LEO KOTTKE INTERVIEW
(Originally aired on December 11, 2008)
In 1969, a 24-year old Leo Kottke released his debut album, 6- and 12-string Guitar, on the tiny Takoma label. Who could have guessed that these 36 minutes of solo guitar would spawn a new musical genre and inspire thousands of pickers to compose steel-string instrumentals? It was a turning point in the instrument's evolution.
True, other flattop-wielding guitarists had already made an impact on '60s music. With his ringing Martin D-18, Doc Watson showed the world that bluegrass virtuosity wasn't limited to fiddle, mandolin, or banjo players. John Fahey (who founded the Takoma label) was assaulting folkies with what he called "American primitive guitar." And in England, Bert Jansch and John Renbourn — individually and together in the groundbreaking acoustic band Pentangle — were mixing traditional British Isles tunes with American blues and jazz. It was a fertile time for steel-string soloists, but until Kottke hove into view, the scene was largely underground, guarded by purists and scholars. Before 6- and 12-string Guitar, the Woodstock generation defined "guitarist" in terms of Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Duane Allman, B.B. King and Jimi Hendrix.
Kottke changed all that, almost overnight. Suddenly radio stations that normally played the Grateful Dead or Pink Floyd were spinning his rollicking "Watermelon," and the sound of chimey 12-string and churning acoustic slide filled college dorm rooms. It wasn't exactly blues, country, bluegrass, ragtime or folk, but rather some fresh amalgam of these styles. Just as the Beatles had made it cool to form a band and write songs, Kottke made it hip to haul out a dinged-up flattop and play original music.
I interviewed Kottke in 2003 (coinciding with the release of the album Clone, which he recorded with bassist Mike Gordon), and this exclusive interview is excerpted from that encounter. In this conversation, Kottke discusses his right-hand picking technique and how it has evolved over the years.