Peppino D’Agostino Talks About his Percussive Techniques, Unusual Alternate Tunings, and the Importance of Melody
BY DOUG YOUNG | FROM THE JULY 2011 ISSUE OF ACOUSTIC GUITAR
Italy is a land of romance, known for fine food and wine, great painters, classical composers, and opera. It’s also the homeland of Peppino D’Agostino, an eclectic acoustic guitarist who moved to the United States in the early 1980s. D’Agostino now lives in California, but he continues to channel the spirit of his native land in his music, while blending influences from Brazil, American pop and folk music, classical music, minimalist composers like Terry Riley, and even a touch of Jerry Reed. D’Agostino’s approach to guitar incorporates the entire range of modern fingerstyle techniques—from exotic alternate tunings to percussion and two-handed tapping—creating multidimensional layers of sound that often seem impossible to execute on one guitar. But it’s his lyrical, romantic melodies, tinged with slightly exotic harmonies and delivered with a combination of emotion and fiery energy, that catch listeners’ ears and draw them in.
D’Agostino has recorded a dozen albums since his US debut, Acoustic Spirit, including Every Step of the Way on Steve Vai’s Favored Nations label and his latest self-released album, Nine White Kites. As a performer, D’Agostino is virtually a one-man orchestra, but his latest release marks a return to a solo guitar format after a series of collaborations. The new album features 11 new tunes that showcase D’Agostino’s diverse musical taste and masterful compositional skills, as well as his prodigious technique on steel-, nylon-, and 12-string guitars. Nine White Kites includes two bonus tracks that feature a marvelous vocal performance by his daughter, Aleza, and a stunning duet with Flavio Sala on Rossini’s “La Gazza Ladra.”
These days, D’Agostino spends a lot of time traveling the globe, performing frequently in the USA as well as Europe. He recently covered much of the States as part of the Guitar Masters Tour with Eric Johnson and Andy McKee. We caught up with D’Agostino between dates to talk about his approach to composing and how he uses alternate tunings and percussive techniques.
You’ve been touring with Andy McKee and Eric Johnson on the Guitar Masters Tour. What’s that like?
D’AGOSTINO I was asked to join this tour six or seven months ago, and I was really pleased that they asked me. I knew about Andy McKee’s work, and I like what he does. Eric Johnson is a guitarist that I have seen live, because I opened for some of his shows. I was completely blown away by his expertise on the electric guitar, but I didn’t know Eric as an acoustic guitar player. He’s excellent on acoustic guitar as well. What I like about him is that his knowledge of music is very deep—he’s been playing piano since he was five. It’s been beyond my expectations.
Your new album features all new original compositions. How do you approach composing for solo guitar?
D’AGOSTINO It varies from piece to piece. Some of the tunes on the new CD came out all of a sudden. Like the title track, “Nine White Kites” [transcribed on page 47]. I wrote that piece in one session, in probably six hours. By the next day, the piece was ready. But there’s also a piece that I play on 12-string, and the original idea is 36 years old; after 36 years, I went back and finished that piece. Those are the two extremes, and there’s everything in between, including using a computer as a compositional tool.
How did you use the computer?
D’AGOSTINO The piece “Barefoot in Rio” was written about ten years ago as a samba. I recorded that on a demo tape with a full band. When it was time to record this new CD, I wanted to transform that into a waltz, and make it a solo guitar piece. I used Sibelius [notation software] and wrote down the piece in the key of G. Then I wanted to make some key changes, and I used the computer to modulate and take the key up or down. So I didn’t have to think—the computer was thinking for me—but filtered by my own taste.
So then you had to work out the fingerings so you could play it?
D’AGOSTINO Right, but that’s also something the computer can help with.
Some of the tunes on the album, like “Street Pulse,” are very rhythmic. How did you develop that piece?
D’AGOSTINO There’s a tendency today in acoustic music to use a lot of percussive effects and tapping techniques. For that tune, I asked myself, “What can I do that would be interesting, and a little bit different?” That was an approach that was more cerebral, rather than emotional. When you hear players [who use percussion], you hear mostly a steady pulse that kind of glues the piece. So I thought, “I don’t want something that’s constant, I want something that’s in between the notes that I’m playing.”
It starts with the bass line, which is also a melody [Example 1]. You have to play that with your left hand, which is fairly simple. I could do a steady rhythm [Example 2], or do something in between the notes [Example 3]. Then I thought of Gyan Riley, a guy that I really respect—he improvises by using his index finger [alternate picking] and I thought about strumming the rhythm, also hitting the top of the guitar. Again, I’m trying to create a percussive sound in between the notes of the melody [Example 4]. If you analyze the striking of the strings, it’s just downstrokes and upstrokes, but it’s the way the notes are positioned that is interesting.
One key is your ability to play a complete melody with just your fretting hand.
D’AGOSTINO I’ve been doing this for 15 or 20 years, playing with the left hand to free the right hand. There’s a piece I wrote years ago, called “Why Not?” where I’d say 70 percent is the left hand. I use D A D G A D tuning, play the melody with the left hand, and play percussion with the right hand. That piece starts with just the left hand [Example 5] and then I play a steady rhythm [with an egg shaker] with my left. I wrote this piece maybe 15–20 years ago, and now it’s a little simplistic for me to play a steady groove.
You used a more complex pattern on one of your older tunes, “Mediterranean Spark.”
