Wolfgang Muthspiel Embraces Both the Western Tradition and the Nylon-String Guitar in His Work as a Jazz Improviser

The acoustic has found its way back into the classically trained Austrian guitarist’s studio and live work over the past decade.
Wolfgang Muthspiel playing a nylon-string acoustic guitar
Wolfgang Muthspiel, Photo: Maciej Kanik

In February of 2022, Austrian jazz guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel walked into 25th Street Recording in Oakland, California, to make his 24th album as a leader. Accompanying him were acoustic bassist Scott Colley and drummer Brian Blade, esteemed players with whom he had shared many a gig over the years—and who’d also been the rhythm section for his previous album, 2020’s Angular Blues. Muthspiel had some precomposed material ready to go for the session, but he also set aside time for total improvisation, moments where the trio could be free to follow a few random threads and see what might be woven from them.

At one such moment, Muthspiel picked up his trusty classical guitar, custom-designed by Australian luthier Jim Redgate, and plucked out a series of intriguingly dissonant chords. Colley responded by grabbing his bow and establishing a deep drone replete with ominous upper harmonics. Mallets in hand, Blade followed his partners’ lead, leaning into cymbal washes and subtle tom rumbles. The pace of the guitarist’s fingerpicking grew faster as the piece built in volume—and then, all of a sudden, over the rising ambient backdrop, Muthspiel began playing a familiar tune: “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” (“O Sacred Head, Now Wounded”), one of the stately chorales from Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Bass and drums soon retreated into respectful silence, leaving the acoustic guitar to complete the passage on its own.

You can hear this piece just as it went down in the studio over the course of four minutes on Muthspiel’s latest collection, Dance of the Elders (ECM), under the title “Prelude to Bach.” (In fact, Bach didn’t write the melody of “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden,” which is by early Baroque composer Hans Leo Hassler, but his harmonization and arrangement of it for choir and orchestra has led to its being strongly associated with the maestro of Leipzig for the past three centuries.) 

Speaking by Zoom from his home in Austria, Muthspiel, 58, swears that no part of this track was planned. “I’d never played that chorale before in the studio or in a concert,” he says. “It all happened in a conversational way, and when we reached this tremolo thing between the bass and drums, it seemed like it would be a good moment for a real song. That was the first song that came to my mind. It fit the tonality, and I wanted to play it softer under [Colley and Blade]. So yeah, that was a lucky moment.”

Wolfgang Muthspiel seated on steps beneath columns net to guitar cases. ©-Laura-Pleifer
Photo: © Laura Pleifer

Steeped in the Tradition

That an episode of free improv would naturally lead Muthspiel into an extended Bach quote indicates just how rooted he is in the Western classical tradition. And the fact that he was playing a Redgate at the time also demonstrates his long-held passion for the nylon-string acoustic guitar, which predates his interest in the electric guitar and in jazz. He started taking classical lessons at 13, a lateral move from his first instrument, the violin, which he’d been playing since age six. 


“I became completely obsessed by the guitar as a teenager,” he recalls, “and my left hand was already fairly agile from playing violin, so I quickly got into pieces that I really liked. I was heavily into the Bach lute suites, and I transcribed The Goldberg Variations for two guitars—I drove my musical partner at the time crazy because I wanted to rehearse it all the time!”

As much as he loved classical guitar, the teenage Muthspiel soon found himself running into an issue: lack of repertoire. “Many of the great masters didn’t write for guitar,” he says. “No Haydn, no Mozart, no Beethoven. There are some good pieces here and there, but in the Classical and Romantic periods, there’s hardly anything that’s really great. A lot of classical guitarists will hate to hear me say this, but it’s my opinion. So you have to be creative as a classical guitarist to get good, original repertoire, and to play the pieces exactly like you hear them, not just like your teacher told you.”

A couple of years into his classical training, Muthspiel began to hear the siren song of jazz and, along with it, the electric guitar. He eventually moved to the U.S. to study at Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music and Berklee College of Music. There he became a member of vibraphonist Gary Burton’s quintet, occupying a chair formerly taken by such legends as Larry Coryell, Mick Goodrick (one of Muthspiel’s teachers), and Pat Metheny. With Burton and on his own early albums as a leader in the late 1980s and early ’90s, Muthspiel focused on electric playing. But as his career continued to evolve, the acoustic gradually found its way back in, and it’s been a regular part of his studio and live work for at least the past decade.

The Same but Different

Another important thing to understand about Muthspiel is that he doesn’t regard the steel-string electric and the nylon-string acoustic as two variations of one basic instrument; for him, they’re totally separate instruments. “To make the electric guitar speak needs a completely different way of playing,” he says. “First of all, it has much longer sustain, and then it has the [string-] bending possibilities. And if I want to play [single-note] lines on the electric, I would probably go to the pick,” an implement that he never uses with his Redgate because it alters the way he approaches chords.


“Once you have a pick, every chord is either a slight arpeggio or some kind of funky or rocky thing. It’s not like the way a pianist can play all the notes of a chord simultaneously, which you can emulate on the classical with your fingers. Also, with your fingers you can make each note [in a chord] happen the way you want, like one might be louder and one might be short. This is almost impossible with the pick. That’s why I tell my students, even though they’re not playing classical music, they should still learn to play with the fingers, because certain things you can only play with them.”

