Conversations with Adrian Legg

So there I am, sitting in this restaurant on Ventura Blvd in LA., talking with Jennifer Batten. You know her; she toured around the world a few times with Michael Jackson and then another few times as Jeff Beck’s guitarist. Once or twice a year I have Jennifer come over to the school that I run here in Tokyo to do classes and concerts. Anyway, I asked her if she knew any other guitarists who may be interested in doing the same kind of thing from time to time (come over to Japan occasionally to teach, that is). She said she would think about it and get back to me. When I got back to Tokyo I got an e-mail from her with a bunch of names and e-mail addresses. As I scanned the page I came across someone who brought back fond memories: Adrian Legg. When I was in my early twenties teaching at Musicians Institute in LA, I stumbled upon a seminar he was doing. It was a groundbreaking experience for me at the time and I knew it would be for the students at the schools I run here in Japan too. I e-mailed his manager and got the ball rolling. Adrian came over for about a week in October and I took this opportunity to be the student again.

If you are not familiar with Adrian Legg, allow me to describe to you what kind of player he is. First of all, he is unlike any guitarist you have ever heard. He uses various tunings and quite often changes tunings mid-song. He may be described as a finger style player, meaning he chooses to use his fingers rather than a pick. He generally plays solo. When I saw him back when I was teaching in LA he played an Ovation acoustic but now he plays a guitar that has the harmonic characteristics of an acoustic guitar but is really an electric guitar. He is one of the few guitarists that you could describe as a technical wizard but still has the uncanny ability to write tender and touching music, definitely a lost art. Adrian has been Voted “Guitarist of the Decade” by Guitarist magazine and also was the winner for Best Acoustic Fingerstyle Guitarist for 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996 in the Guitar Player’s Reader’s Poll.

Let me share what I learned from Adrian with you as we traveled around Japan together. These are some of the answers I got to the many questions I asked along the way from Tokyo to Fukuoka. Oh yeah, I should warn you, this interview is in retrospect so you will have to replace my New York vernacular with his British one for his answers to get the full gentlemanly effect:

Chris: You use various techniques like the Banjo roll and artificial harmonics to get some interesting effects. What’s your view on technique?

Adrian: Technique is just like a bicycle. It simply gets you to your destination.

Chris: How often do you practice?

Adrian: I tend to practice a great deal before recording a new CD and before a tour and take it easy after the fact. I took a year off to fish once.

Chris: Who would you suggest the aspiring guitarist listen too?

Adrian: Listen to the other stringed instruments. When I started out, I was mostly listening to the Banjo and Pedal Steel players. I also absolutely love the Bach double violin concerto.

Chris: Your guitar is one of the most unique guitars I’ve ever seen. It looks like an electric but sounds like an acoustic. It has a small soundhole, not on the front, but on the treble-side cutaway. Can you tell me a little about the guitar?

Adrian: There are several reasons I got away from the typical acoustic guitar for touring: One reason is The Boeing 777. It has an overhead bin of only 37.5 inches making it impossible to hold a guitar. I needed a guitar that would fit in the overhead bin. The other reason is that amplification can create serious problems with straight acoustic guitars. I had the sound chamber considerably reduced to work at the kinds of levels needed for live performances. The soundhole is in the treble-side cutaway, and is flared to maximize the out of phase coupling of the sound chamber. This lifts treble response and opens out the high end harmonics very attractively. The body is made of swamp ash and the neck is Black Walnut, which worked so well for the Ovation Adamas. The fingerboard is ebony. The bridge is a standard Ovation bridge in black walnut, and the pick-up, also an Ovation.

Chris: Who made the guitar for you?

Adrian: Bill Puplett in England.

Chris: Who makes the Banjo tuners you use?

Adrian: They are made by Bill Keith at the Beacon Banjo Company in Woodstock, NY, USA. The Banjo tuners allow you to change tunings quickly between or during songs. Guitarists are always amazed by the mid-song tuning changes but Banjo players have been doing it for years.

Contact Info:
Bill Keith
Beacon Banjo Company
PO Box 597
NY 12498

Chris: You use open C, G, and D tunings quite often, are there any other tunings that you are particularly fond of?

Adrian: I also like the DADGAD tuning. Although not a typical Celtic tuning, it lends itself to Celtic music quite well. Not having either a minor or major 3rd in the tuning, it has an ambiguous tonality that I like.

Chris: Is there any history behind the DADGAD tuning?

Adrian: I did a workshop at a Canadian folk festival a few years ago with John Renbourn. He told the story then that I’ve heard before; the story is that Davey Graham went to Morocco, and hung out with some of the local oud players. He found that the only way he could play along with them was to tune his guitar to DADGAD. He brought the tuning back to England, and it’s been around ever since.

Chris: What exactly is an oud?

Adrian: The oud is an interesting instrument. It’s a round back fretless cousin of the lute, and its fretlessness allows those gorgeous Arabic scales.

Chris: Other than getting fed some of the strangest food I could think of, how did you enjoy your brief stay in Japan?

Adrian: I was utterly charmed by the Japanese people and was very happy there. I found it creatively stimulating. I’ll be looking forward to next year.

Examples and Exercises to try

These are a few examples of Adrian’s techniques taken from some of the songs from his newest CD, Guitar Bones.

The Banjo Roll – Typically used in Bluegrass music, the Banjo Roll is a right hand fingerstyle technique usually used by Banjo Players. As well as using it to get a typical bluegrass effect, Adrian also uses this technique in ballads. Check out the first four bars of “St. Mary’s.” Your thumb should play the bass notes on the 6th, 5th and 4th strings plus the 3rd string notes. Your index and middle finger will play the 2nd and 3rd string notes. Keep in mind, although a ballad, you have to arpeggiate the notes at a pretty good tempo to get the effect. To get this technique down, keep repeating the following four bars slowly and gradually get it up to the proper tempo. Let the notes ring out as long as possible:

The Banjo Roll

Open Strings – The next example from the opening cut, “Uncle Adrian” on the “Guitar Bones” CD shows how Adrian incorporates open strings into various phrases. As in the previous example, let the notes ring out as long as possible to get the desired effect:

Open Strings

Pedal Steel Effects – Adrian mimics a pedal steel in “Old Friends.” The notation may be a little difficult to understand without a good idea of what the song sounds like. I would suggest a good listen first:

Pedal Steel Effects

If you are not familiar with Adrian Legg’s music yet, you don’t know what you are missing. I don’t know too many solo players that can hold an audience’s attention for a whole concert and Adrian is one of the few, a true guitar pioneer and a gentleman.

Check out these related links:
Adrian Legg:


Until next time…