The world of contemporary fingerstyle guitar is, in some ways, relatively young, and still evolving. It’s a difficult genre to define, a real melting pot of influences, ranging from folk and bluegrass, through rock and jazz, to classical music. When one thinks about the genre there are several names that always spring to mind – Pierre Bensusan, Michael Hedges, Tommy Emmanuel, and more recently Andy McKee, Amrit Sond, Thomas Leeb, John Gomm, and others. However, in any discussion on the subject, one of the first names mentioned is, inevitably, that of Canadian composer and guitarist, Don Ross. As one of the performers that has helped to define the genre, Don has been the inspiration for so many aspiring players and is name-checked as a major influence by almost all of the recent generation of fingerstyle players. Don originally picked up the guitar when his sister brought an old Stella home. Despite the guitar’s abysmal action, Don started to learn, eventually going on to play electric guitar in local bands. His only formal lessons were a short series of four or five sessions with local guitarist Steve Cole, which Don describes as ‘a real shot in the arm – being around such a great player’. Already a competent player at this point, Steve took him through a few tunes, just to develop and polish his playing a little. ‘I started playing fingerstyle guitar without really knowing that I was doing it. I started writing too and, eventually, people started saying that I should play my compositions publicly.
At this point, Don enrolled on a music degree at York University in Toronto which, he says, ‘really informed the way I write and compose… it wasn’t a guitar-focussed programme, so I wouldn’t say that it made me a better player, but it was great from the point of view of composition – I studied non-European music as part of the degree and that introduced me to all sorts of interesting rhythmic elements.’
After graduating, Don found himself without a specific direction or career. He was interested in philosophy and, being brought up as a Roman Catholic, decided to enrol in a seminary, where he studied philosophy and music. Ultimately, however, he decided that taking holy orders was not for him and he considered taking a MA degree in music, though he was unsure what his real motivation was. After a consultation with one of his professors, he decided that what he really wanted to do was to work as a musician and set about recording an album-style demo featuring, in his own words, ‘just about everything I could play!’ He attracted a good deal of attention when he won the US National Fingerstyle Competition in 1988, and again in 1996, and he remains the only performer ever to win the competition twice.
Don’s earliest influences came from rock and pop music and the first song he learned was Sly and the Family Stone’s ‘Thank You for Letting Me Be Myself’. Those soul and funk influences can still be heard in his music today. He listened to a lot more acoustic music in his teens and cites his biggest influence as being fellow Canadian, Bruce Cockburn. ‘It’s all Bruce’s fault,’ he says. ‘I heard his ‘Foxglove’ in C tuning and thought, “I just have to do that”. I immediately started to learn lots of his music.’ In addition to Bruce Cockburn, Don cites other influences as being Leo Kottke, John Renbourn, Bert Jansch, Pierre Bensusan, and Michael Hedges. When I say that other players now cite him as their inspiration to play, he give s a small self-deprecating shrug and tells me that he is humbled at the thought that other players see him in that light. Interestingly, when we turn to talk about his approach to playing the guitar, Don maintains that he is, first and foremost, a composer. It just happens that the guitar is the instrument he plays best and is the vehicle for conveying his music. For many years he played Lowden guitars, having bought his first one as a university student, never really having heard of them and eventually became a Lowden endorsee. However, he subsequently met Ontario-based luthier, Marc Beneteau, at a show and struck up a relationship with him. Starting with a baritone model, Marc has made him around eight guitars over the years and is currently in the process of making him a harp guitar. Don has now been playing Beneteau guitars for around 15 years. Reliable instruments are pretty much an essential for the touring musician and touring plays an important role in Don’s work schedule.
After a short UK tour in March, Don will be back again in September. When we spoke, he had recently returned from a month on the road in Europe and China. ‘I do enjoy touring,’ he says. ‘I love seeing the world and meeting cool people who like my music… I made my second trip to China recently and it was quite the experience to play in Shanghai to 600 people who all knew the tunes and called out requests. I had a similar experience to 1000 people last year in Moscow. Feels pretty exotic and humbling!’ It’s not all roses these days, for the working musician, though, as becomes clear when we turn to discussing the challenges of a career in contemporary music. ‘It’s never been easy to make a living as a musician,’ Don explains. ‘Income is very unpredictable, but expenses aren’t! It’s a very costly way to make a living, between traveling and the costs of making recordings. The downward pressures on record sales and ticket prices have conspired to make it extremely challenging over the last decade, and there are now so many people on the road touring (since that tends to be one of the few ways left to make any money as a musician), that the competition for decent gigs has become somewhat untenable. I have no idea how the dust will settle, and I know more and more really great musicians who are seriously considering career changes, or who have gotten out of it altogether. It’s really too bad, and few people outside the music community seem to understand the pressures on those of us who are trying to do good things for the musical world. Many people seem to assume that if you’re getting decent views on YouTube and are playing regularly out in public that you must be relatively well-off. But overall, with a few exceptions, it’s simply become much more difficult to do this for a living.’
Don’s profile as a solo performer makes it easy to forget that he has also been a collaborator with other musicians too. ‘I focussed for a long time on playing and touring solo,’ he says. ‘It means that your audience is more niche, but it made it possible for me to have a decent lifestyle and afford to raise children. Once my kids got a bit older, I started collaborating a fair bit more, first with a great upright bassist named Jordan O’Connor.’
More recently, Don has collaborated with a wider range of musicians, including Brooke Miller (now his wife), Andy McKee, Jimmy Wahlsteen, Jon Gomm, and Calum Graham. ‘One of the great benefits of this is the chance to work out arrangements and new tunes with various collaborators. I’ve actually done a fair bit of work with other musicians, but it was mostly before I became a full-time musician. But, I have the skill set to collaborate well and I really enjoy it. Working with Brooke Miller has been a particular joy, as our musical collaboration led, early on, to a collaboration in life in general! We really travel well together and we have a complementary musical connection too.’
As we discuss Don’s influences, he highlights the playing of what he describes as ‘milestone players’ – Bruce Cockburn, John Renbourn, Pat Metheny, Pierre Bensusan, and Michael Hedges. ‘All of those players’ shoes are hard to fill and what I admire about all of them is how musical their playing is… they don’t just play anything! Their repertoires are very carefully curated, either through what they choose to interpret or by what they compose.’ He goes on to extend this description to some of the current crop of players such as Antoine Dufour, Andy McKee, Jon Gomm, Jimmy Wahlsteen, and Calum Graham. ‘It’s just too bad it’s so hard to sell records these days, because all of those musicians deserve notoriety and a decent living!’
With Don’s up-coming live dates in the UK, and a new album release imminent with Calum Graham, there should be plenty of opportunities to experience Don’s music. With a career extending over 25 years, he remains at the cutting edge of fingerstyle guitar and continues to inspire a new generation of players.