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What are your main guitars now?
They’re made by Mark Bailey at Bailey Guitars in the U.K. I met him when I first came to Scotland and played at the Kirkmichael International Guitar Festival. He lived nearby all those years, and three years ago it was just time to retire the Ovation. It was becoming unreliable—the electronics were getting old—but there were things about it that I really liked. So I went to him and said, “If I gave you a design for an acoustic guitar, would you build it?” He said “sure,” so I brought him all the dimensions and the characteristics that I loved about the Ovation.
Which parts of the Ovation design did you want to retain?
The neck and the way it balanced, and I wanted the body to sort of taper so that I could keep it close to me in the places that I wanted it to be. The result is this wonderful guitar I’m playing now, which is the prototype for the Preston Reed Signature Baritone. I also wanted to get a normal guitar, so he built me a standard-sized jumbo using the same kind of design specifications, but a little bit smaller. I used both of them on the album, and I tour with both of them. They have very different characteristics: The jumbo is great for playing funky tunes—it has a very punchy midrange, and I love it for tunes like “Funkin’ at the Junction.” The baritone is kind of a gentler, more beautiful-sounding guitar. But sometimes you don’t want so much emotion—you want more aggressive punch.
What’s the scale of the baritone?
It’s 28.35 inches.
What woods do the two new Bailey guitars use?
The baritone has a cedar top and mahogany back and sides. The jumbo has a spruce top and mahogany back and sides.
How did you originally get into the two-handed tapping approach?
I started off playing a lot of 12-string, and I was quite influenced by Leo Kottke, John Fahey, and Jorma Kaukonen. Those three were the core of my early guitar influences. Learning how they played gave me a really good foundation in a wonderful and powerful guitar style that I love and still use a lot in my compositions.
But in the late ’80s, I started to feel bored with just doing the fingerpicking. I was watching what Michael Hedges, Eddie Van Halen, Jeff Healey, and Stanley Jordan were doing, and I think it gave me an itch to make my mark with something. I said to myself, “How can I play drums and guitar at the same time?” I had always noticed that the acoustic guitar makes these awesome drum sounds, and depending on where you hit it—just as with any other drum—you get all these different timbres and textures and sounds out of it. With the exception of Michael Hedges and maybe flamenco people, that percussive aspect of the guitar was being completely ignored. The only thing guitarists were focused on was the sound of the strings, and that just seemed tragically limiting.
I knew I was not going to be able to do an integrated drum rhythm while playing the guitar normally, because both hands are already busy fretting and picking strings, so I went, “What would happen if, instead of trying to add drums to guitar playing, I started off playing a drum beat on the guitar, pretending I was a drummer, and then negotiated the strings into that?” Part of it might be that I’m left-handed but have always played right-handed, but for some reason my left hand just really took to playing above the neck. It made it easier to play percussion on the neck and upper bout, and I almost instantly started to play bass lines with my left hand. Then I was able to use the upper strings with my right hand to do some syncopated strumming.
Preston Reed demonstrates his renowned two-handed tapping technique on “Funkin’ at the Junction” from his new album, In Here out There.
When you write a tune, do you immediately go to a two-handed technique as you develop the piece, or do you come up with a musical idea first and then figure out how to play it?
I just let myself drift and experiment. My favorite kind of composition is a blend of different techniques, only one of which is going to be the hammer-ons and pull-offs over the top of the neck. It works best to have compositions that have different sections to them, like in “Moonlight Races.” It starts off with fingerpicking and then goes off into percussive stuff and drums, and then it goes into the integrated percussive, two-hands-over-the-neck stuff.
I’m really glad to have had the foundation of more traditional fingerpicking, so when I started playing over the neck it gave me another sound I could employ to make the composition more varied and interesting.
What tips do you have for players who wants to explore a similar style?
What’s important is to be really aware of what kind of a tune it is. If you want to make a rocking, grooving tune, then the most important thing to pay attention to first is the groove. Before you even get into developing a melody or a harmonic progression, the very first thing you want to pay attention to is the rhythm. When I’m writing a tune like that, the first thing I look for is a bass line and a combination of bass and percussion that feels really good. It’s like building a house—you create the foundation before you build the house.