Pierre Bensusan onstage with his trusty 32-year-old Lowden “Old Lady” acoustic at the Bornemouth Folk Club in Bornemouth, England, September 22, 2009. Photo by Paul Savine
A lot of great guitarists have made use of the DADGAD tuning—in which the open strings sound a Dsus4 chord—to break the constraints of concert tuning. That’s because it’s versatile and adaptable to Celtic tunes, raga, and Appalachian styles, among others. British folk pioneer Davy Graham used it extensively in the early ’60s, and in his wake great rock players like Jimmy Page and Trey Anastasio have dabbled in it, too. But few instrumentalists have made so much from it as fingerstyle legend Pierre Bensusan. For nearly four decades now, Bensusan has used the tuning to play his highly personal blend of Celtic, Middle Eastern, jazz, and Brazilian strains.

The 53-year-old Bensusan was born in Oran, Algeria, and reared in Paris—an upbringing that would eventually lend a cosmopolitan sense to his music. Like many young musicians, he got caught up in the folk revival of the 1960s, strumming and singing songs in the mold of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, before developing his trademark fingerstyle approach.

Bensusan was only 17 when he signed his first recording contract. A year later, his first album,
Près de Paris(1975), won the Grand Prix du Disque at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. Since then, Bensusan has released a handful of carefully conceived albums filled with compositions of orchestral-like complexity and stunning stylistic variety. Bensusan also wroteThe Guitar Bookto illuminate the concepts behind those records.

With his warm baritone voice and trademark scatting, Bensusan is also an accomplished singer. Unlike previous releases, his latest album,Vividly, is split evenly between instrumentals and pieces with vocals. But the recording has plenty to offer the guitar aficionado, including cluster chord voicings, unusual chord progressions, shimmering harp-style harmonics, and dense counterpoint.

We recently spoke with Bensusan about his influences, his short-lived foray into electronic effects, and more.

What were your formative musical experiences like?

I was 11 years old when I first got a guitar and mostly strummed it, accompanying myself singing French tunes and American folk songs. Then, when I heard the music of players like Bert Jansch and John Renbourn, that really gave me a kick in the pants and stimulated me to learn how to fingerpick and play solo, in a contrapuntal style.

How’d you get into using DADGAD tuning, and what was it about it that moved you so deeply?

Bensusan cradles a 23-string harp guitar built by Dave Evans. Photo by Doatea Bensusan
Early on, I discovered a lot of alternate tunings by just randomly playing around with my tuning pegs. After a while, I come to the conclusion that I had to stick to one tuning and learn the fretboard in it. I chose DADGAD for its versatility and have been using it exclusively since 1978. [Ed.: In a rare deviation, Bensusan uses standard on his composition “Altiplanos.”] DADGAD is a flattering tuning, which means that you can remain at the surface of it and have an exciting time for a little while. But if you just play a lot of open-string voicings and don’t really investigate the tuning’s full potential, then you are going to sound just like everyone else. So I went about studying DADGAD carefully, playing around with many different scale and chord patterns, many different ideas and styles. After doing this a while, I was able to freely express myself in the tuning. Then DADGAD became invisible: I was playing the tuning—it wasn’t playing me.

Tell us a little about the Lowden that has long been your main guitar.

In 1978, when I was touring Northern Ireland, I met a friend of George Lowden. Several months later, I saw a Lowden guitar in a shop in Paris, and I immediately fell in love with both the sound and look of the instrument. So I called the luthier immediately and asked him to make me a guitar with mahogany back and sides and a cedar top. I’ve played that guitar, which I call “Old Lady” [Ed.: It is officially known as the model S22], for almost 33 years now and have used it on all of my records. I also have another Lowden, my “New Lady,” which is about three years old and is my signature model. It has a spruce top and rosewood body, giving it a different sound than my original Lowden. It’s very responsive, has a lot of headroom, and is very clear and bright. What’s amazing about the newer guitar is it can be so fast and effortless that you really have to pay attention to what you play so things don’t get out of control. It forces me to approach things carefully, which is good.

In what way do you feel like the new guitar can contribute to things getting “out of control”?

If you aim right, that instrument gives you a 3-D rendition, close to perfection, but if you don’t pay attention, you can get overwhelmed by the strength of projection. I am grateful that I have to pay that attention to how I touch it, which is the way it should be, and can only help me to become a better player.

How would you describe your compositional process?

I let my imagination play its role and then allow the guitar to take over. At the beginning, a new piece is just an idea that I have. Over several weeks or several months or several years, I’ll start to incorporate my fingers without ever losing sight of the original concept. Technique can distort an idea, and I’m vigilant about watching out for that. In a way, composing has strengthened my instrumental technique—figuring out how to accurately express something on the guitar has greatly improved my knowledge of the fretboard and my touch on the instrument.