Artist Spotlight courtesy of thunderclap_monolith
People who hear Leo Kottke (pronounced Kot-Key) for the first time always say variations on the same thing: “Wow!” Followed, somewhat suspiciously, by: “Wait, that’s just one guy playing?”
Indeed, Kottke, a virtuoso instrumentalist and true trailblazer, can sound like he has four hands when he throttles an acoustic guitar, going way beyond simple strumming and fingerpicking to turn a 6-string or 12-string into its own orchestra, complete with textures that serve as rhythm, lead and vocals all at once. Even longtime listeners are often slack jawed—not only at the virtuosity but also how Leo transforms the instrument into something strange and untouchable while always sounding familiar, rooted in timeless Americana.
Kottke has been walking a fine line between eccentric and homey for more than 40 years with 23 studio albums, four live albums, several compilations, concerts all over the world, television appearances, and collaborations with such notables as Chet Atkins, Emmylou Harris, The Violent Femmes and Mike Gordon, among many others. From the beginning, he was thrilling, attacking the instrument like a rock musician might. (He even opened shows for many hard rock acts throughout the 70s, and some even called him the Hendrix of the acoustic guitar). His style has changed and softened a bit over the years, and he hasn’t released a solo album since 2004, but he’s still out there, touring, and spreading his particular brand of madness.
Quite simply, Leo Kottke is a great artist because he changed what was possible to do on the acoustic guitar. Incorporating breakneck speed, hummable melodies, popping grooves, syncopated counterpoint, rustic charm mixed with unusual progressions and tones, he emerged at a time when challenging solo instrumental acoustic music was in short supply. He’s inspired thousands of guitarists, a true influential giant of modern music. There are even entire schools and programs devoted to studying and performing his work.
Every acoustic guitarist, great and small, owes him a debt of gratitude. His intensity, talent and minor celebrity opened up a whole new world for us bedroom daydreamers, obsessed with wood and steel.
Let’s pause for a live performance
Listening to Leo is only part of the fun, though. You’ve got to see him play, so I’ve tried to include as many live versions below as possible. As aggressive as his playing often is, he is constantly relaxed, wry and smiling. (His concerts are legendary for funny ramblings and non-sequiturs—the kind of thing that made him a natural on shows such as “A Prairie Home Companion.”) So before we go any further, here is Leo beating the shit out of a song called “Taxco Steps” from the highly recommended album “Regards From Chuck Pink” (1988). It’s a good entry point, showing off his powerful thumb-picking style and percussive buoyancy. I like the fact that it’s not even a particularly polished performance—it’s the opening of a show and he hasn’t even warmed up yet. This is how good he is when he’s just kind of fvcking around.
Genre and technique
Kottke is one of the finest players in a genre sometimes called American Primitive Guitar or fingerstyle guitar. He is also frequently classified as a folk instrumentalist or even new age (the latter of which does him a great disservice and can unfairly turn people off him). None of these categories quite tell the whole story, but at least they can give listeners some idea what they are in for.
History alert: The late, great John Fahey created the American Primitive Guitar genre in the late 50s and early 60s, inspired by old blues and jazz artists from the 20s and 30s. Fahey, a die-hard musicologist, spent years traversing the country, documenting and saving old recordings, and eventually flooded all he had learned into guitar music that sounds like dusty trails, slow trains, forgotten towns, and “hobo loneliness” (to borrow a term from music critic Ian McDonald). American Primitive Guitar is hardly ever meditative, new age acoustic music – it’s challenging and rootsy (with a frequent use of bottleneck slide), demanding participation from the listener. For more on Fahey, who led a fascinating and tragic life, check out the documentary “In Search of Blind Joe Death: The Saga of John Fahey” or find a best-of collection. I recommend “Return of the Repressed: The Anthology.”
Hey, how do you play that stuff?
Fingerstyle is a bit of a broader term, and music in that category usually goes beyond the blues/Americana tradition of APG to add all kinds of both classical and modern flourishes. The one thing that unites it all is the technique of fingerpicking, which refers to guitarists who play without a flat pick and “pluck” the strings with their fingernails, flesh of the fingertips or a combination of both. (Although many, including Leo in his early career, use thumbpicks or picks attached to each finger.) Fingerstyle players create solo instrumental songs that employ rhythm and lead elements at once—they basically accompany themselves. Fingerstyle guitarists use steel strings instead of nylon (which is what classical guitarists use) and that keeps the genre sounding fresh and modern. They often use a variety of picking patterns, too, some traditional and some off the wall. Leo, of course, does both and then some.
