TEN QUESTIONS IS A SEMI-REGULAR SERIES IN WHICH I ASK A NOTABLE ACOUSTIC GUITARIST TEN QUESTIONS ABOUT THEIR PROCESS
10 Questions with Robert Linton (2021)
Robert Linton is a musician of deep thoughtfulness. This sensitivity is evident on his recordings of lyrical guitar instrumentals. Linton plays finger-style nylon-string guitar, and his songs exude such tranquil beauty and peaceful solace that they work their way into your soul without you even realizing it.
His 2006 CD, Whisperings at Nightfall, was produced by guitar icon Will Ackerman at Imaginary Road studios. After its release, Robert took time away from recording his music to write music for the library of Harpo Productions.
In February of 2011, Robert released Throughout the Autumn Light, and the CD was nominated for Best Instrumental Acoustic Album by radio broadcasters reporting to Zone Music Reporter. He’s released three more albums since then, including 2019’s exceptional ‘Adrift in Wonder.’
I first heard Robert’s music when pieces from his Throughout the Autumn Light album would come up on my Spotify app. I became a fan of his simple gentle, melodic approach, which for me was refreshingly free of superfluous displays of technique, concentrating in an almost zen-like way on simple melody, structure, but most importantly, conveying emotion and a pastoral sense of the natural world, which Robert states below is a major influence on his playing. I got in touch, Robert agreed to answer my questions, and the results are below. Guitarists and music fans – enjoy!
1. Where are you from, and where are you living and working now? How did you get into music and what made you pick up the guitar? Who was your original inspiration, what are your influences, and did you evolve through other styles of music to arrive where you are now?
I’m from Logan, UT. Still live there and work at the city library.
At a young age I loved listening to music. My mom encouraged my siblings and I to learn an instrument in which I started on piano. My dad had introduced me to many of the artists/bands from the 60s, 70s and would play songs he knew by these artists on the guitar. I was inspired at the age of 12 to turn my focus towards the guitar.
I listened to Led Zeppelin quite a bit. I had a VHS tape of The Song Remains the Same which I would watch Jimmy Page fly over the strings of his various guitars. My music collection at the time was small yet consisted of classic/folk rock bands and the emerging bands of the grunge movement, especially Soundgarden. I used to play along with the music, trying to figure out chords and notes if I didn’t have the sheet music. This helped me to evolve in my performance.
2. Did you take lessons? If so, who was your teacher, what was their approach, and what do you most remember about them and what aspect has endured? Do you read music?
I took lessons for a few years. The first lessons were tough since I didn’t really connect with my teachers. It wasn’t until I had lessons with a guitarist by the name of Barry Brooksby that I was able to open up on the guitar, learning songs by the bands I had been listening to. He taught me the structure while incorporating what I had learned into the songs I wanted to learn. He taught me how to read music yet it did slip over the years as I turned towards tablature when I was too eager to learn a song. These days, most of the music I’ve written for my albums is in my head besides two or three pieces that have been transcribed.
3. I first heard you when I came across your album ”Throughout the Autumn Light,” which I really liked. Please say a few words about where your life was at during the time you made this album, and what you were thinking about and aiming for during the writing and recording.
Thank you! Throughout the Autumn Light was my first release after working with Will Ackerman and Corin Nelsen at Imaginary Road Studios. After the incredible experience of recording Whisperings at Nightfall and having Will’s guidance, I felt confident in recording my next album. I had learned a lot from Will and took that knowledge into a studio that I’ve been working at ever since (Rosewood Recording Company) to record Throughout the Autumn Light. I wanted to match my performance from Whisperings at Nightfall and continue to work with session musicians. I feel very proud of how the album turned out with Corin Nelsen co-producing and Engineering the album.
4. On your recent album, ‘Adrift in Wonder,’ you’ve collaborated with a cellist, violinist, an English horn player. Who are these musicians, how do you know them, and do you write their parts, do they write them, or are things improvised?
Eugene Friesen performed cello, Sara Milonovich performed violin, Jill Haley performed English Horn and Premik Russell Tubbs on Electronic Wind Instrument and Alto Flute. I met Eugene and Jill while working with Will on Whisperings at Nightfall. I came into contact with Sara while recording my album Beyond the Clearing and I first met Premik during the recording of Adrift in Wonder. Most of their parts are improvised while recording followed by Corin and I picking them apart and deciding what to use. Shaping their performances for each song.
5. Do you use alternate tunings? What are they?
Yes, quite often I use alternate tunings. For example, one of my favorites is EADEAE.Or simply the change of one string from standard, EADGAE.
