September 30, 2007

Interview with Tim Sparks

National Fingerstyle Guitar Champion.

Minnesota Guitar Wizard.

Tim Sparks' musical accomplishments are as many as they are varied.

His passion and dedication to his craft can be seen throughout his career: a mastery of jazz styles honed while playing in Rio Nido, a return to his classical studies for his award-winning arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite for guitar, and his important contributions to the stage of world music – including his interpretations of Jewish music on three releases for John Zorn’s Tzadik label.

One can’t underestimate the influence of the country blues and gospel that surrounded him as a child in North Carolina either; or the classic jazz of Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, and Scott Joplin that captivated his attention while studying at the North Carolina School of the Arts.

On a technical level Sparks is a guitarist’s guitarist. Leo Kottke considers himself one of Sparks’ biggest fans. He’s also a brilliant composer, arranger, teacher, and performer. If you haven’t seen one of his shows, do yourself a favor and make some space on your calendar…and prepare to be amazed.

Recently released by TrueFire and Acoustic Guitar Workshop, Roots, Rags & Blues is an interactive lesson series on CD-ROM featuring Tim Sparks. We announced this release back in August here on the blog, and promised an interview with Tim in early September.
Here it is…

Your musical oeuvre covers a lot of ground. You can certainly hear the influence of American roots music, Jewish music from around the world, and 20th century composers like Bartok. What compels (or propels) you in a given direction?

Curiosity…plus a convergence of emotional and intellectual richness in a piece of music. The mind can get bored with something, which the heart will never tire of. What is a happy medium? Those are the "timeless" things, I think.

Given the breadth of influence in your work, what do you find yourself listening to?

Currently in my Itunes player…
Bassekou Kouyate (West African Ngoni virtuoso)
Three different versions of Herbie Hancock's composition Dolphin Dance by Bill Evans, Slide Hampton, and guitarist Jamie Findley (respectively)
Roland Dyens
Buddy Emmons and Lenny Breau
Jacob do Bandolim
Charlie Parker
Uri Caine and Jamie Saft on Tzadik
Mule Variations, by Tom Waits

(I've been arranging some of those Waits and John Zorn tunes for guitar lately.)

Looking at your calendar, I see that you are performing some dates with your jazz group Rio Nido. How has it been re-exploring that territory?

Fun! I can hardly remember anything from the 70's but all of those songs, the lyrics, harmonies and guitar parts came back like we never stopped playing for 25 years. Like nothing is ever erased from your hard drive.

As a departure from your solo instrumental work, or even small ensemble instrumental work, how do you like performing in a group that is very vocally centered? (I think that a lot of fans are happy to have the Rio Nido albums re-released on CD.)

It's way easier than my solo guitar repertoire and therefore loose and fun. We have a lot of laughs.

Recently, we posted a couple of blog entries regarding your new set of guitar lessons offered on CD-ROM – Roots, Rags & Blues. In the past you had released a video based lesson – Guitar Bazaar: Multi-cultural Ideas for Fingerstyle Guitar – as well as some live concert videos. As a teacher, what did you find to be the strengths of this new approach?

Well, you get a lot of bang for your buck. There are seven tunes taught in detail and you can stop and start, rewind etc. The tabs and notation are included. There are extensive notes on performance, the history, and background of each tune plus hyper links to the net for even more information. With two CD-ROM discs and a bonus audio CD you're getting hours and hours of material for essentially the price of one lesson.

Tell us a little about the Roots, Rags & Blues project, and the process of making it.

Back in the 70's I played a lot of fancy fingerpicking roots music and ragtime, classic jazz. I almost made a record for Kicking Mule but opted to form Rio Nido. Over the last couple of years, I wanted to go back and do a project that captured some of that music and in the process found that the arrangements were much better, being informed by everything I've learned in the past thirty years.

I did a tour with Dolly Parton in the fall of 2005 opening shows for her "Those Were the Days" tour, then I played in the UK and Ireland and at the end of all that filmed the lessons in Bristol with Steve Elliot, who has a company called Acoustic Music Workshop.

That was the easy part.

We spent much of 2006 tabbing, notating, and proofreading. The lesson tunes are: Mississippi Blues, Jelly Roll Blues, Maple Leaf Rag, Victory Rag, two different versions in different keys of Amazing Grace and a 1918 Klezmer Classic, Tanst Yiddlekh.

I also filmed 5 bonus video segments of Carolina Shout, The Pearls, and alternate versions of Amazing Grace, Victory Rag and Tanst Yiddlekh. These bonus segments are played on a 1917 Gibson L-4, which I found in a pawnshop in Chicago while doing the Dolly tour. It's a pretty neat guitar and the segments are cool.

You’ve performed with some amazing people over the years, people on the cutting edge of their art like Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot, and Eric Friedlander. Is there anyone right now that you’d really like to work with if the right opportunity were to arise?

In August I did a couple of nice gigs in Brooklyn at Zebulon and The Stone, which is John Zorn's performance space in the lower East Village. I played with Rashanim – which is a hot jazz/power trio in NY these days – comprised of Jon Madof on guitar, Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz on bass and Mathias Kunzli on drums. That was fun. I also always like working with Greg Cohen and Cyro Baptista.

I live way up in Northwestern Minnesota, halfway between Fargo and Lake Wobegon. I'm teaching at the University of Minnesota, Morris and have a great class of guitar students. But I miss playing gigs in the Twin Cities with all the great players I came up with here.

I know that you play the guitar and the oud. Do you regularly play and perform on any other instruments?

Really I am just playing guitar. Teaching at Morris has made me revisit so many areas of guitar playing I had studied and moved through...cannibalizing along the way. I am a post-modern, eclectic kind of guitarist. With students, I emphasize knowing and playing the guitar orchestrally, through study of the classical, jazz, and fingerstyle guitar canons.

Since this is a blog focused on the guitar, we can’t avoid some shoptalk. Tell us a bit about the guitars you play. Our readers are a curious lot…what are your preferences with regard to strings, picks, and capos? I’ve seen you play with a Sunrise pickup. How are most of your instruments amplified? Lastly…what are your favorite tunings?

I am playing a Collings Custom OM Style cutaway made for The Podium. I used it on the Dolly tour and during the lessons in Roots, Rags & Blues. I have a Sunrise [magnetic pickup] and K & K transducers. I use an AER Amp. I use standard and drop D [tunings]. I like John Pearse Strings, phosphor bronze, in the “Slightly Light” gauge [11-50]. I use the capo a lot when working with other guitarists or to make a nice arrangement in first position sound a little brighter.

Today, tools like a content-rich website and participating in social network spheres like MySpace are pretty important to working artists. How has technology played a role in the way that you promote yourself and keep in touch with your audience? Have you found yourself gaining listeners via the technology you employ? Have you discovered interesting music or made professional contacts with this technology?

I only recently started a MySpace page. I always thought it was a social networking thing for kids. But then promoters I worked with all started saying they liked to use it. It does have an easy-to-use, at-a-glance, standardized format with 4 tunes in a player.

I think it needs a lot of work…still cumbersome and too slow. But it reveals how many really good guitarists there are all over the globe who are now interconnected in a networked community.

YouTube also has a lot of great guitar, solo guitar clips and a community of players recording, posting, and sharing their stuff. I use YouTube a lot with students. For example, I have a student who is learning the Sor Variations and I can just click on YouTube and there's Segovia playing it! Or Mother Maybelle Carter playing Wildwood Flower, etc., etc.

Thanks Tim!
Here's Tim Sparks performing Mississippi Blues:

September 27, 2007

Congratulations Winners!

During the Dinkyfest block party, we gave away some great prizes. Entering the drawing was simple - the contestants just needed to sign up for our mailing list.

Prizes included shirts, hats, mugs, and two guitars!

After the dust of Dinkyfest settled, we randomly selected names from our pool of contestants...

The proud winner of the Martin Backpacker guitar was Anja Kroll.

The second guitar that was given away, a Breedlove Passport, was won by Jim Evanoff.

Many thanks to C.F. Martin & Company, the Breedlove Guitar Company, and Taylor Guitars for their generous support.

Thanks to all of the performers who came out to entertain the crowd that day, particularly Dakota Dave Hull, Phil Heywood, Spider John Koerner, and Tony Glover - all great friends of The Podium for many years.

More pictures (and rumor has it video) of Dinkyfest 2007 will follow soon!

