Stephen Bennett is an award winning guitarist with well over 20 albums to his credit. His playing is filled with expressiveness and warmth that I found to be a reflection of his personality. It was an honor to speak with him over Skype about music, guitars, and life.
How did you get started on the guitar?
I guess the very first guitar I ever played was an acoustic guitar. It wasn’t even mine. It was just in the house. My mother had gotten it thinking that she would learn to play at some point. The guitar wasn’t a dreadnought or anything. It was actually a German guitar — a Framus.
So that was just sitting around. There was also some sort of beginning book and I paid absolutely no attention to that other than the back page which had the chord diagrams. Somehow I realized that if you learned some of those and moved from one to another it sounded good and you were close to making some music. All it takes is three chords. You can play Amazing Grace or anything Chuck Berry ever wrote with just three chords. So that’s how I started out.
I was born in 1956. I think I was about 11 years old when I started playing, so that’s about 1967. Somewhere in those first couple years of playing, I remember going with my dad to the local appliance store and I had $35 saved up. I bought my first guitar AND amplifier for $35. I mean, it wasn’t anything special, but that didn’t matter. It played and I just kept doing it.
I didn’t have guitar lessons. The only guitar lessons I ever took were when I got to college. I took three semesters of classical guitar. I’ve lots of other music instruction… I’ve had piano lessons and took private lessons on clarinet as a kid. I was even studying clarinet right on into college. And I studied tons of music theory and composition and all sorts of things in college.
That was all good and I learned a ton, but I started… well, I get the impression that kids don’t do things the way they used to. When I was a kid everybody formed bands. We all had garage bands. You just did that. And it was fun and you learned a ton. Having to play with other people… that’s a whole musical education to itself. It’s also a lesson in getting along with other people and all sorts of things.
So I started doing that pretty young… playing school dances and stuff. And by the time I was 16 I was playing 3 or 4 nights in a bar.
So it just evolved?
Yeah, it’s weird to think about now because I wouldn’t want my son playing in a bar at that age. But I was playing with a bunch of guys who were older than I was. Some of them were ten years older than I was. They were playing stuff like “Girl from Ipanema” and “Please Release Me” and wanted to rock up their act a bit. They wanted to play things like “Evil Ways” by Santana, Doobie Brothers tunes, and things like that. I wound up auditioning and got the gig.
My parents were divorced at that point, so I guess my mom made the older guys promise to take care of me. And they did. I mean, I survived and earned money and stuff. But that was as much a musical education as anything I ever had in class.
So how did you become interested in fingerstyle guitar?
For me, the beauty of fingerstyle guitar is that more than one thing is happening. I mean, I love the sound of just strumming the guitar… strumming some chords and rhythm. I always have. But when I heard actual fingerstyle guitar for the first time I thought, “Wow, there’s a lot of stuff going on in there.” It sounds like more than one person playing because of the multiple parts going on.
I started out by learning to do some repetitive patterns, which in their own way almost create a bassline. It’s not really a melody that’s happening, but it sounds good and it’s a start. It’s what you do first. Then I realized it’s going to be some work to keep a bassline going and make a melody happen. It’s not just going to sit right in the chords comfortably. To make it work, I have to think about chords in a new way. So that’s how I think of fingerstyle guitar and break it down for people if they’re not really sure what’s going on. It is more than one thing going on at a time and one of the ways to do that is to have your thumb playing the bassline. It doesn’t necessarily have to do that… you could work it out to where the melody is in the lower register and you could be doing other things up above, but one tried and true method is to have that alternating thumb going and put the melody on top of it.
I’ve said this before on instructional videos… I think there’s even something on YouTube of me saying something like this… You work really hard to get to the point where your thumb is dependable and you can actually start to do some other things with your fingers and play the melodies that you want. It’s really hard work to get to that point.
I realized one day that I had worked really hard to get there, but that alternating bass was driving me crazy. If I heard that one more time I was going to lose it. Then it’s making an effort to break out of that and play something different. My thumb can always play an alternating bass part if I want, but I try to break out of that so it’s not just thump-thump-thump-thump all the time.
