Andy Hughes talks to the Italian fingerstyle virtuoso in Montreal ahead of a gig with Martin Taylor about designing a signature guitar, percussive techniques, and a new project with Paul Gilbert and Sharon Isbin.
Peppino D’Agostino is a busy man. The evening of our meeting he is in Montreal for the Jazz Festival, opening for jazz great Martin Taylor, and tomorrow he will be in Paris, and then off around a tour of major European cities. Time is short, we have about 10 minutes to discuss his life and career – it’s surprising what you can cover in that time, starting with Peppino’s first guitar. ‘I pestered my mother when I was 10-years-old, after my cousin taught me a few basics, and we convinced my mother that I would be keen enough to have a guitar. I think a lot of young guitar players start out like that. As children, they hear the guitar and they feel a connection, enough to want to take it further, to explore that sound, and to build a relationship with it. I was lucky, I got my guitar, and I was very, very keen to learn to play it, so I put in the hours of practice, and now here is my reward, to play on the same stage as one of my musical heroes,’ Peppino starts.
Thanks to his hard work, and success, Peppino has been able to team up with Seagull guitars to create the Peppino D’Agostino artist edition guitar (reviewed in this issue). ‘I had a lot of input into the design,’ Peppino recalls. ‘I was able to request the specific design aspects that I wanted.’
‘I asked for a wider neck and wider spacing for the strings. The guitar is built on classical lines because the wider spacing makes it easier to play accurate fingerstyle. I asked for the same headstock that Seagull use on their models, where the strings are straight into the tuning pegs because that makes open tunings easier to tune and to keep in tune. I asked for spruce, rosewood and ebony for the body and a solid top, and above all I wanted it to be affordable. I am somewhere between a classical guitarist and a folk guitarist in my style, and as I said, the neck is the same width as a classical guitar.’
Anyone who has seen Peppino play ‘Nine White Kites’ will have experienced his level of expertise and technique first hand. Possessed of genuine modesty, Peppino smiles at the suggestion that he is a virtuoso musician, and offers his own assessment of his technical skill. ‘I think of technique as a mountain to climb, to conquer, and you never do reach the top, and that is the beauty of it. Every month I learn something new, and I have been playing for a long time. There are always new guitarists who blow your mind with their ability and skill. Technique should never be the end result – it should be the means to express your music, and your emotions. I like to use a lot of different styles, but I am not sure that I am different from anyone else. We are all musicians, and we all play our music in our own ways, and I think of us as like a family, so there is really no one who is better than anyone else. A real musician should aim for playing music as well as possible.’
Although the signature Seagull model comes with steel strings, he plays nylon, too, on ‘Barefoot In Rio’, but that is something of a rarity, which Peppino addresses with refreshing honesty. ‘I play a lot with classical guitarists who have a great tone when they play with nylon strings, and I don’t,’ he confesses. ‘It makes me angry! I think I may spend a few years learning to play with nylon strings and learn to get the tone I want, and then I will feel better about it. One of the issues is that I play with acrylic nails which gives a lovely bright, sharp tone when I play with steel strings, but not when I play with nylon strings.’
‘A musician whose opinion I value highly would be Sergio Assad, the Brazilian guitarist who is a fantastic player and composer. I also love Martin Taylor who is one of the best jazz guitarists in the world. I am so honoured to have the opportunity to play with him. Leo Kottke was a massive influence on me when I was growing up and learning to play – he opened a lot of doors for other players and myself. I love the work of John Renbourn and Paco De Lucia for flamenco, and for jazz it’s John McLaughlin and Joe Pass.’
What makes a good live show for you? ‘I think it is the same as for all musicians, it is making a connection with the audience – if that happens, then I feel good. It does not happen every time, I wish it did, but when it does, I enjoy that feeling; it carries me over the ones that are not so responsive. I never have a set list, I just like to feel the atmosphere in the room when I start to play, and then choose the music that will complement that feeling. I have about 40 pieces rehearsed and ready to go, so I have plenty to choose from for an evening’s performance.’
During our conversation Peppino has been multi-tasking, talking about his craft and career while simultaneously tuning his guitar and warming up his hands ready for her performance that is now just minutes away. Time for an enquiry about guitar playing styles – do they come naturally, or does he seek them out? ‘I think when you first start to learn, you are a sponge – you soak up everything you can hear and experience. I remember when I started listening to Leo Kottke and Chet Atkins and I’d think about their styles and what I could do to be like them. Then when I started writing my own material, the first few pieces were very similar to Leo Kottke, which is natural. But with different influences coming in, my writing and playing styles evolved as I picked up different aspects of the music I heard, and the players I saw performing. Being a musician is like wine, you mature with age, but there are some wines that get worse with age,’ he laughs.
Now, something of an exclusive from Peppino… ‘I will tell you now about a new project that is going out on tour in 2014; it is called ACES – Acoustic Classical Electric Synergy. I am going on the road with Sharon Isbin the classical guitarist, and Paul Gilbert the electric guitarist who played with Mr Big. We will be able to combine all the essential elements of the craft of guitar playing in its major forms. There will be something for everyone in an evening of music, and we are very much looking forward to it. Hopefully we will be able to bring our tour to the UK sometime in 2014. It is very exciting news!’
Regular readers will know that the percussive techniques used by many acoustic guitarists are becoming more and more popular. As one of the pioneers, Peppino remains enthusiastic about this technique, but he has reservations, too. ‘It is a technique I have always liked and, as you said, I started doing it 30 years ago. I do like to do it myself, and to hear it when it is done well. What happens, though, is some guitarists are great drummers, and they can tap really well, but they are missing the essential ingredient which is the melody. The melody is always the root, the essential ingredient of the piece, and that cannot be submerged, or overlooked, in favour of tapping. Melody first – always!’ Andy Hughes