1. Hi Franco it’s a pleasure to have you as our guest and have this chat with you; let’s start talking about your career as a musician: is your passion for music born in your family? Did you have the first contact with music influenced by someone in particular?
Thanks to you for this invitation, I always gladly return to an area where there are dear friends and guitar enthusiasts.
There were no musicians in my family, except an uncle who was a drummer who worked on cruise ships coming and going from the United States. I must say, my father was very sensitive. He certainly gave me his strong feelings about music. Later he became my first fan. As a child, my parents realized my special vocation, so at the age of eleven, I started to take guitar pick-picking lessons: the first notes on the pentagram, the first chords, the first methods and books of solfeggio…
2. As a listener, what musical genres have you been most passionate about and contributed to your education?
When I joined a band we played Beatles, Rolling Stones, Creedence and songs from Italian bands, in short, music from the early seventies. I got my first lightning flash with the guitar sound of Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin because I felt the power and freedom of expression that I had never sensed before. Then in their albums, some songs brought me closer to the acoustic guitar. When I moved to Bologna the choices were much wider. I was very intrigued by Takoma, a small label of a slightly crazy guitarist called John Fahey. When I think about it, one aspect that took me more than others was the freedom to express myself and to get out of certain schemes. In the blues, of course, I found a lot of the elements that I was looking for. Later on, other elements contributed to my training, I’m talking about group experiences, interchanges with good musicians and personal study behind it all.
3. Which albums have been, and still are, fundamental and essential in your collection?
Very many, but for brevity, I’ll just mention some names, also because the album titles would make up a list that’s too long. Rock and progressive rock was an important genre for a whole series of guitarists who played in bands like Deep Purple, Frank Zappa, King Crimson, Yes, Genesis. Then there was the jazz/fusion genre then Weather Report, Pat Metheny, Michael Brecker, Oregon. On the more acoustic/traditional side Ry Cooder, Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Leo Kottke. From the new acoustic music Michael Hedges, Alex de Grassi, Metamora, Montreaux Band, Philip Aaberg, George Winston. The Irish folk revival Donal Lunny, Dave Spillane, Bothy Band, John Renbourn, Bert Jansch, David Graham. And finally, I’ve always appreciated the different alchemies resulting from mergers of styles and genres, crossings of different cultures evolving something new.
4. Let’s talk about your guitar line-up: how did you start studying with the guitar?
My training, apart from the first 3 years of study, was mostly autodidactic. I wish I could meet some good teachers on my route and I would have saved time. I started doing a repertoire ” bringing down” by ear what I liked and training my ear to recognize chords, intervals, scales and chord progressions. The pieces I learned were my training and I considered a study completed only when the performance ran smoothly. When you have the opportunity and the need to play live, all must perform well and be presentable. I feel today many kids have few opportunities to play around, maybe they perform in front of their teacher or record a video for YouTube. I do hope they may get more opportunities in the future because the live performance makes you confident and committed.
5. In your musical career a central place is covered by the blues: how did you get close to this music genre?
I have always liked the blues. I could feel its influence everywhere. In Bologna, I started playing in almost every pub in the town centre and outdoor. We played classics like Hesitation Blues, Cocaine and many other traditional and folk revival blues. Every bluesman I listened to from records or tapes had his style. I published my first book “Method for Blues Guitar” bearing in mind the idioms and languages of this genre. In this sense, the ear training experience I got before turned out to be very useful because it allowed me to reach even more challenging tracks. What I tried to do in that book is to personalize several contents. So I composed licks and blues with phrases that I thought were beautiful and valuable, conceived also with a certain didactic purpose. Even if at that time Bèrben was printing books with only the pentagram without tablatures, the sales went really strong. Today the book is reprinted in Germany with the title “My Acoustic Blues Guitar”.
6. In addition to the blues, another key part of your production has focused on traditional Irish music and Italian folk music. Tell us more about your approach towards this repertoire and what motivated you to engage with it.
I remember the concerts of Pentangle, Alan Stivell, then John Renbourn, Bert Jansch, Duck Baker, guitarists who began to develop a repertoire that until then had been confined to American music. I became aware that from O’Carolan’s ancient arias to traditional dances there was a lot of interesting material that could be adapted for solo guitar.
Fascinated by this genre, I published “The South Wind” for German label AMRecords, now reissued in Italy as Celtic Fingerstyle Guitar. It’s the book that sold more than others. Then I arranged and wrote other Celtic songs in the album “Road to Lisdoonvarna” but only releasing singles that are available in my online store. We sell a lot of them mostly to countries like the USA, Canada and UK. I’m still very attracted by Celtic music because I feel it has a very strong melodic, almost magnetic, power. Originally this was born as music almost without harmony, except for a few drone notes, they were all melodies played in unison, the accompaniments we hear today arrived much later. However, after this experience, I realized how to arrange Italian folk songs because, between slow arias, jigs and tarantellas, the acoustic is the most suitable type of guitar to interpret the traditional repertoire. I must say that Italian Fingerstyle Guitar, both as a book and as a Cd, brought me a lot of satisfaction, in particular when I hear this kind of Italian music played by guitarists from different countries of the world.
