can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.