Interview With Jim Earp

by Steve Elliott
Dec. 2, 2000

Jim Earp is a contemporary fingerstyle guitarist from San Diego. Jim's 1996 instrumental album "Rosewood" was nominated for two San Diego Music Awards and winner of the Southern California city's coveted Guitar Wars contest.  His latest work "Smiles To Go" has been nominated for "Best Local Recording" for the
2000 San Diego Music Awards.

Instrumental contemporary acoustic may be Earp's bread and butter but it's not the only type of music he performs. He is not only an accomplished singer-songwriter, Earp also playes lead electric guitar in the San Diego group Modern Peasants.  

Earp began studying guitar design and manufacturing in Podunavac's luthiery school and built his own instrument in the Podunavac style in 1981.  Earp began playing guitar in 1973 and for the last 17 years has played the same handmade guitar.

A civil servant for the U.S. Department of Defense, Earp is married to wife Cathy.   Jim and Cathy have 14-year-old twin girls, Terra and Rianne.

AGR: There's a neat picture of you on your new CD "Smiles To Go" as a kid playing a toy guitar. So when did you and the guitar actually gel?

EARP: I actually picked up the guitar at 17.  My best friend's older brother was a fingerstyle player, and I heard him playing Paul Simon's "Cathy's Song".  That just did it for me.  I had been a clarinetist for 7 years prior - but the guitar just started coming to me fairly quickly, and I lost interest in the clarinet.

AGR: It's interesting to note that even a musician and player of your caliber has a day job.  Is this an economic necessity, or a lifestyle choice?  I read recently that Eric Lugosh, another fine American fingerstylist, has to support himself by working in a vet's practice during the day and is looking to a European label - Acoustic Music Records - to further his career.  There's a feeling among a lot of American acoustic guitarists that Europe is more fingerstyle friendly and that it is somehow more appreciated as an art form in Europe. Or is this just anti-US clap-trap? What's your opinion?

EARP: I've been working for the US Federal Government as a civil servant for upwards of 18 years now.  As a homeowner, husband, and father of twin teenage girls - I totally view the day job as a necessity.  And, the perks that come with the job - health/dental benefits, paid vacation/sick leave - aren't bad either!  In fact, as I am writing this, I have my right hand in a cast because of a broken pinky finger.  The cast is this huge, awkward thing- and so playing is impossible.  I've had to cancel eight concerts this month- and the lost income from those engagements is substantial.  But, this broken hand also inhibits me from doing my regular day job, which is 90% computer/mouse/keyboard.  I can type- but I'm down to 10 wpm as a hunt'n'peck (believe me, typing this is slooow!)  As a result, I've taken 3 of my 5 weeks worth of sick leave to heal up.  So, I'm getting paid while I'm sitting.  If I were just doing the music- I would be in serious trouble.

As far as Europe being more "fingerstyle friendly" than the US- well, I've been hearing this for years.  I've been repeatedly advised to just move to Germany and play in pubs, and a livelihood in music would all but "fall into my lap."  I suppose I was never brave enough to give it a try, and thus I can't speak authoritatively on the subject because I haven't been there. A few years ago, the late Marcel Dadi took my good friend D.R. Auten on a tour of Germany and Vienna.  To hear D.R. tell it, the Europeans love fingerstyle guitar and loved him (and no doubt- the guy is drop-dead amazing!), but it's also a given that D.R. played in venues that were totally into fingerstyle and what Marcel was about.  You can also find these similar kinds of venues stateside.  Is Europe more open to fingerstyle guitarists?  It's a subjective, "grass is greener" kinda question if you ask me.

AGR: Any advice for people trying to hold down fulltime jobs and become guitar heroes at the same time?

EARP: Well, have some reasonable and realistic expectations.  If a fingerstyle guitarist can't tour because of employment considerations, that artist should expect their notoriety to be fairly regional in it's reach.  When folks ask me how I'm doing as an artist, I always remark that I'm moving from "absolute obscurity to relative obscurity" on a day-by-day basis.  Take this interview, for example. I'm a virtually unknown guitarist who rarely plays outside of Southern California, and I'm being interviewed for a European on-line publication.  I'm reaching for that "relative obscurity" at this very moment!

Frankly, I believe that it is very hard to make it as a solo guitarist in this country.  Not impossible, mind you- but very hard.  Radio play over here is virtually non-existent for fingerstyle guitar, and the American fingerstyle scene is literally driven by "name recognition." You have to be extremely pro-active to get your name out there.  Radio and video are not selling records for the fingerstylist, so incessant touring is all but a given to actually "make a living."  Even if you are talented enough win a competition or two and get invited to play a few festivals or get some great press in the industry mags- or even land a track in a sampler or songbook- you still have to be fairly adept at parlaying these bits of good fortune into lasting career advances.  This can be extremely difficult to do if your job forces you into the musical role of "weekend warrior."  The best advice I can give is for a guitarist to be extremely pro-active about their career.  Be polite, but persistent.  Use the internet to their full advantage.  Write the trade magazines.  Seek out those who are willing to review fingerstyle projects. Write other guitarists.  Be fearless.  Be gracious.

AGR: You say you play contemporary acoustic guitar.  What do you mean precisely?

