Kaleidoscope Ears: Gyan Riley Has a Unique Approach to Nylon-string Guitar

Gyan Riley’s big ears and deep guitar skills have taken him from solo shows to classical ensembles.
Gyan Riley seated on steps with a nylon-string guitar photo by Robin Hanleyi

Gyan Riley’s big ears and deep skills have taken him from solo shows to classical ensembles like the Falla Guitar Trio to the knottier terrain of electric-guitar quartet Dither, as well as to sensitive but highly interactive duos with guzheng virtuoso Wu Fei and violinist Timba Harris. Riley’s wide-ranging credits also include gorgeous work with Pakistani vocalist Arooj Aftab, violinist Iva Bittová, composer-clarinetist Evan Ziporyn, and a handful of collaborations with John Zorn; two gems are 2020’s Virtue, with guitarists Julian Lage and Bill Frisell, and 2018’s Chesed, one volume of the 11-disc The Book Beri’ah, also with Lage. Through the years, the Northern California native has also led his own trio and appeared on several releases with his father, esteemed composer Terry Riley, including Live (2011) and Way Out Yonder (2018). The latest of the younger Riley’s six albums are Shelter in Space, released in 2020, and last year’s solo outing, Silver Lining. It all began two decades ago with Food for the Bearded.

Gyan Riley playing acoustic guitar
Photo by Laura Giannone

You’ve had a lifetime’s worth of adventures since you released Food for the Bearded in 2002.

I listened to that record again recently, and it was like reliving an old dream—extremely familiar, but in a bizarre, far-off way.

You had just finished at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music when that came out, right?

I was actually in my last year at the conservatory, and I was thinking more like a “contemporary classical guitar composer”— I’d spend three hours on one measure of music.

Was that satisfying? [Laughter]

I enjoyed it, butI’d often be disappointed that the moment didn’t last longer. At some point I realized that I wanted to revel in in those moments. 

When did you decide to try something different?

I was writing a piece for my album Sprig [2018] when I realized that there were two or three measures I really liked, so I decided to scrap everything else, take those two or three measures, make them the backbone of the entire tune, and not worry about whether it was pretty enough or well-conceived enough or whatever. It felt good.

What did you get from your time at the conservatory?


The first four years were all about classical music, technique, and theory. For my graduate studies, I focused on composition and improvisation with Dušan Bogdanović. He was a good role model for me and for the transition I made into being a composer and improviser.

Do you compose mainly on guitar?

Yes. Ideas usually start in my head, and then I sing them into a device or jot them down. 

What are your main instruments these days?

A classical guitar made by Paul Jacobson in 1998, with a cedar top and Indian rosewood back and sides, and another, which I’ve been playing more recently, built by Robert and Orville Milburn the same year. That one has a spruce top and rosewood back and sides. Both guitars have a 650mm scale length and are strung with Savarez Alliance high-tension strings. I use BlueChip TP40 picks, too.

What is your history with those guitars?

Around 2010, I was composing a big new piece for guitar, and I was finding my then-current instrument really cumbersome for some things. It was holding me back. I was living in Oakland, and one day I just kind of freaked out and got in the car and drove to L.A. because I knew there was a really great classical guitar dealer there. I spent six hours in the shop playing dozens of instruments, and then I found this one [the Jacobson], which totally blew everything else out of the water. It felt good, and it had this amazing, almost piano-like quality to it. All the strings and notes sustained evenly, which is unusual for a classical guitar. So it was really obvious, like, “Oh yeah. This one. I’ll take it.” I acquired the Milburn guitar much earlier, as part of the prize in the 1999 Portland International Guitar Competition.

It’s surprising to hear that you use a pick on a classical guitar.

Yes, the BlueChip is the only one I’ve found that has a really smooth sound on nylon strings. For 20 years I only played fingerstyle, including on electric guitar. In order to simulate a flatpicking sound when needed, I developed an alternate picking technique using my index finger, which is incidentally featured in my “Etude 4.” However, the tone was not always strong enough, so I began learning to flatpick so I could get a bit more punch when needed. I’m glad I did and I’m happy to have found a pick type that provides a nice tone.

