An interview with El McMeen | Feature Article

An interview with El McMeen | 2012 | Artist Interview

El McMeen is a renown Celtic fingerstyle performer whose music has been described by Guitar Player Magazine as “unbridled acoustic beauty…drop-dead gorgeous”. He has recorded 12 CDs since 1991 and is widely published. In particular he is known for his Mel Bay book on  Complete Celtic Fingerstyle Guitar Book (With CD)from 1995 by El, Stefan Grossman and Duck Baker.

I caught up with him to talk about his influences and about a very special signature guitar…

We present and highly recommend viewing the pdf version of this article first as it contains the most up to date information and more photos.

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TT: thanks for taking the time to do this interview el. I was wondering how you started playing the guitar?

EM: I started playing guitar around 1965. My roommate Blake Swan in secondary school (Mt. Hermon School–now called Northfield Mt. Hermon), in Massachusetts, played guitar a lot, and I was inspired to learn. After hearing him sing and play “Sloop John B” approximately a thousand times, however, I did tend to steer away from that song. <:) (He did a nice job on it, by the way.)

My mother got me a Gibson all-mahogany guitar in 1965 (I believe it cost $50 back then), and I started learning some chords. I played almost exclusively in standard tuning for many years – up until the mid-1980’s. I do remember one song I did play in college, at Harvard, in G tuning, called “Mole’s Moan”, by Geoff Muldaur. I really enjoyed playing that song–by the hour!

In fact, I have a clear recollection of playing that song for a friend from my Freshman Year, 1965–a really talented classical guitarist and brilliant student (and great swimmer) by the name of Marty Chalfie. I’ll drop my friend Marty’s name here, and give him some props, because he later went on to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry:

For many years I played guitar to accompany myself singing. It was not until the mid-to-late 1980’s that I got into the mode of doing guitar instrumentals. That process accelerated after I happened upon the wonderful CGDGAD guitar tuning, which I learned form the arrangements and compositions of the great British guitarist, Dave Evans.

Tippin Guitars
El McMeen Signature Model
(click for fullsize)
Carpathian Spruce Top
Santa Maria Mahogany (cuban)
25.5 Scale Length
Read more about this guitar:here
Read more about Cuban Mahogany: here

24 strings, 10 sub-bass, 6 melody and 8 super trebles

TT: And that started your journey into Celtic fingerstyle?

EM: Yes. Dave’s music, plus the music of hammer dulcimer player Joemy Wilson, who recorded several Celtic albums in the mid-1980’s that showcased the beauty of the music. I also want to give credit to my friend Caleb Crowell, of Montclair, NJ, who rode the daily commuter train with me into New York City and shared with me multiple versions of almost every Celtic tune I was learning on guitar. That approach and generosity really broadened my horizons and appreciation for the music. I should also credit the arrangements and, in some cases, instructional recordings of Stefan Grossman, Duck Baker, Martin Simpson and John Renbourn.

TT: I’ve noticed with a lot of the players that really credit someone physically sitting and imparting tunes to them- do you think that is an important part of the learning process?

EM: One can learn in many different ways. In the 1980’s I must have purchased $1000 worth of audiocassette lessons from Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop — lessons given by Stefan himself and some by other players, like John Renbourn and Duck Baker. Later those lessons became video lessons, and then DVD lessons –and now, in certain cases, direct downloads!

Technology marches on. Those types of lessons were great for someone like me, who is predominantly an ear player and a pretty motivated self-starter. They are the equivalent of having someone there with you teaching (but with infinite patience, since you can play the DVD over-and-over-and over….).

I must credit my friend Stefan with one critical hands-on technique he taught me. In the late 1980’s or early 1990’s, he showed me the “slowhand vibrato”, made famous by Eric Clapton–where you sustain and color the fretted notes through a vibrato in which the hand moves the string perpendicular to the neck of the guitar, rather than parallel. That can be quite hard to do on acoustic guitar, because of the string tension and because one is not using the thumb as a fulcrum, anchored behind the neck. The fulcrum is the body of the player. You can see by the description that a hands-on approach is really necessary because it sounds like something out of a physics book or something!

TT: So is there any advice you might give someone looking to seriously play Celtic fingerstyle?

EM: I would suggest exploring DVD lessons, “Guitar Artistry” DVD’s and performance DVD’s (like the “Blarney Pilgrim” and “Ramble to Cashel” DVD’s) available through Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop:

I would also suggest the person listen to a wide variety of Celtic music by the greats out there in traditional music on other instruments – like fiddle, harp, pipes, Irish whistle, button accordion, piano – to see what grabs the person. It might be the slow airs and songs; it might be the dance tunes. What got to me first were the beautiful melodies, particularly in Irish traditional music. It was later on that I tackled the dance tunes.

TT: And recommended listening?

