6 And 12 String Guitar
Quietly Radical Solo Guitar
The next time you hear a gorgeously recorded acoustic guitar, with every tick of finger against strings sounding like a whisper meant only for you, give a small prayer of thanks for Leo Kottke. And for this debut record, a marvel from 1969 that opened up new ways of thinking about the guitar.
The front-porchy 6-and 12-String Guitar doesn't scream "revolution"—Kottke's compositions often follow the straight-forward logic of folk songs. But dotting the periphery are intricate arpeggios and slippery jazz flourishes, hints of bluegrass rambles and homespun strumming. The tricky passages amble blithely by: Kottke might be a technical wizard, but he's more interested in gentle shadings than full-spotlight derring-do. He treats the guitar as a source of texture and, to accentuate that, positions the microphone in close proximity to the fretboard. This gives these instrumentals an astounding intimacy. You feel the clicks and the breaks and the sparks that fly from the steel strings, and when he gets going, as on the precise attacks of "Vaseline Machine Gun" or the woodsy "The Tennessee Toad," the result is something more than just sound—it's a palpable texture.
Kottke was twenty-four when he recorded this. His father, a wandering golf pro, moved the family constantly, and Kottke later said he soaked up regional songs and styles as a result. He spent less than eight hours in the studio to get the thirty-eight minutes of 6-and 12-String Guitar. "All I had to do," he recalled, "was sit down and play everything I ever knew." The finished product, released by John Fahey on his Takoma label, established Kottke as a preeminent guitar thinker and set his career in motion—these songs, all originals save a luminous version of Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," remain the backbone of his performances.
The album's recording technique spread like wildfire. Its simplicity of sound and approach made it a key inspiration for New Age music (the guitarists on the Windham Hill label all had Kottke on the brain). And though many have copied Kottke's devices, none have used them quite this way, to explore the legends of backwoods America through six (or twelve) shiny unassuming strings.
Released: 1969, Tacoma/Fantasy
Key Tracks: "The Driving of the Year Nail," "The Sailor's Grave on the Prairie," "The Tennessee Toad."
Catalog Choice: A Shout Toward Noon
Next Stop: Michael Hedges: Aerial Boundaries
After That: Alex de Grassi: Southern Exposure
Book Pages: 432–433