TEN QUESTIONS IS A SEMI-REGULAR SERIES IN WHICH I ASK A NOTABLE ACOUSTIC GUITARIST TEN QUESTIONS ABOUT THEIR PROCESSVin Downes is an acoustic guitarist and composer with a melodic, contemplative style.
Greatly influenced by the music of artists on Windham Hill Records in the late 1980’s, Downes furthered his interest of fingerstyle guitar technique and music composition by earning a degree in classical performance/music education from William Paterson University in New Jersey.
His 2020 album ‘Good Light to Go By’ is perfectly judged, and one of the best in the genre. The deeply felt, inspired compositions unfold in song form, each as good as the last, flowing organically, with a sense of inevitability, and sprung from natural and pure impulses. Harmonically, the pieces, while accessible, are full of surprises, creative inventions and unexpected changes. It’s breathtaking to be so moved by his quiet music, and to remember that all of this delicacy, emotion, detail and invention are being pulled from 6 pieces of wire lashed across a piece of crafted wood.
Vin has released five studio albums, three of which were produced by Grammy Award winning guitarist and producer, Will Ackerman and award winning engineer/producer, Tom Eaton.
He has written, recorded, and performed music with Will Ackerman, Trevor Gordon Hall, Todd Mosby, Michael Gulezian, David Crosby, Tom Eaton, Eugene Friesen, David Watson, Kenny Withrow, Tony Levin, Michael Manring and Mai Leisz.
Vin is also currently a public school music teacher in New Jersey, where he teaches an award winning classical guitar program at Bayonne High School.
You’ve released an EP recently, “Something in You Remembers.” What’s the story behind it? Are those all brand new pieces, or things you’ve worked on for a while? Generally speaking, do you write slowly or quickly – i.e. do pieces come over a few hours, days, weeks or months, or all of the above?
I was originally writing music for another project that I wound up leaving, so I had a handful of pieces that were finished and ready to record. I also had some short classical pieces that I had been writing when the pandemic started, with the idea of putting a book together of short pieces and etudes. I also had a few older songs that were either unfinished or not included on previous recordings lying around. I already had studio time booked with Tom Eaton at his Imaginary Road Mastering Studios in Newburyport, MA. I decided to pick five songs that paired well, record them, and release them as a digital EP.
My writing process usually starts with improvisation. When I stumble on a melody or progression I am happy with, then I start composing from there. The time frame on pieces is all over the place. Some come quickly in a few sittings, others develop over time. I believe my longest one was over 11 years.
I try to write by feel and not let my brain get involved. I want the melody to tell me where to go next. I think I learned that from Will Ackerman. There were a few times where I have been stuck on a bridge or something and I reverted to theory to finish writing the song. When I would play the song for Will, he inevitably would call me out and say something like, “You thought about that chord progression right there didn’t you? I can hear it. It sounds academic.” He has a great point…the music should feel natural…unforced.
I have been writing some ‘classical” type pieces and etudes using some rules of composition and theory, but I still try to let the music tell me where to go, as opposed to thinking where to go.
What guitarists initially influenced your playing, and what guitarists didn’t initially influence you, but did later into your career?
The first was Randy Rhoads when I was 10 years old. The first concert I went to was to see Ozzy Osbourne on the Diary of a Madman tour. Unfortunately, Randy was killed shortly before that show. His playing has always inspired me. I remember always being impressed that he was classically trained and played more than just rock and heavy metal. He was a rounded musician.
I think the biggest delayed influence was Will Ackerman. When I discovered Windham Hill Records, I was in high school and had been playing all heavy metal at that time, so Michael Hedges was almost an easy transition for me into acoustic music. I read an article where Michael described his music as “heavy mental”…so I though that sounds like something I should check out. After discovering Hedges, I very quickly began listening to other WH guitarists…especially David Cullen, Alex de Grassi and Will Ackerman.
Will’s music was much more mellow compared to the others, and although I really liked it, it wasn’t until years later that it hit me, how brilliant Will’s composing and playing was…the minimalistic impressionism and beauty within it just stunning. My ears had to develop and mature to the point were I finally understood and felt the power in his music.
1) an album that you loved very much very early on, but that at this point you’ve heard so often that you don’t ever put it on anymore.
John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman – I don’t need to put this on to hear it in my head. I wore this record out. When I do put it on, it’s like discovering it for the first time all over again.
2) an album you’ve loved from the start and STILL listen to.
Michael Hedges – Breakfast in the Field
3) an album you came to later in life that you love as much as your early influences.
Joni Mitchell – Hejira
I see you have a number of guitars. In what ways does a different guitar make you play or write differently? Do you feel that, if on a given morning, you sat down to compose, that the piece that had come to mind would turn out notably different depending on the guitar you picked up that day? Do you consider your compositions symbiotic relationships with the guitar you’re playing, with ideas not really emerging until you start playing?
I guess for me it comes down to three things: feel, tone color, and tuning.
