Adrian Legg

A Moment with the Fingerstyle Wizard
A Moment with the Fingerstyle Wizard

Adrian Legg isn’t your typical gearhead. Oh, he’s a gearhead, alright – he even authored a book entitled Customizing Your Electric Guitar. But for a self-described “guitar nerd,” he can talk endlessly and eloquently about politics or religion, classical music or poetry. And though his solo fingerstyle live shows are jaw-dropping displays of his mix of styles and idiosyncratic techniques, he sometimes spends as much time telling jokes and stories as playing songs.

In fact, his quirky observations have been regularly featured on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.”If you go to, instead of a typical artist’s photo gallery, the photo section is devoted to pictures Adrian has taken on the road – of landscapes, towns, hotel signs – and a few shots of Legg and/or his custom guitars. There are meticulous explanations of his equipment and techniques, as well as his strangely logical theory of seeing music as “vertical slices,” rather than horizontal bass lines, melodies, etc. And in typical irreverent fashion, one of his instructional videos – detailing his unorthodox tunings, use of half-capos and Keith banjo tuners (his guitars employ six, and he doesn’t just use them to retune; he incorporates them into his melodies) – is called How To Cheat At Guitar.

Born in London in 1948, Legg, like so many English kids, gravitated to the guitar thanks to the instrumental sounds of the Shadows. After playing electric guitar in country bands, he made the switch to acoustic fingerpicking, and cut his first album, Requiem For A Hick, in 1977. By the time of his first Stateside release, 1990’s Guitars & Other Cathedrals on Relativity, his all-instrumental jumble of folk, rock, country, Celtic, blues, Middle Eastern, jazz, and classical styles – and techniques borrowed from banjo, pedal steel and other instruments – was already being declared uncategorizable.

In 1996, he was the opening act for the G3 tour, getting raves from hard-rockers who’d come to see headliners Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and Eric Johnson. In fact, to accommodate the set change, he and Johnson worked up a duet on Adrian’s “Lunchtime At Rosie’s,” which they recorded for Legg’s Fingers & Thumbs CD (on Red House). In ’03 he signed with Vai’s Favored Nations label and released Guitar Bones, followed with last year’s Inheritance – the 13th entry in his catalog.

“Nefertiti – What A Sweetie” is an appropriate title for the light-hearted boogie that opens the CD, while the Celtic-tinged “My Blackbird Sings All Night Long” would give you the feeling of flying, with or without the winged reference. And “A Waltz For Leah,” a simple, beautiful melody, with a nice treat at the end: a string section which Adrian scored using Sibelius software.

The emotional sweep of the CD is actually more impressive than any display of chops – even on a tour de force like “More Fun In The Swamp.” As Legg stresses, his goal is “to make something happen in that guy’s head sitting down there.” And, despite his aversion to the recorded medium, on CD and onstage night after night, he succeeds – going places no guitarist has ventured before, and transporting lucky listeners with him.

Vintage Guitar: You said onstage that you hate the recording process with a passion.
Adrian Legg: It’s the tail of the dog. Normally, we all go together and we make the event – the performers and the audience. It’s a social event; we all interact. The audience has a big effect on it. This is what music is: it’s a live thing where we get together and do it, and we go away from it with bits of it in our minds that we remember. Those bits that we remember from a performance change and grow in our minds. And I think that is a very important part of everybody’s creative process – how you remember it, which changes. It gets better or worse, but the fact that it changes is the important thing.

I was very interested in the juxtaposition of music and photography. Because photography is a legitimate way of absolutely stilling a moment. Music never stops. It goes through the moment. You can’t hold it in the moment. It always changes, always goes through the moment, and it keeps growing. So every performance is different.

So when you make a recording of a little slice of time, it has no chance to grow; it’s dead. And I think there are more things against it, because it’s allowed a commodification of a human activity. This is something that we as people do, and it’s been turned into something that some suit sells us and tells us what’s good.

I’ve no problem with making money. I need to make money to avoid delivering pizza. I’m only ever three tours away from delivering pizza [laughs]. And I have no problem with the fact that there are records of people who I love, who are dead, or are too far away – like Thumbs Carlille doing “Springfield Guitar Social” on Tennessee Guitar (Starday); what a work of genius! Or the Bach Double Violin Concerto; I have a version of that that’s gorgeous. I go to those maybe every two years for kind of spiritual comfort.

