Antonio Forcione is an internationally renowned guitar master travelling with his brand of infectious jazz-inflected melodies. With a Yamaha strapped to his back, he provides clinics, masterclasses, and concerts the world over. His latest album Sketches of Africa delves into new inspiration, but the melody is always at the heart of it.
No one can accuse Antonio Forcione of taking the easy route. From his start as a musician in his native Italy he has been, and remains, a driven individual with a consuming passion for the music he creates with his guitars. Moving to London in 1983, speaking no English, Antonio made a living as a busker. Winning an award got him onto BBC television, and from there he travelled back to Europe, this time supporting the hugely popular British band Barclay James Harvest. The rest, unsurprisingly, followed in the form of 17 albums and a host of musical awards, tours, television appearances, and clinics – in fact anything and everything connected to the acoustic guitar.
Let’s go back to the beginning, when young Antonio developed his abiding love for music, not with the guitar at first, as he explains. ‘I actually started off with an interest in rhythm, and wanting to learn the play the drums,’ says Antonio in his lightly accented yet faultless English. ‘I never wanted to learn the guitar. My older brother got me a secondhand drum set, and I started bashing that as hard as I could for hours a day. I was 11 years old and, at that age, I had no idea what the word “neighbour” meant! So, after a month, I am sure that the shoemaker who lived downstairs from us was thinking about either shooting himself, or shooting me! So he had a word with my dad, and my dad very cleverly bought a secondhand guitar, and asked me to have a try with that.’
‘The guitar lay there for quite a while as I was a sporty person, and I didn’t see myself sitting there with a guitar practising for hours at a time. So, I tried the guitar, and I fell in love with it. What happens at first, is you are thinking only about getting your fingers in the right places, and it hurts, and the whole experience is a world of pain and frustration. When you get over that you start a love affair, and that is when you start to really enjoy playing and you pick up the guitar more and more often. You sit there in whichever room you play, and the day goes by and the light goes down, and you don’t notice, you don’t stop to eat – you sit there playing and playing. I remember my mother coming in and asking me what I was doing sitting there in the dark. You fall in love with the music, and you lose your sense of time and space. The first teacher I had was the barber in my town. The only people who played an instrument were the barbers, because they were the only ones who did not have callouses on their hands, which prevented them from playing properly. Everyone else was a farmer, or a labourer and did something with their hands – the barbers played mandolin, violin, and guitar. The guy in my town played all three instruments, and he showed me some playing styles. After that, I picked up odd lessons here and there – nothing regular. The most interesting lessons I had were when I left art college when I was 19, and I moved to Rome because I was very determined to be a musician. I took some lessons with a jazz guitarist who lived in Rome – a really good guitarist – and I started to learn more about theory and harmony. He taught me about proper technique, so I had to undo some bad habits, correcting positions, and learn to play properly, which was a big advantage. I did a lot of playing for the next six years or so, up until I was 25. That was when I heard the album, Friday Night In San Francisco by Paco de Lucia, Al Di Meola, and John McLaughlin. I was really taken with the spirit involved in that record. I wanted to play like that, which involved a lot of rehearsing – I didn’t know at the time that these were some of the best and fastest acoustic players in the world, but I wanted to play like them!’
On the subject of styles – of which Antonio has an impressive array – are there new styles to be discovered and added into his repertoire? ‘I never look for styles, as such. If I find some music that moves me, then I will move heaven and earth to discover the style that will enable me to play it well, and then to master it. My last album is called Sketches Of Africa, and to work on the preparation for it, I went to Africa and played with a lot of African musicians, and I thought about the way that they play. I found an expression that explains it – “beautifully irregular.” I started to play that way more and more.
There was a guy from Madagascar who would call at my house every Tuesday, and we would play together, six hours just playing two chords. I know you would expect to get bored with playing the same two chords for that long but, to be honest, I found that what the African musicians are looking for was absolutely fascinating, how different cultures approach music. I can’t say that I play flamenco, I can’t say that I play an African style, but I work to get as close as I can to those styles if I like them. I don’t go looking for techniques. I go looking for my feelings, and the technique follows,’ he says.
‘I am not sure I have a favourite style or technique; it’s hard to say. Different guitars give different tones and some suit some styles better than others. If I am improvising, then I like to use the pick. I am quite limited in playing with my fingers because I have never really studied fingerstyle, but with a pick, and playing with a band, I can improvise easily. If I want to get some long notes, I will use steel strings with a bit of reverb. If I want something a little more old-fashioned like an old waltz, or something with a Spanish flavour, something articulate, I use nylon strings.’
