By John Schroeter
Fingerstyle Guitar Magazine
I’ve always loved the one good note,” says Ed Gerhard. “More and more, my approach to music has been to slow things down a bit, and get the absolute most out of every single note I possibly can.”
While Gerhard is not a minimalist by any means, he has found that less can be more “I try to trim away a lot of the excess. I try to not crowd in a lot of harmonies and I try to avoid a whole lot of inner movement. I think the more you crowd in, the less apparent things become. Segovia once commented that with the guitar, you don’t need to play a sonata, just a simple phrase-and that satisfies. It can be a lot of fun to sort of tear things up and play some wild guitar, but I really like to feel that it’s going to add up to something in the end.”
One of the most difficult things Gerhard has grappled with is simply taking the time to wait for the beat. “When you’re playing solo guitar, you think the audience is going to get bored if you don’t fill up every second with something. And it’s a hard thing to resist. I’ve found that it requires a whole lot of confidence in what you’re doing to be able to slow things down, play a couple of notes, and wait for them to live out their lives before you move on to the next beat. We tend to get edgy and rush things a little bit. If you can do it, though, it opens up your playing so much more, and the audience actually responds to it. John Knowles paid me one of the nicest compliments I’ve gotten in a while. He was talking to me after a show, and said, ‘Ed, I admire your patience.’ I got a kick out of that. The down side, though. is if you’re playing really slowly and in really good time, if you blow a note, it’s a long time before you can cover it up with something else! At the same time, the beauty of it is that it makes subtlety apparent. All the nuances of tone and phrasing and dynamics and articulation and vibrato are all right in your face. And that’s the thing I love about the guitar.”
Gerhard is quick to say, though, that also he loves the million notes a second stuff. “It holds a very special place in my heart to hear somebody just tear it up. But there’s another side to the guitar too, and I feel I need to devote myself to what I like doing best. For me, too much of the fast and furious stuff leaves me feeling like a James Bond martini-shaken, but not stirred.”
In Gerhard’s many clinics and workshops, he advises, “If you really want to learn about the guitar, teach yourself to play a piece that you already know. like a Beatles tune, or even a Christmas tune-something for which you’ve already got an established standard. Vocal music can also be an interesting challenge, because not only can it be difficult to interpret on the guitar, but many melodies sustain for a long time. But as you embrace the notion that less is more, you’ll leave more room for these melodies to come through. If in your particular arrangement you’re not hearing enough of the melody, rather than hitting it harder, try to back off the accompaniment a bit. When you do that, an interesting thing happens: the melody begins to rise above the accompaniment. So in addition to whatever notes you’re playing in your arrangement, the way you play it has a lot to do with how it comes out.”
Gerhard is currently in the process of arranging a new batch of melodies, this time a collection of love songs. “It’s really a lot of fun interpreting other people’s music,” he says. “For me, it started when I was working on the Christmas album. I had a lot of fun arranging and playing that music.”
Gerhard applies his deft hand to a variety of tunes ranging from old English traditionals, like Willy O’ Winsbury, with some help from Martin Simpson, to Mississippi John Hurt’s My Creole Bell, to be recorded with Arlo Guthrie. Gerhard will be joined by Bob Brozman on the classic Hawaiian love song, Isa Lei.
In working with a variety of other guitarists, Gerhard particularly enjoys the dynamics. “I do almost all the recording myself,” he says. “I work up the arrangements, I put the stuff down on tape, and I do all the engineering. When you’re working on your own. you can become insulated from reality-from an external perspective – and it becomes hard to make decisions about what it is you’re hearing. So, one of the ways for me to break out of that rut is to work with other players. I’m trying to be very meticulous about the arranging, but I’m also trying to leave room for things to happen by themselves. I really love it when something cool happens and forces me to rethink things a little bit. I’m always up to the challenge of realizing that I don’t know anything at all, and saying, ‘let’s just find out what this is about.’ It really helps to be open-minded about music. And I think if you can keep your judgments out of the way, it allows you to hear more of what’s there, instead of fighting for something that conforms to an opinion you already have. Part of having the trust to do that is in working with good musicians who know their way around the studio, and who aren’t intimidated by a little bit of a challenge. And Martin’s been around a while. He’s a great player, he’s got plenty of studio experience, and I trust his instincts. Bob Brozman has done tons of great stuff, so I’m not worried at all about his ability to come up with something amazing, or to be flexible enough to try something different. And working with Arlo is always a lot of fun, because he’s got a great sense of timing. He’s a great player, too. You don’t really get to hear him stretch out on the guitar that much.”
Whether on the road or in the studio, you will always find Gerhard with two of his closest friends: a 1985 Somogyi Dreadnought, and the newly discovered Breedlove. “The Breedlove is a mahogany/Sitka C2 model. I just fell in love with that guitar-love at first sight. I was looking for something that would be different from the Somogyi, which is a very heavy, almost classical-sounding instrument. I wanted something with a little more bite to it, with a little crisper sound, but mainly, I was just looking for a second, smaller guitar to compliment what I do with the Somogyi. But with the Breedlove, I ended up getting a second main guitar. Breedlove is doing something that’s a lot different, and I like that. There are a lot of guitar makers that are making, basically, good Martins-and they’re doing wonderful work. But then there are also a couple companies that are doing something really new and different. Breedlove is one of those companies. Their guitars don’t sound like anybody else’s; it’s a Breedlove, and you can tell. And that’s a hard thing to build into a guitar. It’s also got the best neck of any guitar I’ve ever played. Period. It’s great.”
Gerhard takes his guitars on the road an average of eight months a year. “By the time I get back home,” he says, “I don’t recognize any of my stuff! But I love traveling around and performing,. I’ve met so many great people, and have had so many great experiences as a result of it. I’m really lucky to be able to make a living touring and recording. The best part of it is that I get to do what I love more than anything else. A lot of people go through life and never get to do that. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
You can hear more of Gerhard’s music on his releases: Night Birds, Luna, Christmas, and the soon-to-be-released and yet untitled collection of love songs, all on Virtue Records. Also available is the transcription book (with tablature): Ed Gerhard-Guitar Music: Selections from Night Birds and Luna.