EM: Ah, so many people; so little time! A few of my faves, in the Celtic genre (apologies in advance to the hundreds of people I’ve omitted):

Pierre Bensusan
Al Petteway
John Renbourn
Martin Simpson
Steve Baughman
Tony McManus
John Sherman
Tony Cuffe (RIP)
Larry Pattis
Other musicians:
Alasdair Fraser (fiddle)
John Whelan (button accordion)
Liz Carroll (fiddle)
Bob Pegritz (Irish whistle)
Linda Brockinton, Nina Zanetti, Bill Collins, Judith Giddings (dulcimer)

Bothy Band
Cherish the Ladies

Mary Black
Moire O’Connell
Gordon Bok

TT: I understand you’ve had quite a few guitars and now even have a signature model?

EM: I have been a poster child for “GAS” (“guitar acquisition syndrome”), having owned, I would estimate, over 140 guitars in my “adult” (a relative term, in my case) life. We are blessed, in this day and age, with many talented and dedicated guitar builders, as well as the iconic American guitar maker, C.F. Martin & Co.

My primary guitars now are:
Tippin guitars
Franklin guitars

I am very excited about the new El McMeen signature model guitar series by Tippin Guitars. The series is called the “Tippin Bravado Contour, El McMeen Series”. It is described in the below site, with photos and sound clips of the prototype (built by Bill Tippin, with the assistance of his talented helper, Kevin Chubbuck):

Bill and I started with his excellent “Bravado” model to make a guitar that addresses the music of fingerstyle guitarists, including a shallower, contoured design (shallower at the bass side than at the treble), and a somewhat shorter scale (25.5, as opposed to the Bravado’s 25.7 scale). The result is a guitar with a quick response, plenty of volume and the trademark Tippin sound. After we did the prototype described in the above link, we decided to make the guitar a little deeper. I have ordered one in Brazilian rosewood. The guitar will retain the quick response but have a little more “air” and sound from the standpoint of the player, listening to the guitar from behind.
Customers may choose the woods and “bling” they want. The photos on the above site show what Bill and I opted for on the prototype guitar.

TT: And do you think there is an archetypal celtic sound or celtic guitar?

EM: Fingerstyle guitar arrangements of Irish and Scottish music are “faux” from the get-go (hey, I’m a poet!), since they aren’t in the tradition, but instead are attempts to render music originally done on other instruments. I think the field is wide open for guitars. I’ve heard music I like played on a wide range of guitars, from deeper/Steinway-grand-sounding-type guitars, to shallower models. It really comes down to the quality of the music, I believe, and even that can often be quite subjective.

TT: But there is a reason why alternate tunings are more popular with celtic guitarists right?

EM: Standard guitar tuning–EADGBE– is wonderful for many things, including playing in many keys, in closed (i.e., fretted) positions.

Many guitarists, however, have found that alternative tunings afford them an easier means of evoking the sound of the harp, fiddle or pipes. (The CGDGAD tuning changed my life, not because it was more Celtic, but because, for some mystical reason, songs seemed to issue forth from the guitar every time I would pick a few strings! That started for me in the late 1980’s.)

Here’s an example of the benefit of an alternative tuning. Standard tuning does not have an interval between strings of one step; the intervals are always greater. Other tunings, like DADGAD and CGDGAD, and CGDGCD (called “Orkney” by Steve Baughman, who does wonderful things in that tuning –and other tunings, for that matter!), have this one-step interval. That interval allows for a very harplike approach playing around the strings with that interval. Can that be done in Standard? Yes, and I understand that Al Petteway has been recasting some tunes in Standard, as did Seth Austen in the late 1980’s, as I recall.

So, if you can use Standard to accomplish some of this, why go to another tuning? Each guitarist would have his or her own reason, so we can’t generalize, but I bet that much of it is the sheer inspiration that the particular alternative tuning has for the player. The guitarist wants to keep playing, and exploring, and making music in the tuning. The challenge then becomes, as Stefan Grossman says, to make sure that you play in the tuning, and that the tuning doesn’t play you!

TT- Thanks for that El. Before we let you go – maybe you might like to share with us about any projects you have on the way?

EM- I just completed my CD entitled “At-Home Picking…and Talking” a few months ago:

It is available through the above site, and internationally though CD Baby:

I’ve got some tunes I’m working on, but no plans for a new CD any time soon, frankly. I have been picking up my guitar teaching substantially. I have always enjoyed working with other guitarists on playing, arranging and composing, and am doing much more of that these days, since I play out much less frequently than I did before.

The following site describes my vision for teaching and gives some more details:

Thanks, Terence, for giving me the opportunity to talk about guitars and music; much appreciated.

Best to you in your guitar-related endeavors, and thanks for setting up your website.