It reminds me a lot of the way rock players feel about Pentatonic scales.
Yeah, exactly. You’re absolutely right. I’ve been in that place myself. When you’re a kid playing electric guitar you find out you can make lots of fun solos with just this simple set of notes and it’s great. And then you fall into a rut and realize, “I’m so sick of my own playing.”
And that’s great! It means you’re learning and getting better and becoming more critical of your own playing and that’s a good thing. If you start thinking you’ve got it all figured out, then you really don’t. There’s always more. It doesn’t matter how good you are or how long you’ve been playing, there’s always more. There’s always a world more, which is a wonderful thing.
How do you go about arranging songs for the guitar? Do you have a specific process?
Yes and no. I’m not really sure what the process is… I’ll explain it this way…
A while back a couple friends mentioned that they thought the theme from To Kill a Mockingbird would be really beautiful on harp guitar. I didn’t know the melody. I hadn’t seen the movie in forever. So I went to YouTube and a clip from the movie came up. The music was beautiful, so I decided to give it a shot.
I had to decide… I have an ear — a good ear. I can figure this out from the soundtrack, but I bet there’s a piano arrangement or something out there that I can find. I did a quick search, found something, and bought it. That gave me a piano arrangement. I wasn’t going to play it that way, it’s just saving me from going back and forth on the YouTube video. Now I know what the melody is, I can tell what the harmonization is going to be, and I just start.
So I guess the process for me is… you have to have a reference. And that reference could be that you know the tune well enough in your head. I didn’t in that case. Or you could find a recording of the tune. Or, if it’s available, you may want to go with some print music for the song and adapt it. There certainly wasn’t going to be a harp guitar arrangement, and even if there was, I wasn’t going to use it. I don’t play anybody’s arrangement of anything.
You need a reference point. Otherwise, you’re going to learn something wrong. And I’ve done that too. For example, take the theme from The Andy Griffith Show. Years ago I thought, “Oh, I know that.” And I just did it from memory. Turns out I didn’t remember it correctly and I played it wrong for years. At some point I decided I was going to use that tune for a workshop and thought, “Let’s check it out and make sure I’m doing this right.” That’s when I discovered I was not. I went to YouTube and got it from the beginning of the show and worked it out.
You make sure you have the melody right that way. You want to get the melody right if you’re arranging something. If you don’t have the melody correct, all you’re doing is playing “Variations on a Theme from Mayberry RFD.” You have to have the melody right and I had it wrong initially. And I’ve done that on a couple other tunes over the years. You don’t want to make that mistake, because you come up with something that’s nice, but it’s better to make your variations after you have it correctly. And just the melody… beyond the melody, any of the other elements that you want to change… then it becomes your style, your arrangement, your interpretation.
When I listened to the theme from The Andy Griffith Show as it appeared on the show, I thought, “Oh, it’s got this bass line going down while the melody goes up. That’s cool.” So you get little things like that if you go to the source. If people are arranging, that’s a rule for me. Go to the source. You need a reference point so you can get it right. Otherwise you risk getting it a bit off.
Beyond that it’s just a matter of figuring out how you want to do it. There’s a zillion ways to play a melody, particularly on guitar. It’s not like piano where a note is only in one place. You’ve got that same note in five or six different places on the guitar. So you have those choices. You have to figure out what works for you, what you like, and what your brain can remember. All those sorts of things.
How did you make the transition to harp guitar? Where did that begin?
Well, it began because in 1988, I wound up inheriting my great-grandfather’s harp guitar. It’s a very old instrument, going back to 1909.
I was born in Oregon, but I grew up in New York State… up in the Hudson Valley. Then I lived in Virginia for 32 years. But I was growing up in New York and my great-grandparents were in Oregon with all my other relatives. I knew this harp guitar existed. I even had a picture of it that I carried around. Actually, for a while I carried it around in my guitar case so I could show it to people.
In 1988, I went out there… it was probably my 2nd airplane flight at the time. My grandmother was ill, so I went out there with my mom to support her. I didn’t even know my grandmother, but I wanted to support my mom. While I was there I went to my uncle’s house and the harp guitar was there in his basement. It had been there for 20 years, since my great-grandfather died. He died in ’68, so that harp guitar had been in my uncle’s basement pretty much untouched for 20 years.
We went down in the basement, brought it up to the living room, and I sat on the couch and tuned it. I didn’t even know how to tune it, but I tuned it to something. I played around with it for a few minutes and my uncle said, “This is yours.” So I had a harp guitar.
And it turns out, it wasn’t just a harp guitar, it was a great harp guitar. It’s like someone handing you a pre-war Martin that had been under somebody’s bed for 20 years. It’s that kind of instrument… a Holy Grail sort of instrument. I fell in love with it immediately.
The first thing I had to decide was how to tune this thing. I didn’t know how it was supposed to be tuned. Early on, in the first few weeks I had it, I made a decision. Traditionally what they do is just go straight down in pitch. So beyond the low E string it would have been D, C, B, A, and so on. And there are different numbers of strings on harp guitars, so there’s no one tuning. That’s the typical thing… to go down from the E, but I didn’t do that. I decided early on that I wanted to have that G as an open string, so I gave it to myself. That’s my first harp string. I wanted to be able to fool around up the neck, but you can’t do that and hold down the G at the same time. It ain’t possible.
So then I had to decide what to do from there. That’s where I start to go down the way everybody else does. Actually, there are a lot of people who play in my tuning. It may actually be more common than the other way at this point. Like Andy McKee. He does various things, but he typically tunes the same way I do. The key bit is that first string… it’s the counter-intuitive one. You’re going up in pitch for that one, but it gives you beautiful things. For example, this C chord… you’ve got a C, G, and E harmonic. That’s a gorgeous C chord. For me, that was reason enough.
Now I’ve got G, C, B, A… and then a variety of things. For the longest time I thought, “Let’s go with another G. That’s a lot of G. Oh well.” I just started working in the occasional bass note. That’s how I started figuring out what I could do and what sounded good to me. So one thing led to another.
That’s just where I started with the tuning. I’ve changed things here and there. Now I’ve tuned the G down to an F and I’m going to change my B to a Bb, so the key of F will be great. That sounds really cool. The harp guitar gives you possibilities that you can’t do quite the same way on a regular guitar. I fell in love with it immediately.
So, how did I start playing harp guitar? I inherited one, so I had one. At the time there were a few other harp guitar players in various parts of the country, but no one was really tuned in to harp guitar. Actually, the same year that I got my great-grandfather’s harp guitar is the same year that Michael Hedges came out with Aerial Boundaries. It’s not like Michael played a lot of harp guitar. He didn’t play that many tunes on it, but he was always photographed with one. So he was the most visible harp guitarist out there at the time. I didn’t learn any of his tunes or anything, but he had great stuff.
I basically got my own style on this thing from the get go. It’s not like I was going to copy someone else’s style… I don’t do that. But there weren’t a lot of us there. There are a lot more now. I don’t know if you know this… I started a convention for these things… the Harp Guitar Gathering.
Is that a yearly event?
It is. We’re having our 12th annual gathering this year. I’m not hosting this year. This year it’s out in Idaho. It will be the first weekend in October. Odds are that I’ll have the gathering again next year here in Connecticut. There’s a possibility of having it in North Carolina the year after that. The way it’s informally set up right now is that I’ll host it every other year. And then we go out and about the other year.
Did you know there’s a harp guitar foundation now? With an actual formal structure and everything. It’s pretty cool. That thing didn’t exist at all when I started playing. I’m kinda proud of that… that the harp guitar’s come a long way and I had a hand in that.
Check back soon for part 2 of our interview.
Stephen will be releasing 3 new recordings by the end of the year… a cd of original material with a few covers, a cd of Beatles arrangements, and a cd of original compositions for piano and cello.
For more about Stephen Bennett, check out his website http://www.harpguitar.com