I noticed that you have recording credits for at least one of your albums. Do you have a particular setup that works best for you?

After asking engineers that I respect—and years of experimenting—I’ve found that I like the sound of an AKG C414 and a Neumann KM 184, recorded in stereo. I’ve tried a pair of one and a pair of the other, and I’ve tried various configurations, and to my ears, this is what sounds the best.

Have you done any film scoring?

I did some work for Hemingway, as well as another Ken Burns documentary that’s not out yet. The only other film project I’ve worked on was François Girard’s Hochelaga: Land of Souls, which I co-scored with my dad.

I watched videos of shows you did with your dad years ago, and you seem so much more confident onstage with him these days.


Many people assume I must have studied with my dad, but because I was a guitar player, he sent me off for lessons, which was great. I was almost 20 years old when he first asked me to play in the band he had at the time. 

How did your conservatory training jibe with his setlist-free aesthetic?

It was fun, but I had very little improvisational experience, so it was terrifying when he’d play something I’d never heard before. When you have very few parameters—no set, no key, no plan—theoretically, you can do anything, but the subtext is, “Just don’t play the wrong thing.” [Laughter]

How did you work it out?

By doing more improvisation and making it part of my practice, I became more confident, and I became my own artist. By the time we were performing as a duo, he trusted me to contribute whatever I felt. Eventually, we got to a place where we could create collectively improvised pieces instead of just playing music of his, which was constantly evolving and I had sort of learned.

How did being around Indian music affect you as an acoustic guitarist?

Having grown up hearing a lot of Indian music but not formally studying it, I have to say that it taught me to not rush the development of an idea, to let things organically develop over time. In the Indian music tradition my dad studied, sometimes there are 20 minutes of just letting things unfold. That really sunk in for me.

John Zorn’s “Book Beriah – Sachel” performed by Julian Lage & Gyan Riley

How did The Book Ber’iah connection come to be?

I was already a big fan of the Masada repertoire, so when John Zorn asked me and Julian [Lage] to do Chesed, it was a huge thrill because I’d heard that music being interpreted in so many different ways. 

How much work went into those arrangements? 

A lot. We definitely rehearsed more than we did for the trio album with Bill [Frisell]. 

What goes through your mind as you embark on an adventure like that? 


We just sat down and started reading through the charts. Julian and I didn’t know much about each other, so we were starting from scratch. It was probably better that way. 

It was a thrill to listen to Virtue and be able to hear each of you so clearly.

I was focused on trying to get through everything the best I could, but when we listened back after a take of the first tune, it sounded incredible. It was unlike anything we’d heard before.

You’ve also come out with not one, but two albums during the pandemic. 

I was sitting on this booklet of ideas, so I went through all the snippets and made Shelter in Space. Besides the one solo track, almost every tune has a different lineup. It was a fun album to make. 

Who are the mentors to whom you dedicated Silver Lining

The title track is dedicated to Bogdanović; a suite of three pieces is dedicated to David Tanenbaum, my other teacher at the conservatory; and I dedicated “The Old Castle” to John Zorn. “Kaleidoscope” is for my dad, and “Cyclone” is dedicated to [Italian classical guitarist] Aniello Desiderio. I wrote “Sometimes You Go Back for More” for Kenton Youngstrom, who’s in the Falla Guitar Trio with me and Dušan. 


You’re all over the map. Do you feel like you pick up something from each experience?

I wouldn’t do it otherwise! I take on projects because I know I’ll get something out of them; I know I’m going to learn a lot, and I know I’m going to enjoy the collaboration.

What would you say to a classically trained guitarist who’s struggling to improvise?

Do it every day. Hopefully, that’ll make you want to do it more. And the more you do it, the better you get.

E.E. Bradman
E.E. Bradman

E.E. Bradman is a word nerd and music journalist, a Grammy-nominated bassist, a musical midwife for childbirth and the dying, and an award-winning sound designer/composer.

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