Evolution of a Fingerstyle Player

by Dan Lambert

Dan Lambert is an instrumental acoustic fingerstyle guitar player from Texas.  He got his start in suburban Chicago and later at the University of Illinois, playing in rock bands, folk groups, and jazz ensembles.  Upon moving to Kent, Ohio, he started playing solo at every college, folk club, and vegetarian restaurant in Northeast Ohio.  He has lived in El Paso, Texas for the last 25 years, performing, recording, and teaching guitar.   Dan's music is an eclectic blend of everything he has listened to and studied - folk, jazz, blues , rock, music from other cultures and countries - you'll find it all in his playing.  He has 3 acoustic instrumental cd's out on the COORDINATE RECORS label, "The Clearing", "Plaids", and "Melodies/Improvisations".   James Sallis, in the book "The Guitar In Jazz" writes, "Dan Lambert's playing is highly individualistic - sometimes relaxed and in a groove, often full of stabbing odd turns - and immediately recognizable."

There have been a ton of musicians who have left their mark on my playing and thinking over the years. They haven't all been fingerstyle guitarists. The fact is, some aren't even guitar players.  Listening to them has made me the fingerstyle player that I am today.

I remember being fascinated early on by long instrumental rock jams.  The first ones that I heard were by Iron Butterfly, The Doors, and Cream.  The little snippets of guitar that you would hear in pop songs was neat ("Last Train to Clarksville"), but here were whole tunes, or at least big sections of them, with the guitar players and everyone else wailin' away!  The aura of it was pretty hip, or at least what it suggested - serious musicians in a rock, as opposed to a classical or jazz, setting.  These were musicians more my age and generation - an important point, it being the 60's and all.

So Cream led to Mountain (Leslie West), Blodwyn Pig (Mick Abrahams), Savoy Brown (Kim Simmonds), Duane Allman, Luther Grosvenor from Spooky Tooth (check him out howling through "Evil Woman" on SPOOKY TOO), and Martin Barre from Jethro Tull (BENEFIT is still one of my all time favorite records), Mick Ralph' s when he was with Mott The Hoople (his playing on "Sweet Jane" is superb), Robin Trower with Procol Harum and in his solo career (what a beautiful sound, as if his guitar is singing), Mike Bloomfield on THE LIVE ADVENTURES OF MIKE BLOOMFIELD AND AL KOOPER, and Eric Clapton on the BLIND FAITH album and with Derek and the Dominoes (with Duane Allman).  I got my introduction into real, heartfelt music listening to, learning from, and playing along with all these guys.  They taught me how to put a song together, how to keep the rhythm together, and how to improvise.  I wore out copies of several of these record albums going over and over certain passages. 

Later, I found out about Roy Buchanan (THE SECOND ALBUM), as well as some of the more jazz - rock cats; Larry Coryell (FAIRYLAND) and especially John McLaughlin with the Mahavishnu Orchestra (all of the albums with the original band).  One day I caught Jerry Hahn on Laura Weber's TV show playing his tune "Moses" with his trio.  It was part rock and part jazz. His choice of notes was different from the average rock player's, and the drummer's rhythm was a little harder to follow.  Then he sat in with Laura on an acoustic version of "Summertime", putting in fills, substituting chords, and soloing in the middle.  I was impressed that he could be just as expressive on an acoustic guitar as an electric.

The acoustic guitar playing in a few movies at that time made a big impression - Paul Simon's playing in The Graduate, the playing in Bob Dylan's soundtrack for Pat Garret and Billy The Kid, and John Hammond's blues and slide in Little Big Man.  There was nothing like hearing acoustic guitar on the big screen, it sounded ten feet tall, the sound seemed to engulf you. Then it happened!  In an interview in the Nov 1980 TEXAS JAZZ, I talked about my introduction to solo acoustic playing, "I was at a party late at night in Champaign, Illinois.   The campus radio station was on and this amazing music was on.  Mostly one guy playing and singing and sounding so full but so intricate.  For a white boy who had been playing guitar for less than a year and thought all there was in the world was lead and rhythm, this music was a religious experience.  I was hooked.  To this day I don't remember any of the musicians I heard in that couple of hours, but what an impact it had on me!" 