September 26, 2007

Memphis Minnie Honored

The Mississippi Blues Commission is in the process of putting up more than 100 markers across the state in celebration of the rich musical heritage of the region.

Memphis Minnie (born Lizzie Kid Douglas) is the latest artist to be honored by the Commission with a trail marker.

The marker will be at her gravesite at the New Hope Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery in Walls, Mississippi (just south of Memphis, Tennessee).

The marker will be unveiled today.

Here is a track from 1941 - "Looking the World Over"

September 25, 2007

The Eight String Brahms Guitar

Scottish-born classical guitarist Paul Galbraith is well known for having a highly personal and unique repertoire. He has explored and arranged various folk tunes from around the world, and has recorded widely acclaimed interpretations of the music of Haydn, Bach, and Brahms.

It was his during his arrangement of Brahms' Variations on an Original Theme Op. 21A for piano, when he realized that the traditional six strings of the guitar were limiting his options on the bass, and causing him to over-stretch his hand to reach the highest notes.

Inspired by the number of multi-string variations on the guitar that had appeared over the last 200 years, Galbraith contacted renowned luthier David Rubio.

Rubio's solution was inspired by the staggered stringing system of a steel-strung Renaissance instrument - the Orphereon. The guitar features the traditionally tuned six strings in the middle, a low bass string that can be tuned as low A, but as high as C, and a high treble that is tuned to A. The bridge and nut are angled in opposite directions to give added length to the bass strings, and the frets are fanned to preserve intonation.

Galbraith has also employed an amplification system of sorts which uses an end pin on the guitar (not unlike that of a cello) that attaches to an acoustic sound box. He has various sized boxes to accommodate different tonal and volume choices.

Since the inception of the Brahms guitar, others have been attracted to the sonic options and positive ergonomics that come with the design of the instrument. Irish guitarist Redmond O'Toole also performs on a Brahms guitar, played in the cello position like Galbraith. Here's a video clip demonstrating the unique approach to the guitar that this instrument offers:

September 24, 2007

Al Di Meola

Al Di Meola's latest DVD release is bound to surprise some fans in the same way his latest album Consequence of Chaos did - it is electrified! After many years of carving out his jazz / jazz-fusion niche on the acoustic guitar, Di Meola is back to exploring new territory from the sonic point of view of the electric guitar.

His latest album features fifteen original compositions, and features guest artists Chick Corea, Steve Gadd, John Pattitucci, and Barry Miles along with his regular band.

The DVD, Speak a Volcano - Return to Electric Guitar, was filmed last November in Leverkusen and features a number of Di Meola compositions, as well as five tunes from Tango innovator Astor Piazzolla.

For those of you craving a little Di Meola on his familiar Ovation acoustic, here you go!

September 22, 2007

September 20, 2007

Dakota Dave Hull and Pop Wagner

(The fine print...more or less)

Ladies and Gentlemen...

Messrs Hull and Wagner will be celebrating the release of their latest opus - Airship - on Friday, September 28th.

The festivities will commence at 7 o'clock (in the evening) at Creation Audio.

Tickets are available at both The Podium and the Homestead Pickin' Parlor.

Admission is $15, but $25 will get you admitted and a copy of the CD as well - a $5 savings.

For more information call either 612-817-5898 or 612-724-6995.

September 19, 2007


Squeak. Hiss. Clang. Grind.

These are the sounds that Dobro, Weissenborn, lap steel, and pedal steel players have to try to compete with between the good notes.

Thankfully, Eric Ebner of Austin, Texas has come up with a solution.

Inspired by the Nick Manoloff slide from the late 1930's (which featured a fiber sleeve over a metal insert), Eric researched a number of modern materials that would provide the necessary hardness for a tone-bar, but offer significantly reduced friction and reduced noise.

The result is his new line of Tribo-Tone slides. Built from aerospace grade polymers with an internal metal core, these slides for steel players offer a super low friction / low noise playing experience. The surface of the slide is extremely durable, requires no maintenance, and is easy to grip, even with sweaty hands.

For more information, visit his website!

September 18, 2007

Marc Ribot

As I was finishing up some questions for Tim Sparks, I was reminded of the wonderful record that he did for John Zorn with Bill Frisell and Marc Ribot - Masada Guitars.

