“I don’t even have an electric guitar,” says fingerstyle guitarist Matt Schneider, shown here playing his Martin D12-20, augmented by an L.R. Baggs M1 magnetic pickup. Photo by Dan Mohr
Did you sit down and “write” or did you improvise your way into these pieces?
I used to write for the guitar and other instruments—you know, notate it and stuff like that. A few years ago, I got into just playing the guitar for what it was, so these tunes just came about. They were all done on the guitar or harmonica enough to show to the band, and then we developed them onstage to accommodate communication between four people and not just me. Enough of that material was there to say, “Here’s the tune, let’s flesh it out.”
When and how did you mate the lyrical ideas to the music?
They came about as all of one thing—I came up with words and music at the same time. I avoided singing for such a long time. I just wanted to be just an instrumentalist forever. But eventually I found myself really digging singing, and I figure it’s something that you do. So for the last few years I’ve been incorporating it. It’s not so much about story time, or narrative songs, but just thinking of the voice as another instrument, I guess.
Interesting that you shied away from singing. Your voice and guitar are so well integrated on the album.
Well, they have spent a lot of time together [laughs].
You’re known for using alternate tunings. Did the tunings influence your composition process?
Oh yeah, totally. The tunings take you out into a totally different space. It turns the fretboard into a totally different thing. Nothing is where it should be—you’ve got to look around for stuff. Muscle memory isn’t as applicable—you don’t automatically reach for the solid intervals. You have to work around it.
I used three tunings on the record: standard, a D–G–D–G–B–B tuning, and one I call “DAD” tuning: D–A–D–A–A–D, which I used on the song “Blues.”
Do you always play fingerstyle?
All the time. I don’t even have an electric guitar. I haven’t played with a flatpick in ages. I used to do a straight-ahead gig when I played with a flatpick, but that was a long time ago.
Let’s dig into the tunes for a bit. What inspired the title cut?
It’s a pretty old song. I wrote it eight or nine years ago. That was a pretty heavy time I was going through. The shit was kinda hitting the fan and I was trying to make sense of it all. At the time, I wasn’t writing much stuff lyrically, and I felt the need to do that. It was wintertime—I was on crutches. It’s a nice ballad with a little bit of a story.
One thing that stands out on “Pitch”— and across the whole album—is the range of textures you’re getting from acoustic instruments. It’s an expanded sound palette without sounding processed or electronic.
That’s something I thought a lot about as I was making the record, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I don’t know if you want to call it an “approach” or “concept,” but it was definitely one of the ideas behind this record.
Some of your syncopations remind me a bit of Leo Kottke—especially his early work. Was he an influence?
Not really. When I was younger, there was a place called the Woodstock Opera House [in Woodstock, Illinois]. I saw him and other solo acoustic players, and there was something about that scene that made me decide to move to the city and not be that solo acoustic guitar guy. It all seemed really flashy, narcissistic, and lonely.
Tell me about the relatively gentle piece “Oh So Cold.” What inspired it?
I wrote that song with my daughter. She’s about 8. It’s just a simple tune. I wanted to put down the guitar pyrotechnics and focus on something else. Songwriting … I’m definitely trying to figure out how this stuff fits together. But on “Oh So Cold,” it’s a simple little voyage, nice room for steel guitar to articulate—a minimalistic approach.
How did “Wool Blankets” come about?
I’ve always been obsessed with the tune “Gentle on My Mind” by John Hartford, but I never learned it. [Editor’s note: Both Hartford’s original and Glen Campbell’s cover of the song won Grammys in 1968.] So I wrote my own tune that was sort of like it, just for my own entertainment.
Earlier, you talked about the voice as “another instrument.” Does singing change your guitar approach? Do you think in terms of lead versus rhythm guitar?
The guitar, harmonica, and voice follow one another. They’re all one thing. I don’t think of it as a “guitar” part or a “harmonica” part. It used to drive me nuts. I taught guitar for a while, and people would be like, “Oh, that’s a guitar thing,” or “That’s not a guitar thing.” And I’d be like, "You can play a Bartók piece with two guitars and it’s just fine. It’s just the same 12 notes we’re dealing with.” I know there are moments of guitar shredding, but that’s more about the point in the music where the shit’s starting to get intense, and the instrument just happens to be a guitar.
Did you study composition?
Not formally. But I led a lot of bands in the Chicago jazz scene, and I’ve been part of a lot of bands. And the thing that drew me more to music than even the guitar was composers, people like Jimmy Giuffre—that small ensemble stuff he wrote for guitar and valve trombone, that stuff changed my world! It’s about what you can do with the instruments available. Like: “We don’t have a bass player, so there’s no harmonic pulse, but we have a valve trombonist so we’re gonna swing the hell out of an interpretation of a folk tune that the dude learned in Texas growing up.”