An interview with El McMeen | 2012 | Artist Interview
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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.
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: http://www.guitarvideos.com/
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):
Tony Cuffe (RIP)
Alasdair Fraser (fiddle)
John Whelan (button accordion)
Liz Carroll (fiddle)
Bob Pegritz (Irish whistle)
Linda Brockinton, Nina Zanetti, Bill Collins, Judith Giddings (dulcimer)
Cherish the Ladies
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 http://www.tippinguitars.com/
Franklin guitars http://www.franklinguitarcompany.com/
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: http://www.elmcmeen.com/athome.htm
It is available through the above site, and internationally though CD Baby: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/elmcmeen10
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:
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