I attended a Leo Kottke concert in Carrboro, NC last week. My wife bought the tickets for the concert knowing how much I love guitar and what a phenomenal guitarist Leo Kottke is. Leo was every bit as good as I remember from his earliest recorded albums many years ago. That said, I had mixed feelings about the concert, not because of anything inherent in the guitarist but because of how his playing made me feel.
I am not a great guitarist. That doesn’t stop me from playing. There are many great guitarists I admire and sometimes try to copy. The fact that I will never play as good as them doesn’t scare me away from trying. I’ll never be a Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery or Kenny Burrill. But I believe I might learn some small piece of what they do. Sure, it’s not even close to the masters. But sometimes being able to learn the melody or a lick or the chords — even if they’re simplified chords — is enough. I feel I’ve accomplished something.
Leo Kottke is on another plane. I listen and watch him play and think there’s no way, ever, that I’ll play like that. I don’t even know where to start. I might as well give up and never play guitar again.
Still, I got over my self-pity and enjoyed the concert and Leo’s humorous stories.
One of the things he said that resonated with my own experience was the joy he experienced as a beginning guitarist when he discovered the “E” chord. Many musicians point to hearing some master musician as being the event that inspired them to pursue their instrument. But my own fascination with the guitar began when I picked up a guitar and discovered a few chords on my own through experimentation. In my case, the chords were first, A, then A sus 2, A sus 4, D sus 2 and D. I still get thrilled with the sound of those chords. I get thrilled when I combine chords in interesting ways. Sure, there are gobs of guitarists I admire but it’s the sounds I make on my own instruments that keeps me going. It’s nice to hear Leo and I started from a similar place.
I can’t imagine any guitarists attending a Leo Kottke concert not come away wondering whether to pick up a 12-string guitar (unless that’s already your primary instrument). Leo comes on stage carrying two guitars, a six-string and a twelve-string, both Taylor guitars. An article from November 1997 Acoustic Guitar Magazine and reproduced on Frets.com puts Kottke as the greatest 12-string guitar innovator after Leadbelly. Some of the other great 12-string guitarists mentioned in the article — those who kept the instrument alive — include Blind Willie McTell, Leadbelly and Pete Seeger. Pretty good company.
I came home from the concert and began researching 12-string guitars. I don’t need another guitar right now. I don’t have room for another guitar. But I was unable to keep myself from searching the web. The Leo Kottke model of 12-string made for him by Taylor is out of production. Hopefully, the link will still work for you.
The above isn’t the model Leo plays but it’s a reasonably priced Taylor 12-string (about $1900 at this time).
The Breedlove Pursuit 12-string is even a better buy if you’re just toying with the idea of a 12-string. It’s about $500 for a solid Sitka spruce top and Sapele back and sides.
I’m going to try to resist buying a 12-string but a final comment if you can’t resist. Leo Kottke mentioned in the concert that he always tunes his guitars lower than standard pitch. This is quite common for 12-string players. His Taylor is tuned to C# or 3 half-steps lower than standard. Even on a six string, the lower pitch sounds great as well as making chords easier to play. I used to keep my parlor guitar (before I sold it) tuned to open D, only a step lower (open C?). Open D (or C or E or whatever) is also known as Vestapol tuning.
I was going to end this post at the end of the previous paragraph but changed my mind after coming across a couple of items in my research. The first is the importance of a female guitarist in the history of the twelve-string guitar. The Fret.com article includes Lydia Mendoza among those important in the 12-string guitar history. She was Mexican-American and played 12-string. Eleven and twelve-string guitars had been part of the Mexican musical tradition. See the article for more on the history.
The second discovery was a young female guitarist who was not intimidated by Leo Kottke’s playing (the way I said I was) and who has covered a number of his tunes. The following video shows Macyn Taylor in 2011 playing a National Style-0 (a model I owned until recently – I miss it).
A more recent video (though still a few years ago) shows Macyn playing another Kottke tune while in college.
I wish Macyn Taylor the best and hope to hear more from her. Of course, I hope Leo Kottke continues to play for a long time, even if I am unable to learn to play like him.