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Fingerstyle Wizard Pete Huttlinger: 1961-2016

Pete Huttlinger performing in 2010 at the Guitar Town Festival in Copper Mountain, Colorado. Photo by Jason Shadrick

We remember the great acoustic guitarist and PG contributor whose dazzling solo guitar arrangements inspired players around the world.

Acoustic guitarists and fingerstyle aficionados across the globe were shocked to learn that Pete Huttlinger died of complications from a stroke on January 15, at age 54. In addition to being an ace Nashville session player, Huttlinger was one of the most musical and technically advanced fingerstyle guitarists of our time. Juggling a tune’s melody, harmony, and bass lines, he could turn a flattop into a miniature orchestra. His virtuosic treatment of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” would leave players and fans alike shaking their heads in disbelief.

In 2000, Huttlinger won the National Fingerpick Guitar Championship in Winfield, Kansas, and in 2007 the Berklee grad made the first of his three Carnegie Hall appearances. Eric Clapton admired Huttlinger’s fretboard finesse so much he invited the Washington, D.C., native to play at his Crossroads Festivals in 2004, 2007, and 2010.

Those who knew Huttlinger also appreciated his wry wit, which peppered the occasional pieces he wrote for this magazine. Once asked if he was ever tempted to give up on a tough arrangement, he replied, “Oh no! Never give up, never give in. Get a bigger gun, bigger bullets, and keep going to battle.”

Huttlinger recorded 15 albums, including Finger Picking Wonder, a collection of acoustic guitar versions of Stevie Wonder’s hits, and McGuire’s Landing, a song cycle about an Irish immigrant’s experiences in Boston and beyond.

Though his solo arrangements could be extremely challenging, he preferred to capture each piece as a performance. “I’m not one of those guys who will do 10 or 12 takes and then edit them together,” he said. “It’s like doing a great big Sudoku thing, and I can’t do that stuff. I like to do a whole take that sounds and feels right. Then if there’s a phrase here or a lick there I don’t like, I’ll go ahead and fix it—there’s no problem with that. But the trick is to find the one take that makes you sit back in your chair and go, yeah, that’s it.”

Despite health problems related to a rare heart condition that repeatedly threatened his life in the last five years, Huttlinger continued to play and perform until his death. His indomitable spirit and determination to play guitar—even after a devastating stroke in 2010—amazed his family and friends, as well as the doctors who treated him. He and his wife and manager, Erin Morris, chronicled his ordeal and recovery in their 2015 memoir, Joined at the Heart: A Story of Love, Guitars, Resilience and Marigolds.

Huttlinger liked to encourage other players and was always generous with his knowledge. His advice to solo guitarists? “Take some time away from the track and then come back to listen with a fresh set of ears—that can make a huge difference. Are the important parts coming out, are they speaking well, and are they sitting right in the pocket? There have been times I’ve thought, ‘I’m never going to get this,’ but you just keep at it. If you think it’s important, keep doing it until you get it.”

Thank you, Pete, for all the inspiring music and great memories.

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Huttlinger recorded this stunning solo version of Steely Dan’s “Josie” after his near-death experience in 2010. “It has been a long road back from a stroke that had me completely paralyzed and unable to speak,” he wrote, “but this one says it for me.”