There are tons of amazing fingerstyle guitarists – professional and amateur — because it’s such an absolutely perfect manifestation of individual expression. And Leo, who burst onto the scene in 1969, led the way. He pushed it all forward, created a distinct sound and did things to a guitar that no one had ever seen before.
So let’s dive into his considerable discography!
Leo: The first stage
Albums: 12-String Blues (1969), 6- and 12-String Guitar (1969), Circle Round the Sun (1970), Mudlark (1971), Greenhouse (1972), My Feet Are Smiling (1973), Ice Water (1974), Dreams and All That Stuff (1974), Chewing Pine (1975)
Leo was born in Athens, Georgia, but moved around the country as a child, eventually claiming Minnesota as his home. Largely a self-taught guitarist, he had his start in the coffeehouse/folk scene of the mid to late 60s and recorded a mostly-live demo in 1969 called “12-String Blues,” which is basically Leo in the raw—an interesting debut that flew under the radar and not one I’d recommend as an entry point. It is available on You Tube and features many songs he would re-record later anyway.
No, Leo’s proper debut – and probably the most famous solo acoustic guitar album of all time – is “6- and 12-String Guitar” (also known as “The Armadillo Album” because of the illustration on the cover). The album is full of flashy virtuosity that sounds like nothing else before or since. (He sent the demo to Fahey, who loved it and signed Leo on the spot to his Takoma label—thus, the two are forever linked, a “father” passing on the music to the “son,” who bettered it and shot it into the relative mainstream.)
It’s difficult enough to fingerpick this fast and clear on a 6-string, but Leo plays with amazing clarity and control on a 12-string (at this point he was mostly using picks on each finger) for much of the album, which established his alien tone right out of the gate. Debate if you will who is the greatest 6-string guitarist: But Leo simply has no peer on the 12-string. Leo employed a wide variety of tunings throughout his career (standard, Open G, D and C, Drop D, as well as offbeat things like Open GMaj, Open E flat and Open C6), but he regularly tunes his 12-string (either open or standard) down a full pitch or more. This reduces tension on the guitar and makes it thud in your chest.
The opening track to “6- and 12-String Guitar” is “The Driving of The Year Nail,” which features bell-like yelps, metallic clanking, and lightning fast harmonics. To me, it sounds like the sun sparkling on a lake at dawn—a lake alive with killer piranha ready to pounce.
The Driving of the Year Nail
And “Busted Bicycle”—listen to the guttural bass notes and how he makes the guitar shudder and growl. Or maybe it’s more like a fat, angry bee. Good god, this song:
And here is perhaps his most famous song, even all these years later, “Vaseline Machine Gun,” which showcases his bluesy slide work. (Starts with a slow slide intro before opening the throttle and chugging like a freight train at the 35-second mark.)
Vaseline Machine Gun
There are highlights all over this first batch of albums, which guitarists are constantly rediscovering. Leo deploys some mean slide and branches out with a gutbucket rhythm section on “Mudlark,” one of my all-time favorite records. He shows a mature touch, too, on complex, asymmetrical slow tunes like “Room 8.” “Dreams and All That Stuff” peaked at number 45 on the pop album charts and contains several off-kilter and harmonically adventurous instrumentals including the classic “Mona Ray,” which is always delightful on a 12 or 6 string (as he played it in later concerts). “Greenhouse” is packed full of heavy blues but also contains “Owls,” which is effervescent and agonizingly pretty. “My Feet Are Smiling” is a live album that contains a few cuts from previous records but also explores the versatility of the 12-string even further with the dreamy “Easter” and a song called “Eggtooth” that works in a heavy metal riff amid some folk idioms and then goes off- the-rails crazy, like a fugue.
All nine of these albums have a signature feel that incorporates tinges of blues, bluegrass, ragtime and country — genres that are evocative of uniquely American things, a feeling of driving on endless interstates, underneath big skies and sun-lit scenery.