For Antonio, the driving force is composition, and he has evolved his own method… ‘I always pick up the guitar and never play the same thing. I have that approach, I like to explore rhythmically, harmonically, and melodically. I am doing a lot of touring at the moment and I am using my iPhone to capture odd little ideas that come along, that could be the beginning of something, or maybe a bridge for something I am already working on, so I keep things like that to refer back to when I have more time. There is an element of natural selection at work, I think if something is going to work, it will be strong enough for the memory to stay in your fingers, and if it is not going to last or develop, it gets forgotten.’
With the increase in home studio technology, meaning that anyone with a laptop can become a recording artist, it’s interesting to find Antonio’s take on the business of recording. ‘I do know enough to record myself, Antonio says. ‘I don’t tend to do it, though. I am lucky to be signed to a small label in Salisbury, and I have recorded 15 albums with them. They provide a studio and technicians – learning to be a good engineer at that level takes a long time. There may be people who are cleverer than me who can manage both, but I like to be able to grab my guitar and play it, and make it sing. Sometimes I walk on stage and I feel really confident that I can play well, and I will play something I have never played in public before. To be in that frame of mind, I have to be physically and mentally fit, with my technique up to the right standard – I would like to spend my time getting to that feeling more often. You have to dig deep into yourself, and almost become what you are playing. It is not something you can call up for use in half an hour’s time; it doesn’t work like that. The feeling just comes to you, and you know that it is there.’
Antonio loves a good challenge, and so it is no surprise to hear that he relishes the thrill of improvising when playing in concert. ‘Sometimes I have improvised a performance from beginning to end,’ he says with a smile. ‘I have done it entirely as a challenge. I have gone on stage not knowing what I am going to play, and from when I strike the first string, something will follow and build into an entire evening of music. It is scary, but it is so very exciting. Music should always be looking for that particular place. That is where you touch the creativity button and move onto a higher level. The practicing, the travel, all that stuff, is all worth it if you can capture that atmosphere and build on it through a concert.’
Newcomers to Antonio’s music should make a point of hearing his take on the Marvin Gaye classic ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ with every nuance and undercurrent of a man singing of his suspicion and heartbreak captured beautifully by Antonio’s playing. ‘It started when I heard some players using different tunings on their guitars. I had never used a different tuning; I used standard tunings for 20 years. So I thought I’d experiment and I moved the B string up to C, and the low E down to D, and I was playing patterns, and then the Grapevine melody came into my head and I started to play with it, and add some different harmonics on to it.’
Now for his guitars; Antonio is a Yamaha endorsee and, as we chat, he’s continually twanging away on one. ‘I have a Yamaha APX1200 with steel strings. I have a custom made guitar – my fretless – that has nylon strings. I added eight more strings to get a drone sound, and the low E, I tuned down to A, which is really low. I think all this came from me loving the Oud, and its sound. The Oud is a stringed instrument similar to a lute, and it is played in the Middle East. Having a fretless guitar makes you play a completely different way. You cannot simply play chords and when you play a phrase, you always have to move onto the last note because it will never be in pitch, so you have to be clever enough to slide onto it, to caress the string and the note into the pitch – it does take a lot of practice to get right. It appeals to my soul. I do love finding new ways of getting sounds from my guitars. I have a fretless on my new album where I have tuned everything an octave lower than normal; it has a low deep so it sounds more like a bass guitar. It is great for melody playing, and for me, the melody is the god of playing, that is what moves me. If you can improvise as well, and pour out melodies in your playing, that is what I am looking for. I must credit Pat Metheny for that, it is something he does very well, and I am a big fan of his music.’
As so much of Antonio’s work is based on instinct, it’s intriguing to enquire about his personal quality control. Unsurprisingly, it is as rigorous as everything else that Antonio brings to his playing. ‘It is instinct. I am a very instinctive musician. It does cause raised eyebrows in the recording studio because I can spend all day on something, being very meticulous, and then come in the next day, play it back and decide that it doesn’t work, and will have to be done over again. It has to be right – if it is not right, I am not happy and must do it again. In a concert it is the opposite because everything is in the moment – you can change things, improvise, and nothing is ever going to be the same two concerts running. Every day is a different experience, which is how it should always be.’ Andy Hughes
Images by Richard Ecclestone