There’s an awful lot against it that really does balance the benefit we get from it. And now the tail’s been wagging the dog for so long, the dog is dizzy. And we don’t know where we’re going with music. These little bits and things, we’re kind of taking it back – kind of doing it ourselves regardless. Things like Napster have been interesting in that they’ve forced the record companies to rethink and they’ve forced us the musicians to think. But I have a problem: I have to do an album periodically or the local promoter has nothing to dish out, so I arrive in an area with no provenance. I have to have a record on a label. The label gives it provenance. If I do my own record and send it to a radio station, the station ignores it because it’s just me. If it has some record label imprint on it, and it says somebody else has put money into this so it must be okay, they’ll listen. So it’s completely perverted the whole process.

From a personal point of view, I go in there and play. When I play live, my clams go sailing past most times – sometimes I crash and burn – but most times the clams go past and I forgive them as they go. When it’s on a record, they hear that clam every time, because you’re repeating that slice of time. So you have to record a different way. I’m not allowed to use my own gear to record. I have to use what the studio guys say is going to produce the best result, or I have to use something that’s going to allow him to edit later. So I play to this lone machinery, a critical bloke, in which I’m to make something phony that will endlessly go round and round in time without developing – that’s kind of where it all comes from.

What about live recording then?
Same thing. It’s a moment in time. You’re capturing a social event, and you’re repeating it over and over again. If you get all those musicians and all those people together a different time, it will be different. It might have got worse; it might have got better; but it will have changed. The whole reason we exist now as human beings the way we do is because we grow and change.

When I was at school, I was brought up with classical music – beautiful music, but nobody ever said to me, “This is how you deal with the emotional side. It’s going to get to you. Look out.” They said, “This is how you work this instrument.” They taught method. It’s like religion. If you step back, you can see the poetry in Christianity, but people are so buried in the method and dogma. And in music we’re starting to deal with method and dogma. And the recording industry is all about method and dogma. The dogma is, “This will sell;” the method is the technology.

So it seems we’re doing another human thing; we’re finding something really nice, having a load of fun with it, and then screwing it up by applying method, dogma and science to it. Music and art and poetry are hypotheses you don’t have to approve or disapprove.

People tend to divide fingerstyle guitarists into the American school – John Fahey, Leo Kottke, Peter Lang; and the British school – Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Davy Graham. Do you see yourself as an extension of the latter?
I’ve never seen myself as a proper guitarist, really. I always bodged my first guitars; that’s an English variant of botch – repair clumsily. And I like banjo players; I like steel players; I want those sounds.

Initially, the guitar was the Shadows. That’s what was big and shiny and sexy. Here is the route; here is the way! One of those moments.

Americans tend to be a bit myopic about rock and roll. Worldwide, Hank Marvin of the Shadows was probably the most influential Stratocaster player of all time.

It was the perfect tone. His arms, his hands, that guitar, that pickup, that Vox, the old speaker. That was the sound. I made a crystal set when I was a kid, and would listen to Radio Luxembourg, and I had some old World War I bakelite headphones. I heard the American guitarists – Duane Eddy and Lonnie Mack. I heard “Wham” by Lonnie Mack one night, and it knocked me flat. Just once – it was fabulous. Which comes back to that point of how music grows in your mind – one experience.

The Ventures and all those guys were doing great stuff, but nobody had a tone like Hank. And what he was doing was cheesy and banal and musically kind of questionable – but it wasn’t that musically questionable, when I think about it! “Apache” was a great tune; “Foot Tapper” was a great tune. But tone has always been the thing for me.

This is “your” instrument, really. Everything that happens around the steel-string guitar has been, and is, legitimately an American experience. But there is stuff going on all over the world. The Portuguese guitar; if you listen to fado, Amalia Rodriguez, she’ll break your heart. She sings just a cent flat on some of those notes, and that’s what does it.

But the American experience has been very widespread and very diverse – black, white, urban, rural. All folk, and all outside the method, outside that kind of discipline. It’s only been over the past twenty years or so that we’ve seen colleges apply discipline and method to it, and we’ve seen an explosion of players who all sound the same.

