Sometime during the mid-2000s, Alex de Grassi, one of the great solo guitarists, reached a point where his usual mode of expression just wasn’t working for him—at least not as a composer. “It was a watershed period for me,” de Grassi says. “I suddenly found it really difficult to write solo guitar music. Every time I’d start on something new, I’d be like, ‘No, no, no. This has to be for guitar and some kind of ensemble.’ My agent at the time kept asking when I’d do another solo record. I kept saying I would do one next year, but it wasn’t happening.”
But de Grassi maintained a creative output during this period. Among other things, he wrote a comprehensive fingerstyle method for AG and was the artistic advisor to the String Letter Music School (now the Marin Community Music School) in San Anselmo, California. He began an ongoing duo with the classical guitarist and composer Andrew York, and worked with the Demania trio, which also included electric bassist Michael Manring and percussionist Chris Garcia, releasing the ensemble’s solo album on his Tropo Records label. De Grassi also accompanied silent films like Charlie Chaplin’s Shoulder Arms as part of a New York Guitar Festival series.
De Grassi, who is 68, became a household name among guitarists in the late 1970s, after his cousin William Ackerman invited him to record for his then-new Windham Hill record label. With his debut album, Turning: Turning Back (1978), de Grassi established himself as a steel-string fingerstyle master, informed equally by the music of the British Isles and American folk and jazz traditions—a path he continued down in a string of albums for Windham Hall and other labels.
In 2016, in the middle of his “watershed period,” de Grassi found himself at Skywalker Sound (a facility at film director George Lucas’ workspace and ranch in Northern California), to record a live internet broadcast with the pop and jazz singer Jenna Mammina. After taking his Lowden signature model out of the case and playing just a few notes, he had a revelation. “I thought it sounded like one of the best concert halls I’d ever played,” he says. “I knew I had to record there and booked Skywalker without knowing fully what I was going to do.”
The results of the Skywalker sessions are heard on The Bridge, de Grassi’s first solo album since 2003’s Now and Then: Folk Songs for the 21st Century. On The Bridge, de Grasssi plays originals, while also offering his interpretations of Jimi Hendrix (“Angel”), George and Ira Gershwin (“It Ain’t Necessarily So”), and traditional folk numbers (“Shenandoah” and “Sí Bheag, Sí Mhór”). De Grassi’s concepts and techniques on the album are both subtler and more complex than standard steel-string fare. In this lesson, edited and condensed from the video above, he breaks down some of the key moments.
The track “Mr. B Takes a Walk in the Rain” has a curious title and an exciting mixture of funk rhythms and jazz harmonies. Can you explain what’s going on here?
It’s a tribute to the late, great James Brown. I had this sort of funny image in my head of him replacing Gene Kelly in the movie Singin’ in the Rain. So, imagine if you will, this is the soundtrack. James Brown is dancing and doing his thing, and it’s kind of funky and slippery.
Let’s break it down harmonically. I’m in DADGAD tuning, and in the verse, which is in F major, I’m barring the third fret to get an F11 chord [Example 1]. When it gets to the bridge, I go the relative minor, landing on a Dm(add9) then to Bb7 and to Gm11 to A7alt, which is the V chord of D minor. It returns to the key of F, then eventually goes through some more changes to modulate a whole tone up to G7 before resuming the original key of F. Lots of dominant chords! Later in the piece there’s another modulation [Example 2], and that gets us back to Dm(add9), the vi chord of the original key.
In a good solo guitar piece, there’s a sense of different voices. In this case, I hear three: One is the melody or the singer; another sounds like a bass player; and then there’s a three-part horn section. So, putting that all together, it sounds like this [Example 3]. I keep everything very staccato, to get a certain rhythmic feel and clarity, and I’m constantly moving the barring finger up and down. It’s a little bit like a hinge technique, which took a lot of work on my part. I had to retrain my finger, and it was both psychologically and physically demanding, but eventually I got used to it, and now I can do it with a minimal amount of effort.
“Past Perfect” is another piece with harmonic complexity.
This is a piece I wrote right before we started the recording sessions, on my Goodall custom concert jumbo. It’s like DADGAD, but with the bottom two strings tuned down a whole step. One of the things I love about this tuning is that I can get a lot a classic jazz-piano voicings, like this Cm9 [Example 4], which would be much harder to play in standard tuning. In the intro, I outline some harmonic ideas, using just a few notes [Example 5].
The first melodic phrase I play is in G Lydian [G A B C# D E F#], but what’s interesting is that I’m playing it over a C bass note. So, the C# should sound very dissonant with the C, but it goes by quickly and it just sounds maybe a little unusual but not wrong. When you’re just playing a couple of notes you can get away with some unusual harmonic ideas, because there’s a certain ambiguity and instability.
I don’t even think of this passage as chords or harmony, just movement. And this kind of brings up an idea to think about: A lot of folk music is modal, and then there’s chromatic music, like certain types of jazz. I like to bring the two worlds together. I even came up with a term for it: chromodal, which sounds like some long-lost ancestor they dug up somewhere.
The lowest note in the appropriately titled “Eulogy in a Low Voice” is an A below the low E in standard tuning. How are you getting there?
I wrote this piece a number of years ago, on the occasion of hearing of the luthier Lance McCollum’s very unexpected and untimely death. I owned this baritone guitar he made, but hadn’t played it a lot—I was kind of trying to figure out what to do with it. I took the guitar out of its case, and the piece wrote itself in about 15 minutes, which is rare for me.
One of the things I love about the baritone guitar is that it’s got such a soulful sound, which I think works well for these slow ballad pieces. I tune my baritone down a perfect fifth, but the song actually sounds quite good when played on a standard guitar [as notated in Example 6]. The melody really leads in the beginning and the harmony just sort of follows. And as in “Past Perfect,” there’s that mixture of modal and chromatic playing.
How do you produce those extra resonances on your arrangements of Jimi Hendrix’s “Angel” and the traditional folk song “Shenandoah”?
I’m using a Sympitar [an instrument combining aspects of a guitar and sitar] that luthier Fred Carlson made. It’s got 12 sympathetic strings inside, and I double up on some of the key tones. For “Shenandoah,” I’m playing in D major, so a couple of the sympathetic strings are tuned to D.
I’ve learned that if I play too many notes or a complicated chord on the Sympitar, it confuses the sympathetic strings. So, it works particularly well for things where you can have single-note lines and lots of pauses in the music. I wanted it to sound really big, like the open country, the wide, unexplored unknown [Example 7]. At the same time, I wanted to give it a little bit of an Eastern sound [Example 8]. But I’m also using some ideas from jazz harmony, like an F# triad over a D bass note [Example 9]. When you build a scale off that F#, you get an altered-dominant sound [Example 10].
Was the title track inspired by a particular bridge? And how do you achieve the separation between the nonstop ostinato and the melody?
I wrote “The Bridge” while staying out on the coast and looking at the Albion River Bridge in Northern California. It’s a very dramatic bridge, an old wooden trestle structure that’s almost 200 feet above the river and the ocean. At nighttime, I would watch as the cars came across and wonder who all these people were—and also study the patterns that the headlights made through the railings.
There’s the melody and there’s the ostinato [Example 11]. One of the really challenging things about the ostinato [shown in the down-stemmed notes] is keeping the time throughout while playing the pattern at a lower volume than the melody. And the notes have to be very short and controlled; you can’t let them ring, especially the open sixth string, because it will get muddy very quickly.
The melody [up-stemmed notes] consists of these long notes that you want to play loud and sustaining. I try to give each melodic note its own tone color, which means picking at different spots between the saddle and the soundhole. The point is, I’m trying to create some contrast, so there are a lot of things to think about and control in this piece.
In a more traditional mode, you play “Sí Bheag, Sí Mhór,” the old Irish tune.
It’s one of Turlough O’Carolan’s more popular melodies and one that lots of guitar players have done arrangements of. Mine is in DADGAD. I’ve tried to keep it pretty simple, just adding some fills to the original melody. I play each A section [Example 12] just a little bit differently, to keep it from sounding too repetitive.
I let the strings ring openly in this piece, though occasionally I’ll do a rest stroke if I want to damp a bass note to keep it from ringing through into the next measure. I’m trying to really milk the melody because it’s such a great one.
A couple of notes on some subtle details: One is I sometimes hold on to a higher melody note as it rings into the next note [as in bars 8–10], for harmonic effect. Another is that occasionally I use a delayed hammer-on [bars 11–12]. Here I play an E and let it ring into a low D before hammering the E on to F#. It’s a nice effect.
Then, there’s a phrase of mine, a classic cross-string pattern in which I let all of the notes ring [Example 13]. It kind of speeds up and then slows down when it gets down to the bottom—just like a ride on a roller coaster.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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