Al Di Meola with his Conde Hermano nylon-string.
Photo courtesy of Shore Fire Media
Al Di Meola was only 19 when jazz piano/keyboard legend Chick Corea poached him from the Berklee College of Music and gave him the free rein to unleash his blindingly fast electric lines— lines that helped define the sound of 1970s fusion. By the end of that decade, the New Jersey native had also successfully established himself as a solo artist with the 1976 debut ofLand of the Midnight Sun, which was followed byElegant Gypsythe next year. On these and other albums, Di Meola and his ubiquitous Les Pauls forged a bold electric style that was equal parts rock and Latin.

But while Di Meola was a terrifyingly dexterous electric guitarist, he was also a remarkable acoustic shredder, as he proved in the early 1980s trio he led with co-guitarists John McLaughlin and Paco de Luc’a—a group whose fiery sound was captured on the 1981 recordingFriday Night in San Francisco.

With his string of 1980s solo albums— including 1980’sSplendido Hoteland 1982’sElectric Rendezvous—Di Meola continued to explore a synthesis of rock and jazz with Latin and non-Western idioms. His extreme playing earned him reverence from guitarists of all stripes—although some detractors also said his virtuosity unsuccessfully masked a lack of musical content and expressiveness.

Undeterred, Di Meola soldiered on in the early 1990s with a new group, World Sinfonia, whose main benchmark was the work of the Argentinean composer and bandone—n player Astor Piazzolla—inventor of the modern tango. His work during that decade, including on 1994’sOrange and Blueand 1998’sThe Infinite Desire, focused less on blazing lines and more on composition, a trend that would continue into the 2000s.

For his latest offering,Pursuit of Radical Rhapsody, Di Meola worked with World Sinfonia to create a largely acoustic album of tunes that draw inspiration from tricky Latin rhythms and global sojourns. Largely absent are the guitarist’s over-the-top solo flights of decades past. Instead, the focus is on the ensemble, kaleidoscopic changes in instrumentation and texture, and rhythmic and harmonic invention. The result is a depth of musicality that should confound Di Meola’s earlier critics.

In the 1990s, you stepped away from the electric guitar for a while. Why?

For one thing, the appeal for the extreme volume that I started off with in the ’70s had waned over the years. I got sick of carrying around a ton of heavy equipment—it was such a physical and financial drain. Things had been so much easier with the acoustic trio I played in with John McLaughlin and Paco de Luc’a. So I was thinking about that group, and something else happened: I was developing as a writer and found that I could express myself better and make more meaningful music on the acoustic—and audiences really responded to that.

In what ways do you express yourself better on the acoustic?

My ideas don’t get lost in a wall of distortion and pyrotechnics, and I tend to write music that’s both subtler and more rhythmically adventurous on the acoustic. But in the last few years, I’ve been reintroducing the electric a little bit at a time, often mixed in with my acoustic sound by way of a processor like the Roland VG-88. After all, the electric sound is such a big part of my history, so I couldn’t just turn my back on it completely. It’s good to be back.

Having had that break from the electric, do you find that you now approach the instrument differently?

To answer that, I have to look back to my early days playing fusion in the ’70s. My electric solos were so often based on the static harmony—a single chord, like E minor or A minor, for a long period of time—that was so popular then. There wasn’t much I could do on that one chord except build up to the sort of highly technical, velocity-laden type of climax that audiences ate up. It was certainly exciting at the time, but I’ve come to appreciate a lot more harmonic movement in music, as well as strong balance—a good combination of space and lyricism, with speed and technique thrown in there at the appropriate moments. How I play the electric guitar has as much to do with my focusing on the acoustic guitar—where every little nuance is important—as it does simply evolving as a musician. I can now say more with an interesting progression or a syncopated rhythm than with a barrage of notes at high volume.

The electric playing on Pursuit of Radical Rhapsody is characterized by restraint and gracefulness, as well as by awesome tone. How did you get such great sounds?

I played my PRS—the signature model Prism, which is a double-cutaway solidbody with two humbuckers and a very warm sound. But the secret weapon was a Dumble amp I borrowed in the studio. I discovered that the beauty of a Dumble is in the smoothness of its sustain, and I could see right away why they’re so coveted and expensive. Most other amps might sound smooth in the booth when you’re recording, but on the other side of the glass, in the control room, you’ll hear all these jagged edges on the sustain. That Dumble was like cream, like butter—a small amp with such a great sound.