When you say “folk,” you’re not referring to folk music; you’re referring to homegrown…
Non-classical. There are only two divisions in music. Jazz gets more difficult because it straddles both. But there’s the classical tradition, within you learn a vast technique to cope with a huge existing wonderful repertoire; then there’s the folk tradition, where you grab the nearest thing you can and do whatever you can at that moment to express how you feel. That’s the steel-string tradition, which is an American tradition. The worst thing I ever saw was someone wrote a book called Hawaiian Guitar Method [laughs]. There was no method! I talked to Ray Kane over there, and he said, “Man, you play too complicated.” You just get a nice sound, and you keep doing it until you feel better.

You’re in sort of a category all your own in that you don’t really play like anyone else, and you’ve taken open tunings into uncharted territory.
A lot of the time we think of the guitar as “the blues guitar” or the whatever. It’s that method thing again – which I keep discovering to be a problem. Someone like Angela Hewitt, the Bach pianist, has method down so much, she said she didn’t feel she was able to start interpreting Bach until she felt she was watching her hands doing it. So she had method down and applied it beautifully. So method can be a truly wonderful thing. But for us on the folk side of things, it can be very limiting. And we look at it as a particular kind of guitar. If instead we just started looking at it as “a” guitar – acoustic, steel-string, nylon, doesn’t matter – it’s broader. Then you start looking at it in the sense of, “I’ve got to make something happen in that guy’s head sitting down there. How do I do that?” Then you’re talking about music. Then you’ve got a huge, broad spectrum of things you might be able to do. So you look to other stringed instruments and say, “What have they got that I can nick? What can I steal from a banjo player? Can I get somewhere near that steel player?” It’s kind of begging, borrowing and stealing from all over the shop to get something to happen in somebody else’s head. Whatever it takes to get that to happen is what you have to do. That’s not proper guitar thinking, I don’t think. In the broadness of the American tradition, if you look at that, it belongs in there, but methods and dogma have made us narrow. So people are upset about my stuff being all over the shop, switching styles. I just play music.

I was brought up in a church choir. I learned my harmony when I was a kid, because it happened. No note ever existed in isolation in the Western tradition. Every time I sang a squeaky note, there had been harmony, there would be harmony, or there was harmony. And the same thing when I started squeaking around in the school orchestra on the oboe. There was always harmony and always a huge range of dynamics, of textures, of emotions – the whole thing.

When I came to the guitar, I saw the same thing again. This huge range of things you can play and talk about. So you don’t limit yourself. I see that as quite normal and natural.

Well, you don’t limit yourself. But it seems the case more with guitar than other instruments and perhaps more now than previously that guitar players listen to other guitar players, rock players listen to other rock players. You obviously listen to…
Everything. Whatever I can. I download songs with sarods just to hear the tone. Or oud.

The other thing I think is important is failure. When I started in Liverpool in country bands playing social clubs, we used to sneak around and steal each other’s licks. It was one of those passing moments. We got the lick wrong. We’d play it from memory, and come out with a new lick. We’d stolen it and gotten it wrong, but it was new. Then somebody would come by and hear our new lick and steal it, and they’d go home and work it up and get it wrong. So there was all this growth going on, out of failure. And everybody was identifiable. I could hear any player now from that Liverpool time, and I’d know who it is – because of what they built after their failure. I think that’s one of the really important things about our “folk” tradition: people have screwed up all the way through it, and after that screwing up has always come growth.

Years ago, someone doing your type of act, solo fingerstyle guitar, would have been part of “folk music” – as a style, not just in terms of non-classical. Are you comfortable if people label you “folk”?
I really don’t care. It doesn’t change what I do. I’m still fumbling for the next thing. I was in the New Age charts [laughs]. It was truly embarrassing, but it was great to be in a chart. “Oh, somebody’s buying it!” One of the most solidifying things for what I do happened quite early on, when I got my first Performing Rights Society check. I thought, “Oh, they’re not just being nice; they really do like it.”

I don’t have an issue with being called a folkie. If we think about the divide between classical and that which we do immediately without technique, fine; I don’t have an issue with that. But you say “folk guitarist,” and somebody sells me to a folk gig, and I turn up with all my bits and pieces and make a filthy racket and rattle the floorboards, they’re going to have a problem. Not me – they’re going to have the problem.

It goes back to the Dylan thing – “You can’t play electric,” and all that. Electric guitar is the most significant folk instrument of all time, in terms of the definition of folk – as music that arises directly from the needs of people to express themselves. It evolved with absolutely no regard for classical tradition; it evolved in response to the needs of players.