D’AGOSTINO “Mediterranean Spark” [Example 6] is another example of a percussive style, more of a percussionist approach. There’s a sound I create with the nail against the side of the guitar, and another sound I create with the tip of my finger against the top, and there’s another sound that’s playing with the side of my pinky close to the bridge.
The thing that is important to me is to emphasize the melody. I hear some young players playing a barrage of percussion, but there’s nothing to grasp, except a wonderful series of percussion. It’s almost like seeing a great tabla player on the guitar, but there’s no melody. To me, percussion is the fourth element to be added to guitar playing, after melody, bass, and chords. If you have those three, and then add percussion, it makes more sense to me.
Do you sometimes add percussion effects later, after you’ve written the tune?
D’AGOSTINO I wrote “Desert Flower” without the percussion and added it later on. I can sing the melody in my head—that’s what makes a melody, that I can sing it. The challenge is to free your right hand and play the melody with just the left hand, which can be done just by using pull-offs and hammer-ons [Example 7]. You have to be precise and hit the right frets. Sometimes when I have to play an open string, I lightly touch the string [and pull off] because you want a sound to start from zero [for example, the bass note in measure 5]. Sometimes I can hammer on with three fingers and create a chord [measure 3]. Of course there’s the noise of the fingers— there’s nothing you can do about that. But one of the beautiful things about acoustic guitar is that you have fingers sliding. If the noise is not too disconnected from the music, it’s part of the instrument, so it doesn’t bother me.
In this case, I use a steady rhythm, with the side of my thumb and middle of the finger—not with the nails because you don’t want to ruin your top! So here, the melody’s still preserved, and you have this accompaniment, which makes it interesting.
Some guitarists start the other way, with a groove, then try to add a melody, so it’s interesting that you start with a melody first.
D’AGOSTINO Yes, but not always. I wrote one piece, “Beyond the Dunes,” where I was thinking about a 7/8 pattern. The initial idea was one, two, one, two, one, two, three, a typical rhythm in Serbia, or maybe Bulgaria. That started as [Example 8] and on top of that is a melody, played by the amazing Stef Burns.
You’re known for using a lot of alternate tunings, some of which are quite unusual. How do you approach these radical tunings?
D’AGOSTINO For the most part, it’s not a theoretical approach, it’s an instinctual approach. I like the sound of the strings played open. From there, I just fiddle around, and if I’m lucky I come up with a melody. For example, there’s a tuning, F Bb D F C D, that came from a friend of mine. When I came up with “Close to Heaven” [Example 9], I just followed the melody dictated by the tuning to some extent. I have to find a quiet space, away from the phone, the computer, and put my mind in a state where I’m not disturbed. Then I just play the guitar. Sometimes I just put my fingers somewhere—it’s just like the lottery, actually!
What’s another example of an unusual tuning?
D’AGOSTINO One of my students showed me C# G# E F# B D#, and this tuning inspired the piece “Nine White Kites.” By using this tuning, I came up with the tune in like eight hours. It started like this [Example 10]. After the series of harmonics in the beginning, I get into this bass line, and it’s [Example 11], all syncopated. Basically the bass line is played on the fifth string with the index finger of my right hand.
I’ve always admired Leo Kottke, because he is capable of creating melodies in the bass and using the trebles as a counterpoint. I also love Brazilian music, and there’s a sort of samba pulse here.
A lot of people wouldn’t think to move their hand up to play bass notes with their fingers.
D’AGOSTINO At the beginning, I just work on the bottom four strings, but when I start the next section, my hand shifts down. The other thing that I think is slightly difficult is to emphasize the index finger instead of the other fingers. It is really important to know which finger carries the most weight, so the melody can shine. You have to balance the work of the thumb, which is the heaviest finger. You better not strike too hard with the thumb, so the melody, played with the index finger, is highlighted. Alex de Grassi talks about depth of field—you have to use your fingers with intention, highlighting one finger or another. This is another thing I learned by playing with classical players; they emphasize that. The book Pumping Nylon has a lot of examples.
You also keep your high strings ringing, which requires very clean technique.
D’AGOSTINO In that sense, I’m thinking of the lesson I learned from Roland Dyens, one of my favorite arrangers. In the case of that E string, you have to picture in your head what you want to sustain and not sustain. As guitarists, we have to be aware of the length of notes.
With your composing, have you found any ways to jump-start the process, and find some inspiration?
D’AGOSTINO Recently, I gave a tune as a gift to a friend—I wrote a song for her. It went very well, this friend said “no one has written a song for me.” So now, just to set up my mind, I think I want to write a song for a person and give it as a gift, instead of just “what is the next song for my next CD.” A lot of the songs on the new CD are dedicated to people, including “SweetSylvia,” which is dedicated to my mother-in-law. She’s 93! It’s another vehicle for inspiration for me now.
What He Plays
Acoustic Guitars: Seagull Peppino D’Agostino Signature model, with Indian rosewood back and sides, a Sitka spruce top, 24.9-inch scale, 1.9-inch nut, 21⁄8-inch string spacing at the saddle, and EPM Quantum Q2T electronics. Godin Grand Concert SA nylon-string. Godin A12 12-string.
Strings: Dunlop phosphor-bronze light (.012–.054).
Amplification: AER Compact 60 amp. L.R. Baggs Venue DI preamp.
This article originally appeared in the July 2011 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.