Personally, these records have a tight psychological grip on me, leading me home again, seeing the backyard, feeling the wind on my face and looking forward to a life that others made possible for me. At some point I learned that I could lead that life all by myself, too. These albums feed the soul. (I’d also recommend “Kottke/Lang/Fahey” (1974), a compilation “greatest hits”-type disc featuring three great masters of the American Primitive genre – it’s one of the best-selling acoustic albums of all time.)
Here’s “The Ice Miner” from “Mudlark,” an unassuming piece in simple Open G that haunted me for years. It was the piece that made me want to learn fingerstyle guitar:
The Ice Miner
“The Last Steam Engine Train” from “Greenhouse” is Americana incarnate—here’s a live version, just look at that thumb!:
The Last Steam Engine Train
I’d love for you to love “Owls” (also from “Greenhouse”), which is one of my favorite pieces of music, ever. It takes full advantage of the almost supernatural harmonies you can get from a monster 12 string:
Leo: The middle phase
Albums: Leo Kottke (1976), Burnt Lips (1978), Balance (1978), Guitar Music (1981), Time Step (1983)
Leo changed labels for his eponymous 1976 album, and I always point new listeners to it along with “Guitar Music.” There isn’t much else to recommend in this period, which is marked by various attempts to seek a new direction and, ironically, widen his appeal. But “Leo Kottke” and “Guitar Music” are among his very best, filled to the brim with tunes that show Leo now branching away from a bluesy style and creating a genre all his own—melodic and urgent while still employing an intense picking method that showed off his eccentric personality. Both records are as close to mainstream as the genre allows, produced with a warm tone that accentuates each string, chord and twist.
Here’s “Up Tempo” from his eponymous album, which shows how he could work well in a country band setting and still make the 12-string the key element:
And this is Leo ripping up “Airproofing,” a longtime fan favorite:
“Guitar Music” is buoyed by the legendary “Side One Suite” which takes the listener on a journey that many guitarists are still trying to emulate today. There’s a dramatic buildup, countless melodies, callbacks, quiet moments of introspection—the suite demonstrates everything that is magical about an acoustic guitar (both 6 and 12) from a player who is in touch with his emotions and lets the instrument be a natural extension of his worldview.
Side One Suite
And you must hear his stellar version of the weeping “Sleepwalk” from this album:
“Time Step” is notable for being his most conventional album up to this point—he sings on most of the tracks (he also covers “Saginaw, Michigan” and a Kris Kristofferson tune) and even plays electric guitar. The album, produced by T-Bone Burnett, is an interesting failure that has one of my very favorite Leo vocal performances, a song called “Rings.” A note about his voice: Leo was always very critical of his unique baritone (as were many fans), slyly referring to it as sounding like “Geese farts on a muggy day.” While there is some truth to this, it should be noted that Leo has an expressive voice when used in the right context although it may take a while to get used to it. And his dry vocal stylings never overshadow the often profound guitar work. Here’s a live version of the impossibly cheesy and charming “Rings.” (Link also contains an additional tune called “Jack Fig” if you are interested afterward):
Leo: Change and Resurgence
Albums: A Shout Toward Noon (1986), Regards from Chuck Pink (1988), My Father’s Face (1989), That’s What (1990), Live in Europe (1990), Great Big Boy (1991)
After “Time Step,” Leo was creatively spent and suffering from debilitating tendinitis in his right hand, a result of his unabashedly “give no fvcks” picking style. He took some time off to reflect and refine his playing, studying with classical guitar teachers to learn proper hand placement and traditional technique. When he resurfaced, his playing was a revelation and helped steer the genre close to where it is today. By altering his attack, he grew to rely more on nuance, allowing songs to breathe, exploring the elegance in dissonance and off-kilter chords. His melody lines became firmer, relying less on overt virtuosity and more on lyrical expression. He had to become more of a composer. It was a great transformation that kept his unique voice intact and allowed longevity, fulfillment. These are some of his most approachable, rewarding records.
