Ken Bonfield's Presentation on "the History of American Finger Style Guitar," July 19, 2010

As the night started, Ken talked about the three guitars that he had brought with him to represent the evolution of the instrument through the years. During the discussion he played examples on each of them.


Carruth & Regal

The first one was a 1995 Carruth OM {Orchestra Model} with Cedar top, mahogany back and sides and fourteen-frets [similar to the Martin 000-18 which was first introduced in 1902 bringing the instrument out of parlors and into concert halls with its increased volume. The Carruth was tuned to dropped D.

The next guitar was a 2008 Regal Round-neck Dobro representing the resonator guitars that made the guitar even louder and are still associated with the Delta Blues movement. This one was tuned DADF#AD.



The final example was the most modern guitar, a 2010 Jeff Bamburg, fanned fret, small jumbo model tuned to DADGAD. It had a wedge shaped body, arm and body bevels, a monitor sound hole, a double top, and a fanned fret fingerboard, every bell and whistle imaginable! For the evening it was tuned to CGDGAD. Ken also pointed out that there is now much more interplay between luthiers and players thereby generating many new innovations in guitar design.

After talking about the guitars, Ken asked the group about their concept of American finger style guitar. Everybody seemed to agree that it was the use of the individual fingers of the right hand as opposed to using a flatpick. The performer is thus able to approach the instrument much more like a piano creating separate melody and bass lines as well as incorporating harmony into either line at will. This definition set the tone for the rest of the evening, and input from the audience was welcomed and encouraged. Ken was very knowledgeable on his topic and kept the discussion flowing. He was very low key and everyone seemed very comfortable with the question and answer format.


Audience Response

One of the first topics discussed was the early
history of finger style guitar. The African Folk-Blues, Celtic and early Hawaiian folk (which included many open tunings) seemed to mix together to help create the style of today’s guitar music. Many musicians were mentioned, but there were a few major players in the development of finger style guitar that stood out. One of the earliest players was Rev. Gary Davis who drew upon African folk music to develop his finger style facility. Other contributors included John Fahey and Chet Atkins who used his thumb pick to create an alternating bass pattern with his right hand while simultaneously playing melody and chordal backing with his other fingers. Leo Kotke was discussed as a player who added to the finger style repertoire in the late 1960’s. During the same period, singer/songwriters such as Bob Dylan and Paul Simon were also incorporating finger style into their own playing. Meanwhile, the important players in England were John Renbourn, Davey Graham and Bert Jansch,

The next big thrust forward for the finger style genre was the Windham Hill record label, which brought such players as Will Ackerman, Alex De Grassi, and Michael Hedges to the spotlight. It was also labeled as “N-E-W - A-G-E.” music. Ken spelled this out so as not to have to say it! He, as well as most players and recording artists despise that term. He said that it reminded him of something he should be hearing in an elevator, not something he would want to go out and buy music from! The other important figures from this period were Peter Lang, Martin Simpson, and Chris Proctor.

When Michael Hedges died in a car crash in 1996, the growth of the finger style movement seemed to have died with him, and it remained in a very dark place until November 2006. That winter, Rob Poland, the owner of Candyrat Records decided to film some of his label artists (mostly solo acoustic players) and post these videos on the website YouTube. One of these videos was of a song called “Drifting” written and performed by an artist named Andy McKee. That video quickly became the most watched video on the web site and in one fell swoop made finger style guitar “cool” again. The video has been viewed over thirty million times to date.


Ken makes a point!

The current status of finger style guitar is pretty healthy with many players like Tommy Emanuel, Stephen Bennett, Don Ross, Peppino D’Augostino, and Pierre Bensusan’s names being mentioned. Some pivotal finger style solo guitar songs found on albums occasionally played on the radio that made a difference include “Sunflower River Blues,” “Angie,” “Embryonic Journey,” “Black Mountain Rag,” and “Little Martha.”

Overall the session with Ken was a very informative and interesting workshop and we were treated to a composition by Ken at the end of the night. The name of the piece was “Dazed and Confused” and was played in DADGAD tuning. It was a very beautiful piece completing a very informative evening.

—Ted Peck/Mark Grover
Photos: R. Taglieri

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