I typically go to my main guitar, a Furch/Stonebridge OOM parlor guitar, for writing and performing.
I love small guitars. My Furch parlor is the best sounding and most well balance guitar I have ever played. It also resonates really beautifully in several different tunings. Plus the volume is surprisingly very loud.
Most of my work gets done on that guitar. Once pieces are composed, I will try them out on different guitars and see what just feels and sounds good. There are tunings that just don’t work well on some guitars. They don’t resonate so well at certain frequencies.
So it becomes trial and error. Sometimes I will play things on different guitars because playing live necessitates I do so. Other times, I will play pieces on different guitars just to change things up…play in a different key, go for a different tone color, etc.
The main guitars I use the most are my Furch/Stonebridge OOM parlor, Furch/Stonebridge G22, Eastman E10OM, Spohn OO, Martin 1974 018.
All that being said…I am currently playing a lot of classical/nylon string. That’s a whole other world. Different feel, tone color, resonance, less sustain. My writing on nylon is completely different from steel string. I will compose in standard tuning or Drop D only, which requires a completely different mindset for me.
What are your 3 most used alternate tunings, and do you still use standard tuning?
D A D E A D
C# G# D# F C D# (and a few slight variations on this one)
Eb Bb D G Bb D
My first record was mostly in standard tuning. Those songs were more folk and blues inspired though.
Lately, I have been returning to standard tuning. I have been writing a lot of short, classical type pieces. I find it challenging to write in standard and still try to capture the beauty of altered tunings, which allow for wider voicings and more color. It forces me to focus on melody, counterpoint, inversions, voice leading, where as in alternate tunings, I feel more free to experiment, and just “find” things.
Standard tuning forces me to be more theoretical when composing, but I enjoy the challenge of making it sound like I am only feeling when writing, and not thinking or analyzing.
Do you think the guitar will continue to be a popular instrument in the 21st century? What about the guitar’s history and sound, design, etc makes you think so?
The guitar will always remain popular because it has a role in most every genre of music. I think because most young people start listening to pop music first, it will always be of interest for them to learn. It’s the most accessible of instruments to start on.
I love albums, which I define the ideal of as: between 34-40 minutes that is cohesive, yet finds infinite variety, has a definite sense of beginning, extending the central idea, a centerpiece track, subtler nuances of the theme explored (now: deep into the given journey), a surprise (yet cohesive) detour, and strong sense of resolution, all resulting in a textbook accurate display of what is unique, essential and great about a particular artist. Using that rough definition, what are 3 of your favorite albums – not only for the greatness of the music, but for how well they’re constructed as albums? Any kind of music is fine – not just guitar music. Which of your own albums do you consider the one that most ‘gets it right?’
Can’t pick just 3…
Michael Hedges – Breakfast in the Field
Will Ackerman – Passage
Tom Eaton – Abendromen
David Crosby – If I Could Only Remember My Name
Joni Mitchell – Blue
Ozzy Osbourne – Diary of a Madman
J.S. Bach/Glenn Gould – The Goldberg Variation (both recordings ’55 & ’81)
Wayne Shorter – Night Dreamer
Ralph Towner, Wolfgang Muthspiel, Slava Grogoryan –Travel Guides
Ralph Towner & Gary Burton – Matchbook
I can go on and on and on…
Good Light to Go By
Who would be your dream producer, your dream collaborator?
David Crosby…which is sort of in the works now. David has always been a huge inspiration for me. I have been very lucky to connect with him via Twitter…of all places…and have become friends with him. I have had the opportunity to sit and play guitar with him a few times. He has also given me some lyrics to set to music. One of the tracks on my “Good Light to Go By” album is music for one of those sets of lyrics. The song is “The Red Shirt Is for Crying”. There is a possibility he will record it in the future. We are also planning on sitting together and writing a bit.
Edie Brickell is another artist I would love to co-write a song with. Her sense of melody and phrasing has influenced me a lot.
I think of my music as something that works somewhat in the way that prose works, especially naturalistic, elegiac prose, and also, as a kind of aural philosophy. When I think of music as a representative experience, that’s more what I’m trying to impart. What do you hope that your music offers to a listener, beyond the simple aural joy sonic beauty, harmony and rhythm? in other words, what do you hope the sound triggers in the listener?
I think that my music may reflect other arts that I love…poetry, storytelling, painting and photography. I hope my music takes a listener on a poetic journey, into a story of his or her own imagination, or into a beautiful painting or photograph in their mind.
What’s your favorite fast food, and can you think of any connection, however tenuous, to any aspect of how you approach guitar playing, or think of yourself as a guitarist?
Living in New Jersey, I’d have to say pizza. I guess the connection…and this may be a stretch…would be that in order for pizza to be really good, it needs the solid foundation of an excellent crust. I would like to think the crust of my playing is good technique and tone. That allows me to phrase well and play expressively…which would be the pizza toppings? Lol… I love this question.