“A Shout Toward Noon” is one of his very best, and it’s surprisingly full of melancholy. Many of the tracks are colored by subtle synthesizers, and even the happy tunes have a somewhat dark undercurrent. His dynamite version of Duane Allman’s “Little Martha” is here (his personal favorite song and a concert staple) as well as “The Ice Field,” an introspective, creepy little piece that would have been unimaginable in his early days. My favorite track is “Four Four North,” which still sounds fresh and alive—every single string has its own timbre and character, and his syncopated, relentless thumbpicking gurgles, telling its own story, independent of the larger melody. This polyphonic approach continues to be a key part of his legend.
Four Four North
A live audio-only version of Little Martha
“Regards from Chuck Pink” is a bit lighter, incorporating more jazzy elements, but the record is still vintage Kottke with catchy ditties like “Shortwave.” On the other end of the spectrum, here is a guttural, transfixing performance of the dissonant and kind of angry “I Yell at Traffic” from an old CMT talk show. He pounds the melody into fvcking powder:
I Yell At Traffic
“My Father’s Face” completes a beautiful trilogy with the woodsy “William Powell,” a showstopper vocal tune called “Jack Gets Up” and the somber “B.J.” The highlight of the record is the jazz inflected “My Aunt Francis.” I can’t even begin to describe how difficult this track is to play. And, sure, you can get the notes correct—but Leo is now deploying a deceptive smoothness, fired in the crucible of strength, purified through his particular brand of sensitivity, and then transformed into an indefinable thing. That thing always touches a part of me I didn’t know existed. He makes these nearly impossible chords and progressions sound like butter. It’s the emotional element that often lifts his work above others in the genre.
My Aunt Francis
“That’s What” is a sudden left turn into electric jazz and other smoother diversions (it hit the top 25 on the new age charts) that is probably better for more hardcore fans, but there are three or four gems including “The Great One” and “Czech Bounce” which seems like ironic commentaries on the very nature of jazz composition — stream of consciousness but also mathematically precise. This adventurous, idiosyncratic record is about as fully removed from his normal style as he ever got. “Great Big Boy” ends the period with a bit of a thud—it’s the only album where Kottke sings on every track, another attempt at mainstream country and roots music appeal. It’s easily skippable but not without its charm.
From “That’s What,” here is an electrifying live version of the jazzy/bluesy “Oddball,” which always just slays me—it’s one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. These are fairly difficult thumb rhythms, chord voicings and transitions – punctuated with off-beat accents and single-note asides that slightly shake the song from side to side — and he makes it all look effortless and fun. It’s the kind of simplicity/complexity combo that nearly ever guitarist wants to be able to do. Just fvcking wow:
Leo: The Warm Sunset
Albums: Peculiaroso (1994), Live (1995), Standing in My Shoes (1997), One Guitar, No Vocals (1999), Try and Stop Me (2004)
These last four studio records (and a wonderful live album) show a mature Leo who is now master of shading and form, and I highly recommend this period to new listeners. In fact, “Peculiaroso” is probably the very best all-around record of Kottke’s career if you factor in vocal performances. Rickie Lee Jones took over producing duties for the album, which is incredibly relaxed and confident—the sound of an elder statesman totally comfortable with his abilities and playing to his strengths. Jones makes Leo’s guitar sound like an old friend, and it’s a sound I’ve been trying to capture ever sense – sonorous, deep, full of gravity. The instrumental tracks feature classical touches and neat time signature tricks, and the vocals are weathered and full of character. He breaks out traditional favorites such as “Wonderland By Night” and “Twilight Time” and turns around with “World Made To Order,” which is one of his most “Kottke-esque” tunes—he flips the idea of melody on its ear, using bizarre chords that sound “off” but still manage to be beautiful. It’s slow but intense. “Peg Leg” and “Poor Boy” are fun, and his vocal on “Parade” is chilling.