But all your electronics are to reproduce the sound of an acoustic guitar.
No. It’s to make something happen in somebody else’s head at the gig.

But, gauging by the tone I’m hearing, it seems you don’t want your guitar to sound like an electric guitar.
Well, I guess I go back to where it came from. I was playing electric in bands; then I started playing acoustic because someone wanted me to strum an acoustic on one of the songs. Then I got a quite nice acoustic and started fingerpicking. “Freight Train” – thank God for Libba Cotten. That gave me a handle on things. And I found the acoustic had this beautiful, rich harmonic content. It will stand on its own; it’s a solo instrument. An electric doesn’t have that, but it has a kind of flexibility. It has a thin tone; magnetic pickups aren’t picking up the whole story. But you can have it very loud. Why can’t I have both? That’s what I want. I want to be able to go into a rowdy bar and chuck out as much noise as I need to to get through – but I want that rich harmonic content. So what I’m doing is using piezo crystals – whatever it takes – to get the kind of quality, the functionality, of the acoustic in the harmonic sense, but the functionality of the electric in its ability to deliver in atrociously difficult situations. The whole thing came from trying to have my cake and eat it.

And you’ve done a great job. There’s nothing more irritating than hearing a good player with that bad “acoustic-electric” sound.
The bag of nails sound. I think it’s been very difficult for acoustic players to deal with technology. Electric players are used to being terribly nerdy about it; acoustic players are nerdy in a different way. I remember when it first started happening, when the first Barcus-Berry came to England. In the shop I worked in, we were screwing them into the bridge. They sounded okay – they were by no means a good sound – but one guy came in the shop having had one fitted and said, “This is great; I can play quietly now.” Up until that point, he’d been hitting everything as hard as he could to get some noise to drive the PA.

It all goes round and round, and we end up with that nasty, flat, scratchy electro-acoustic sound – because it’s quite often the only thing that will punch it onstage. Why don’t we look at it from a different point of view? Why don’t we say, “Instead of making an acoustic onstage, we want to make a harmonically rich electric?” Then we’ve got a chance. If we face the fact that we’re no longer playing an acoustic instrument – as soon as we plug it in, by your definition, by my definition, it’s no longer acoustic – we’ve gone electric.

You used to get a great sound out of an Adamas.
You’ve got to be a nerd. There’s no way you can make an acoustic sound as it is onstage; there’s no way of doing that. But there is a way of getting a sound onstage that’s harmonically rich and is more stable, and that’s what you address. You look at it as an electric and say, “What have I got in the way of toys, tools, tricks, anything to get this thing to happen in the other guy’s head?” Forget the acoustic; it isn’t acoustic. If you like the feel of the instrument, fine; have the instrument. But for God’s sake, block it out and stop it vibrating. Get rid of that great big air cavity; close it off.

The Adamas was essentially flat. That carbon-fiber soundboard has no character of its own; that’s what makes it such a functional guitar. However, I was getting postural problems as a result of playing it. It’s great to have a good sound, but you’ve got to get it to a gig. The popular plane between here and England is the Boeing 777, and the overhead is 371?2″ long. Very short. The closet space is also reduced, and it’s generally available for the jackets of the suits up front. If you don’t want your guitar to come out in pieces on the baggage conveyor, you’ve got to make your guitar fit into that airplane.

I always fly with United, because they’ve always been okay with the guitar. The other guys I avoid, because at some point they’ve been nasty about the guitar. So my “Bill” [made by Bill Puplett] fits in the 777; it’s 361?2″ long. Another part was that it had to sit diagonally so that my back is straight. I have injuries now from playing so long; if I don’t do that, I’m not going to play. That’s the main guitar I use onstage. Bill’s an incredible craftsman

Do you use it in the studio as well?
On Guitar Bones, the main acoustic was a Brook Creedy – a 19th century parlor-size. On Inheritance, I used the Creedy on two songs, “My Blackbird” and “A Waltz For Leah,” and the Puplett on everything else. It had an Ovation pickup for a long time, but I switched it to Graph Tech. The body is two-piece swamp ash, with a cavity hollowed out before joining, and then it’s vented on the treble side cutaway. The neck is two-piece walnut with an ebony fingerboard, and the bridge is walnut.

