How Guitar Duo Rodrigo y Gabriela Is Informed by Eastern Spiritual Practices—and Thrash-Metal
When Rodrigo Sánchez and Gabriela Quintero won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album in 2020 for their groundbreaking Mettavolution album, it was a testament to their distinctive blend of classical- and flamenco-informed nylon-string prowess and high-gain, metal-approved electric intensity. Steeped in the vocabulary of San Francisco Bay Area thrash giants like Alex Skolnick, Kirk Hammett, and Jeff Hanneman, the duo emerged from a metal band called Tierra Acida in their native Mexico to become one of the most successful instrumental acoustic acts in the world, routinely playing in the stadiums and arenas typically reserved for only the biggest heavy rock and metal acts.
While some might describe Rodrigo y Gabriela’s music as flamenco-leaning—with Gabriela’s astonishing postmodern take on the Iberian rasgueado method of strumming, and Rodrigo’s blinding Phrygian runs—the pair brandish their Yamaha nylon-string guitars to occupy the kind of interstitial, open-ended acoustic-electric territory one might associate with artists from John McLaughlin to Led Zeppelin. (Check out the duo’s fantastic interpretation of “Stairway to Heaven,” from their 2006 eponymous debut, for an object lesson in reharmonizing a classic.)
On their latest release, In Between Thoughts, bolstered by the presence of the Bulgarian National Symphony under the direction of composer Adam Ilyas Kuruc on most of the tracks, the spiritually inclined pair have invested those same pan-genre musical values with some of their own more metaphysical ones. The title is a nod to the nondualist spiritual traditions of India, in particular the Advaita Vedanta school of thought, which, like much Buddhist philosophy, stresses the importance of letting go of the discriminating, judging mind that parses reality into notions of good-bad, birth-death, despair-happiness, and other polarities, for a resolute calm that holds all things without being buffeted by them. In other words, as Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant once put it, “To be a rock, and not to roll.”
Talk about how your meditation practice intersects with your life as a guitar player and performer.
Gabriela: Meditation is such a great tool to just quiet the mind and your surroundings. All the incessant, often irrelevant and anxious thoughts we have are relentlessly overplayed and repeated in our heads. So, it’s good to have a practice that gradually decreases the mind’s tendency to repeat itself. That situation doesn’t allow a person to really go deep for very long and stay in a peaceful state.
Playing music is a kind of meditation in itself, but approaching playing and practicing the guitar with this parallel practice of traditional sitting meditation is even better. We find that by meditating beforehand, and quieting the mind at least somewhat, we hear each other more clearly and play even better. And then, if we do a gig for two hours, it’s truly like a two-hour meditation. One of the main things I’ll take away from making this new album, and incorporating these nondualist ideas into it, is to let the music flow, let it live and breathe without judging it first.
Rodrigo, one thing that surprises many people is your flatpicking technique on the nylon-string. You get a wild range of timbres, from very bright and full of overtones to quite muted and almost archtop-like. How did you get there?
Rodrigo: I think it’s due to the background I have, especially my transition from electric metal playing to the nylon-string guitar, importing metal techniques like palm muting into the acoustic world. But even beyond just rock or metal, both Gabriela and I had an openness for different genres and different styles of playing, and that really helped me develop many different levels of dynamics and timbre with my pick attack that you can hear throughout the albums that we have recorded.
A lot of people have confused our sound with flamenco. While we truly love traditional flamenco music, we’ve never intended or pretended to play it at all. Our influences are often surprising. In fact, I’m going to break some news to you: The way Gabriela actually developed her current technique was not especially through flamenco guitar players, but, during the ten years we spent living in Ireland, she learned firsthand how to translate rhythms from some of Ireland’s best bodhrán frame-drum percussionists, including the great Robbie Harris, who taught her many of the types of patterns she now applies to the nylon-string.
You have such a remarkable strumming technique, Gabriela. I hear it as a variation on the flamenco rasgueado, but, as Rodrigo says, many of your strumming patterns in fact come from elsewhere.
Gabriela: A long time ago, I really wanted to play flamenco, but I couldn’t because I didn’t seem to have the capabilities to play that way. And back in the day, when I was in the metal band with Rodrigo, I was puzzled to see how these guys play all of those amazing metal rhythms on the guitar. I didn’t really know how to do that, either! But my attempts to figure it out led me to discover new patterns and rhythms on the nylon-string that are more connected to rock and metal than to flamenco.
