By Richard Bienstock
Alberto Lombardi had been working as a professional guitarist—a professional electric guitarist, that is—for more than two decades before he turned to the acoustic as a primary form of musical expression several years ago.
As for what led him to unplug? Tommy Emmanuel.
“What I find so appealing about his playing is that he acts as kind of a bridge between us electric guys and the acoustic fingerstyle approach, because he has a style that blends the two,” Lombardi explains. “Hearing him, I felt like I had a connection to the acoustic that I hadn’t felt before, and from there I went on to Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed and all those great acoustic players. But I needed Tommy as a bridge.”
In 2016, Lombardi released his first acoustic album, Birds, a collection of originals alongside arrangements of Italian (“Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu,” aka “Volare”) and American and British (“Georgia on My Mind,” The Beatles’ “Come Together”) pop standards. Like Emmanuel, Lombardi’s playing on the record evidenced an approach rooted in Atkins-style picking and accented by inventive harmonic and melodic turns—and a healthy dose of rock ’n’ roll flash.
“I come from the ’80s and ’90s, and we all had this craze about technique in those days and wanted to be fast like Steve Vai, Eddie Van Halen, and Yngwie Malmsteen,” he says. “Some of that heritage gets put into my fingerstyle playing.”
Another acoustic record, The Fermi Paradox, followed, though Lombardi recently returned to the electric for a crowdfunded blues-rock-influenced effort, Home. At the same time, he is continuing to venture deeper into the acoustic world with a new instructional DVD for Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop, which presents his ace fingerstyle arrangements of four Motown classics, including “How Sweet It Is (to Be Loved by You)” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”
Though Lombardi has been playing Motown music in cover bands since his teenage days, the new instructional DVD came about somewhat unexpectedly. “Stefan heard me play ‘How Sweet It Is’ and said to me ‘Why don’t you do a lesson on Motown?,’” Lombardi recalls. “I told him I only had the one arrangement, so he said, ‘Well, make up some more!’”
I caught up with Lombardi via phone from his home outside Rome to talk about his guitars, his playing style, and how he approaches his fingerstyle arrangements. At the time, Lombardi was under a countrywide quarantine due to the coronavirus outbreak and had just had a spate of local shows cancelled. But he was keeping things in perspective. “There’s no concerts, there’s no gatherings,” he told me. “But I am lucky. There are people here that have serious troubles, so we have to do this.”
What are your primary acoustics for fingerstyle work?
When I began to explore fingerstyle guitar about four or five years ago, I developed a relationship with Taylor. And so I built my little collection, which is three Taylors. My main one is a 515, which is a jumbo I bought used back in the ’90s, when I was studying at Musicians Institute in Los Angeles. It has a very balanced tone with a crisp top end, and even though it’s a jumbo, it’s strangely not boomy. In the studio it’s such a great guitar, but I cannot carry it around—it’s 30 years old and I don’t want to break it. So I have a newer Taylor, a 412, and I also have a 612, which is an all-maple guitar, that I use much more. The 12s, they call them Grand Concert models. They’re smaller instruments, so fingerstyle playing works very well with them.
It’s interesting that your main recording guitar is the 515. Given its size, one wouldn’t think of using that model for fingerstyle playing.
It’s not supposed to be for fingerstyle, because jumbos usually have big bass and are sometimes even a little unbalanced on the bass side. But being a Taylor, it’s also crisp-sounding, so that balances out the bigness of the body. Those two things together work perfectly for fingerstyle playing. But live performance is a bit trickier, because the 515 is a very big guitar and I’m a small guy. So I prefer the Grand Concert models onstage.
I’ve also seen you play a B&G acoustic.
They just sent that to me. It’s the Caletta model, and I have to say it’s a very unique instrument. It has a very punchy, loud, defined tone. And there’s also a loud bass response, which is strange for a guitar that is very small, just a little bigger than a parlor. I plan on using it to film some guitar videos, because I really love it.
You played primarily electric guitar for roughly 25 years before transitioning to the acoustic. Was it difficult for you to adapt to the fingerstyle technique?
Absolutely. Although when I first approached fingerstyle guitar, I tried Tommy Emmanuel’s version of “Classical Gas” [see full transcription of the original recording in the November 2017 issue], which was still pretty close to what I used to play. So I said, “Yeah, I can do this.” But then I tried the boom-chick stuff, like “Borsalino,” and some Chet Atkins things, and those were so hard and completely different from what I was used to playing. It’s probably easier to make that transition if you have classical training, which I don’t have. So I had to actually start from scratch, down to practicing the alternating bass and all that stuff. It was hard at the beginning.
One of your Guitar Workshop instructional videos, Hot Licks: Exercises and Creative Tips for the Acoustic Guitarist, focuses on how to adapt electric-style playing to the acoustic.
True. That focuses mostly on single-note lines, which takes some adapting as well. I throw lots of licks into my arrangements, and so for me I had to learn how to adapt my legato technique onto the acoustic. Stefan noticed that I have a habit of inserting these licks into the arrangements, and he said, “Why don’t we do a video where you talk about all the stuff, and how you bring it from the electric guitar into your acoustic guitar playing?” And that’s how the DVD came about.
I’ve read that the first acoustic music Stefan Grossman heard from you was your arrangement of “Volare.” That song has become something of a calling card for you and features many of the techniques you are known for, such as Atkins-style alternating bass, rich and complex harmonic structures, and artificial harmonics.
Yes. I think one of the things that I really love about arranging for fingerstyle acoustic guitar is that I can do some of what I do usually in the studio when I’m arranging a pop or a rock record—working with strings or horns, coming up with rhythm patterns for the drummer or bass lines for the bass player—and do it by myself on one guitar from the comfort of my sofa. And without a singer yelling at me because maybe he doesn’t like the piano part. [laughs]
“Volare” in particular; there is a version of that song that the Italian singer [Domenico] Modugno did on The Ed Sullivan Show with an orchestra, and there’s this beautiful Hammond organ on it. I tried to replicate that with the use of harmonics. And at the beginning, I do a small descending bass part to complement the harmony. Those are the types of things that I really like to put into arrangements, that make it more interesting and give it more color, I would say.
For your new record, Home, you returned to the electric. What were your main instruments in the studio?
Home is a blues-rock record sounding a lot like my influences—the Eagles, maybe some David Gilmour, and a lot of Sting. I’m a big fan of Sting. And people tend to tell me I sing a little bit like him. I’m not as good as he is, but the timber of the voice is maybe similar. For guitars, I had two Strats. One is a Custom Shop relic and the other one is an old Mexican Strat that I completely modified with Custom Shop parts. I also have a new B&G electric guitar—it’s called the Little Sister—that I’m really excited about and using a lot, but I didn’t have it in time for the record. So I basically just played Stratocasters.
You’re a Fender fan when it comes to electrics—you’ve even put together a live show that celebrates famous Stratocaster players.
Yes. It’s a show that I tour with where I perform the music of great Stratocaster-related players like Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan and David Gilmour and Jeff Beck. That’s something that I’m trying to do more and more because I love playing that type of music, just as I love playing my own music on electric and acoustic guitar.
What do you love most about playing music on acoustic guitar?
I love that it is a complete, self-supporting instrument. And I think it has a very communicative tone. You can get a lot of expression out of it and paint the whole picture. Of course, the electric is also an expressive instrument, but when I play that I like to have other musicians with me, and that’s a different type of thing. But with the acoustic, you can do it all by yourself. I think that’s what I love most about it.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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