What I do remember is that these were country blues players.  They were playing melodies while keeping the rhythm going with the lower notes, runs that I'd heard electric players use, but these guys were doing it all by themselves.  In their hands, the guitar sounded like a little self-contained blues band.  I'd of course heard people play guitar by themselves before, but never with so much coming out of one instrument (the chords, the melody, the bass), and never with such an expressive style of music. The lilting rhythm and thick sound of the guitars, coupled with the murky quality of the recordings, produced a hypnotic glow that I still feel when I listen to an old country blues record.  That night at the University of Illinois had a two-fold effect, it started me on a quest to get as full of a sound as possible from my guitar plus it introduced me to music that I wasn't familiar with.  I'm now always looking for different sounds, checking out players I haven't heard before, exploring music from other cultures, and I still work hard at getting as much as I can out of the instrument. 

The country blues players that I spent a lot of time listening to were Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lonnie Johnson, and Blind Arthur Blake.  I was so intrigued by these three because there seemed to be no limit to their melodic variations.  Lonnie Johnson and Arthur Blake were more sophisticated, uptown players, and even their more "lowdown" stuff had a polish to it.  Lonnie Johnson in particular was a versatile player who was able to fit into many different musical settings.  Blind Lemon, on the other hand, was one down and out cat. His music has a sort of bumpkin gritty sophistication that was very much his own.  I can still listen to recordings of his that I've heard hundreds of times and find something I hadn't noticed before.  His improvisations, even between singing lines, could take you to the ragged edge.  But they always came back.  There were other country blues players too - Lightnin' Hopkins, Blind Will McTell, Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton, Blind Willie Johnson, Mance Lipscomb, Gary Davis, Blind Boy Fuller, Skip James, Etta Baker, and Big Bill Broonzy.  All of them had me under their spell at one time or another. A fiddler friend then told me about John Fahey and suddenly, another world of music opened up.

Here was a player who drew from all sorts of different sources of inspiration.  Yes, you could hear the blues in John Fahey's playing, but you also heard old time country, ragtime, and motifs from "serious music" composers.  Looking back, he was the first person I ever listened to  who wasn't pigeonholed as a blues player or a jazz player or a rock player. There was no handle here.  He was simply himself, or perhaps more accurately, an accumulation of everything he had listened to and studied and experienced.  I learned a lot about the ART of guitar playing by listening to John Fahey. 

Peter Lang, Leo Kottke, Robbie Basho, and Fred Gerlach were also players from what has been called the "American Primitive School" that I was listening to and learning from.  They each had their traits that attracted and inspired me. They were responsible for synthesizing a complete new genre of guitar playing.  They should all be millionaires and in the FINGERSTYLE HALL OF FAME.  So should Bert Jansch and John Renbourn, on opposite sides of the tonal spectrum but complementing each other beautifully.  Their solo pieces, duets, and work together with the Pentangle - it's all brilliant. 

Some flatpickers were also catching my ear, Norman Blake with his clear mountain tone (BACK HOME IN SULPHUR SPRINGS is still a favorite) and Clarence White with his sound bubbling and percolating under the surface one minute, hot as a pistol the next.  There were more obscure guys too, like Riley Puckett and Gene Meade, fiddler Clark Kessinger's guitar player.  I was also pouring over the recordings of fingerpicking "hillbilly" players Frank Hutchinson and Sam McGhee.  We lived in Kent, Ohio at the time and I would pal around with Brad Bolton, a good, well-versed player whom I was in awe of completely.  He showed me how to structure a solo - how tension and release worked - how to keep it all interesting.  He was also a record collecting nut.  In Kent I also heard Blind Jim Brewer perform, and I hung out with Blind Joe Hill in Akron.  Both of these guys played fingerstyle country blues.  By now the loose, sophisticated, intricate sounds of jazz were calling.  It was time to move on.

