West Coast fingerstylist Walter Strauss has a remarkable picking technique – powerful and surprisingly percussive – as heard on his latest release, For Melody, Wherever She May Find Me.
Strauss melds melodic compositions, polyrhythms inspired by African music, and that rippling, visceral picking. Here, he discusses his uncanny acoustic approach.
Your picking technique is extraordinary – it’s so percussive.
Thanks. I started fingerpicking when I was a child, probably when I was eight years old. Somewhere in my teens, I discovered a quirky cross-picking technique, which now I’d say was vaguely akin to Scruggs-style banjo playing, though a bit of a hybrid with a lot being covered by the thumb. Once I started collaborating with stringed instrumentalists from West Africa and rendering my own versions of that music on guitar, my right-hand technique became more ambitious and complex.
Who are your influences?
I had some early guitar influences, but my biggest are players of other instruments, piano, and particularly the African kora and kamale ngoni. Earlier guitar influences were folky, like James Taylor and Stephen Stills. In my late teens, I was really impacted by the sensitivity and virtuosity of classical guitarist Christopher Parkening’s album Parkening Plays Bach. There are also fingerstyle influences, like Martin Simpson, John Renbourn, Alex de Grassi, and Bruce Cockburn.
On “Zamora,” your guitar sometimes sounds like an oud. Other times, it sounds like a kora or thumb piano.
When I was in college, I discovered music from West Africa, Cuba, the British Isles, North Africa, and Bulgaria. This really opened my interest in music and culture and the ways different peoples have developed to express their human experience and sense of community. All of the music excited me, especially the stringed music from West Africa with its all-out expressiveness and polyrhythms. It felt natural to my musical sensibilities, and at the same time was mysterious and challenging.
Are there specific African instruments that inspired you?
The simultaneously resonant and muted tones of the kamale ngoni – a hunter’s harp. It viscerally inspired me to explore a range of palm-muting tones; I ride the saddle of the guitar and pluck strings with a lot of strength. Playing with kora players from Mali has especially influenced my playing. They often weave layers together in an incredibly sophisticated rhythmic fabric, playing a bass line, improvising, and playing melodies on top of that. That helped me find ways to fluidly play the same bass line and accompaniment at various positions on the neck.
“Laughing Water” unfolds like a piano piece, with its cascading arpeggios and harmonic structure.
That’s a cool insight. I play piano – and have my whole life – so the influence is literal. But until you just asked, I don’t think I ever really analyzed the piano’s specific impact on my guitar playing. I’d say my playing is influenced by piano players and composers, especially from the baroque and classical periods, and some jazz composers. I learned a lot about playing with sensitivity, and saying something, from the piano.
Which guitar did you use on the new album?
A Sexauer JB-16, which is a lovely creature built by Bruce Sexauer. It’s a 14-fret cutaway with pernambuco back and sides, and a German-spruce top. For tunings, I use a few variations, but my foundation is double-dropped Ds, where both E strings are tuned to D. I very often also tune my B to C, and sometimes, A to G. For some music, I find standard tuning to be best.
Reproducing good acoustic tone in concert is always difficult.
It is, and I use two guitars for live shows – the Sexauer and an Oneida, built by Eric Aceto and Dan Hoffman around 1990.
I’ve gone through many variations of my rig over the years. For quieter acoustic gigs, I use the Sexauer with a James May Ultra Tonic soundboard transducer. It’s very natural-sounding and has a switch for 12 versions of the tone. I run that through a preamp/EQ, where I boost some sweet-spot bottom frequencies and narrowly notch the midrange where necessary. I’ve had various preamp/EQ units from Pendulum and Rane, but I’ll likely be getting a Grace Felix preamp, which has two channels so I’ll be able to have both guitars at the ready with separate EQ. Grace makes great stuff.
How is the Oneida different?
I use it for louder-stage-sound gigs with a rhythm section; it has an under-saddle Fishman Matrix pickup and Fishman Prefix Plus Pro onboard preamp. It’s a punchy sound, not quite as natural as the Sexauer, but it cuts through the rhythm section and isn’t feedback-prone. Also, the Oneida has no soundhole – it’s my unholy guitar!
This article originally appeared in VG’s November 2022 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.