“The weird but nice combination of country and jazz has always fascinated me,”
says Finnish multi-instrumentalist Ville Leppänen.
Finnish guitarist Ville Leppänen has only visited the United States a few times, though his deep knowledge of American music suggests otherwise. Playing conventional guitar as well as resonator, pedal steel, and lap steel, Leppänen has forged a style that synthesizes many regional sounds, from the Southwest to the Hawaiian Islands.
After touring his native country as a singer-songwriter for many years, Leppänen was toying with the idea of a power trio in 2010 while working with the country-rock group Commotion Band, led by the singer and guitarist Kari Huovinen. One evening Leppänen found himself in a rehearsal room with the group’s bassist, J.P. Mönkkönen, and drummer, Tero Mikkonen. Leppänen led his cohorts in a few of his original compositions, and the sound instantly gelled.
Since then the group, Southpaw Steel ’n’ Twang, has played Finland’s club and festival circuit, and held an informal residency at a Helsinki bar. Their recent debut album, Hale’s Pleasure Railway, is a mostly instrumental Americana survey—and a pleasurable listen for guitarists and non-musicians alike.
We chatted with Leppänen about his affinity for American music and were surprised to learn that he conjures so many different sounds with a relatively modest collection of gear.
Tell us a little about your formative musical experiences.
I’m 48 years old now and was 13 or so when rock ’n’ roll hit me. I’d been playing clarinet and classical guitar in a music school from age 9, but that had been more like something my parents wished me to do. My musical awakening happened at the end of the ’70s. Punk rock and new wave were going strong in Finland, and then there was a huge ’50s rock ’n’ roll revival. Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran were my heroes. That naturally led me to country and blues, especially Robert Johnson.
Then there was my Austin, Texas, period. A lot of great American blues-roots guys played in Helsinki: Stevie Ray Vaughan, Johnny Winter, Ry Cooder. Winter and Rory Gallagher were my main slide heroes. At the same time, the hot jazz bug bit me in the form of Hawaiian steel guitar—first Bob Brozman, then Sol Hoopii, and finally Leon McAuliffe, Herb Remington, and Buddy Emmons. And there were jazzmen like Barney Kessel and Wes Montgomery. I still love to listen to Wes’s The Incredible Jazz Guitar. I’ve mentioned just a few names. In general, my main influence has been American rhythm music.
What kind of gear did you use early on?
Prior to my awakening I’d been playing my father’s old Landola, a Finnish-made nylon-string acoustic. When I wanted to go electric my dad was a bit skeptical, but he eventually bought me a pickup, knobs, and tuners, and I built my own, trying to shape it to look like the Gibson ES-355 Chuck Berry had in all those pictures. It was horrible, barely playable—but I loved it!
As a lefty, I had difficulty finding a proper guitar. In high school I tried to play a right-handed electric Hendrix-style, but the knobs always felt like they were in the way. So I got a summer job, got the dough together, and a guitar workshop in Helsinki made me a butterscotch early-’50s-style Tele from ESP parts. I still play it.
Have you spent much time in the States?
I’ve been to California a couple of times, and to Memphis, where my group was a semi-finalist in the 2012 International Blues Challenge. That same year we recorded in New Orleans. It’s been a great experience to visit those places so crucial to this music, but I already had a firm musical identity before I visited the States.
Living in Finland, do you feel any kinship with composers like Jean Sibelius?
Sibelius composed beautiful, timeless music. I’ve sometimes toyed with the idea of adapting one of his pieces for steel, just as Buddy Emmons did with Pachelbel’s Canon.
You have an impressive command of jazz harmony—the minor-major seventh chords and unusual chord progression of “Open Field,” for example. How did you develop your harmonic language?
By listening to and studying jazz. I’m not exactly a jazz player, but I like to throw in interesting harmony and diminished ideas. The jazz players I mentioned had such big, luxurious chords and interesting notes in their bluesy playing. I wanted to do something like that.
Did you study jazz formally?
My studying has mostly been sitting on my butt and sorting things out by myself. I finally did get a musician’s degree at a pop-jazz conservatory a few years back, and that helped me to update my theory knowledge.