My favorite on the record is his version of “Arms of Mary.” I include it here in this elongated medley from a 1992 “Austin City Limits” to give you a better sense of his later performance style. The medley showcases some slide work and audience banter so you get a little sense of how he works the crowd. He gets to the gorgeous “Arms” at the 5:12 mark, but it’s all worth a watch—except for maybe the last song — “Oddball” again – since I included it earlier, but it’s always worth a second look in a different setting:
Medley/Arms of Mary
And here’s “World Made to Order”:
World Made to Order
“One Guitar, No Vocals” is back to mainstream warmth with instrumentals of every conceivable kind, and I think it’s the album that most people would enjoy in a casual setting. The softer pieces veer into Windham Hill territory, but they have just enough weirdness to avoid the dreaded new age label—the somber notes help carve the tunes right into your spine. Still, some pieces here are great for reflection and stress relief especially “Retrograde.” Other tracks paint vivid soundscapes that are alive with imagery, such as “Snorkel,” a 12-string romp that sounds like a day at the beach:
Here’s his take on a Christmas carol, the bewitching “Accordion Bells.” It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard:
“Try And Stop Me” is Leo’s last solo studio album so far (although he released two combo albums with Mike Gordon of Phish, “Clone” in 2002 and “Sixty-Six Steps” in 2006, that are interesting curiosities), and it’s a bit muted – Leo finally sounds like he’s running out of steam a little bit and repeating himself once too often. As with any Leo album that doesn’t work as well as others, though, there are shockingly original cuts that make you drop your jaw and ponder what kind of mind could create such a thing.
Final thoughts: Time to Get Personal
I’ve been listening to Leo Kottke for more than 30 years, and he’s as much a part of my life as any musician ever was. He is nearly the sole reason why I have devoted considerable time over the past 20 years to performing and writing instrumental songs on an acoustic guitar. I’ve always wanted to imitate and emulate him, pushing myself past a Sunday afternoon hobby and into some kind of artistic statement. Whether I have succeeded or failed isn’t the point here, but it’s enough to tell you that Kottke has the power to make you sit up and listen and then hunch over and play.
And it’s easier than ever to play along these days: The advent of You Tube has led to a resurgence of his popularity. Not only are many of his albums, songs and performances there, but students, casual pickers and professional guitarists regularly take on his works, sharing the love and the tablature, keeping his singular voice alive and constantly breathing new life into the genre.
But here’s the great thing: You don’t have to be a hardcore musician or guitarist to appreciate him. That’s what separates him from other fingerstyle players. You don’t even particularly need to be a fan of the genre at all. His sound has enough propulsive momentum to attract listeners interested in groove. His muscular musicality catches the ears of those who like hooks. His dexterity can hypnotize those who simply appreciate skill. His woodsy charm can capture those fascinated by personality. Those who understand influence will recognize in his music many foundations that are still in play today. It’s all there, and it’s all kind of weird and it follows an original, surprising trajectory with plenty of quirks and dips and highs and lows. It makes a great story that often gets overlooked in discussions about trailblazers in music.
And in the end, Kottke’s indefinable sound – bold, comforting, full of jingle-jangle optimism– sounds like a place many of us come from: the sound of our homes, our travels, our adventures in a timeless land, a place we’d like to return to again. But the touches of dissonant darkness, the mood of something just being a little “wrong” and throbbing with electricity can sound like where we exist instead – a place that feels real, that can keep us on our toes, wrapped up in tension and release. And it’s a minor miracle that all of these feelings and associations – as well as purely musical wonders – can come from one man playing a guitar.
I hope I’ve done Leo Kottke justice, and I hope you’ll seek him out and enjoy.
To play us out, here are two of my favorite live performances that demonstrate a nice stylistic bookend: a reworked version of the classic “Eggtooth” (this one much more brooding and intense—just listen to the sound he gets on that 12 string!) and his gentle version of “Louise,” complete with a relaxed vocal from his own porch:
Album entry points: 6- and 12-String Guitar, Mudlark, Greenhouse, Dreams and All That Stuff, Leo Kottke, Guitar Music, A Shout Toward Noon, Regards from Chuck Pink, My Father’s Face, Peculiaroso, One Guitar, No Vocals, Leo Kottke, Peter Lang & John Fahey — and a You Tube search of any of the songs mentioned above, which will lead you down the rabbit hole.
Compilations: The three best are: Essential (1991), The Instrumentals: The Best of the Capitol Years (2003) and The Instrumentals: The Best of the Chrysalis Years (2003)
Leo whet your whistle? Here’s some other fingerstyle guitarists that you might enjoy: Andy McKee, Adrian Legg, Michael Hedges, Lucas Michailidis, Tommy Emmanuel, John Fahey, Kaki King, Peter Lang, Ewan Dobson, Adrian Legg, Alex De Grassi and Macyn Taylor.