EARP: Well, I kinda jumped on the term that was already out there.  I feel that it's certainly a loosely-defining term which comes to mean an acoustic guitar style that is not locked into any certain idiom.  Contemporary acoustic guitar isn't necessarily country/blues based playing and ideas, isn't jazz, and doesn't have to hold to any stylistic traditions per se.  I think contemporary acoustic guitar is a hybrid incorporating some or all of the elements of the aforementioned styles, as well as incorporating non-traditional rhythmic/percussive techniques. Contemporary acoustic guitar is actually an ongoing "new tradition" of it's own.  The basic idea is "acoustic guitar as orchestra" versus "acoustic guitar as accompaniment."

AGR: Celtic and quasi classical influences mingle and merge in your playing, so you are obviously more inspired by the vocal and melodic possibilities of the guitar. A lot of contemporary acoustic guitar is quite avant garde in its approach, diametrically opposed you might say to what you're doing, which opens it to the charge of  being of interest only to other guitarists. In other words is the virtuoso getting in the way of bringing fingerstyle to a larger audience?

EARP: I actually addressed that issue of "vocal-based" melodies vs. "guitar-based" melodies in an article that I understand you folks are going to reprint in conjunction with this interview (thank you!), so I won't risk being redundant here.  To properly answer that question, I should interject a bit about my own development as a guitarist.  I was a singer-songwriter for 20 years before I began my focus on instrumental music.  From the beginning, I viewed the guitar as a tool to accompany my voice and to deliver a melody- and so my concepts of melody and song structure in the folk/pop format were already well established when I began to write non-vocal pieces.  Writing instrumentals with traditional, identifiable song structures and discernable melodies was a natural outgrowth of my own prior learning experiences in my approach to the guitar.  I'm just a "folkie", basically - and my instrumentals are an extension of that.  The technique is subservient to the goal of delivering the song.  But as far as the idea of the virtuoso getting in the way of bringing fingerstyle guitar to a larger audience, I don't believe that at all.  In fact, I rather welcome the virtuoso who brings vision, passion, and emotion to the instrument and transports the listener to new destinations!  But- worldwide- the heart of popular music has been vocal music for most of the latter half of this century.  Contemporary acoustic guitar is predominantly non-vocal.  What will keep fingerstyle guitar from that larger audience is the nature of the genre itself.

AGR: Who are your influences? Which players do you admire?

EARP: Ah, finally an easy question!  My influences are Bruce Cockburn, Leo Kottke, John Fahey, Alex de Grassi, Pierre Bensusan, Billy Mclaughlin, and Andy Summers (yes, I do play electric and do the whole, rock'n'roll, strat-through-a-marshall thing).  Easily, the single player that I admire most is Phil Keaggy.  I think he is the best, most comprehensive, live guitarist on the planet today.

AGR: There's hardly any standard tuning on "Smiles To Go". Do you have any firm views on tunings?  For instance, what do you think of Pierre
Bensusan's (plays almost exclusively in DADGAD) view that a guitarist should devote himself entirely to one tuning. Do you agree?

EARP: No firm view on tunings.  I favor DADGAD for instrumental guitar over other tunings- and it is by far my favorite.  But, when I play with others and in an electric setting, it's all standard tuning.  Thus, by necessity, I can't honestly agree with Pierre.  I think that- depending on the song- some tunes "fall" on the fretboard easier in some tunings than in others.  Standard tuning is always there- and it's always easy to find those alternate voicings in standard tuning.  As James Jensen from acoustic music resource so eloquently pointed out; look at Leo Kottke. Unlike most contemporary acoustic players who begin on standard tuning and gravitate towards alternate tunings, Leo began with alternate tunings, and has found his latter voice in his explorations of standard tuning.  To each his own!

AGR: It's very interesting to see that you are also into guitar making and that you play a guitar you made yourself. This must be very satisfying. Tell us a bit about this luthiery stuff.

EARP: I should state for the record that I built the acoustic guitar I currently play in Bozo Podunavac's school of luthiery in 1981.  I've only completed that one guitar- so I don't really consider myself a bonafide luthier.  I was much younger then (weren't we all!), and I though it might be something I would want to do.  Well, it took me two months, eight hours a day.  Bozo is brilliant and a storehouse of information and wisdom- but the actual building was a royal pain in the butt.  however, I did get a guitar out of it.  And, people find out you built your own guitar and the eyebrows get raised.  Well, if they only knew!  Guitar building is a noble profession, but not for me.  I'd rather play.

AGR: "Smiles To Go" (review below) is immaculately produced.  How do you go about getting that killer acoustic tone?

EARP: Well, my handbuilt just sounds good, for one.  I can tell you- that guitar has been on more recordings than I have!  The guitar has a Washington spruce top and Indian rosewood back and sides, so there's where most of the presence and punch comes from.  Also, I use acrylic nails, which give a nice articulation and snap.  Light gauge strings. The rest is just putting up some good mics, finding the "sweet spot" where things sound just right and aren't too congested- and rolling the tape.  Oh, and on the "tapping" compositions where my arm moves around on the body of the guitar, I used a little baby powder on my arm and the guitar rim to quiet things down a bit.  Lastly- record dry, and add EQ and reverb very sparingly later.

AGR: What projects are you working on now?

EARP: I would like to record another singer-songwriter project.  I've got enough material for a new CD right now, but I want to let "smiles to go" get a bit of a life.  It's only a year old...

AGR: Thanks, Jim, for taking the time to answer our questions.

About the Interviewer

Steve Elliott is the creator of The Acoustic Guitar Workshop