We lived in Barcelona for a while, I met a lot of flamenco players, and quickly discovered that I didn’t have any of those traditional rhythms under my fingers—not even one. This was really frustrating, because I would keep practicing, say, a particular 4/4 rumba or a malagueña, but it was extremely hard to figure it out properly. Nowadays you can find lessons in rumba and other Latin rhythms on YouTube, but that was not option back when we were trying to learn. In essence, I started to develop my own style out of what I could capture from all these influences, filtered through the way I perceived music from a rock and metal background.
You are certainly the driving rhythmic force in the duo with Rodrigo. Anyone who has seen you play is stunned by the power and nuance in your right-hand technique.
Gabriela: It’s funny—I used to play a lot of solos and a lot of riffs, and Rodrigo and I were usually trading fours, or playing lead guitar harmonies against each other. But when we began playing big rock festivals, Rodrigo suggested I play rhythm more on the beat, keep that percussive thing going, because people were going crazy for it. And if I stopped playing the beat and went to a solo, the bottom would just drop out—all of a sudden, it was if there were no drums.
Rodrigo, you have a serious knack for reharmonizing melodies using counterpoint. The fact that you don’t have classical training, and that you play all these voices with a pick and not fingers only adds to my puzzlement. What’s up with that?
Rodrigo: I think I probably got that from my late father, who passed away this year. While not a lifelong professional guitarist, he was a truly great player. When he was playing most often, in the ’70s and ’80s, he was almost always a one-man show. Like me, he didn’t have a lot of academic training. Perhaps for that reason, he played very differently from other people and found his own way to make complex songs work on a single guitar. He didn’t really teach me how to play directly, but every Sunday morning, I would just go downstairs, lay beside him, and listen to his playing.
My mom had proper training as a classical dancer, and she had a good knowledge of how to play piano and how to read music, too. I can remember my dad and mom reharmonizing songs, just sitting at the piano and doing crazy, incredible harmonies. I guess the ear for that type of listening was passed on to me sort of genetically, and by the wonderful opportunity to absorb it all firsthand. I recognize that it’s in everything I do, from the way I communicate with orchestral musicians to the way I like to map out all the music I create. And I recognize that there are many people like me, without any academic training, who nevertheless seem to have an understanding of music in that particular way.
Gabriela, did you come from a similarly musical home, and what formative experiences put you on your musical path?
Gabriela: My formative experience in my musical path was simply the love to hear music since as far back as I can remember. No one is a musician in my family, but they are all music lovers, and at home when I was little there was always music from all genres—jazz, funk, classic rock, and classical music, not to mention salsa, tango, flamenco, and boleros. And the list goes on!
What was it like to communicate your ideas with the orchestral musicians when you were making In Between Thoughts—did you use score notation or go about things a different way?
Rodrigo: We don’t read music, but [composer] Adam [Ilyas Kuruc] obviously does, and the way we communicated with him was easy because we’ve worked with him many times before. He’s done arrangements for us when we have had orchestra shows like at the Hollywood Bowl, and so it was a very natural and comfortable process.
Gabriela: As Rod and I worked on the music ourselves on the guitar as we usually do, we came up with all the tunes first and then contacted our good friend Adam, who was delighted to work again with us on the arrangements for this body of work. It was really cool to be able to send him recordings of the songs and give him our idea of what we wanted. The orchestra was built around the melodies, harmonies, and structures. My guitar is the driving force of the beat, so it was super fun and it was the first time we’ve worked with an orchestra in this way.
What are the commonalities between metal and nylon-string traditions? Other players, like the late, great Ben Woods, have followed a similar trajectory. And how do you think you are balancing Latin and metal traditions these days?
Rodrigo: Well, both genres feature very passionate and virtuosic playing, very intense and energetic playing. And both are almost more like religions than mere styles of music. We did lean more heavily Latin on the first few records, but if you listen closely to Mettavolution onwards, there is a gradual departure from the Latin-oriented sounds that we favored on the first two albums. They just started to disappear naturally. On this new album, there’s virtually no trace of those Latin roots. We never intended Rodrigo y Gabriela to be wholly connected to any particular genre of music. We simply continue to want to do something that we feel we can enjoy—and hopefully other people will as well.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.