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A Christopher Parkening album turned you on to classical guitar. What caught your ear during that first listen?
It made me realize what the possibilities were with playing fingerstyle on classical guitar with all the different techniques like tremolo, crazy-fast arpeggios, and the contrapuntal stuff. During that time, I was a big technician, so I was always looking for the next challenge, and that was it.
Could you read music then?
At the time, I learned music by ear almost exclusively. So, I just started to learn these pieces off the CD by ear. I didn’t immediately give up electric guitar. I just wanted to explore this other aspect of guitar. There weren’t any aspirations of going to college at all—mostly because I didn’t know you could study guitar in college. Once I learned you could, I auditioned with these transcriptions I had done. I went to Middle Tennessee State University and studied with Dr. Bill Yelverton.
Did you take any formal lessons before college?
When I first started, my mom had me take lessons from a teacher at a local music shop. I took lessons for about a year and then decided it wasn’t for me. It wasn’t the teacher’s fault—I just felt I could do it myself. I really learned more about the technique side from playing Malmsteen and Marty Friedman solos.
I would imagine your first lesson in college was pretty tough.
It was humbling. I came to college with a lot of facility in my left [fretting] hand, but the right [plucking] hand is so detailed and integral to classical guitar playing that I pretty much had to start from square one. I was doing everything wrong. My nails were like an inch long. We just started with some real basic studies. It was a little discouraging, because I knew I was capable of doing so much more. I rolled with it and did the assigned studies, but on the side I was always working on something much more complex, hiding it from my teacher.
You developed your own picking technique—basically an expansion on classical tremolo technique [see “Step on the (Classical) Gas” sidebar at the end of the interview]—to play scales at fast tempos, right?
Right. Like I mentioned, my right hand was a mess, and I was coming up with my own ways of getting things done. The traditional approach of playing scales in classical and flamenco guitar is by alternating the index and middle finger. I think I was too impatient to allow it to develop, because it was frustrating that the right hand couldn’t keep up. I would throw in the pinky and use all the fingers on my plucking hand to play scales. Then I heard these guitarists just ripping scales and they were articulating every note, so I set out to figure out how they were doing it. When college was over, I had most of the system put together, and I’m really lucky that my teachers didn’t strike me down from developing that.
Now I can play tremolo as fast—well, almost as fast—as anyone can speed pick. You can keep going at it throughout an eight-minute piece, which just shows how efficient it is. Other guitarists have played scales this way. Narciso Yepes was probably the first. But when you look at the editions these guys have made and the pieces they’ve fingered, it’s a totally different approach than what I use.
How is your technique different?
It’s like an electric-/classical-hybrid left hand mixed with the a–m–i [ring finger–middle finger– index finger] plucking-hand stuff. Previously, it was more of a pure classical-position style of playing with the left hand, but I don’t think those two work together very well, because you get all these weird right [plucking] hand fingerings each time you move to a new string.
Your guitar sound on the album is huge. What guitar did you use?
I used a guitar that was made in 2005 by Kolya Panhuyzen, a German luthier who lives in Canada. It has a spruce top with Brazilian rosewood back and sides and a Spanish cedar neck. The elevated fingerboard really helps with getting to the higher frets on the guitar. I really like traditional solid-top guitars and the brightness of the spruce. For my fingers, a traditional build, as opposed to the newer double-top or lattice-braced guitars, has this definite breaking point. When you play hard, there’s a point where it starts to break up.
“I feel fortunate that we are living in a time when some really great guitarists/composers
aren’t trying to write like the great pianists from the 19th century,” says Palmer.