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Finger- Pickin’ Good

Stewart Oksenhorn

There are a lot of ways to describe Adrian Legg’s music. The Brit’s finger-style guitar picking is artful, melodic, sophisticated and technically mind-boggling. It is certainly tasteful.

Funny to think, then, that what Legg really wanted from his music was to be a statement of rebellion.

Legg’s first musical experience ” singing in a Church of England choir at the age of 8 ” was hardly in the rebellious mode. But the simple act of making music opened up a world to Legg’s young mind that fascinates him to this day.

“I didn’t see anything else that I wanted anything to do with,” said Legg from a tour stop in San Diego, and who makes his way to Aspen for a performance Friday, April 16, at the Wheeler Opera House in a benefit for GrassRoots TV-Channel 12. Legg will also conduct a guitar workshop on Thursday, April 15, at 7 p.m., at GrassRoots TV’s studio in the Red Brick Center for the Arts. “And for a long time I couldn’t see why guitar and music weren’t the most important things in life to everybody.”

A good partial response to Legg’s childhood question is there was virtually no guitar, and no music with appeal for a younger generation, to be heard in Cheltenham, where he grew up. Having no familiarity with guitar at the time, Legg first studied oboe, and played in school and youth orchestras. As his teenage years took hold of body and spirit, the centuries-old classical music just wasn’t doing it for young Adrian.

But it was the late ’50s, and Britain’s youth culture lagged a tad behind America’s. In Cheltenham, a middling city some 80 miles west of London that now has a population of 100,000, pop music and guitars were virtually unheard of.

“We got nothing on the radio of British pop music,” said Legg. “We didn’t know how any of that went, even how it was played.” But Legg was desperate to find a sound that spoke to him, and searched the radio waves from end to end. “As the hormones kicked in, Radio Luxembourg started broadcasting American music.”

Legg was transfixed by what he heard. Especially vivid in his memory was hearing Indiana blues-rock guitarist Lonnie Mack doing his early ’60s hit “Wham!” “I heard it once and it was virile and energetic and powerful,” he said.

Another early influence that drew Legg into the world of the six-string was the Shadows, the backing band for British teen-pop idol Cliff Richard. “It was very melodic pop, the first big, shining guitar sound I heard,” said Legg, adding that many British kids of the time, including Mark Knopfler, have also praised the Shadows for exposing the possibilities of the guitar. “That’s when I first started drifting away from classical music. Which was against the tide ” the establishment just hated it. Which made it all the more attractive.”

The technical track

Properly enthused and poised to rebel, Legg had one major hurdle: learning how to play the guitar and make pop music. Hearing the music over the airwaves was one thing. But there were no local guitar players in Cheltenham, no instructional videos, no rock stars flashing their guitars on TV. And there were no guitars to be had. So Legg constructed his own reasonable facsimiles, using scrap wood and small parts stolen off public buses. They weren’t much, but they were sufficient for their purpose.

“It was all worth playing,” said Legg. “It all went, ‘twang’ ” and that was the point. To make it go ‘twang.’ It was a serious point of contention with my parents.”

By 1968, Legg had a half-decent guitar and some skills with it. He had no interest in the Beatles, the erstwhile local sensation who had beat it out of Liverpool as soon as they hit it big. But when a friend asked him to join a band, Legg jumped at the chance. “I thought, why not? I’ll meet girls, make friends, have a new social scene,” he said.

What he actually found was further inspiration. “It was country music and that actually fit in with my whole melodic concept,” he said. “I discovered wonderful country instrumentalists, especially the Bakersfield sound. And no vocalists, except George Jones, who used his voice like an instrument. I realized there were these terrible singers in front of these wonderful sounds.”

But Legg was not fated to be a country picker. Back in London ” where he was born, before his parents moved him in spite of his strenuous objections ” Legg was drafted to add an acoustic guitar part to a friend’s record. Inspired by the harmonic structure of the song, Legg began messing around with a finger-style guitar technique on a nice Martin acoustic guitar. Discovering finger-style was like hearing Lonnie Mack on the radio a decade earlier.

But again there were barriers. There were few guitarists anywhere playing finger-style. And Legg didn’t have a record player, so instrumental tips came mostly from his contemporaries. But these were small problems next to the major obstacle: Amplification equipment at the time was insufficient to allow a finger-style guitarist to be heard decently in concert.

Legg says his playing “developed quickly, but not in any viable stage form, because there were no pickups. It was terribly frustrating, because I was developing this sound and it sounded horrible onstage. You couldn’t hear it.”

Legg quit performing. But he fortuitously turned to the related occupation of sound equipment, where he tinkered with ways of making his guitar-playing audible.

“I found ways of combining the flexibility and power of electric guitar with the harmonic content of acoustic,” he said. “And that’s what’s been going on ever since, trying to combine both with a reasonable volume and a reasonable form onstage.”

‘An orchestra in your arms’

It is true that Legg remains consumed by technical concerns. His recordings, like last year’s “Guitar Bones,” and his Web site are loaded with notes about instruments, tunings and equipment. When I call Legg for an interview, it takes a moment for him to ready himself: Legg is in the middle of figuring out a fingering dilemma. (“Very boring and nerdy,” he says.)

But if Legg seems obsessed with the technical, he has mastered the artistry of his work. Since kicking off his recording career with 1983’s “Technopicker,” Legg has amassed a catalog of a dozen records that has impressed critics and guitar nuts. Readers of Guitar Player magazine voted him best finger-style guitarist four years running, from 1993-96, and he was voted guitarist of the decade by England’s Guitarist magazine. Legg has been part of the G3 tours alongside fellow pickers Joe Satriani, Eric Johnson and Steve Vai.

Legg has not found the need to stray stylistically. In finger-style, which combines jazzy harmonic structures, country and blues flavors, and the density of classical music on one instrument, Legg has found plenty to occupy his mind and fingers.

“I suppose it’s the idea of having an orchestra in your arms, that kind of polyphony that an orchestra has,” said Legg of the appeal of finger-style guitar. “I’m trying to extend the guitar into being a synthesizer. I want to get long-note quality out of an instrument that is essentially a short-note instrument.”

Though there is now a fleet of finger-style players to learn from, Legg prefers to turn his attention in other directions. Asked to name some strong influences, he cites Earl Scruggs, Snuffy Jenkins and Bill Keith ” all longtime banjoists.

“There’s more to learn from steel guitar and banjo than guitar for me,” he said. “Imitating them, taking the techniques and phrasings, and translating them to guitar.”

Legg has developed from a guitarist who could barely be heard on the stage to someone renowned as a consummate performer. His wit and stories have become almost as much of his concerts as his music. “It always seemed that live music was and should be a social event,” said Legg, a commentator-at-large for National Public Radio. “So I figured I should just ramble away, talking like one would at a social event.”

Not that Legg’s music requires distractions or supplements. For a guy playing one guitar with two hands and few embellishments, Legg gets a marvelous variety of sounds and feels. On “Guitar Bones,” “Jam Today” is an up-tempo jazz-rock workout; “The One-Eyed Turk” evokes Delta blues; “Short Story” is an atmospheric melody with a Celtic leaning. The album ends with “Een Kleijne Komedye,” a rambunctious blast that shows that for all his sophistication, Legg still has the spirit of a rock ‘n’ roll rebel.

“We should all think lots of different things,” he said of his versatility. “I don’t see how music is monotonous, unless you intentionally play the same thing over and over. America as well as England are diverse cultures, with a lot of things going on in our lives. Our minds ramble all over the place, by and large. “

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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