In order to understand jazz, you need to listen to the horn players and piano players.  They were the ones paving the way, at least in the earlier years.  John Coltrane became and still is one of my favorite musicians.  I just bought THE COMPLETE 1961 VILLAGE VANGUARD RECORDINGS with the classic quartet (along with Eric Dolphy) - McCoy Tyner (piano), Elvin Jones (drums), Jimmy Garrison/Reggie Workman (bass).  The interplay of the band, the way McCoy Tyner accompanied and soloed, Elvin Jones' flexible rhythms propelling everything along, and of course Trane's tone and melodies on tenor and soprano saxophones.  I liked the idea that they played the head of a tune, then took it wherever they wanted, in the end coming back to where they started.  It wasn't just play the head, then blow over the changes.  They would restructure the piece and, especially in McCoy Tyner's case, do impressionistic takes on the chords.  It wasn't as if individual chords were being replaced by substitutions or extensions, but more like McCoy Tyner was saying, "I want to end up here, so I'm going to replace this whole line of chords with ones that I feel will take me there the way I hear it."  This revamping of not only the outer shell of a piece but also the framework has had a lasting effect on the way I approach music.  I love THE REAL McCOY, a Tyner album recorded with Joe Henderson on tenor, Elvin Jones, and Ron Carter on bass.  I'm still trying to solo on guitar like McCoy Tyner does on piano. 

Miles Davis was also important to my development, KIND OF BLUE (with Coltrane) being way up on my all time list.  Ahmad Jamal was another piano player I listened to a lot - the live trio album, PORTFOLIO OF AHMAD JAMAL, in particular.  It's transferable over to fingerstyle guitar, with the challenge being trying to capture the feel of the piece or passage that attracted you to it in the first place.  Invariably what happens for me is that it takes on a life of its own, usually very different from how it first started.  But that is the creative process.  Enough times you don't so much direct it as you "let it flow".  Yes, you do need to practice your fingers to the bone, constantly perfecting.  There is a formidable technique involved in playing even simple things on guitar, especially fingerstyle guitar.  But some of the more inspired moments can come at those times when you've done the woodshedding, and you drop your guard a little, maybe open up a bit more.  I learned this from listening to and playing jazz.

Some of the jazz guitar players that I studied closely were Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian, Johnny Smith, and Lenny Breau, all noted for their unique voices on the instrument as well as wonderful tone.  Guitarists Ralph Towner, John Abercrombie and Bill Frissel come from a group of players that are classified as "jazz" but really draw their inspiration from all over the map.  They aren't traditional jazz players but they do improvise in voices unmistakenly theirs.  Among the above mentioned jazz guitarists, the only one who didn't play solo pieces, that I know of, was Charlie Christian.  But I sure have taken enough of his lines and ideas and worked them into my solo tunes.  One of the things that I learned from these other players was how full and unique one guitar could sound, and where you could take the music within that framework. 

I tend to study in cycles, listening to one player or type of music for a while, getting out of it what I can, and moving on.  One style or player leads to another.  I couldn't have learned about jazz without having studied the simpler forms first.  I tend to come back to a certain point after a while, also - maybe in a couple months or a year or even a few years. It's interesting to come back to that place after you've been gone fo a while - sort of like a homecoming or reunion, or visiting a place where you used to live. Presumably you've grown as a musician since you've been gone.  How does that same music effect you now?  Do you enjoy it as much?  Is there more that you can learn from it?  Maybe, because of the learning that you've done since you've been gone, you are able to grasp the concepts better. 