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7. Your distinctive trait is the original composition. How do you approach a new composing idea? Can you tell us about your creative process: do you start from a melodic idea or other elements? Do you usually write a song “on the spur of the moment” or do you need more time to process it in the final version?
This is a question that comes in the right order because we talked about tradition and arrangement, experiences that should always come before dealing with a subject like composition. I say that because many young people start to compose original pieces without having the appropriate experience. The music I compose even dealing with different genres remains quite expressive, therefore rather melodic. You can have different melodic lines or interesting ideas in a song, but then it’s necessary to match them in a musically homogeneous and coherent way. It’s also very important the rhythm within which the melody is set. Sometimes a trivial phrase can become interesting by changing the position of the notes. Building harmony around a melodic idea is a very solid practice, but there is no definite rule. Sometimes the melody line can be suggested by a chord progression or even by a certain rhythm. I usually spend much more time elaborating on the final version because then by listening better to what I play I can realize what to change, add… or more often remove.
8. You played with great artists all over the world and very important festivals. Do you remember any of them with special pleasure? Do you have any unusual tales that have happened to you throughout your career?
I remember a live blues played along with John Renbourn, I was so moved…thank luck it was only three chords! At a festival in Liechtenstein where Oregon also played, Ralph Towner hadn’t arrived for the usual delays from Fiumicino because his suitcases went missing. Then Paul McCandless asked me to play some songs with them, wow it was an unforgettable experience. And then I shared the stage and played with many guitarists from Tim Sparks to Alex De Grassi, from Duck Baker to Woody Mann. Most of the time we went around together for gigs. We used to tell jokes, but after some time you forget them, but the experience of sharing the music and the stage with other musicians remains.
9. The world of modern music is evolving more and more with methods of communication and ways of “using” music, often favouring fast and immediate listening. Do you think that acoustic music still has a central role in the contemporary panorama? If so, what is its place, according to your experience?
The music we love is the soundtrack of our life and it is clear that today everything is so fast and immediate that even the consumption of music is affected. This causes a very rough use of music that in many cases follows only rules of speed and marketing. What we can do as individuals is to know what we listen to, to know what we like without being misled by random listening. Surely as a listener, you can give music a central role or sound commentary. The problem is always the quality, there are poor proposals that reach us in an intrusive way that sometimes it is better to know how to defend ourselves. The best things are the ones you look for, not the ones you find randomly or passively accept. The problem today is that niche genres end up being much more isolated. It’s a fact that today many festivals of acoustic music, blues and jazz have closed their schedules. Municipalities both in Italy and in Europe are cutting funding because for the organizers and politicians these musical genres do not attract enough audience. So they invest in consumer goods where even the electoral return can be greater.
10. The acoustic guitar has developed, especially in recent years, many spectacular techniques that push guitarists to play more and more music to “see” rather than listen to; do you think that the tradition of the acoustic guitar still has its strength of expression today?
Seeing the musician rather than listening to him is distracting from the real music content. But I think that some videos when they show only technique and animation, you can see it. From Michael Hedges onwards the school of tapping and percussion on acoustic guitar has moved a long way. My suggestion, to not lose the compass, is to always focus on the quality of the music. Surely even beautiful pictures with appropriate sound comments can be a very expressive and powerful combination.
11. What advice do you feel you can give to a young acoustic guitarist, what should he focus on?
I suggest growing up with the acoustic guitar having bases and references related to traditional genres because it is an instrument that draws its origin from the blues, so blues, jazz, Celtic music, ethnic music. From experience I say that it is good to study some years of classical guitar to acquire a touch and a clean sound, then certainly, have along the way experiences with other musicians. It is important to get to play something personal only after having gained so much repertoire based on different genres and styles.
12. What project are you working on now? Tell us a little bit about your next project. I’m recording new tracks for a next album, I had some technical delays like an old pre-amplifier to repair, then now a microphone that doesn’t work, then you stop because your nails are not right. Anyway, delays sometimes look good too, because you have more time for details.
Lately, I like to arrange jazz standards for guitar only. I already have some twenty or so arrangements. Maybe I’ll publish something about that. The problem is that in jazz after the theme there is improvisation which is really a gamble to play in fingerstyle, but I already have some ideas that are partly the ones developed for Miles of Blues. Then there’s Raffaella who, between one song and another, has created a new beautiful website www.acousticguitarworkshops.com. If you happen to see it, there are all the dates of the next seminars in our center in Osimo. We are now in our 15th year and I must say that I have had wonderful experiences in contact with many fans and guitarists. There is a special piece, taken from my book Basic Fingerstyle Guitar, that we play together with the guitar orchestra and that always conveys a certain enthusiasm to everyone. The title came naturally: “Le Meglio Storie con la Mia Chitarra” (The best stories with my guitar)