PS: Check out Steve’s new album by clicking on the album art below:

Check out El McMeen on CDbaby


©Terence Tan.
El Mcmeen
© individuals 2010

Any infringement of copyright or errors is entirely unintentional- although we try very hard not to make them. Any guitars represented remain property of their current owners. Any issues should be address to: We will attempt to resolve these issues quickly.

TT – Thanks for talking to us Steve, I was wondering if you could share with us what drew you to celtic music?

SB- I grew up listening to Harry Belafonte, and the transition was therefore very natural. Just kidding. I did, and do, love Harry, but my interest in Celtic music began in earnest in graduate school when my then girlfriend returned from the Orkney Islands with a bunch of LPs of artists she had just seen at the Orkney Folk Festival. That was 1986 or so. I’ve been hooked since.

TT- How would you define celtic music?

SB- Personally, I wouldn’t define it, and I agree with Duck Baker that it is a terribly misused term. Also, there has been such an explosion of fusion music lately that most categories these days have seriously blurred edges. I’m not sure I’d even say, to paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart on pornography, “I know it when I hear it.” The boundaries are even more blurred than that. I suppose that most of the music played by the old dead people of Celtic descent counts as Celtic. I might say generally that the music of Ireland, Scotland, Brittany and parts of Galicia is Celtic music. That may not be helpful, but it’s a start. More importantly, I think that it does not matter how one construes or defines the term. If you like what you hear, the label is not really all that important. So sorry to offer such an unsatisfying reply to a very good question.

TT- Is there anything which defines an instrument as suitable for Celtic music?

SB- If it feels good, do it. It’s totally subjective, like preferring vanilla over peach. Having said that, I must confess that certain instruments do not feel good to me in what I hear as Celtic music. Harmonica, for instance, or brass instruments strike me as a bit of forced fusion. But that is a totally subjective thing that probably stems from me listening for decades now to fiddle, pipes, flutes and harps playing this music. The switch to brass instruments jars me.

TT- In your opinion, are there any definite albums and artists for Celtic fingerstyle?

SB- I like the guitar players who have marinated themselves in the traditional music and are therefore able to convey some of that traditional essence and richness on the guitar. Most people who record Celtic fingerstyle tunes have not done this, and their music lacks a certain depth for me. I would like to see the musical tradition respected more, and not treated as something to be approached casually. Just because you play guitar does not mean the world benefits from you recording Celtic pieces on your instrument. One owes the music a bit more awe than that. I particularly dislike renditions of Celtic tunes played by classical guitarists. The music usually strikes me as stiff and artificial, even though the players blow me away with their chops. But again, that’s just me.

Now, on a positive note, there are certain essential names in the field. Tony McManus is a god of the genre, he’s one of the few who can pull off jigs and reels with ease. El McMeen and Robin Bullock are very different from Tony, somewhat mellow and stately, even in their upbeat tunes, and I love their playing also. I recently did a gig with Duck Baker and got to hear him very close up. He’s a unique stylist and great player. A new kid on the block, with a brand new CD out, is Anton Emery, who plays the slower harp tunes as well as the faster fiddle tunes very nicely. One of my favorites is the relatively unknown Alec Stone Sweet, a genius with tone and arrangement. There are a few other names I could mention, but I’ll stop there.

TT- So would it be fair to say that the feel of the music is more important in defining it than geography? Feeling is everything. Music is good if “it works.” If it gives you the feeling you want it is good music.

TT- Is there any advice you might give someone looking to seriously play Celtic fingerstyle?

SB- Listen to and love the music. Once it’s in your soul, play it. And remember, guitarists should be musicians first, using our instruments to give voice to a wonderful tradition. Oh, and also, don’t let all the serious stuff I’m saying prevent you from having fun.
TT- Technique wise do you feel there are certain areas which are unique to or used more in Celtic fingerstyle? I don’t really know. Most classically trained right hands to not work well, but that is probably due to the hand owner, not to the hand technique. I was watching Duck Baker a few weeks ago on stage with me. His right hand is about as unorthodox as can be, but his feel is wonderful. Same for Tom Long, a guitarist in Southern California. I think the same way about guitarist right hands as I do about fiddle bowing. One can get quite doctrinaire about the “right” way to do it, but in the end what comes out is all that is important (assuming, of course, that you’re not hurting yourself.)

TT- thanks for taking this time to speak to us, Steve. Before we go are there any exciting projects you have on the horizon you’d like to share with us?

SB- My new solo guitar CD, Life in Prism is at the manufacturer and will be ready on by August of 2010. I am also working on posting some free clawhammer guitar lessons on YouTube thru my lesson company I plan to do a banjo DVD next year with a Zen monk. We’ll call it Zen Banjo and we’ll emphasize the meditative aspect of old time banjo playing.

Life is good, music is exciting, and I hope all your readers experience that early and often. Thanks for having me.