None of this is planned out, I basically "follow my nose".  The last few years I've been very interested in music from the Mid East, Celtic music and some of the Brazilian guitarists. There is an oud player named George Mgrdichian who has been a great source of inspiration.  His THE NOW SOUNDS OF THE MIDDLE EAST is a blend of traditional pieces and modern pop melodies, with lots of improvising.  I have a record, A TOUCH OF GREECE, by Nick Demetrius and the Athenian Forum that has arrangements of 60's popular tunes.  The band will play a verse or two, then go into some wild, dancing on the tables, one chord vamp with the bouzouki player jamming away - a little bit like what Coltrane would do to a song, only in a different style. 

From the UK, I've listened to bunches of pipers - Willie Clancy, Seamus Ennis and some of the more contemporary ones, Kathryn Tickell, Liam O'Flynn, and Davy Spillane (A PLACE AMONG STONES).  It's fascinating material to transpose to fingerstyle guitar.  I'm not interested in coming up with miniature arrangements of pipe tunes for solo guitar.  I want to write guitar pieces that effect me as much as some of those haunting pipe airs do. Celtic music, whether it's been pipers, singers or simply the tunes themselves, has been the stimulus for some of my best melodies. Listening to it gets me thinking a certain way, setting technique aside and thinking pure emotion  Here is something I wrote about the UK and Celtic music a while ago:

 "The places that I've been to in Britain are beautiful - Scotland, Wales and northern England.  What could be a grander place than the Glyders (a mountain range) in Wales or Glencoe in Scotland or the Lake District in northern England.  Along with the lovely countryside comes a proud, harsh, heart breaking history.  It's the reason why a Scot gets irritated when he's mistakenly referred to as an Englishman.  It's the reason why Celtic music has such a sadly poetic character.  It has a quality that seems to reach out from some nether place, a profound place, a both lovely and austere place - a place perhaps both deep within each one of us and at the same time a place far, far away.  It takes you on a journey.

I know that the Celts traveled far and wide (actually, they are still traveling), influencing and being influenced.  Maybe it's the Scot in me that has that thirst for new musical horizons.

The Brazillian players that I have been exposed to the most are Baden Powell and Bola Sete.  Baden Powell is a fiery player, Bola Sete perhaps a bit more reflective, although he could burn with a different type of glow.  Both are rhythm personified.  I've been paying special attention to rhythm lately.

The bass player, Jaco Pastorius, has been a big influence.  He had a sound that I characterize as "organic".  When you listen to him, you don't think of scales and runs and arpeggios, you think "Jaco".  His playing in a piano/bass/drums setting on the Brian Melvin Trio CD, STANDARDS ZONE, sounds so natural - like he was speaking through his instrument.  When I'm playing in the lower register of the guitar, a lot of times I'm thinking of Jaco.

I don't want to forget the classical players - John Williams and Julian Bream in particular. I went through a couple copies of John Williams' SPANISH GUITAR FAVORITES, it is a classic album from a quality player - true "fingerstyle" at its best.

I guess, in the end, what all this illustrates is that it's a journey.  A journey along which you can take advice on directions, but you still supply the legwork.  Fingerstyle guitar may be your medium, but don't forget the MUSIC part.  If you only listen to other fingerstyle players, you're shortchanging yourself, and it's going to show in your music. 

I didn't even mention any of the singers I've listened to, like Donnie Munro from Runrig, Loreena McKennitt, and Lisa Gerrard (from Dead Can Dance).  And how about the music of the Japanese koto and shakuhachi, or the music of Eastern Europe (talk about a melting pot!).  I left out Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, and the other great Indian musicians.  The music of Africa is as vast and varied as the continent itself.  I didn't get around to my favorite electric blues guitarists, Magic Sam, Robert Nighthawk, Freddie King, Hound Dog Taylor (along with Brewer Phillips), Hubert Sumlin...The list could go on forever.  You can see that there is always something new to hear, some surprise around the corner.  In fact, I just discovered two fingerstyle players, Tim Sparks and Jim Earp that I hadn't heard before.  Jim has a nice full sound and Tim has a clever, musical mind.  Even for me - something new.