One thought led to another, and I came to the realization that some of my favorite records feature Ribot on guitar.

Marc Ribot is generally regarded as an avant-garde player, and he can really get way out there...but he also has a very rootsy sensibility. In his group Los Cubanos Postizos, he explores Cuban Son music - with an emphasis on the work of Afro-Cuban pioneer Arsenio Rodríguez. As a sideman, he has contributed to the often eerie soundscapes of Tom Waits, the avant-garde chaos of John Zorn, the funkiness of Medeski, Martin, and Wood, and the cajón fueled rhythms of Peruvian Susana Baca.

All in all, his playing is a breath of fresh air. Artful without being pretentious, engaging yet accessible, he takes chances and risks - and that makes it exciting.

September 17, 2007

The Rose Ensemble

The Rose Ensemble, featuring The Podium's very own Kim Sueoka, is celebrating the release of their new album NĀ Mele Hawai'i: A Rediscovery of Hawaiian Vocal Music on Friday September 21st at the University of Minnesota - Duluth's Weber Music Hall, and Sunday, September 23rd at The Fitzgerald Theater.

The program, Hawai'i Revealed: Music from the Soul of the Hawaiian Saga, is a "journey through Hawai'i's musical heritage – steeped in tradition, transformed by worldwide influences and reborn through the struggle to carry the past into the present—an artistic legacy that looks and sounds nothing like a stereotype."

This unique combination of storytelling, song, and hula (sans grass skirts) is sure to impress.

September 16, 2007

Dinkyfest 2007

Thanks to everyone who came out to the Dinkyfest block party! It was a fun day for us, and hopefully for everyone who stopped by.

Special thanks to the folks at The Blarney and Coors Beer for their generosity, to all of the businesses who participated in the event, and to all of the talented artists who performed that day.

We will be posting pictures, and perhaps a video clip or two, of the event shortly.

September 12, 2007

Bob Brozman's Lumière

Listed as the the Bob Brozman Orchestra, it is hard not to chuckle when a careful inspection of the cover reveals a composite image of many fez-wearing Brozmans, each holding a different instrument.

Unlike the solo releases of the past, or world music outings with luminaries of the various genres Bob explores, Lumière is a multi-tracked masterpiece of improvisation.

The construction of each piece begins with a small solo instrument, perhaps a charango or baglama, and sometimes an accompanying percussion instrument played by Daniel. The intention is to capture a fresh, improvisational foundation that evolves organically throughout the recording process. Subsequent parts are improvised in reaction to previously recorded parts. Arrangements are conceived as they are being performed. Timbres and rhythms interact serendipitously to produce new colours, shedding light on new musical frontiers. Richly orchestrated parts emerge from a lexicon of musclememories. This is my work, this is my life.

Bob Brozman

The end result is a whirling adventure that demonstrates the common thread between the music of various cultures, the thread that is the core of Brozman's ethnomusicological philosophy.

September 11, 2007

More on Tim Spark's new Roots, Rags & Blues

In a previous post, the new collection of lessons from Tim Sparks - Roots, Rags & Blues - was featured.

While the interview with Tim is still in the works, a couple people have asked me what the lesson series is like.

As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. In this case, a video clip might be worth even more:

Thanks to the folks at the Acoustic Guitar Workshop for posting this!

September 10, 2007

September 6, 2007

Arrivederci Maestro

Aaron Keim

In light of the previous post, here is an interesting take on clawhammer (or frailing).

Traditionally, this style of playing was performed on a 5-string banjo. Unlike the up-picking of guitar fingerstyle, this is a down-picking style where the nail of either the first or middle finger strikes the melody note, the fingers brush across the strings, and the thumb plays the 5th string chanterelle or drone.

Some people have adapted this to guitar.

Others, like Aaron Keim of the Boulder Acoustic Society , have adapted it to the ukulele!

The transition of this style to the uke is a natural fit given the similarly re-entrant string setup on both the ukulele and banjo.

Here's a clip of Aaron explaining how to frail the uke!

September 5, 2007

Identifying and Choosing

The way that we describe our playing often rests is what our right hand is doing...or left for all the southpaws.

