|Peppino D’Agostino grew up in Turin, Italy, a city known for sports cars and other holy relics. It’s no surprise that D’Agostino was inspired to take up the guitar (which he drives like a finely tuned Alfa Romeo) as a child in church. His interests ranged from classical to folk to pop, from Irish and Italian traditional music to Brazilian jazz. He assembled the moving parts—chops, theory and a gift for melody—through his teens, and in 1981 when he was in his early twenties, his first CD, Bluerba, was released. He is now considered a pioneer of acoustic guitar, breaking new ground with technique while remaining obsessively committed to musicality and melody. Alternate tunings, tapping, drumming on the guitar, detuning with amazing precision in the middle of a song and making the guitar sound like everything from a bass to a berimbau (a Brazilian percussion instrument) are all tricks that slip from his sleeve on any ordinary night. He’s also been known to play a composition by Gioachino Rossini followed by Antonio Carlos Jobim, followed by the theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. And he does it all with joy, humor and pinpoint accuracy.
Thanks for taking some time to visit with us. You released a new recording last year, Made in Italy, and I read in the press release that you were lamenting that Americans don’t get to hear real Italian music very much. What are the flavors that make up Italian music, so we can start seeking that out and hearing more of the real deal?
Well, Italian music is very melodic. It’s a very rich tradition that starts with the opera, with classical music, and so melody is really emphasized. Some of the melodies are so memorable. For instance, on the CD I chose classical music, but also movie soundtracks and Italian singer-songwriter music. In this country, you’re right—most of the Italian songs that are known are very old Neopolitan songs, like “O Sole Mio,” but there are a lot of singer-songwriters that are comparable to Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan. They write in Italian, so of course their music is not sold in the US. But they have poetry and beautiful melodies, and I think that they deserve to be exposed. I also recorded classical composers such as Rossini—and also from movie soundtracks by Ennio Morricone, I recorded some of his music on this CD, Made in Italy.
And when you are thinking about arranging traditional music for solo guitar, or movie sound track music or orchestral music, what is your thought process? How do you bring all that music to six strings and ten fingers?
Well, first of all, I try to be respectful of the melodies. Maybe I’ll change the key, because there are certain keys that are easier for the guitar. Sometimes I change the tuning so it makes it easier to translate those melodies to the fretboard. The first thing that I do, I really find where the melodies are on the fretboard, and then I try to come up with the right fingering, and then I add bass line and then chords. I just use those basic elements: melodies, chords and bass. If I can, sometimes I also add some percussion as a fourth element, but only if I can. The guitar is a rhythmical instrument as well as melodic, but adding percussion, to play percussion on the body of the guitar… I just like to make my life complicated, basically. [Laughs]
I’m sure our readers would be very interested to hear about the Peppino D’Agostino Signature Seagull guitar. Can you talk a little about how that process began and what you went through
Well first of all, my collaboration with Robert Godin goes back a long way. I’ve been doing clinics for them since 1997. At one point Robert approached me and said, “We would like to build a guitar with your name.” That was very nice; it felt very good. When they build a guitar, they have to think in terms of a very wide market, because he has to sell those guitars to a lot of people, so when I was telling him certain requests, he was also thinking in terms how to make this work for a large audience. And I thought for a while, can this be done in a way that I don’t compromise what I really need from a guitar?
It took two years to make this guitar, two years and I think six or seven prototypes. We went through a lot of changes, and eventually after two years they came up with this guitar. I needed a guitar with electronics in it because I perform live, and so this guitar uses L.R. Baggs pickups as well as Quantum pickups. That is a company based in Canada that makes these pickup systems specifically for Seagull guitars.
The main difference between this guitar and other guitars that is apparent is the width of the neck. It’s pretty wide, because I have Italian sausage fingers and they need to fit, so the neck is pretty wide. It’s between a classical guitar and an acoustic guitar. I’m really happy there’s more space between the strings, so I think that you can be a little more accurate that way. If you look at the headstock, it’s very narrow, and the tuning pegs are aligned so the strings don’t curve when they get to the headstock; they go straight to the machine heads, which basically allows this guitar to stay more in tune when I use open tunings… it allows me to use open tunings without being concerned that the guitar will go out of tune in the middle of a piece.That’s one thing that I really appreciate about this instrument: it really stays in tune.