Alberto Lombardi is in love. After 25 years as a producer, arranger, and electric session player, the Italian guitarist has given his heart to acoustic guitar. He credits Tommy Emmanuel for his conversion, and Emmanuel’s stylistic influence can be heard on Lombardi’s first acoustic album, Birds (Fingerpicking). The 2016 album is a potpourri of Italian and American pop standards, classic rock, and original compositions.
Lombardi learned his first chords at the age of 12. After high school, he spent a year in the military and studied at the Musician’s Institute in Los Angeles. Then he returned to Italy, where he was immediately in demand as a session player, owing to his prodigious technique. “I was a big Steve Vai fan,” he explains. “John Petrucci, too. All those shredding guys. That was my style, and I was really fast.”
He is still fast. There’s plenty of sizzle on Birds in arrangements that are often surprisingly lush for an almost entirely solo effort. But there’s humor and tenderness in his approach, too. When Lombardi spoke to me from his home in Rome, I asked him how the romance with acoustic guitar began.
Who are some of your benchmarks on the acoustic guitar?
In 2014, Tommy Emmanuel did a concert, and I was there to interview him for an Italian magazine. Years earlier, before he was famous, I heard him play “Classical Gas” at a NAMM show, and I was really struck by it. I had learned the song since then, so when I met Tommy at that concert I asked him to play with me. He agreed. The experience was electrifying. It gave me this energy to try a whole new style.
I discovered Chet Atkins next and learned his song “Borsalino.” For that, you have to get the boom-chuck going. That independence of thumb and fingers took me forever, but it gave me this sensation of being a kid again. Then, in 2015, I met Tim Sparks. He played some things that are really uncommon. They shocked and inspired me.
Sparks plays “Birds” with you on the album. It’s one of your originals.
Yes, I’m just starting to write for acoustic guitar.
How does expressing yourself in your own compositions differ from interpreting other people’s music?
When you’re interpreting music, you have rails that you follow, a melody that’s already written out and a harmony. You can change something, but you still have to be on those rails. When you write music, you put down your own railroad. It’s like that for me. I want to turn right, I turn right. I want to turn left, I turn left. Maybe I want this bright green or dark blue. You can’t really do that with a song somebody else has written.
You see color when you compose?
I visualize things in my head with colors and use them to identify emotions, musical moods, and frequencies. I know exactly what brown sounds like.
Tell me about composing “Birds.”
How it started? I will say it, but I’m not certain it’s true. I was on the couch with the guitar and there were these little birds on my balcony. They were chatting to one another, so I came up with a little bit of a theme. A small thing. It’s usually like that for me when I compose a song. I get a cell of an idea and develop it. Then, because there’s an air conditioner on the balcony with a little tube and a hole they could pass through, the birds made a nest inside the wall. I kept hearing them chirp. For some reason, that suggested the melody. Don’t ask me why—it’s a feeling thing.
But you’re not certain it’s true?
A good story is always better than a complete truth.
Talk about how you play “Birds” solo.
“Birds” is self-sufficient. For some of the other songs I do a lot of stuff. I use ii–Vs; I use descending bass lines and in-between counterpoints. In “Birds,” the melody fills the space. So when I pass between sections, I have to find something to keep interest alive. If I just keep going from Bb to A to D, it’s boring. So I play a suspended chord. There are also spots where the melody rests. You can have a whole bar without anything happening. I throw in some licks—fast things, for fun. There’s one spot in “Birds” that reminds me of a circus. It’s not really part of the melody. You have Bb, A, Bb, A, and the melody rests on A. You have to put something there. For me, it’s a circus.
These ideas just come to you?
I steal. Most of my arrangements are from the big bands of the ’50s. They have strings, counterpoints, horns—I steal all of that. For “Roma Nun Fa La Stupida Stasera” [another composition on the album], I listened to a band recording, to this thing the strings do. They fill in with a really complex harmonic variation. It’s so beautiful, I just took it and did it exactly the same way. It’s easier to steal from a big band and get away with it than to steal from another guitar player.
Do you have any suggestions for someone learning to play “Birds”?
Play gently. You need a good groove. Palm-muting in the right spots can help, but I’m always careful about that. You have to find the right balance to make the melody shine, with a solid rhythm underneath. It’s pretty simple.
The solo parts don’t seem so simple.
The solo parts are half improvised and half written down. The beat I play on in the chorus is not simple at all. It’s a tricky progression, because it goes from Dmaj7 to D7 to Gm6 to F#m7 and so on before it goes to G and gets a little easier. I worked out a bunch of positions and transitions for that. It’s like when you’re climbing on a rock. You have some places where you can put your hands to keep from falling down. But when I improvise on an easy chord, I tend to be completely free. That’s what you have to do. Just go for it. Take off. Fly.
What Lombardi Plays
Alberto Lombardi’s main guitar is a 1997 Taylor 515 Jumbo. “It’s been played for 20 years,” he explains, “and the tone is amazing. Some players like a dark or mellow sound, but I love Taylors for their brightness.” Lombardi owns two other Taylor guitars, a 712 and a short-scale 412. He prefers light-gauge, coated D’Addario strings, a medium Dunlop thumb pick, and Dunlop Tortex .88 picks.
In the studio, Lombardi uses microphones from the 1950s and ’60s: a Neumann KM 54 on the soundhole and two AKG C12Bs, one on the body and the other on the neck. For live performance, Lombardi swears by the combination of a K&K Pure Mini pickup and a Seymour Duncan Mag Mic through an AER Alpha amp. “I also like Taylor’s Expression System [ES],” he explains. “It can feed back at high volume, but it’s great if you use headphones. Like for radio gigs.”
This article originally appeared in the January 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.