Ten or so years ago, the steel-string guitarist Eric Skye was hanging out at Gryphon Stringed Instruments in Palo Alto, California, putting a Santa Cruz guitar through its paces, when a stranger approached him to compliment his musicianship. As it happened, that stranger, Willie Carter, worked in artist relations at the Santa Cruz Guitar Company, and a fortuitous connection was instantly formed.
“Willie just said, ‘You really need to come to Santa Cruz to meet Richard Hoover,’” Skye says, referring to the guitar company’s beloved owner. “Of course I jumped at the opportunity. I went down there, ended up playing for the whole crew, and just really hit it off with everyone. I became an official Santa Cruz artist on the spot.”
Skye is among a handful of artists to have been honored with a SCGC signature model. Since its introduction in 2011, he has used the guitar exclusively when straddling the worlds of fingerpicking and flatpicking—in traditional acoustic and more adventurous jazz contexts—which he does with apparent effortlessness. The instrument assumes a central role on his latest album, Ballads and Blues, a collection of standards and originals arranged inventively for solo guitar.
Calling from his home studio in Portland, Oregon, Skye sang the praises of his namesake guitar and examined the methodology behind his recent work.
You’ve been playing your signature Santa Cruz exclusively for years now. How did the model come about?
Around 2010, Richard Hoover called and asked me if I would be interested in doing a signature-model guitar. It was like getting a call from Steve Jobs! Santa Cruz had already made me a standard 00 with an Adirondack top, and that’s all I was playing at that point, so it had to be another 00. Richard asked me what further customizations I would want, and we ended up messing around with scale length and string spacing, settling on 1-13/16 inches for the left hand [nut], 2-1/4 inches for the right hand [saddle], and a scale length of 24.9 inches—just a skosh longer than the Gibson short-scale.
The guitar is also a quarter-inch deeper than the standard 00, which gives it a little bit more low end. Another key thing was the use of cocobolo [for the back and sides], which is a very heavy and dense wood that I find projects well, making it very easy to use with a microphone.
How many examples of the model do you own?
Just two—the original, number one, with the Adirondack top, and number two, which has an Italian spruce top. I told Richard I was looking for bear claw-figured Italian spruce—something that would make a good conversation piece. He found the most beautiful board when he was in Europe, and brought it back to make me another guitar.
Do you notice much of a difference between the two instruments? How do you decide which one to use?
I’m not sure I would be able to distinguish them in a blind listening test, but if pressed I’d say that maybe the Italian spruce has a little more note separation and definition. But they’re really so similar that I tend to use the one with the freshest strings at the moment [laughs].
Are the guitars equipped with pickups?
The production model doesn’t come with electronics, but I do have K&K pickups installed, just as an emergency backup. When I perform, I like to use an AKG C214 large-diaphragm condenser mic—or whatever is provided by the house if I’m on the road and don’t feel like bringing a microphone. Also, because I do a lot of house concerts, for under 50 people or so, a lot of times I just sit up straight and use my fingerpicks without any amplification at all. That’s my preference.
Many guitarists have stables of instruments, but you have just two. Why is that?
I actually think of it as one guitar! There are a couple of answers: One is I think I finally found “the one.” Richard and I went through this intense process of whittling things down to exactly what I need a guitar to do, and it really covers everything. I can be my fingerstyle best on it, and also do flatpicking, alone or with a group. And as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that I function better as a creative person with limitations. It’s like I’m a pianist with just one piano in the house. I can focus more of my time and attention on what’s on the music stand in front of me. It’s ultimately about intentional limitation.
I saw a great picture you posted on Facebook recently of a grunge-era Eric Skye playing a Gibson ES-335. Why have you found yourself ultimately more drawn to the acoustic guitar than the electric, especially as a jazz guitarist?
I actually think of myself more as an acoustic guitarist who plays jazz than a jazz guitarist who plays acoustic. Within that lens, I liken myself to an acoustic piano player. I do like the sound of an electric jazz guitar—like an ES-175, that compressed humbucker kind of sound. But I think of the ES-175 like a Fender Rhodes, something that I would not want to hear a whole album of by itself.
On the other hand, I’ve always been attracted to that acoustic-piano overtone kind of sound you can get on a great acoustic guitar, and it probably goes back to growing up in the Bay Area in the early ’80s. It’s just being around that sort of California guitar style, that Alex de Grassi kind of influence that I identified with, so it made sense to just carry that through everything I do. I don’t need a jazz guitar to play jazz or a bluegrass guitar to play bluegrass or a classical guitar to play classical. Those are just styles; they’re not necessarily sounds.
I’m guessing you don’t consider yourself a blues guitarist, either, but that style features prominently in your work, especially on Ballads and Blues. What does the blues mean to you?
The blues is obviously a noun. It’s a thing, it’s a structure—a three-chord structure, all being dominant chords, etc. But it’s also a verb, the sort of cathartic experience of making music. Other places in the world have music that’s very different than what we think of as American blues, but are similar in spirit and process. Flamenco comes to mind, for example.
In any case, I went through a period of discovering the great electric blues guitarists—players like the three Kings: Freddie, Albert, and B.B.—and then I got into funkier blues, like the later Grant Green stuff. In all of those things, what appeals to me most is digging in deep and being expressive in the moment, so I try to bring that into whatever I do.
Talk about how you put the album together.
The idea was to play blues tunes that all had some little twist to them. Take [McCoy Tyner’s] “Contemplation,” for example: It’s a minor blues and it’s a waltz and it’s 16 bars. Or [Charles Mingus’] “Nostalgia in Times Square”—it’s kind of a 12-bar blues, but harmonically you have to put on a lens to understand that it’s a twist on the blues. I’ve always liked that kind of thing.
As for the ballads, in slow tunes you’re obviously called upon to play expressively. When you play something fast and busy, you’re showing the world what you can do. But when you play slowly, you’re showing who you really are, and it’s kind of a big responsibility. The fewer the notes, the harder it is, as far as I’m concerned. So, in a lot of ways those ballads are really bluesy, too, in the verb sense. What I think ties the whole album together is me trying to dig deep, play in the moment, and be sincere.
Why do you find it more difficult to play slowly than to shred?
It’s trickier to keep the groove in the pocket; when the tempo’s faster it’s doing some of that work for you. When it’s slow, the beats are, of course, spaced further apart, and it becomes harder to predict where the next beat is. I also think it’s harder because the older I get, the more sparsely I try to play. I used to try to make a lot of big chords and complicated bass lines, but now I don’t feel any obligation to do any of that.
I think a lot of it is the nakedness of the notes just being out there. I’m really listening to the whole bloom of the note and making sure it has a nice tail on the end of it, that nothing’s getting cut off. You have to be inside every note, and that takes a lot of intention.
How did you make that transformation where you’re less concerned about complexity?
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Like I said, it’s a function of getting older—and maybe having less testosterone [laughs]. I would also say it comes from making music with Mark Goldenberg, who only plays the great notes. Sometimes there are a lot of them and sometimes there are very few of them, but none of that registers to him. He’s just a composer who happens to be playing the guitar. Being around Mark the last few years has obviously been a huge influence.
Have you ever talked with him about his tendency to only play the great stuff, or has his example just kind of rubbed off on you?
I’m thinking it’s just through osmosis—from being right there in the cockpit with him when we perform and record together. We’ve spent a lot of days in cars, driving to gigs, but most of the time we’ve just talked about our kids and stuff like that. Mainly he has just been encouraging. I remember telling him what my practice regimen was like and, although he was just trying to be funny and off-the-cuff, he said something that became a mantra for me: “Stop trying to become a better guitar player and just write the music.”
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.