Muthspiel’s interest in applying the classical guitar to jazz makes more sense once you know that one of his early influences was Ralph Towner, who’s among the few modern jazz guitarists to have gone exclusively acoustic. “When I was still playing classical guitar but had already discovered jazz, Ralph was a big figure for me,” Muthspiel remembers. “His [1980] album Solo Concert [which features Towner playing classical guitar on three tracks] was very important, not only because he played with a classical technique and improvised, but also because when he plays, you have the feeling that somebody’s talking to you. Every phrase has a life. You know, the acoustic guitar is kind of a soft instrument, and classical players usually get trained to be as loud as possible, so everybody is at the same level. Ralph really uses the range of sounds and dynamics on this soft instrument. That’s why it becomes big, you know. And he doesn’t only play delicate poetic things. When he wants to groove, he does.” 

Wolfgang Muthspiel playing a nylon-string guitar onstage in front of a microphone. © Laura Pleifer
Photo: © Laura Pleifer

Towering Influences

Since 2005, Muthspiel has gotten to know Towner not just as a fan but as a bandmate. Together with classical guitarist Slava Grigoryan, they make up the MGT Trio, which toured extensively in the 2000s and 2010s and recorded two albums, From a Dream (2009) and Travel Guide (2013). For that group, Muthspiel is the designated electric guitarist; he also shares writing duties with Towner. “Slava was the one who initiated the trio,” he explains. “He invited me and Ralph; we hadn’t known each other before. That was a really beautiful period—three guitars, three different approaches, three different sounds, and three different generations. So it was constantly an interesting conversation. Two guitars is cool, but it’s easier to deal with. How can you integrate a third guitar into that texture without constantly doubling stuff? It took some time for us to find those pockets, but of course we were blessed with the fact that Ralph wrote a lot of tunes with this trio in mind.” 

Another early influence on Muthspiel was the legendary Joni Mitchell, to whom he pays tribute on Dance of the Elders with an authoritative run through “Amelia,” from her 1976 classic Hejira. Blade has a history with Mitchell, appearing with her live and on three studio albums, and “and pretty much every jazz musician loves Joni,” Muthspiel notes. “So it was a great thing to do, and also a great time to do it, with her having an amazing comeback. I’ve always loved her guitar playing. On that Shadows and Light concert [recorded in 1979], with Pat [Metheny] and [Michael] Brecker and Jaco [Pastorius], she plays so great. The way she comps, it’s like dancing, so easy, and she holds it together so everybody else can fly around her.”


New Acoustic Paths

Interestingly, unlike Towner and Mitchell, Muthspiel has never spent a great deal of time playing steel-string acoustic guitars. He hastens to state that this doesn’t mean he has a problem with them. “I love that sound, but I’ve never had a really great steel-string acoustic in my collection. I had some okay ones, and I had a few great-sounding ones that were too hard to play—you could strum some easy stuff and it had a certain power, but anything more just wasn’t happening. And when I pick up Ralph’s 12-string, it’s so hard to play. But I’d be very interested to see what would happen if I had a great one.” Luthiers, are you listening?

Dance of the Elders marks the first time that Muthspiel has played more classical guitar than electric on one of his albums. Besides “Prelude to Bach,” there’s the title track, “Folksong,” and “Cantus Bradus” (which doffs its figurative cap to the pianistic stylings of Muthspiel’s pal Brad Mehldau)—four pieces out of seven. “That is a first,” Muthspiel acknowledges, “and it’s also the way it’s being represented in my concerts now. I feel like I’ve really gotten together how to amplify the guitar—it’s a combination of a B-Band pickup under the bridge and a Schoeps condenser microphone—and I have my own soundman with me who I’ve been working with for a long time, and we can get it to a level live so that the drummer can really play. It’s no fun if the drummer has to be constantly super quiet.”

Based on this studio milestone, can we safely conclude that he’s also playing more acoustic overall nowadays? “I think that’s the case,” Muthspiel replies. “I’m not really guiding that process too much—I just let it happen. But it’s true that the first thing I pick up at home is usually my acoustic guitar. If you have that and you’re in a good room, you have your sound pretty much ready, so it’s more convenient than electric guitar. And also I find that if you play with a certain consciousness of the sound, a very simple phrase already seems promising on the acoustic guitar. The notes themselves wouldn’t be that interesting if you wrote them down, but if you play them with a certain vibe and a certain dynamic, maybe with some open strings ringing or some overtones coming through, a lot will come out of the sound itself.”


As to where the broader embrace of acousticity may be leading Muthspiel’s music, your guess is as good as his. “Who knows?” he says with a laugh. But one thing is certain, he adds: “There’s a whole other zone that I can get into with the acoustic guitar. I feel that this is… maybe a path less trodden. Is that how you say it? Because I don’t see too many acoustic guitar players who improvise within a jazz context, so it seems like everything is still developing. And I have the feeling that this stuff is waiting for me somehow.”

Acoustic Guitar magazine cover for issue 344

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2024 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Mac Randall
Mac Randall

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *