1.Can you remember the first guitar you owned? What was the make and model and how did you acquire it?
The first guitar I played was a very cheap plywood model from Sears, given to me by my parents when I was 12. When I proved that I was serious about learning, I got a Yamaha FG340 dreadnought that I consider to be my first real guitar. After college, I started performing in a band with my brother and upgraded to an all-solid-wood Guild. But I kept the Yamaha as a backup/camping/beach guitar until, sadly, it was stolen from my apartment in San Francisco.
- What are the qualities that matter to you when deciding on buying a guitar, and how has this changed over time?
I want an acoustic guitar that can travel across a lot of stylistic territory--driving rock, percussive funk grooves, bluegrass-style flatpicking, fingerstyle folk, and more, both rhythm and lead all over the neck. I'd rather have one versatile guitar than a collection of guitars that each have narrow specialties.
The bass response is increasingly important to me. I use dropped-D tuning for more and more of my original songs and arrangements, and in some songs I lower the bass strings further. For instance, on "My Bad," from the new album Almost There, I tune the sixth string to C and the fifth to G:
I like guitars that have low-end power yet aren't boomy or muddy--they also speak clearly on the treble end. Using D'Addario bluegrass-gauge strings (mediums on the bottom, lights on top) works really well for me.
For a songwriter, perhaps the most important aspect of a guitar is that it feels like it has songs in it. Something about the sound just gets the ideas flowing.
- How did you discover your present guitar, and how did it find its way home to you?
As the founding editor of Acoustic Guitar magazine in the '90s, I got to know a lot of great guitar makers and became aware of the renaissance of individually made guitars that was underway. I started dreaming about having a guitar made for me. One of the luthiers I met was Linda Manzer--the fact that she made Bruce Cockburn's and Pat Metheny's acoustic guitars certainly got my attention.
As it happened, I was in Toronto for a Folk Alliance International conference, and I decided to call Linda and pay a visit to her shop. I just had this clear feeling that she was the right one to build my guitar, so I took the leap and ordered one. I waited about a year and a half for the guitar to arrive. It has her very comfortable wedge shape (the body is narrower where you arm goes over it, and wider on the bottom to compensate). I'd spent several long stints in India, and the inlay I chose is based on a kolam--a form of south Indian folk art.
The Manzer is my main guitar for writing and recording. Live I mostly play a Taylor 712C from the '90s that is a great stage guitar and has a very nice-sounding Highlander pickup installed many years ago by Rick Turner.
- What historical aspects, if any, have you unearthed about your present or past guitars?
I feel like the Manzer's history is just beginning. I just know this guitar is going to sound better than ever a hundred years from now. In this age of buying expensive stuff from big-box stores that is obsolete three years later, it's deeply satisfying to own something so beautiful, timeless, and functional.
- What was the most recent song you composed on your guitar, and how did your present guitar tool lead you to discover the right music?
The most recent song I completed was "Turn Away":
This song uses dropped-D tuning and a partial capo (covering the top five strings). The deep, powerful sound of the Manzer makes rhythm patterns like this such a joy to play, and that had everything to do with the birth of this song.
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