Alison Richter chats to the fingerstyle virtuoso ahead of a masterclass and main stage performance at the London Acoustic Show in association with Ernie Ball Strings.
When Canadian virtuoso Antoine Dufour performs at the London Acoustic Show, attendees can expect one man and one guitar. Dufour will arrive with his Beauregard guitar, and that’s it — no backup. ‘I try to travel light,’ he says. ‘I have good cases and I just bring one guitar.’ Apparently, one is all it takes for the fingerstyle soloist to simulate the sound of an entire band, with intricate melodies, percussive techniques, and chord structures.
Dufour’s concerts focus less on improvisation and more on dynamics and interpretation, an approach that he says keeps the songs recognisable and interesting for both himself and the audience. ‘There are two things I think of when I do a set list,’ he says. ‘The biggest problem is I have to change tunings for pretty much every song and that’s a lot of work, so I try to organise my set list with the tunings that are closest together, and I try to group similar tunes. I start strong with something simpler and end with the harder ones.’
World renown through six albums and six years of touring, Dufour is a songwriter as well as a guitarist. ‘I listen to a lot of different music and I emulate what I like,’ he says, ‘but I make it sound like my own way of writing. I create songs in a style that’s inspired by something I like, and then write on top of the key as I try to learn it. That’s kind of my writing technique now. When I started, it was mostly trial and error by feel. I was trying to write, but I didn’t really know how. It was always luck – or bad luck! But with the albums, I narrowed down my writing, and by writing chords and the melody on paper, I can study the song slowly and arrange it. It’s a lot of work, but it helped my technique get better by being able to play what I’ve written. The touring helped me get comfortable onstage and playing solo. The only thing that still brings me nerves are the new songs on the set list that I’ve never done – but it’s getting better!’
Dufour grew up surrounded by music. His parents owned guitars, and early on he discovered his father’s album collection. He became enamoured of progressive rock bands like Genesis, Gentle Giant, and Yes, and developed a love for classical guitar because of Steve Howe. He began studying the genre as a college student at age 17, and through his teacher was introduced to fingerstyle players such as Leo Kottke, Pierre Bensusan, and his biggest inspiration, Don Ross.
Now 35 and solely an acoustic player, Dufour also played electric guitar while in his 20s. ‘I played heavy metal shred stuff like that 10 years ago,’ he says. ‘I played a lot more electric, but in the last five years I haven’t had much time for it, so I’m rusty. I don’t have much time to practise. I’ve got an Ernie Ball Music Man Majesty that I got from them because I’m sponsored for strings; it’s a John Petrucci signature guitar, which I like a lot. I’m more into alternative and electronic music now. I love Imogen Heap, Radiohead, Björk and Coldplay.’
Although he placed first in Canadian fingerstyle guitar championships and third internationally (behind Doug Smith and Don Alder), Dufour says that mastering fingerstyle ‘is still really hard,’ and remains not only modest but seemingly incredulous about the accolades. ‘I’m trying my best, but I should practise more and get better at certain things,’ he says. ‘Classical guitar helped me a lot with the basics, the playing technique. I learned fingerstyle primarily by learning a lot of Don Ross. I got better and eventually started writing. I don’t consider myself such a great guitarist, actually. I can be okay sometimes, but I can’t play really fast or shred so much. Some guitar players are good at that. I just have my own thing and I try to work on that.’
He bought his first acoustic, a Takamine, in 2000, and two years later began playing Larrivée guitars. He received a Stonebridge when he won the Canadian Guitar Festival’s Fingerstyle Guitar Championship in 2006, then discovered Montreal’s Beauregard Guitars.
‘I was going to guitar shows, trying a lot of guitars, and realising a lot of things about the different woods,’ he says. ‘I found the Beauregard, and nothing comes close. I just love Mario Beauregard’s work. His guitars have a very full, powerful sound. My OM has such great sustain that I can’t find anywhere else.’
Dufour uses Archangel preamps and DiMarzio pickups, combining transducer and magnetic pickups, and a mic inside the guitar. ‘Sometimes it’s a little harder to amplify live because the guitars are so responsive,’ he says. He just added a second Beauregard, the larger, AD signature model, to his collection, opting for spruce this time instead of cedar, with a bevel and different headstock. ‘I wanted something a little different than my OM,’ he says.
Dufour records for CandyRat Records and now tracks in his own studio, where he also mixes and masters. ‘I like doing sound and mixing,’ he says. ‘I have my own way of recording acoustic guitar and mixing it, my personal thing, so that’s something I always try to develop. I like the big capsule mics more than the smaller ones, because acoustic music has a lot of dynamics, so I use larger diaphragm mics and they sound fuller. I put one mic at the 12th fret pointing at the seventh fret, and another one on my right, pointing 45 degrees just above the bridge where my hand is playing. So that makes it very wide left and right. I like the characteristic of a clear sound, very precise on the left, and a full sound on the right, and I combine them when I mix. It captures a lot of the whole tone of the instrument.’
He also produces other artists, including fingerstyle guitarists Donovan Raitt and Daniel Voth. ‘It inspires me when I hear what they’re doing,’ he says. ‘It pushes me. I’m discovering new artists doing the style their own way, trying something else, new things.’
In addition to seminars, workshops, and masterclasses Dufour is a guitar teacher, holding lessons via Skype and in a first-of-its-kind fingerstyle programme that he launched at a college in Quebec (Cégep Marie-Victorin). He teaches half a dozen students individually, all on one day per week, and is looking forward to a lab in the coming school year, during which he’ll teach a group together, in addition to separate lessons. ‘It’s going to be a little different,’ he says. ‘The programme was offered only as a secondary instrument last year, but now it’s a main instrument. The students want to know how they can do these little tricks here and there, and I can probably teach the basics a little bit, even if it’s an extended technique. Of course I give a lot of exercises first, but sometimes I still show them a little trick, and they practise that and they’re happy. At the same time, I tell them to get strong technique first, and songs that are accessible to their level.’
His current schedule, which includes tour dates, has made him the busiest he’s ever been – teaching, performing, producing, travelling, and working on new material. ‘I have six or seven songs that are done, but I need to work on them,’ he says. ‘Probably next year I’ll finish all the writing and recording and get another album out.’
Social media has played a strong role in bringing Antoine Dufour to the forefront. His YouTube videos have amassed more than 50 million views – an astounding number for any artist; even more so for an independent solo acoustic guitarist. Looking at his many accomplishments and his loyal international fan base seems to overwhelm him. Asked if he can truly see the scope of what he’s done, he replies, ‘I don’t know. It’s pretty awesome. When you write your first tunes and you’re putting them out, it’s cool to have an album. Then you see people playing your tunes and learning them, and you never thought it would happen. It’s wonderful to inspire other people. I’ve been lucky enough to always be motivated. I’m not searching for anything. I’m just doing it and I hope for the best. I think that’s why I do a lot of different things, like touring, recording, and teaching. I can always have different things so I can make a living at the end of the day, because it’s not easy now. The music business is really low, and it’s tough to tour and sell music. It’s hard, so you better have a lot of arrows in your bow, as they say. I try to do a lot of things that are all related to music, but that are diverse, so that I can stay working. I just focus on what I do. I’m trying to write music that I like, and hopefully people will like it – that’s all.’
Antoine Dufour plays the London Acoustic Show in association with Ernie Ball Strings on Saturday 12 and Sunday 13 September 2015.