Unless you are a two-hands-on-the fretboard kind of player like Stanley Jordan, Preston Reed, or Billy McLaughlin, regardless of what the left hand is doing (chords / single notes) most people allude to the action of their right hand as an indicator of style.

Picks? No picks? Thumb player a la Wes Montgomery? These folks identify with using the fingers of the right hand to strike and pluck the strings in lieu of a plectrum. Fingerstylists appear in almost every genre that guitar is played in. Often players who perform a classical repertoire, ostensibly the grandfather of fingerstyle traditions, identify as classical guitarists. Similarly, slide or bottleneck players often identify with the slide, though by and large they are fingerstylists as well.


These plectrum based stylists use the plectrum to chord, play single note runs, and play basslines.


Fingers or pick, strumming is often associated with the singer / songwriter tradition where chords are strummed as a form of accompaniment.

In the end, many players engage in all three approaches at any given time, while others tend to specialize.

What is this all about?

Well, people tend to choose guitars based on the style they play. In the flatpicking world, the dreadnought is king. Fingerstyle players tend to choose smaller bodied guitars - 00s, 000s, OMs and the like. Strummers aren't as picky, but dreadnoughts are still pretty popular here too. Slide players often choose ladder braced guitars and resonators. The lines are drawn in the banjo world as well, with clawhammer players choosing open-backed banjos, and bluegrass pickers tending towards resonator backed banjos.

Despite these generalities, there are no hard and fast rules when choosing an instrument.

Sure, physics makes some choices more favorable. There is a reason why some flatpickers are seeking out the perfect dreadnought - the banjo killer. The louder volume of the dread, with an emphasis on deep bass, punchy mids and shimmering trebles makes sense in a bluegrass setting. Similarly, it takes more effort to get the top of a heavier strung dreadnought moving. For a person playing bare-fingered, a smaller bodied guitar with lighter strings might really be a better choice.

In they end, these are choices. For every commonly accepted "best choice", there are many players playing the exception to the rule. John Fahey fingerpicked a Bacon Jumbo and later a Martin Dreadnought. Norman Blake flatpicks various 12-fret Gibson and Martin small bodied guitars. Dock Boggs played an old-timey style on a Gibson Mastertone resonator banjo.

Keep an open mind when choosing an instrument. The guitar, banjo, mandolin, [insert stringed-thing] of your dreams may (or may not) be what you'd expect!

September 4, 2007

Welcome Back UMN Students

The Fall semester is here, and The Podium welcomes back all of the academic denizens to Dinkytown.

Returning and new guitar students at the "U" will find their requisite texts and footstools available.

Sheet music is also available on-site, on-demand, or by special order for guitar and other instruments - including voice.

So stop in and pay us a visit.

Here's to a excellent school year!

(and yes, we do sell single guitar strings and picks - we know how it is for students...)

September 2, 2007

Celebrating 125 Years of Hard Work

While the first Labor Day holiday was held in New York City on Tuesday, September 5th in 1882, the widespread recognition of the "first Monday in September" began in 1884.

Since then, Americans have taken time to celebrate the individual and collective importance of everyone's contribution to our society.

The Podium will be closed on Monday, September 3rd, in observance of the holiday.

Enjoy the long weekend, make merry with family and friends, and strum that guitar!

September 1, 2007

The Old is New Again

Sometimes, despite being surrounded by guitars from some of the best small builders out there, you come across something really amazing from the "old guard".

C.F. Martin & Co.

I guess amazing means something different to everyone, but I call it a fair term to describe the Ditson 111.

Not a dreadnought, but The Dreadnaught...

Modeled after Martin's 1924 predecessor to the 12-fret D-18, this Adirondack and Mahogany delight has a beautiful voice and an incredible feel. A big, yet balanced sounding guitar.

And it is big. The modified V neck is quite generous, the 1-7/8" nut width is hardly narrow, and the 2-3/8" spacing at the saddle gives plenty of room to move.

There is something special about the way the forward shifted bracing and 12-fret neck design impacts the voice of the instrument. This guitar is loud, with a clear bass and sweet midrange. The trebles are silky, bright, but not at all harsh.

It is one of those rare guitars, that when new, you don't immediately ponder what the guitar will sound like when it "ages" or "opens up".

Chalk one up for summer starts to wind down, this one is out of the park.