Luca Stricagnoli is an exciting talent emerging from Italy with the help of CandyRat Records and some insanely technical fingerstyle guitar wizardry. Sam Wise finds out about that Guns N’ Roses arrangement…
If you’ve come across percussive guitar virtuoso Luca Stricagnoli, chances are he was playing AC/DC’s ‘Thunderstruck’ on YouTube, and in an age where we’re approaching peak Thunderstruck, you might have overlooked him. That would be a shame because the young Italian is a truly innovative player, stretching the boundaries of technique, and lending a fine musical ear to proceedings too. Acoustic caught up with him prior to the launch of his latest video, an extraordinary take on the Guns N’ Roses classic ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ performed on two guitars at once. More on that later…
Tell us a bit about the solo acoustic guitar scene on your home turf of Italy…
There are many skilled guitar players in Italy; I’ve got many friends who are really good, but not many of them are very famous, and when it comes to the situation at festivals, I see pretty much the same names every time, even though there are people who are more skilled, but they are the most famous ones. Everyone who plays acoustic guitar here in Italy knows Stefano Barone, and people like him opened my mind up to this kind of guitar playing, but when it comes to Italy, we pretty much hear all of the percussive fingerstyle music from the USA.
I believe you were classically trained when you were young, but gave it up to focus on judo. Can you tell us about that?
Well, my relationship with guitar is a little bit strange. When I was young, I asked my mum to let me play because I saw someone playing and thought it was cool – in Italy, classical guitar is at the forefront of the instrument. I started playing at 10, but at 16 I didn’t want to play guitar any more. You know, there’s that difficult phase when all the guys are getting into cool stuff, and it felt like nobody cared about my guitar playing, and I felt like I had no concrete possibility to make money from playing guitar. I think I was even a little bit angry with guitar; you know, I put all my force into this instrument, and I felt like it wasn’t giving back to me, so I felt like I wanted to take up a fighting sport. I spent about three years not even putting a finger on the guitar, but when I was 19 years old, a friend who used to practise judo with me knew that I played guitar and he showed me videos of more percussive guitar styles. I thought “wow!”, and suddenly I was in love with guitar again. I used YouTube, and tried to learn the song that he showed me, and suddenly everyone was saying to me, “Luca, you should come back to playing guitar”. I had two posters in my room, one was a famous judo player, and the other was a famous acoustic guitar player, and I used to wake up and look at the two pictures, trying to decide which I wanted to do. The picture of the acoustic guitar player was always smiling, with this really happy expression, whereas the judo player was ready to fight, with a very serious expression. I knew which of those I wanted more.
So, coming back to guitar, how did you come to develop your amazing style and technique?
Well, the first tune that I learned was the same as every young guitar player: ‘Drifting’ by Andy McKee. That was the video that my friend showed to me, and I learned that song, and taught myself other songs with Andy McKee, and Erik Mongrain, and thought, “That’s how this is done”. YouTube is a great gift for younger guitar players. I started doing my arrangements for about a year and a half, and then I started trying to do some new things because I get bored with guitar in five minutes. I was thinking, “This has been done by this guitar player, this has been done by that one”, and I really don’t want to just do what everyone else is doing. So I developed my own style within that genre.
You play some very impressive covers; and your album seems to have some of your own music on it. I notice that YouTube only has covers; do you find they are an effective way to reach your audience, or is there more to it than that?
This thing about arrangements is an important matter for me, because every time, even when I want to play arrangements around something, I feel like they’re considered an easy option, something which is not as difficult as composing a new piece. I first started bringing something of myself to the guitar with the theme to Last Of The Mohicans; I did many arrangements before I started to compose, and there’s a reason for that. At first, everything was just fun. I heard this theme that Placido Domingo used, and I knew I wanted to play that on guitar – but my guitar was a seven-string, so I wasn’t going to be able to find any cover that I could copy. So, at first, it was just for fun, but then I realised that I needed to work really hard at this. I gave my first videos to CandyRat Records, and I saw that the Last Of The Mohicans went well because it had something different. So now, I’m mostly doing famous songs, not because people know it, but because there are lots of versions out there on solo guitar, and I want to create a different version. So, I want to create new music, new notes, but when you are making an arrangement, you don’t have to take any responsibility for the music, you can just concentrate on guitar, and sometimes, the way the record sounds doesn’t lend itself to the guitar, so you need to find something new to make it work, and that’s exciting to me.
You use some very unusual techniques. Is being an innovator important to you?
Well, the thing with the violin bow is one of my favourites because that was the first thing that gave me some kind of visibility. Of course, when you’re in your own room, you can do anything you want, you can use three guitars, and keep changing them, but when you play live, you have to somehow rearrange everything on stage to make that happen. So every time I play, I have to have three guitars with me. Another interesting one to me was the arrangement of ‘Braveheart’, where I used lots of instruments, a recorder, two harmonicas, three guitars, and so I started to think about a new guitar, which is supposed to be a substitute for the flute. So I have a guitar that is played just with the right hand, while I play another guitar with the left hand. I developed a whole new arrangement to show this guitar. I feel that this way of playing with two guitars is going to be something really different. It has two sets of strings, with the second on the side like a harp. I kept the top bout free for percussion, and I have a plate on there for percussive taps.
At this point in the interview, Luca treated us to a preview of his extraordinary Sweet Child O’ Mine arrangement; he plays the famous riff on the harp strings, taps different parts of the arrangement on both this harp guitar, laid flat in front of him, and his more standard guitar around his neck, and even adds a notched capo to change tuning mid stream. Even those of us who pay attention to solo guitar will find this a technical and innovative tour de force. Check the video out on YouTube.
Do you ever feel trapped in the solo guitar world, or do you get to play your music to mainstream audiences?
I’d like to do that because what I like about acoustic guitar, compared to other styles, is that normal audiences can listen to it as well. There’s a huge block between classical guitar and mainstream audiences, but at least with this, there is some crossover because of the arrangements. I don’t know what’s going to happen, and how my playing will change; maybe I’ll wake up one day and decide that I want to start singing, and start a band, but still with acoustic guitar at the forefront…
Tell us about the different guitars you play and tour with.
All of my guitars are made by luthier Davide Serracini. Getting to know this luthier was a really big part of my development as a player and I have to say that lots of things I do are thanks to him because he is a very skilled guy and creates things for me that didn’t exist before. I met him at a festival when I was 19 years old and he heard me play and so I asked him to let me play his guitars on the stage. He was impressed, and he helped me a lot and gave me an endorsement. I love these guitars, everyone who sees them does, but quite apart from how beautiful they are, they have a particular feeling for me; I can’t ever imagine using anyone else’s guitars. Although I think he’s a little bit ashamed of the Frankenstein guitar that I’m using on ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ though…
Luca Stricagnoli plays the London Acoustic Show on September 12 and 13 2015.