6. What styles of music, and artists, do you listen to outside of the contemplative music genre, and does anything from these other genres find its way into your music?
At this point in my life I listen to a quite a variety of music. Acoustic, Indie, New Wave, Alternative, Rock, Metal, Electronic, Hip Hop… If I like I’ll follow the artist/band. I’m definitely a collector of music and will by CDs/Vinyl/Cassettes, whatever I can get my hands on from an artist I like. If I started naming all the artists I listen to the list would go on and on. I can say all the styles have played a part in my writing, how the music flows, the chord structure. I instantly gravitate towards a song I like and I would hope any new listeners do the same with my music.
7. Name three guitarists you most admire, and three contemplative music albums you most admire. Do you still listen to full albums? (I do).
Jimmy Page, Cat Stevens, Will Ackerman
Contemplative Albums: The Edge of Forever by Hilary Stagg, A Gift of the Sea by Wayne Gratz, Rainshadow Sky by Jeff Pearce
I do still listen to full albums. I love the journey through the album, knowing the placement of each song on the album and how it flows from one to another. It’s like watching one of my favorite films, it’s tough to stop right in the middle of it.
8. What/Who are your non-musical influences, i.e. are there filmmakers, books, children, food, locations etc, that influence how you approach music?
I love being out in nature, the mountains surrounding the valley I live are a perfect source of inspiration. I’m glad to be living in an area that has very evident change in the seasons, the beautiful Autumn leaves, the snow over the valley and the mountains, the spring flowers and the sea of green through the trees in the summer. Most of my titles come from these sources and the feelings that they bring.
9. What guitars do you currently own, and which do you play most often?
The guitar that I use for my performances and recordings is a Takamine (TC132SC), nylon string classical guitar. I purchased this guitar shortly before the begun recording Throughout the Autumn Light. I also own an Galvador Ibanez GA6CE classical guitar that I bought in the late 90s to early 2000s before I got started on my first recordings. I also still have a couple of electric guitars from from my teenage years, a WashburnBilly T series electric guitar and a Fernandes Stratocaster.
10. What was your weirdest gig, and what was the strangest thing that ever inspired you?
I would say one of my weirdest gigs in terms of the environment matching my style of music would be when I played at a fast food restaurant. I knew the manager and loved eating at the restaurant so we thought it would be fun to have me come and play mainly Christmas music during the lunch hour. I knew what I was getting into with families and kids running around and the noise from shakes being blended, people talking, etc. Yet I really loved it for what it was and knew the people there enjoyed it as well.
10 Questions with Vin Downes (2020)
Vin 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.
10 Questions with Michelle Qureshi (2019)
Michelle Qureshi is a musician/composer living and working in Indiana. Acoustic guitar is often at the center of her music, but as she is a multi-instrumentalist, her music explores a variety of sounds and textures. Classically trained on the guitar, she has a beautiful, accessible, melodic style, often using two partial capos and alternate tunings. She places a high value on improvisation, often producing gorgeous pieces on the fly, but also composes emotionally moving structured pieces. She has released twelve albums, two EPs, and a handful of singles. She, like me, is a Gemini.
- Who or what made you first take an interest in the acoustic guitar?
- The Beatles! They made me excited about music in general, since I was a little kid.
- Who are among your most admired guitarists?
- I admire, Sharon Isbin, Jason Vieaux, Pat Metheny, Michael Hedges, Tommy Emmanuel and Ralph Towner.
- What is your favorite acoustic guitar album?
- “John Holmquist: Las Folias de Espana.” This album let me hear solo guitar in a way I never had before; great inspiration from the man I studied classical guitar with at college.
- What three acoustic guitarists do you think show through the most as influences in your playing?
- Leo Kottke, Michael Hedges, and Pat Metheny.
- How much time do you spend time practicing daily?
- It varies; some days not at all, and other days maybe off and on for up to four hours.
- What tuning do you use most often, or do you use various tunings somewhat equally?
- After standard tuning, I tend to love DGDF#BD at the moment, but I’m always experimenting with other tunings and capo positions.
- When writing, are you expressing specific or general experiences and feelings?
- Usually specific.
- When writing, do you employ the aid of technology in the process?
- Do you use a click track when you record?
- In the studio, what aspect is the most challenging for you?: tuning, mic placement, timing, accuracy, feel, or dynamics?
- Mic placement and recording levels for acoustic instruments, mixing for virtual instruments.