Some of us discover our passion at a young age, but relatively few realize an intense motivation to act on it. When that age happens to be around six years old, and that motivation is not only realized with perfect clarity but guided into open avenues, it yields the golden intersection of events that lead to a guitar player like 23-year-old Antoine Boyer.
Boyer grew up in a Paris suburb, where his musical education began with the Gypsy jazz his parents would play around the house. When he was six years old, his father decided that he wanted to learn Gypsy guitar and brought his son along to lessons with him. They began at the same time, studying under Mandino Reinhardt. Later, they met Francis-Alfred Moerman, with whom they recorded an album, L’Univers Insolite de Francis Moerman (The Unusual Universe of Francis Moerman), in 2009, when Antoine was just nine years old.
It’s impossible to talk about Boyer without mentioning that marvelous mixture of youth and seemingly outsized accomplishment—but it really ends up serving as a distraction from the guitarist’s own distinctive style. He began with Gypsy jazz and later discovered a passion for classical music when he enrolled at the Conservatoire de Paris, studying with Gérard Abiton, among others. His resulting style involves what he calls “open jazz,” which borrows from classical polyphony with cleanly articulated lines, á la guitarists like Pat Metheny and Joe Pass. Unless he’s firing through those wicked, puckish lines passed down by the storied Django Reinhardt, he plays with careful, concise, poetic eloquence balanced with a fair share of excited, energetic bursts.
Boyer met flamenco guitarist Samuelito at the conservatory, and in 2016 the two joined forces for Coincidence, a recording featuring their explosive merge of flamenco and Gypsy jazz styles. The following year, Boyer released Caméléon Waltz, an album that features jazz and classical originals, a Domenico Scarlatti piece, arrangements of pop standards like “Norwegian Wood” and “The Sound of Silence,” as well as jazz pianist Bill Evans’ “We Will Meet Again.”
In February Boyer released his second album with Samuelito, called Sonámbulo. I had a video chat with Boyer, who is based in Paris, about his playing style and philosophies, his guitars, and his side passion of woodworking.
Sonámbulo is your second collaboration with Samuelito. How would you describe your sound as a duo?
It’s a combination of Gypsy jazz guitar and flamenco guitar, but it’s not Gypsy jazz and it’s not flamenco—it’s just our thing that we have together.
How did you two discover your sound?
With Samuelito, we don’t just meet to play together; we spend our lives together almost, because we’re touring and playing together all the time. We first met in the classical guitar conservatory, so we have the same roots playing classical music. That makes our approach to music and work quite similar, even if we’re playing in different styles.
What would you say is your main style as a solo guitarist?
I guess now people know me as an open guitarist. Gypsy jazz is like my mother tongue, my first language, but my language has evolved in so many different ways.
You love both jazz and classical—what do they have in common to you?
In classical and jazz, you always have to be careful about each note you play. You have to listen to every note you make and make it beautiful. Whether it’s improvised or written, I tend to take care of every note the same way.
How do you make written music your own?
I think the best approach is trying to be in the present moment, even if you know what’s coming after—that’s what makes it true. Because there’s no judgment or thinking around what you’re doing, like, “OK, now I’m going to play this.” It’s just me inside the music, and that’s what makes it mine. I didn’t write it, but it’s my personality and I’m playing it. I think what’s important is just playing to be free.
How do you come up with arrangements for songs like “The Sound of Silence” or “Norwegian Wood” on Caméléon Waltz?
First, I have to like the song [laughs]. And then, it has to be possible for me to play it well on the guitar and deliver a feeling as powerful as the original. I can’t explain it more precisely because it’s so different for every song. Technically, I would say that I love to make it polyphonic—to not only play the melody and some chords around it, but more like two or more voices that link together. So there’s the melody everybody knows, and then I like to add some other melodies that also have their own lives.
What led you to play electric guitar, in addition to your acoustics?
I always liked electric guitars while I was studying classical music—then I tried to play one and realized that I could do fingerstyle, which I can’t do on the manouche guitar. It’s really hard to play fingerstyle on the Gypsy guitar; if you want the Gypsy guitar sound, you need to really dig in with the pick. So I discovered that I like the electric guitar because I can play it like the classical guitar—with all the polyphony.
What are your main guitars and what do you like about them?
I have three main guitars: My Gypsy guitar, made by [U.S. luthier] Bob Holo, is a very versatile instrument that I actually use mainly outside of the Gypsy world; my Collings Eastside Jazz LC is really great for jazz and more; and my classical guitar, made by the German luthier Christian Koehn, is an incredible and beautifully handcrafted instrument that I particularly love.
I know you learned guitar with your father—that’s so special. What was that experience like?
He wanted me to play music with other people, whereas if you learn classical piano or guitar, you often play alone in front of a crowd. He did that when he was young and didn’t like it, which is why he started [playing Gypsy jazz], and started it with me. We used to listen to Gypsy jazz at home, and I think he just loved the style and wanted to learn it. So we started together the same day and with the same teacher.
Does musical talent run in your family?
Well, both my parents played music when they were young. My brother plays also, but he’s more into drawing, and my sister is into dancing.
You’re credited for studio setup and production in the performance videos you made for Caméléon Waltz. Did you design those sets?
Yes, that’s my studio: I built it and did the video. Actually, I like to make a new set for every new album. I made a set of Caméléon ones and I made the set for the first album with Samuelito. I like to build many things; I do woodworking, and I’m making a guitar.
Did you apprentice or teach yourself?
I first made a classical guitar with a friend who’s a luthier. I’ve used molds and casts and stuff like that.
You released your first album when you were 12. Were you in school while you were producing albums, and did you excel at anything besides music in your student years?
Yeah, I was in normal school most of the time, and when I was 15 I went to [a type of school] in France where it’s kind of half-school and half-music. Instead of spending the whole day in school, you spend only the morning, and then the afternoon you are free to make music. I couldn’t say I was great in any subject; I was just average, nothing special.
What are you focusing on now in terms of technique?
My main focus now is trying to improvise polyphonically. So I just try to develop polyphonic language, mainly two voices, which is already difficult for me. I try to see it another way, because as guitarists we tend to really work with chord shapes, which are so guitaristic, but I mostly try to make two voices that have their own lives, you know? It’s not just some chord shape that follows a melody; there is a melody and there is a bass and they really move differently.
Who are your favorite artists? Who have you been listening to a lot lately, or in general?
I listen so many different artists that it’s hard to say one especially. The first names that come to me are Julian Lage, Yamandu Costa, Sönke Meinen . . . but, of course, there are many others and it would be very long to detail all of them and why. Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of piano, especially the works of composer Gabriel Fauré.
It’s interesting how you seem to have the ability to learn music at an accelerated pace. Have there been any hurdles for you in terms of learning guitar techniques over the years?
I would say that every time I love something, I just find a way to play it, and manage to play what I want. I really feel the passion about something makes me just do it. To be honest, though, I don’t think I’m really fast at learning something. Again, at school I was really not fast, just normal.
Is there anything specifically you’re excited to share about the new album?
First, we will make a video with every song of the album, because I love making videos and trying to find ideas about the tunes to make every video different, just as every tune is different. And the second thing is that we’ve made a new show, with lights and a little bit more production. It’s more than just a concert.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.