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You mostly play original music now. Do you have a composition process?
Probably, but I’m not aware of it. I listen to the music inside of me. As Bobby McFerrin put it, I am my own Walkman. The idea is for the moments when I play and the moments when I hear music to coincide, so that I can play what I hear. There are a lot of different approaches for getting there on the guitar. One of them, of course, is to be ready technically. I never feel that I’m ready, but I work a lot on my arrangements and my technique. I want something difficult to become agreeable and pleasant so I don’t have to be anxious when I play.
Your live shows have the feeling of a single connected event, rather than a bunch of tunes strung together. How much do you plan your set, and how much just happens?
It’s both. I feel that a show is a bit like listening to a record or reading a book. You can’t do just anything at a show. I wish sometimes that I could start a show on a very high energetic point. I get there during soundcheck, but when the show comes, I need to calm down, start low, and then come up and up until the end. I try to give a form to the concert so that it sustains attention until the end. It has to include contrast, surprises, predictable moments, and unpredictable moments.
You’ve said the tuning players use doesn’t matter much as long as they’re familiar with it. But obviously, DADGAD had a big impact on what you do.
It’s not a tuning that influences me—it’s the music, and DADGAD becomes a tool. But at the beginning, DADGAD was amazingly and vividly present, and it probably shaped my approach to the guitar for a while. But I realized very soon that you had to look for the notes, and it was not obvious. A lot of people take open tunings for granted. They get a flattering first impression, which is great, because it inspires. But you can’t stay there. That’s why I chose to play in only one open tuning, rather than spend my time going between various tunings and always having challenges with intonation, breaking strings, and never really knowing my way. I chose DADGAD in 1978, and my life became much simpler.
How did your collaboration with Jordan Rudess come about?
We met at the New Milford summer camp in Connecticut 20 years ago and became friends on the spot. A couple of years later I was commissioned to create a piece for a children’s choir. I invited Jordan to join me. We were the only two musicians backing 200 singers! In the first part of the show, I played solo a bit and then I invited Jordan. We played some duets, and two of them can be heard on Encore. That was the only time they were played, so I was very pleased that they were played so well.
You played your original Lowden S22 (“Old Lady”) exclusively for 25 years, and now you’ve been playing your signature Lowden for quite a while. Can you compare those guitars?
I played the Old Lady in Germany the other day, because my signature Lowden was stuck between airplanes. It was not even set up, so I found a great German luthier, Dietmar Heubner, who spent three hours setting it up for the show. I played the guitar all day to get familiar with it again, and I felt, “Oh my god, this is my home!” It was amazing to play that guitar again. It was like, “Why do I play another guitar?”