One of the most influential solo guitarists of the last two decades, Preston Reed has wowed audiences the world over with his percussive, fretting-hand-over-the-top-of-the-neck technique and directly informed such contemporary acoustic players as Kaki King (who studied with Reed at the Swannanoa Gathering music camp before her debut album) and Andy McKee. Tunes like “Ladies’ Night,” “Tractor Pull,” “Metal,” and “Blasting Cap” are required YouTube viewings, and you really can’t discuss today’s fingerstyle guitar scene without including Reed.
A New York state native, Reed spent many years in the fertile Minneapolis guitar scene before settling in Scotland in 2000. But before achieving acclaim with his notoriously percussive style, Reed honed his craft as a fairly traditional fingerpicker, putting out five albums (starting with 1979’s Acoustic Guitar) before debuting his now-famous techniques on the MCA Records release Instrument Landing in 1989. But while being signed to a major-label meant a growing mainstream audience, it also made Reed feel like he’d lost control over his work. After 1992’s Border Towns, he set out on his own again, independently releasing Metal—the album that would define him as a solo guitar force to be reckoned with—in 1995.
In the decade that followed, Reed was highly visible: He toured relentlessly, represented Ovation guitars at NAMM shows and clinics (for many years his axe of choice was a custom Adamas Longneck model), released an instructional video (The Guitar of Preston Reed: Expanding the Realm of Acoustic Playing from Homespun Tapes), and appeared in many magazine ads.
The last few years have seen Reed touring less in the U.S. and more in the rest of the world (in 2013 alone, his itinerary included China, Mexico, South Africa, France, and Poland). He expanded his shows to include a range of guitars, including electrics, classicals, and 12-strings, and his 2007 album, Spirit, even featured straight-ahead solo tunes played with a distinct jazz vibe on an electric archtop.
But now Reed has returned to the style he’s best known for—and with a vengeance. His latest album, In Here out There, highlights new compositions and a few old favorites that demonstrate a high level of maturity and confidence. Put simply, Reed has never sounded better.
Rather than trying to break new ground, In Here out There seems like a continuation of what you’re best known for doing.
It really is. The new ground I broke was really with the two previous albums. It was high time for me to get back to playing acoustic, because it had been 12 years since I’d made an all-acoustic record with my integrative percussion guitar playing being the main thing.
Did you re-record some of your earlier tunes mostly to make them available again, or did you want to add some new twists?
I have a long-term agenda of getting my stuff back from a major label that basically put albums I’d written, produced, and performed into a vault. I’ve tried to get them back, but they won’t—because major labels just never do that. The next best thing was to just re-record them.
Another agenda is pushing forward with my integrative percussion guitar playing. There are some new compositions, like “Border Reivers,” which is in 5/8 time—it’s the first time I’d ever played in 5/8. And then there’s “Moonlight Race,” which is in 7/8. I think seven is just about my favorite time signature to play in. And then there is “Delayed Train,” which is sort of a remake of a tune called “Train,” but using digital delay, which somehow really enhances it.
What tunings are you using?
I’m still playing the tunings I’ve pretty much always used. On the baritone guitar, the tuning I use a lot is Bb F C F F C [Ed. note: The same tuning on a standard-scale guitar would be a whole-step higher: C G D G G D.]. That tuning really works well for my style, because it’s really a power chord with a IV on the bottom, so it becomes really easy to write tunes where the tune is in the key of the power chord, and then you can develop it by suddenly showing the big IV sound with the bottom end.
A variation of it that I use a lot is Bb F C F G C, where you’re tuning the second string up. Then there’s a beautiful tuning that “Far Horizon” and other tunes of mine are in, and that’s where you take the tuning I just told you about, but you drop the low string down one half-step to B.