The Ovation and Graph Tech are pickups in the saddles. What’s the other pickup on the body?
The way this guitar is built, there’s a box section when it comes to the bridge. As a backup, if the piezo pickup dies (which they do), I needed a backup – and I wanted a magnetic sound. I said, “It’s got to fit under the strings, and I’m not going to cut into the box section.” Steve Blucher and Eric Corpus [of Dimarzio] kindly made me a 6mm-deep Waffair Theene magnetic pickup so as not to break into the box section in the guitar at that point. If you put it near the bridge, it sounds wonderful. It’s clean as hell.

What’s the other small-body electric you sometimes use?
Mace Bailey at Ibanez and I tried to figure out the smallest space we could get a fully functional Strat-layout guitar into, and then worked up a body shape inspired by an old Vox Phantom. The pickups are Seymour Duncan – a standard Alnico 2 humbucker fingerboard pickup, and the center and bridge are Alnico 2s Seymour kindly made with the third polepiece lowered to give a more even string balance. It’s straight-through maple construction, and even Mace was surprised it came out sounding so good. It really does have an excellent tone and sustain. I use it primarily as a back up, and it also makes a useful lap slide. I use a Shubb capo with a fiber tongue made by Andy Manson to lift the strings clear.

What does the rest of your setup consist of?
It changes almost day to day, but currently the 13-pin output from the Graph Tech Hexpander goes to a splitter box, and from there it goes to the VG88 and to the GR33 in parallel. There are midi cables from the GR33 firing and changing patches on the JV1010s. The latter two I bought cheap, as I think they’re discontinued.

I use the expression pedals on the VG88 and the GR33 to govern their output levels, and I use stereo volume pedals on the JV1010 outputs, all into a cheap and nasty little Behringer mixer, from which come two xlr outputs with ground lifts to block phantom from the PA. The Behringer has fits if it gets phantom, as they didn’t bother blocking D.C. on the outputs.

The VG88’s modeling is quite good. There are problems with it. The open tunings are rubbish; the physical tuning – or virtual tuning; you can’t use it for that. For instance, if I tune a virtual open C in the VG88 whilst still using a physical standard tuning on the guitar, the virtual C on the second string beats and warbles against the physical B on the second, which can still be heard. I tend to agree with [RMC Pickups’] Richard McClish’s comments to Bill Puplett discussing this – that one can never actually totally eliminate physical crosstalk on a decently live instrument. For instance, I’m experimenting with an RMC fan-out box, and I can certainly hear the other strings sounding alongside a single string isolated by the fan-out. We also checked crosstalk at Roland tech over here in the UK when I was using a GK magnetic hex pickup. The beating and warbling in the virtual C tuning over a physical standard tuning still occurred. So I suspect there will never be a satisfactory way of achieving virtual tunings; one just has to bite the bullet and retune physically. The virtual tuning tone is pretty pathetic anyway, in my opinion; the attack transient doesn’t transpose very well.

But as a processor, the VG88 is pretty good, and it processes polyphonically. So you can add bass on the lower strings, if you want. It does, unfortunately, exaggerate nail noise. The neat thing about that bottom end is it does cover the wobbliness in the synths – the GR33 and JV1010s – and periodically the bass just misfires. But the combination of the two at the moment is working quite well, but I do want to get the direct guitar feed in there somewhere. What happens with the modeling in the VT AT8 is that it’s before the compressor stage in the VG88, so if you model in some shape in the low end, by adding a proportion of octave-down sound, when the low end hits the compressor it squashes the high notes flat – they come down. So I need to find a way of sneaking notes around that.

In parallel with the synths and the modeler, I run an analog signal from the magnetic pickup. This goes through a boutique Screamer which may soon be swapped for a boutique fuzz. I’m very interested in Mike Piera’s work as Analogman. Then into a Keeley compressor, into a modded DS1, into a Keeley modded BD2, into a Sans Amp original. I think Andrew Barta calls it a Classic now. This, and anything else that might be auditioning in the chain, goes via another clapped-out volume pedal into the mixer. I use an old T.C. Electronics Sustainer sometimes – lovely smooth sound with a semi-parametric doodad in it and switchable diodes on the output for a bit of clipping. It should be noted that I have just discovered fuzz boxes 30 years after everyone else, and I thank my audience for their patience while I go through this difficult adolescent phase [laughs].

Photo: Rick Gould.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s April ’05 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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